Article: A Citizen Enquiry into the Lives of Youth Workers in the time of Covid-19
In April a group of us – Janet Batsleer, Tania de St Croix, Kevin Jones and Christine Smith – called for people to join us in contributing diary entries as youth workers to the Mass Observation archive at Sussex University. We have done this in a personal and volunteer capacity, from the grassroots, as citizens in order to capture and record for the archive a sense of what is is like to be a youth worker at this time, as part of the wider study of the everyday life of citizens which Mass Observation undertakes. We have been joined as Citizen Researchers by Gerry McVeigh, Emily Beever and Hasaan Amin. 50 people from all parts of the UK expressed an interest in writing monthly diaries.
Mass Observation was started in the 1930s by radical journalists and filmmakers who used the diary format as a way of understanding how life was, for ordinary people, in times of national crisis. For our Citizen Enquiry, writers do not work to a set brief, except that the diary entry starts when we wake up and ends when we go to bed for the night. Diarists are free to choose a day within an agreed week each month. Some also write at greater length in response to topics we suggested at the start of the process or new topics as they arise. They write in whatever detail and at any length they want, and use a variety of styles and approaches. We use the ethical guidelines from Mass Observation at Sussex University, including asking writers to make their diaries and those mentioned in them as anonymous as possible. We have asked writers to donate their diaries to the Mass Observation archive, which means they will be available to researchers both now and in the future. Young people were also invited to take part but the response was mainly from youth workers. We decided that in the light of the many research projects and practice-based gathering of views of young people at this time, we did not want to duplicate or overwhelm, although we continue to welcome young people’s diaries, and are keeping a record of young people’s diary projects we hear of, so as to inform Mass Observation of these accounts.
We plan to continue to collect diary entries once a month until December and then present the complete collection to Mass Observation to form a significant contribution to the study of everyday life in the time of Covid-19. It is not too late to join and you can do this by contacting J.Batsleer@mmu.ac.uk, who is acting as a co-ordinator.
We hope to report twice more in this form and then to compile a final report at the end. We are also exploring producing podcasts based on the diaries. There were 22 diaries submitted in May and 35 in June. The co-ordinator compiles a complete set of each month’s diaries in an anonymised form and shares this with the citizen research team. Each member of the team reads and reflects on a selection of the diaries and, in the process identifies themes, giving an insight into how life was for some youth workers during those months. The team then meets to share and discuss key themes and quotations. It is impossible to give a ‘complete summary’ and any selection is partial and misses out much that matters. But here is a taste of some of what was shared in the first two months of the project.
The Everyday Life of Youth Work in Lockdown: Displacement, Adaptation, Disappointment, Creativity
There is a lot of goodwill to make it work: there is a continuous commentary across all the diaries in May on the sheer amount of labour involved in making the shift to new ways of keeping in contact with young people across the multiple displacements, large and small, of the times:
I miss being able to see friends in person and more often, but work has kept me busy and in touch with more people so I haven’t gotten too down about it. Helping the young people I work with stay busy and positive has helped keep me from becoming frustrated in social isolation; although I can’t do as much as I used to for the young people, I’m trying to find ways to offer the same amount of support as before.
There’s a sense of youth workers both coping and struggling: to get their head off the pillow; with a different sense of time and work; with the tech from learning new IT systems to dealing with ‘older’ technologies such as the washing machine. Workers were using a range of tools to communicate with young people, and while some were effective, there was a sense that communication was very different to ‘normal’, with a disruption of time and place; away from the old order of meeting at a specific time, date and space, to communication that is less ordered, less predictable and led by when a young person needs to talk. The disruption seems to melt away the ordering of the relationship and interactions between a youth worker and young person:
The main form of contact for a lot of young people I work with during this time has been via text message or WhatsApp, however, today has been a day with few if any replies to my ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ check-in texts. I think it’s important for young people to know that I’m there, they can ignore these messages for weeks and months at this stage but it’s knowing. I’ve had young people suddenly and sporadically reach out for support. You just have to remember just because they’re ignoring you doesn’t mean you won’t be the first person they reach out to. If like me they’re trying to reduce their screen time I completely understand. I leave my phone on loud as throughout the day I go from sitting at my laptop to doing household jobs. It’s a strange state of affairs knowing that one second you’re finishing the dishes or putting a load of washing in when your phone dings and you’re sprung back into Youth Worker mode. With phones are only way of contacting young people, it’s been difficult to always catch up with young people as some young people’s parents or carers restrict their phone use.
