Article: Re/membering Resilience – a reflection on resilience and youth work
In this article, Alison Ní Charraighe explores the concept of resilience and its resonance in the lives of young people, specifically in relation to ‘community’, influential others, and emotional, social and personal development and agency. The article considers the development of the concept since 2010, and proposes that this is a concept which needs to be re-visited.
This article explores the concept of resilience and its resonance in the lives of young people in the North East of England. It is specifically concerned with the link between youth workers and the importance of what Rutter (1999, p.128) refers to as ‘social ties outside the family’ and how such connections help mitigate negative experiences within the family. The initial research for this article was undertaken in 2008, when I worked with young people on an inner city estate in the role of youth worker/manager. The then Labour government had just published, ‘Aiming High for Young People’ (2007, HM Treasury), which was trailed as a ‘10 year strategy for positive activities’. This document repeatedly returned to the concept of resilience, prompting my focus on it in both practice and through exploring the (then) published research, something which I reflect on now in this article. In particular, I want to explore how resilience links with ‘community’; influential others, and emotional, social and personal development and agency. The article also briefly considers the development of the concept since 2010, and proposes that this is a concept which needs to be re-visited.
To contextualise the concept, in the 1980s and 1990s resilience had been used by psychologists and family therapists (Rutter,1999) to describe the observed phenomena through which some children were able to thrive despite adverse circumstances in their lives. There existed, at the time, a wide body of research on resilience generally, but specifically in relation to children and young people, it concentrated mostly on psycho-social development and therapeutic interventions. Rutter had famously defined resilience as:
…a sense of self-esteem and self-confidence. A belief in one’s own self-efficacy and ability to deal with change and adaptation. A repertoire of problem-solving approaches (Rutter, 1985, p.607).
Central to the further development of the understanding of resilience and young people were studies by Grotberg (1995), Luthar (2003), and Ungar (2005, 2007). The latter emphasising the inter-cultural and contextual aspects of resilience. ‘Aiming High’ adopted this concept in relation to young people experiencing what was then termed ‘social exclusion’ (Byrne, 2005) – ostensibly, young people growing up in ‘poverty’.
In 2008, the estate in question was deemed to be one of the ’20 most disadvantaged estates’ in the UK (Lupton and Power, 2002/2005). Families living on this estate had been the object of various ‘interventions’ for more than 20 years at this point – a key example being the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal (2001). However, despite individual ‘success’ stories, little substantial change had been made overall in the social, personal and economic outcomes of most of the residents. Structural issues such as poverty, (many families were identified as living in ‘severe and persistent’ poverty, that being 40% or less of the median income), social class and years of under-investment in social infrastructure framed the lived experience of the majority of resident families. These issues were perceived as leading to, or exacerbating, a number of problems. For example, Lupton and Power (2005, p.119) listed the problems associated with such neighbourhoods as “… high crime and disorder, diminishing and dysfunctional services, empty housing and environmental decay.” In turn, these problems became linked with the term ‘social exclusion’ by commentators. Byrne (2005) was highly critical of this ‘label’ arguing that it denoted the process of becoming ‘dis-empowered’. Stanley (2005, p.162) detailed some of the attributes of this dis-empowerment as being ‘excluded’ from ‘…understanding what is happening to society and to themselves.’ For the majority of young people living on this estate, Stanley’s comments offered a good summary of their experience.
The causes of ‘social exclusion’ varied in both policy and academic discourse. Whilst Barry (2005) and Byrne (2005) argued that this ‘exclusion’ was a product of the in-built structural inequalities of late-capitalism, others argued that people themselves are the instruments of their own exclusion. In this latter argument, people fall victim to the risks inherent in post-modern capitalism, and it is their individual failings that lead to exclusion (Beck 1992). To illustrate this it would be argued for instance, that it is the young person who fails to fit into the education system, rather than the system failing them. Notably, Furlong and Cartmel (1997) critiqued such arguments in their account of individualism and risk, referring to the notion of individual failure as an ‘epistemological fallacy’ and arguing forcefully that social class, and location, remained important determinants of social outcomes for young people. This was the context into which the concept of resilience was introduced.
The literature around resilience had an impact upon my work, given that as a youth worker and manager, the mental, social and emotional well-being of young people was a constant theme for me and figured heavily in my reflections on my practice. The young people I worked with on a daily basis displayed a range of strong emotions and problematic behaviours. My professional aim was to support these young people in understanding where their emotions came from and how they were affecting their lives, working together with them to explore how they could understand and critique the various issues that had evoked these powerful emotions in the first place.
Resilience was not a word that came up in professional conversations within the team that I managed. We attempted to address questions about how young people could live ‘positive’ daily lives in the face of persistent and severe poverty and cope day to day with racist neighbours or homophobic friends. We also explored how young women could protect themselves from violent partners, and exploitative relationships and how we could support young people to achieve the best outcomes for themselves, on their terms, without causing themselves and others (too much) harm.
What did influence our work as professionals was our adherence to the National Youth Agency (2002) statements about the purpose and ethics of youth work. These focused on ensuring that as professionals we should:
- Treat young people with respect, valuing each individual and avoiding negative discrimination
- Respect and promote young people’s rights to make their own decisions and choices, unless the welfare or legitimate interests of themselves or others are seriously threatened.
