Article: Embracing chaos in youth work
In this article, Colin Brent argues from a principled practitioner perspective that the value of open access youth work is in its ability to embrace chaos, and to support young people to carve out a space of their own.
Within the youth work profession, one of the continuing debates has been how to position ourselves and to justify our existence in relationship to other agencies, in particular when working with vulnerable young people who will have contact with a range of different services. Each youth worker, each project will have its own circumstances, identities, and discourses around and within which these debates take place, and I am in no way looking to be prescriptive of any approach. This is rather a reflection of how I feel I can situate my own practice, after over a decade of working in open access youth centres.
Young people’s lives and experiences, like those of us all, are complex, fluid, contradictory and often frustrating, both for them and for those adults alongside them. I, like many youth workers, have often experienced the feelings of irritation, disappointment, and dare I say betrayal, as young people in whom we have invested our time, energy and emotions have made decisions that we see as negative and damaging. In a world where we communicate value through our impact on young people’s lives, the fact that as youth workers we have little power, quite rightly, over those lives, can leave us feeling that we have in some way failed.
There has been more than enough literature about the inadequacy of quantitative measurements of the impact of youth work (even if more people still need to read it…), so I do not want to repeat these arguments here. Rather, I am interested in how I situate myself and my work in young people’s lives, and what this means for my practice. If I recognise that young people find themselves caught up in the maelstrom of post-modernity, tasked with trying to find their feet on ever-shifting grounds of identities, structural power plays and moral ambiguities, all impacted by peer, family and community politics, then the temptation can be to find a stable position to which to tether them.
This is often the thinking behind finding jobs or college courses for young people classified as ‘NEET’ (1) or ‘at risk of offending’, and for some young people having an element of externally imposed structure can serve as a crutch. A part of my job is therefore to support young people to engage with agencies, such as Connexions (2), that will help them into education or employment. Another part will be trying to dissuade young people from engaging in activities that will bring them into contact with other agencies, such as the police or Youth Justice Service. Not doing this would be to ignore the very real effects that these societal systems of punishment and reward can have on young people’s lives.
This for me, however, only represents a part of my job, and often can feel like a side-effect, as young people feel more confident to engage with the world around them on its terms (something we all learn to do, even if we fail or wish not to recognise it sometimes). Rather, for me the most common, most interesting, and maybe even the most impactful element of my work is in supporting young people not merely to ‘tether’ themselves to something else, but to hack out a space of their own within this maelstrom, a fluid and changeable space, still full of contradictions, but more confidently so. I will give two small examples of short conversations with young people, that perhaps do not highlight ‘good practice’, but do, I believe, show the need for us to situate ourselves within the chaos of young people’s lives, to embrace it.
Simon is 17, mixed race, and yes, NEET. He is a very likeable young man, popular with other young people and even more so with staff – he never causes any issues and is always polite. Mainstream education did not really work for him, and he left school with only one GCSE, before dropping out of a college course that he had never really wanted to do. We try to encourage him to think about what he would like to study next year, but he just shrugs. College is long.(3) Most days when he comes, several times a week, we discuss a range of issues, from sexuality to why he and his friends all wear the same brands. One sunny day, we are relaxing together, leaning on a fence outside the youth centre, and he hesitantly tells me, ‘Colin, you know, I think I like rock music.’ No one in the youth centre listens to rock music. I can’t help smiling. ‘I like Blink 182’, he tells me. He likes the voice of the singer. He is obviously unsure of what this means and whether he wants to explore it further. We chat about it briefly then move inside. That’s it. I talk to some friends who are into rock music, and might suggest some listening for Simon in the future.
Ahmad, 18, is Arab, has been in the country for five years, is also NEET (officially at least, he is a known drug dealer), and in some circles is notorious, with suspicions about his involvement in recruiting for county lines. In many ways, he is the opposite of Simon – whilst he has quite a close group of friends, many of the young people do not like his behaviour, and he can be very abusive and physically threatening to staff. He fluctuates between extreme expressions of love and respect and outbursts of violence. He appears totally unrooted, feeling distanced from the destroyed wreck of his homeland and let down by those around him in the UK. We work with him intensively to support him to create better relationships within the local community, including with local police officers, and he responds well at times. At others times, he aggressively rejects even the smallest sign of discipline (such as asking him to smoke his cigarette just outside the door, rather than just inside). One day I am alone with him in the kitchen. He seems down. I ask if he is ok, and he talks about his frustrations in a generic way – everything is shit. Then he looks at me and asks me whether I think his girlfriend is in love with him. (I don’t). I tell him it’s not for me to know, and he starts telling me a bit about their relationship. He doesn’t say he is in love himself, but he is exuding hurt. Someone else comes into the kitchen and the conversation comes to an abrupt halt. We do not talk directly about it again, but on several times when he comes in looking down, there is a quiet acknowledgement that the conversation has taken place. I do not intervene in their relationship, but make sure I adjust my approach to Ahmad’s moods to help support him not to turn his hurt into violence.
