“For me, there wasn’t a list of things to be achieved.Opportunities would present themselves. It was using the opportunities, using your benevolent relationship, warmth of relationship to achieve the kind of things they wanted to achieve, not what other people wanted them to achieve.” In this extract, the youth worker discusses the role of the youth work and the idea of achievement in youth work.
Interviewer: So were there any points when you turned around and said to yourself, “I don’t know what I’m doing here, what’s the point of this?” Where it got too violent or too self-destructive.
Youth Worker: Right, when working with street groups, you can walk away from a street group, unless the street group gets attacked, which happened once. A car stopped, two cars stopped and people jumped out of them carrying weapons. That was a heavy moment. And the group of bastards tried to kill one of the people I was taking to. But it didn’t go on for very long. It did leave me feeling somewhat shaken, my clothes somewhat damaged in the process.
I: But then in a club, you can’t walk away.
YW: In that situation on a street corner I couldn’t walk away. But in a club you are less able to walk away. You can’t just walk out of the door and leave the fighting groups at it, no. In that way, the club can be a harder role I guess. People think detached work is difficult, because you go up to kids you’ve never seen before on the street corner and talk to them. And that I never found particularly difficult to do, in some ways more difficult than others, sometimes it was very easy. But yes, if you are in a club, you have a responsibility to deal with the disturbance, the aggravation, the fighting, whatever.
I: The times you were working in, some of it was very different, some of it was very similar to what’s happening today, where we see major cuts, mass youth unemployment and that same system that is creating this is also paying you to go out and be a sticking plaster.
YW: I didn’t see it that way because a sticking plaster suggests you’re an agent of society, and have gone out to right the ills of the society. I saw my role as helping individuals and groups. I didn’t see myself as a sticking plaster for them, I saw myself more as a paid friend who would help them through difficult stages in life. And on the whole they got through that stage in their life and survived into adulthood, and maybe learnt a bit from that process. So I never took on the role of trying to control behaviour on an estate, I was focussed on individuals and group.
I: I think as youth workers the thing about being realistic about what we can achieve, what we are actually there for. Sometimes it can be like, oh, youth work is an amazing institution that can lead to mass social change. What you’re saying is that it is far more about supporting individual young people, groups of young people in difficult moments in their lives.
YW: Managing situations and achieving things they want to achieve, in an informal way. Informal education, if you like – it’s very, very informal and can take off in any way. Literally you can work with a group of skateboarders and get them a place and build a ramp and they have a feeling of having something of their own, of having achieved something, and achieving something that didn’t get raided or destroyed.
I: And they decided it’s an achievement, not…
YW: Yes, they did. It’s their achievement. There are no certificates for it. It might appear in the paper or something, but it’s their territory, whether it’s breakdancing, skateboarding, whatever. Things that I don’t do. But that doesn’t matter in your role. For me, there wasn’t a list of things to be achieved. Opportunities would present themselves. It was using the opportunities, using your benevolent relationship, warmth of relationship to achieve the kind of things they wanted to achieve, not what other people wanted them to achieve.
I: So in the current model of quarterly planning and that kind of stuff…
YW: No, you might be talking to somebody and suddenly a possibility appeared. There was a group of kids who help together and they really wanted to do something and you might well be in a position to make sure it happened. And it was that moment in time you had to do it, you had to be there at the right time, and you had to make sure it happened relatively quickly or they’d just think it was an empty promise again. There would be negotiation, there would be bargaining, you’d say, “we can’t do that, but maybe we could do that, or do it this way”. The horse trading about what you could actually achieve. And they learnt to negotiate with a world of reality.
Photo credits: Alex Rankin