- Promote and ensure the welfare and safety of young people, while permitting them to learn through undertaking challenging and educational activities.
- Contribute towards the promotion of social justice for young people and in society generally, through encouraging respect for difference and diversity and challenging discrimination.
As I began to read more about resilience, I formed the opinion that intrinsically, Youth Work as a process, was congruent with the process of building resilience.
‘Aiming High for Young People’ (2007) and ‘Youth Matters’ (2005), both emphasised the role of public agencies such as youth projects, social work agencies and youth offending teams, in helping to ‘build’ resilience in young people. In Aiming High (2007) resilience had been tied closely to social and emotional development. It stated:
They [social and emotional skills] describe a wide range of attitudes beliefs and levels of understanding, including young people’s self-awareness; their ability to manage their feelings; their motivations; their level of empathy with others; and their social skills. They help to shape young people’s self-esteem, how they feel about themselves, how they feel about others from different backgrounds, and the extent to which they take control of their own lives (HM Treasury, 2007, p.6).
To me, there was a resonance between Aiming High and my work on several levels: firstly with the emotional content of the Youth Work we were engaged with on this estate, secondly with the ethical values of Youth Work per se, and thirdly, as a means of theorising and explaining in more precise terms what Youth Work achieves. Kerry Young (1999) eloquently explored the ‘touchy-feely’ aspects of youth work, and the ethical and moral issues that workers encounter, all of which related to the work we were doing on emotional intelligence and competence. Various youth work theorists underlined the importance of ‘relationships’ and informality with young people(Jeffs and Smith, 2005), but the concepts related to resilience, especially those in the writings of Michael Ungar (2005/2007) which highlighted aspects of agency and the importance of social contexts, gave me an enhanced framework for practice.
However, the attraction of a concept such as resilience to the government’s development of Youth policy in the early years of this century is more obvious now than it was to me then. Viewed with hindsight, New Labour Youth policy had followed a bi-polar trend – rights were strongly attached to ideas about ‘good citizens’ and responsibilities, and initiatives to improve educational outcomes were indelibly linked with concerns about improving employability – even in areas where job opportunities were dwindling as globalisation hastened the re-distribution of manufacturing and production outside of the UK (Furlong, 2013). Rights to welfare were aligned with sanctions, and agency countered by admonishments for young people about ‘good citizenship’. The growth of the focus on the individual within policy positioned young people as creators of their own destinies, and responsible for their own outcomes through the ’choices’ they were assumed to have freely made. This perspective echoed the growing neo-liberal emphasis on ‘self’ without reference to context or location (MacDonald and Marsh, 2005). Given this decontextualized approach, a concept such as resilience which held the possibility of identifying a ‘shopping list’ of personal attributes which would ensure success instead of failure, and which could be ‘built’ by the children and young people’s workforce was tied into historic discourses of working class young people as deficient in both moral and intellectual reasoning, and ultimately, as ‘risk-laden’. In this context, the concept of resilience could be used as a means of passing responsibility to young people, and the professionals who worked with them, to ensure success.
In the 10 years since I left practice and moved into Higher Education, I have watched with interest the rising of the resilience star. It has become a concept that to quote Joseph (2013, p.51) ‘…can mean different things in different contexts…’ but ‘…is best understood in the context of rolling-out neoliberal governmentality’. This latter point is the most often used critique of the concept. David Cameron’s casual use of the term during his time as Prime Minister (2010-2015) further ensured its centrality within the discourse of austerity and the empty ‘all in this together’ mantra. Much like Tebitt’s simplistic call for young people in the 1980s to emulate his father’s generation by getting on their bikes and looking for work, Cameron’s doomed Life Chances Strategy (2016) extolled character and resilience as skills to be developed.
The austerity years have not been kind to Youth Work either, with most local authorities cutting their provision entirely or drastically reducing its scope. The often ‘diluted’ Voluntary Sector provision that has remained, contends with the ‘contract culture’ of target driven services, and the rising need for support – especially in relation to emotional well-being – from young people in all communities.
However, I feel that it is time to re-examine the concept of resilience, and that this concept can be reclaimed and re-used through reference to other critical writing about it. For instance, in 2009 Dorothy Bottrell wrote about the research she had undertaken with young people in a ‘deeply’ socially excluded suburb in Australia. She outlined how the principles of Youth Work, especially the key principles of participation and agency, were crucial in framing resilience – but of a kind that was ‘resistant’ to the dominant neo-liberal usage of the term, and to the imposed ‘deficit’ identities the young people in this community often resisted.
This linkage between resistance and resilience is one which I think is a good starting point for reclaiming the term from the neo-liberals who see it as an underpinning theory for the ‘stoic’ acceptance of austerity and disadvantage. My enthusiasm for the concept remains, and in spite of calls to ‘resist’ resilience (Neocleous, 2013), or arguments that ‘resilience is futile’ (Diprose, 2014), I hold on to my initial excitement about this term and its possibilities in relation to Youth Work.
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Last Updated: 5 April 2019
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Ni Charraighe worked in the Voluntary Sector in Belfast and Newcastle from 1989-2009 as a Community Development Worker, Youth Worker and Researcher. She has worked with a wide variety of groups on issues such as access to employment, family support, mental health, homelessness and participation. Her research interests include young people’s friendships and resilience.