Both of these small examples show young people trying to come to terms with difficult issues, that of taste and being different, and the angst and hurt that can come from relationships. That both of them are NEET has, as least directly, no relevance here, nor that Ahmad is a notorious drug dealer. That Simon’s struggle with his identity, how he sees himself, or Ahmad’s hurt and feelings of being let down might be connected to their status does however seem likely. My role as a youth worker is not to ‘cure’ these issues, but where possible to support the young people to negotiate them. Any structural outcome is, as I said above, a side-effect. The issues will also be affected by and interact with other issues – Simon’s interest in exploring ideas of race and class, his low educational self-esteem, his need to express sexual prowess; Ahmad’s familial breakdown, the shifting politics of the local drugs trade and his own apparent desire for respectability. We will not be able to solve most of these issues, and they will in turn impinge upon, complement and contradict our interactions with other young people. We will however look to clear the way wherever possible for young people to deal with finding their place in the world. We will try to create an inclusive environment so that Simon feels able to express his difference and doubts without fear of ridicule; we will not reject Ahmad, despite his frequent aggressions, so that we can form a stable relationship within which he can express and explore his feelings. We will, therefore, position ourselves alongside the young people as they in turn position themselves, not as a crutch, but as someone to turn to when they wish to try out an idea, an attitude or an identity. And we will accept the chaos that this can involve.
I can do this in my youth work practice because of several decisions and techniques. Again, these may not work for some, or be necessary for others, but within the context of my work have been crucial to my approach.
Firstly, we will try to be available to young people as much as we can (whilst looking after ourselves). Several years ago, the youth centre I work at moved away from short sessions, running for only a couple of hours, opening instead for up nine hours a day. This is mostly open access, with young people able to come and go as they please. This is important, as young people need time just to be, enjoying their friends’ company, not always being ‘youth worked’. They choose if and when they wish to engage further. For those more vulnerable young people, this increased availability has been a significant change, as their often chaotic lives do not fit into the timetables that we give them.
Secondly, we do not set or expect outcomes for individual young people, not do we separate or target young people because of any categorisation of them. Whilst we will support Simon and Ahmad to find education or employment opportunities, this is not something by which we will wholly measure our engagement with them. We would love Ahmad to stop drug dealing, but it is for him to decide to do this, not us. We will encourage him to do so, and if and when he does, then we will be by his side supporting him. But we will not see it as our failure if he does not. Working within the chaos of young people’s interactions with the world also means accepting that we cannot control them. This can also mean at times having to work with challenging, abusive and destructive behaviour, and though not accepting it, acknowledging that we cannot only work with young people’s positive interactions. We will instead receive people as they are, whilst giving them space to be something different, whatever that might be.
Thirdly, we recognise that whilst we do not set outcomes, structural issues have huge impacts on young people’s lives. We therefore actively look to work closely with other agencies, such as Connexions (2), the Youth Justice Service, schools, the police and Social Services, to try to ensure that their more structured approaches are appropriate. This might involve having a Connexions Personal Advisor in the youth centre for young people to access on their terms; working on joint activities with the police to help improve relationships; or liaising with schools to come up with interventions that respond to young people’s emotional, social and educational needs. These partnerships can themselves be conflictual, but if we do not engage in them, then we are ignoring the role these agencies can have in shaping young people’s lives.
Fourteen years ago, my father described youth workers as ‘the kink in the chain of command’ (Brent 2004), the place where top-down, managerial approaches stopped, or at least faltered. What comes after that kink is still up for fierce debate, from those who wish to straighten it out to those who wish to use it to sabotage the entire chain. Acknowledging our position and the unique role that gives us, I try, in my practice, to situate myself within the chaos of young people’s interactions with the world, with all of the joys and frustrations that this brings, recognising that structural power and inequalities exist and need challenging, whilst also allowing young people to create spaces from which they can form their own fluid, contradictory, conflictual and hopefully eventually fulfilling relationships with themselves and the worlds they live in.
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Last Updated: 29 September 2018
(1) Not in Education, Employment or Training
(2) A local government careers advice service
(3) Here meaning something that he is neither interested in or sees the value of
Brent, Jeremy (2004) Communicating What Youth Work Achieves: the smile and the arch Youth and Policy 84, pp.69-74
Colin Brent is a Senior Youth Worker at an open access youth centre in west London, where he has been working for the past ten years. Previously he has worked in Bristol and with Irish Travellers in London, as well as in youth projects in Germany and Spain. He studied the MA in Applied Anthropology and Community and Youth Work at Goldsmiths College, London.