Article: Under many pressures: the beautiful small acts and everyday persistence of youth workers hanging about with young people

Author: Janet Batsleer, Hasaan Amin, Emily Beever, Tania de St Croix, Kevin Jones, Gerry McVeigh, Christine Smith | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Janet Batsleer, Hasaan Amin, Emily Beever, Tania de St Croix, Kevin Jones, Gerry McVeigh and Christine Smith present the latest report from the Citizen Enquiry into Youth Work in the Time of COVID. In this article, they outline themes and examples from the diaries youth workers have submitted to the enquiry in September and October 2020. This builds on two previous articles they have published with Youth & Policy in recent months.

Since April 2020, the Citizen Enquiry into Youth Work in the Time of COVID has been collecting diaries from youth workers and a team of citizen researchers (the joint authors of this article, the third in the series) have met to discuss the diaries. The collected diaries will form part of the Mass Observation archive of the pandemic, held at the University of Sussex. In September and October, we received 35 diaries in all, with most contributors writing at some length. It is impossible to share all the themes that emerge at this point, so what follows is intended to give a partial snapshot of the everyday experience of youth work at this time.

In this period, there has been extensive writing about youth work practice from a number of diary writers and this is what we have chosen to focus on here. Diaries come from all four jurisdictions of the UK and so reflect the varied implementations of lockdown that exist. There is no longer a strong sense of common experience, beyond the widely felt confusion and a sense of mixed messages from government. Possibilities and constraints of both online and face-to-face practice differ both across the UK and for different groups. For example, the possibility for re-opening youth centres has been different around the country, depending on the level of COVID infection. And the affordances of online work are real, especially for LGBTQ+ youth work; this is expressed in diaries in which the possibility of finding safe space with other trans young people online is experienced as powerful and connecting, while the possibility of face-to-face meeting would usually have required young people to travel long distances to meet one another. What the diarists do seem to have in common is a determined attempt to do the best they can in relation to what is required and hoped for, combined with a weary distrust of the politicians.

Uncertainty, anxiety, confusion and mixed messages seem to be the order of the day. The HOPE of reopening our service, even in a limited way, has meant so much to the team.

Although this is not possible for all, most diarists have written about the return to face to face work, including the COVID related routines which surround such opening up. For example:

We started the session with my signing people in on the new electronic register that we have and one of the volunteers taking everyone’s temperature.

While online work has become established as a regular feature of practice, its effectiveness is now often questioned. One diarist writes:

Fatigue of online work is creeping in – youth workers are physically going out more, and the online sessions have settled down to small limited numbers; sometimes it’s only the young people who the workers knew before lockdown. It has been difficult to get new people on, as youth work is about the relationship. Workers much prefer outdoor gatepost visits and detached work.

In addition, there is the constant pressure created both by digital poverty and by the need to take online safety seriously:

Young people without smart devices, young people with no Wi-Fi, timing it correctly so maximum young people join, and of course safeguarding criteria about which app we can use, how we contact them, how we document it, the number of staff on each call (face to face our ratios are 1 to 10 young people, for virtual groups it’s 1 to 5?)

Another aspect of practice which is mentioned routinely and seems to be linked to remote working is the use of one-to-one appointments systems: an obvious way to manage practice in these times and yet a move away from the kind of informal work which youth workers have been keen to return to.

There continues to be anxiety as to whether our funders will be willing to pay for a service that is not doing what it was set up to do. We went from being well over all our targets to being well under and no matter how much reassurance is offered there is still that nagging voice saying ‘Are you really needed?’ We know we are needed, though not in an artificial and staged service that lacks flexibility and accessibility. As workers we have been incredibly frustrated and have felt in turn useless, angry and guilty

The return of schools was a significant change in this period. Most, though not all, diary writers who work closely with schools have been welcomed back; largely, it seems, because of the relationships they had established before lockdown.  One writer reported that the staff as well as the young people were happy to see him ‘hanging about’ again and that he felt he was recognised as concerned with the staff’s wellbeing as well as the wellbeing of the school students. Even the headteacher had shared issues concerning his personal wellbeing with the youth worker. Being back in school also meant that friendship groups are re-forming:

The friendship groups are reforming in schools and it was so nice to go outside the building yesterday and talk to some young people – who were jumping all over the roof – but it was still good to talk to young people.

In many entries there is a powerful pride in practice, whether mainly online or re-emerging in the chance to meet together in person. There is pride in the simple fact of providing a safe enough space and a sense of value and recognition to young people whose lives and experiences are not only routinely not valued but usually denigrated. This is especially clear in diaries about trans youth work spaces; and from workers who create spaces for young people facing specific challenges or at risk of harm in their family contexts. The value of a youth work approach, and the beautiful practice of youth work here, is reflected in the following account of work with young people with Asperger’s Syndrome. Like others, this youth worker is very engaged and motivated by a sense of pride in his work:

I woke up excited. Our group for young people with Asperger’s syndrome has been nominated for a Welsh Youth Excellence award and today the group would be taking part in interviews and filming for the award ceremony…

This diary continues to give an account of a very full day of youth work, encompassing the making and distribution of food parcels as well as an outreach session before returning to the excitement of working with this group.

Following our outreach work we met with the young people from the Asperger’s group and asked them to fill out permission forms for filming. Most of the young people wanted to take part in the interviews. A year ago maybe half of them would have been too anxious to, with one even saying that he couldn’t believe he was about to answer questions on camera, so it shows how vital these groups are for the development of young people. One of the group was socially isolated three years ago and would barely even speak to his own family. He now has his own radio show and is as confident as anyone….due to the amount of interviews and the need to maintain covid19 friendly procedures, we ended up hanging around outside the youth centre for longer than the whole session was supposed to take. None of the young people complained. They were happy enough to just be spending time with one another.