Every day brings a strange sense of alertness and then disappointments: the enormous creativity associated with the tech, which is celebrated, and working so hard to put it in place also brings a potential loss of contact. There is an uncertainty about what sort of contact is being policed on behalf of young people by parents or other significant adults. There is a recognition of the ways that safeguarding requirements for some young people to stay offline now intensify their isolation.
There is some frustration when the obvious gap breaks through, between projects’ (and workers’) good intentions and how young people are actually communicating with each other:
I have been waiting for 3 weeks for the manager who didn’t like Tik Tok to send out a digital plan for staff, but he still hasn’t. Therefore, as much as I ring and text young people, I don’t get much conversation from them.
There are displacements and re-negotiations of boundaries everywhere. Life settles down, becomes ‘normal but not quite normal’. Different routines of life and the establishment of boundaries for youth work undertaken largely at a screen bring tension, comfort and disappointment too:
Normally if I am very tired in the morning, I would just get up and let the shower wake me up, but with my journey to work currently consisting of walking from the kitchen to the spare bedroom after breakfast, I did not have the same urgency to get out of bed.
On the other hand:
it has been fun creating spaces to work, exercise, read, and rest.
There is unsurprisingly a great deal of creativity. This is youth work pedagogy and arises from our histories of practice. We are ‘creators not consumers’ after all (Smith, 1980). What is ‘a paper bag play scheme’ or a ‘ride-on puppet costume’? And what do you do to make an activity with the frugal crafts of dyed oats, paper beads or binary code bracelets? All of these are mentioned in the diaries.
Some people are still going to physical spaces to meet young people; several are delivering or organising the delivery of food parcels or craft packs to people’s homes.
I got up at 7 and cycled into my job at an outdoor education centre where I work as a programme coordinator running alternative education provision for young people who are struggling in school. At the moment we have a hugely reduced staff team and are delivering sessions for about 6 young people a day. These include children in care or with EHCP plans who have been assessed as being in particular need of continued provision during the COVID19 outbreak. The young people have loved being able to come out to us over this time and have quickly learned about maintaining a social distance and have showed a lot of understanding that we cannot run some activities which we usually would like the zip wire which requires close contact… generally young people have seemed quite settled with us during this time, a lot seem more relaxed without the added stressors of going to school and some seem to be thriving during lockdown with having a really predictable routine.
Another diarist records:
Lots of welfare calls, emotional health support, signposting to crisis services and a lot more contact with parents. Real challenges and examples of support, including the young person who has now agreed to see a bereavement counsellor, online, after losing his mum, encouraged and supported by the youth worker, when he was initially very resistant. The young woman who wants to talk regularly with her youth worker as she is struggling with the isolation. The parent who is grateful her son has someone to talk to about his anger and frustrations online with his youth worker.
Others are out doing detached work but frustrated about what they can offer. And it all feels ‘touch and go’. Communications follow different rhythms of time – sometimes immediate, urgent, spontaneous. Sometimes spaced over days and weeks. This prompts a shifting of expectations, hopes and disappointment about when and how communications happen. Support given and received or turned away from by young people is mirrored by questions of support to youth workers:
today has been a day with few if any replies.
no one acknowledges me, even though I have unmuted and said hi and happy birthday, it all seems a bit crazy.
I hate having to do the work Insta account. I feel old and clumsy.
Food becomes a marker of routine and routines around food become the new markers of the day:
I’m not usually very organised around food but I am now.
