“The difficulty I had was that working with poor white kids became very unfashionable, no less necessary, but that got very low status in the system and in many ways that was more difficult work. You were working with a group that didn’t have a clear identity or purpose and numbers of them were very bitter about their situation.” Here, the youth worker discusses being white and working with black youth, and shifts in youth work over his career.
YW: No, very rarely. When there was conflict, I would occasionally get a bit of stick, but because the rest of the young people in the group were supportive, it was limited. I actually came across a group that were attacking a youth centre in another part of the city and I talked them into putting down, they all came with weapons, I talked to them, and then changed it into a friendly relationship, until the police came down and said “right, get rid of your weapons now, get off the road and queue at the bus stop” (laughs). And they all came with just weapons and beat the shit out of other people.
Some of them, not all of them, some of them could see that I was actually friendly towards them and the majority could see that I was sorting out the others, who wanted to have a go at me. They went after some white kids, some of them thought that I was trying to support the white kids. I was trying to keep the two apart, both lots, and I kept them apart.
I: You know, because there is often this idea that you’re supposed to be like a role model and have these experiences that you can pass onto young people. So you should have women working with girls, you should have black youth workers doing black youth work. What I sometimes feel is that young people want someone to experience stuff with, rather than someone who’s already experienced it. Do you know what I mean?
YW: Yes, and then the generations are different, so you don’t necessarily have older black workers who are engaging with the younger ones. No, when you travel, as you travel you know that you encounter people from different places, and build a short-term friendship, one that has trust, it doesn’t have to be people like you. And sometimes working with girls, it was just peculiar for them, interesting for them being with a bloke who wasn’t pushing them about or fancied them and you could use that different… I mean, you could work with all sorts of people.
I: How, over the span then of, how many years did you do youth work then?
YW: About fifteen.
I: How did you see that, the change there and where it’s gone since? In the understanding of what youth work is.
YW: Women’s work and work with black kids came in during that time. And I was working with women and I was working with black kids before it became fashionable and I carried on that. The difficulty I had was that working with poor white kids became very unfashionable, no less necessary, but that got very low status in the system and in many ways that was more difficult work. You were working with a group that didn’t have a clear identity or purpose and numbers of them were very bitter about their situation. That was harder.
I: So again, this thing of class then, as well as race and gender, race and gender became more popular and class went.
YW: Class went, yes, you couldn’t mention class. And there was just the assumption that as the service became anti-sexist and anti-racist, all the poor white kids were sexist and racist. Some were and some weren’t. In fact it was surprising how many of the white kids did have black friends, so it wasn’t actually the case, it was a prejudice on behalf of the youth service.
I: And then presumably you should work more with them if they’re sexist and racist, not less.
YW: (laughs) Well, you work with the victims, not the perpetrators I suppose. Well, yes, there’s a perfectly good argument that they were in greater need of that kind of support. There were issues. We had a bus full of kids and we drove past a bus stop in a black area of Sheffield and they were shouting crap out of the window of the bus. So I stopped the minibus and reversed back to the bus stop. (shouts hysterically) “What? Drive on!” No-one wanted to talk to them. (laughs) “Never do that again”.
Photo credits: Alex Rankin