In another example of this sense of deep and personal involvement, a trans worker with an LGBTQ+ organisation reflects:

I know that this evening I will be feeling that shared joy and content for having been able to do something like that together, despite the pandemic. Yet some days, like this morning, I can’t shake the feeling of sadness for the loss of not being able to do this in person. And with the worry of how many months will I be able to cope like this come winter. And more importantly, how many months can the young people cope this like. The work we do feels different when the focus is shifted on survival rather than thriving.

As well as this depth of work in specialist groups and the pride and satisfaction it brings, involving a sense of vocation and of ‘this is where I am meant to be’, there are a number of accounts of open access and detached youth work which give examples of how ‘being there’ and ‘hanging out’ makes youth workers privileged witnesses of social reality alongside young people. The creation of a wildlife garden as a place to hang out together; a new habit of spending time together outside the centre (as young people aren’t allowed to go in) and quieter sessions where the atmosphere is relaxed and chilled and some ‘heavy topics’ are able to emerge.

The beauty of our space is that it is a space just to be… a space to chill and relax with no expectation.

Somehow this very lack of expectations can somehow open up into powerful conversations: in ‘looking for the starting point and to whatever developmental opportunities emerge’ (Davies, 2005). One youth worker recounted in their diary:

There seem to be a lot of fights at the moment. Lots of anger and aggression. We talked about it in the session. It was a relaxed session, it feels quiet with only 15 and a few of the young people left after a while so it was even quieter. One of the youth workers and the PCSO sat with one group of young people under the gazebo and started to do some painting. They were talking about the Tik Tok video of a man blowing his head off. One of them started to watch it in the session and looked horrified. My colleague said the conversations were heavy. They were talking about lots of conflict and violence between adults and young people as well as between young people. Another group hung around a different table and played some music. Others played pool and table football inside. Most were in the garden even though it was cool. We all have to wear masks inside which puts most people off.

Another youth worker wrote:

I went inside and made cheese on toast with the young volunteers. We talked a lot as we did this. One was very jittery – he’s not eating and not in a good place. Another was ok – getting used to college and making new friends. The other talked more about the boy she had met up with at the weekend. She was over the moon about him but then said he asked her for nudes and when she said no, he stopped talking to her. She is also worried she is pregnant. Talked about how to get her a pregnancy test.

The diary continues with a detailed account of an open youth work session:

People started to leave. I’ve noticed over the past few weeks that most young people don’t stay to the end since we’ve reopened which is different from before when we would still be really busy at 8.30. I stayed chatting with two young women who had gone to primary school. They talked about the fights they used to have and the fights they still have. We talked about violence and rage and what to do with it. One girl talked about getting pinned down in the school field by one boy and then another boy getting on top of her. She felt like he was almost raping her. Her friend told a teacher who said they were just mucking around. Her mum had been furious and kept her off school for two weeks. She said it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to her… Neither wanted to leave the session but I asked them to go.

Several of the diarists commented on the ways that young people including young adults are being blamed and stigmatised for the spread of the virus.

My girlfriend and me are going away in the campervan again this weekend so after dinner, my evening was spent getting ready for that by cooking food and packing the van. We are heading to Devon with some friends from London. We will attempt to social distance but will probably hug, shake hands and sit too close to each other after a couple of beers, just like many other adults throughout the country will do over the course of the weekend, safe in the knowledge that it is the young people who will be blamed should there be an increase in cases.

A culture of blame impacts most on the people whose lives are marginal and under attack in the wider society intensifying the pressure on both workers and young people. Here, one of the diarists writes about the way transphobia impacts on their organisation:

One of the hardest things over the lockdown has been figuring out how to support young people who have unsupportive parents/carers. These young people deserve to be able to live as themselves and often they email us when the amount of distress they experience is reaching a tipping point. When the young people are under 16, and in many ways would need us the most, there’s also little we can do. This is all made even harder because we know that transphobic people are sending emails to organisations such as ours, trying to “catch us out”. So responding to these emails becomes a combination of sadness of the young person, anxiety about the authenticity and absolute anger about the unfairness of it all. Sometimes I wish I could just scream. But instead I seem to absorb these feelings physically and experience them as pains in my body.

As in previous months, there is writing about moments of pause and renewal often at the beginning or ending of the day. In this report, we have chosen to convey the depth and seriousness of what is shared with youth workers by young people in youth work relationships and what this apparently free-floating practice is able to sustain and hold, even in such a difficult time. However, the pressures on the youth workers are intense. The diaries continue to flag many concerns for the health and wellbeing of youth workers, including workers who are only just, or not quite, getting by with money and housing worries, perhaps especially in those areas most affected both by poverty and now by COVID.

So, we end the report with a final account of practice which conveys some of its lightness and the pleasures involved, as associational practice returns:

We ran an end of summer celebration event for our peer mentor group this evening – I work for a charity for Children in Care, running their peer mentoring programme. We went the beach and then had a take away. It was really nice to get this group of young people back together – they have not been together as a group since January as they have been out supporting our other groups and some have been isolating and felt unable to come to groups over the summer. I think the move back to college / school has given some of them the confidence to see each other socially again. All in all it was a lovely evening.

We have chosen to focus this report on youth work practice as it is revealed in the diary entries. In the next instalment, we will return to the everyday life of youth workers and the details of their everyday lives in the time of COVID. We promise you a particular emphasis on that most important topic: cleaning!

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Last Updated: 18 January 2021


Davies, B. (2005) Youth Work: A Manifesto for our Times, Youth & Policy, Vol. 88, pp. 5-28.