Within and across all these practices, the mental health of youth workers, young people and those others whose lives are so entangled with our own is evidently at stake. Much time is given to the (gendered) labour of care and it is not clear where the balance between care for others and receiving care for self is to be struck and the balance remains hard to find. Sometimes doing it all seems seamless:
I leave the project at 5pm after getting changed, bagging my work clothes into a cloth bag (to put straight into the washing machine). I get home at 6pm. Tweet out some picture from the session along with a descriptor. I ‘run’ or lead on our locality Twitter group.
I spend the evening making tea, doing a Zoom boxing session, sewing face masks (I’m on an epic mission to make them for friends and family) and watching a bit of TV. I go to bed at 10pm ish.
Other times not so much.
the food bin has been sat there overflowing since he said he would empty it on Sunday, it’s now Thursday. I started a new bag but just left it there for him.
As well as the young people youth workers are caring for, there are the pressing needs of other friends or family members now only a phone call or a room away:
I thought it was the care home where his mother is, with bad news.
I leave my phone on loud.
In the middle of the call I can hear my daughter screaming.
it is important I make sure he is eating properly and taking care of himself.
At times the lockdown brings a heightened sense of wellness for young people. For one young woman, the restrictions of Covid are welcome and calming, a shrinking of the world, and she feels far better in terms of her mental health, having suffered with anxiety throughout her life. And there is a welcome relief from the pressures of school for others.
Today I spoke with a 13 year old young person who lives up north in a remote area. Being out of school has been really useful for him as he had had difficult experiences of transphobic bullying before the lockdown. He is not looking forward to going back and we spoke about what we could do to support him. He was very excited to join an online group but at the back of the mind I had a worry of what will happen once we move back to physical groups. He lives too far away to access our groups in London. I’m hoping that we can use this time to connect him to more local services as well, if they exist.
And also for youth workers, there are times when wellbeing seems intensified:
I’m phoning young people – I don’t normally have the time for in my contracted hours and I’m really appreciating being able to do this work.
I do still have a sense of pride when I drop off food / craft parcel to their house and see the relief we are able to bring to the young people and their families. I am continuing to find ways to offer increased support for the young people of the project and am eagerly waiting for the session to return and be able to see all the young people again.
In the end youth workers are finding ways both to take time out and to connect, a whole range of survival strategies that are themselves intensified: being down at times; drinking more than we were; and a heightened sense of joy and comfort in nature (the good weather; a wild swim). Even then, the good survival and coping strategies are sometimes noticed in not being implemented.
I didn’t feel motivated before work to meditate or do yoga even though I know they are the best thing to do for myself in the morning.
We don’t know how to assess when we have done enough and we are unavoidably acknowledging afresh our sense of being interconnected and interdependent, both on each other and on the beauty of the world we live in:
the sun was shining; the wind was blowing through the trees and the birds were singing. The good weather recently has made a positive difference in terms of my own and colleagues’ mood.
I swim for about 20 minutes and as it is dusk, I am joined by some bats flying above my head as I swim. On the walk back, we see the glorious new moon rising, it is spectacular, bright orange and huge. I feel alive and excited for the first time today.
The Personal and the Political
The June diaries are darker in tone than the May ones. There is an unavoidable sense of the weight that these times are placing on people.
Although it is great to see people, the talk of lockdown is becoming tiresome. It feels like I am regaling the same tales to everyone I see and depending on each person’s circumstances; having children, being furloughed, working from home, working as normal, their experiences will be similar if not the same as others that fit into the same category.
Tonight, I visited a friend who although only lives a 2-minute walk from my house, I haven’t seen for a month. We have had a couple of group video calls online, but I am really starting to dislike them. It doesn’t feel natural and sometimes just descends into everyone talking over each other.
And another diarist writes:
I am recognising the impact not seeing my friends and losing that sense of community I normally have is having on me. Every phone call feels so precious and there is some pressure to make the most out of it. However, today I was exhausted and mostly listened to what he has been up to. I am giving so much of myself to work at the moment and due to my low capacity I don’t have much more to give to anyone else. There is so little else to do apart from work that my sense of self is becoming quite entangled with the work I do. To wrap up the day I made some dinner for my flatmates. Although I miss being around people, paradoxically perhaps, being around people also feels difficult. I did not feel sociable and felt like I was not a housemate that people around me deserve. Upon reflecting on that I realised that it’s not quite true. What the lockdown is forcing me to do is to reassess my capacity, needs and boundaries and settle with what they are. These days I need a lot of time to recharge on my own and that’s ok. There is something particularly exhausting about all of this right now.
These pressures are expressed in other diaries as awareness of extremes of mental health crisis, experience of loneliness and isolation, and fear of death.
One worker had been self-isolating for 9 weeks in a one bedroom bedsit and had not seen anyone physically for a long time. A friend working in mental health told me that in a certain local borough, there had been double the suicides, than usual. … [Family member] had a bit of a meltdown over the end of his relationship with his girlfriend. He is furloughed and looking forward to the return of his work soon. My partner and I have spent a lot of time talking on various video call apps to those friends living alone. At the first they were the most worried that they would be found dead in the house and none would know.
Youth work practice continues in all its ambivalence, creativity, boredom, disappointment and pride. The positive opportunities associated with screen time at first are now less voiced: the frustrations are more evident and the need to be out and connecting is palpable as young people emerge from their own confinement. In one case it is reported that no-one is turning up for various digital offers … youth workers want to get back out there, and the street team is doing so. At the same time, even in the same diary, it is clear that youth workers have embraced the digital: a gallery of lockdown art is in preparation.
The power of one-to-one work is very present: youth workers have managed to accompany people to sexual health clinics and in meetings about their housing and at the same time youth workers are struggling intensely with questions about how to engage. Should it be by text or by phone call? And how do they respond to adult gatekeeping of access? As ever, not all street work represents welcome or uncomplicated contact: there are young people telling youth workers to be careful where they go because of drugs in the park… wanting to know when the detached team will next be around is a many-faceted enquiry. And being online does not necessarily mean a lack of closeness: it has been great for one worker to offer support in discussions of sexuality online.
There are, as one worker put it, ‘so many ifs and maybe’s’ – in relation to planning a summer programme, meeting colleagues, and young people meeting each other, and the use of a variety of technologies which enable this and on many occasions also frustrate this. For one worker, they have their ‘first meeting with one of my one-to-ones since Feb’ ; workplace conflicts may be harder to address when only meeting online; discussion of friendship and how social media can make you feel ‘more connected than you actually are’.
At the same time the wider world and politics erupts into the diaries this month. Fourteen diaries mention George Floyd by name and in others there is discussion of white privilege:
Race is on my mind in a much more present way in relation to the George Floyd tragedy and increased presence of the Black Lives Matter movement. I am simultaneously happy that people’s voices are being heard and that the movement is gaining traction, and overwhelmed by the sadness and injustice in the world. And inevitably, as is human, trying to process my part in all of that. What can I do? How can I help? How do I not add to the problem? I’ve planned to go to a protest on Saturday but have some trepidation due to the pandemic.
Youth workers are talking, sharing information, making art and Spoken Word performances, playing Jimmy Cliff loudly on the street, taking the knee, praying No Justice No Peace, helping organise Black Lives Matter protests, reflecting on how to undo white privilege and how to challenge racism at an institutional and organisational level. This is deeply entwined for many people with other strands of politics: transphobia is increasing; it is Pride Month; the impact of the politics of austerity underlies everything that is happening; and youth workers and young people are responding with care and solidarity in the ever widening cracks in support that the virus has revealed. They are preparing and delivering food parcels and care parcels. They are considering what the disease is doing to families and friends and strangers in the Global South. They continue to ask ‘are we doing enough?’ even whilst the message from the Governments is so mixed and confusing:
Our town is busy again – it is such a change from a few weeks ago. Part of me feels happy to see people back on the streets, but I am also really worried about whether there will be a second spike in infections. The Dominic Cummings weekend seemed to mark a huge change. People had already had enough of not seeing their friends and family and his actions were the last straw, I think. I even felt this myself, although I know really that I need to continue to stay home as much as possible – I just instinctively thought ‘if you can do what you want, I want to visit my mum!’ I didn’t do it though.
The park’s really busy and things feel normal even though we know they aren’t.
Somehow the problem of ‘the normal’ and ‘getting back to normal’ is brought into focus in this transition out of lockdown – there is a politicisation, brought about in part in the response to the murder of George Floyd. In the transition back to ‘normal’, what was previously seen as ‘normal’ is being challenged and is not what people want to go back to. Some things are expressed quite bodily: at the level of how much washing and showering and changing of clothes or wearing of bras or losing of weight and consequent belly rolls is actually required in order to be ‘normal.’ And why should a young trans person go back to school and the ‘normal’ bullying they would face there?
In the diaries this month in these moments of renewed political engagement and a resistance to return to normal, there is clearly an energy which sustains youth workers and counters to some extent the weight and pressure of working at the screen or off it under current conditions. The resources of energy seem to come paradoxically both in separating to renew and in freely coming together. Diaries mention prayer and meditation; the presence of the sea; hill walking and camping:
I woke up at 7.30am having camped out in my parent’s garden with my 8-year-old nephew the previous night in the glorious hot and sunny weather. We made tea and cooked breakfast on a small camping stove in the early morning heat.
Hill walking and wild camping are an important part of my life. They are a way to escape from everything, to be on my own, to be grounded, to process, to feel at peace and to share with a vibrant online community. This has pretty much gone since lockdown – anyone that has ventured out potentially faced a barrage of criticism/shaming for putting others at risk if there were to be an accident. I have a sense that many of these (mostly) men have struggled without their escape (including me).
People are also tending allotments and gardens; feeding chickens; cycling; going to the greenhouse. We are processing our experiences by writing and reading and talking, when we can, with others close to us. And for one writer, gaining a sense of connection through gathering with others in protest:
My partner and I eat some pasta and beans and then walk to the demo in an open green space about half an hour away; we get there early and people are already gathering. We were asked to bring ‘noise’, wear masks and stay two metres from everyone else. My ‘mask’ is a snood which is a bit too big and keeps falling off my face, but eventually I fold it in a way that makes it stay up. As people approach with banners, children and masks, I am surprised to feel tearful. It is moving that so many people are coming, that they don’t look like people who usually demonstrate, that they are so diverse in age and ethnicity. It is also moving to be in a large group of people after so many weeks of lockdown. People greet each other although everyone is careful to stay two metres apart. A local Black activist starts us off by calling for two minutes of noise – we all shout ‘I can’t breathe’ over and over, people blow whistles and shake shakers, and I bang my homemade drum. Again I feel tearful. And hopeful. Maybe things can change. There are a few speeches – they feel honest and authentic. Then the demonstration is announced as being over, but nobody moves. It feels we all want and need to be here for a bit longer. Someone suggests that those physically able to do so take the knee for the eight minutes and forty six seconds it took George Floyd to die and we do this. Again, it is moving. Then there is a last round of noise. After that it is finally time to go – people leave slowly, catching up with friends (who are difficult to recognise beneath masks). Perhaps we are all reluctant to move away from this moment of physical and political togetherness.
It is really difficult to convey the power of the diary writing youth workers are doing in these short extracts; the differences in the ways we approach the task and the conflicting and divergent experiences and perspectives that are present. However, the diaries focus on everyday life, the ordinary in extraordinary times and the way work and the rest of life are so entangled is a lens that the Mass Observation project gives us. This is what we have tried to give a glimpse of here.
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Last Updated: 14 September 2020
Smith, Mark (1980) Creators not consumers. NAYC. Available at: https://infed.org/mobi/mark-smith-creators-not-consumers-rediscovering-social-education/.
The authors have written this article as Citizen Researchers in a personal and volunteer capacity.