Article: Youth Work in a Time of Covid – July and August diaries: We Are Seeing the Value of Youth Work.
In this update from their Citizen Enquiry into the lives of youth workers during Covid-19, Janet Batsleer, Emily Beever, Tania de St Croix, Kevin Jones, Gerry McVeigh, Christine Smith, and Hasaan Amin present findings from the diaries they collected from youth workers in July and August 2020.
In this second article from our Mass Observation study and Citizen Enquiry into Youth Work in the time of Covid, we report from the diaries contributed by youth workers during July and August, which were collected immediately prior to the crisis over the public examination results. There were 34 diary entries submitted for July and August from youth workers in all four jurisdictions of the United Kingdom. The Citizen Researcher team followed the same process of analysis as described in the previous report published in Youth and Policy, reading and discussing themes emerging in the diaries. See our previous article based on the May and June diaries here. In this second article, there is a tangible sense of difference from the earlier months as youth workers engage with a return to face-to-face work which brings both great delight for many, combined with some anxiety and fearfulness, alongside complex management of Covid-safe processes. Questions of the value of youth work are strongly to the fore in these diaries combined with a more and more frequently voiced distrust of Government advice. Many of the experiences of displacement and uncertainty are continuous from those reported in May and June, but now with an increasingly familiar weariness.
Time doesn’t seem to matter anymore.
As youth workers move from lockdown to whatever is not lockdown and, for some, back into partial lockdown, the sense of time and space – which was already in limbo – shifts differently for those with different experiences of work, at home or not, online or face-to-face, on furlough or employed. Since many of the diary writers are raising questions about the value of youth work, we have decided to focus on this in this short article, along with a detailed attention to familiar yet strange aspects of youth workers’ pedagogies.
The issue of whether or not youth workers are valued as key workers is present in a number of diaries:
…a(nother) friend who has a milk round near my house phoned to see if he could come round for a cuppa. We had a socially distant cup of tea in the garden. He showed me the badge his work has given him, honouring his role as a key worker during the pandemic. I was happy for him for this. It was great to see his role being acknowledged, but it does make me wonder about the invisibility of the role of the youth worker.
But what is the purpose of a badge if there is no future for workers in their posts? One local authority worker who was moved from a role in youth work to one in the Looked After Children team writes:
I feel being labelled as a key worker is hollow and fake. If we were that key and crucial why are our jobs being cut, when the [name of provision] is safe? None of it seems fair.
Familiar youth work practices and scenarios continue and are adapted and become strange. These include practices such as how relationships are formed, negotiated and sustained; how young people’s learning and creativity is recognised and valued. We have wondered if online spaces become over-structured, adult dominated and empty. Or if they enable greater access and involvement for young people who are less likely or less able to engage in the usual spaces. There is a lot said in the diaries about the use of Zoom and other technologies and not enough space for that here so we will devote a later and separate report to that theme.
All the diaries submitted offer insight into the nature of youth work practice currently. Just as in everyday life, people are consciously working out how to be with one another in situations where everyday behaviour was previously taken for granted – in the shops, in cafes, on the streets – so it is with youth work. Youth workers are accustomed to negotiate relationships albeit within boundaries of safety. Now the possibilities for negotiation are changed:
Before leaving [home] I had to complete a Risk Questionnaire to say that I had none of the 20+ symptoms that might have been a sign of Covid-19. Everyone else attending today had to do the same. This will have to be completed each day when we are back at work – by staff and young people.
The previous week I had to draw up a Risk Assessment for the meeting today, to outline the measures that were in place/needed to be in place to manage staff coming together in person. There was a degree of surrealness about this, to risk manage something that we just did every day as part of or normal working processes.
That we must risk manage the basics of just being together as human beings in work is something that hadn’t really been present… it was removed by the remote working. It has been so present in other aspects of life and I still find it strange to go into the ‘middle room’ my mother’s house – that is the only place visitors are allowed, to minimise risk (and the toilet!). The effects of Covid-19 really are all pervasive…
This, unfortunately, is going to be the reality of our work in the short to medium term. All those coming into our building will have to follow these strict procedures and we will have to limit the numbers of young people to maintain social distancing. It seems like managing the risk of Covid-19 is going to overshadow everything. I know in my head that this makes sense and is essential, though my heart is silently screaming.
Others write about how ‘the Government guidelines have been appalling on this and cause more confusion than help!’ – as well as the ways that the cultures of youth work and the current requirements collide. One youth work manager’s diary writes of:
The weariness of trying to get young people and youth workers to take the health and safety elements seriously and sometimes the beautiful traits of youth workers, (including myself) of being informal, negotiating, questioning and having healthy skepticism can hit against the need to be clear, black and white on health and safety, infection control and clean use of spaces and buildings. Interesting tensions.
Nevertheless, the return to face to face working is greeted with happiness by many diary writers.
It was brilliant to see work colleagues in person again after those 3 months. We all commented on it.
Wednesday is my favourite day of the week. Wednesday is the day that I get to meet my team as we collect donated food and create food parcels.
Some express anxiety too and, for some, this anxiety is their prevailing feeling.
Many diaries record examples of youth work which is meeting basic needs – a number mention the work of creating and delivering food parcels. All are recording ways of listening, paying attention and being alongside, including the tensions that potentially being alongside Covid brings.
Me and my colleague called at Aldi on the way to work to collect some food donations for our food parcels. The area we work in seems to have gone back to normal. The streets are always busy again and people are gathering in large groups and ignoring the government guidelines. This is a worry for when we are doing our outreach work as keeping a distance in crowded streets can be hard
Young people’s desire to be involved in altruistic and solidarity activities which respond to current times and events is noted by youth workers, who are inspired by this and annoyed by the discourse which blames young people as thoughtless and careless. Included in the diaries in this period are young people’s concerns about homelessness, poverty, single-use plastics, the explosion in Beirut and its victims, climate change, loneliness, sectarianism, anti-racism and Black Lives Matter, and Trans+ Pride.
We have gone from unlock-down to lockdown in our city today and everyone is blaming young people under the age of 30 years old and I get very emotional at the moment that young people are being blamed for everything to do with Covid-19, I find myself defending them, which I should as a youth worker, communications from the government are not clear so frustration often sets in for people in the community.
There are detailed accounts too of the nature of practice. Reading the diaries made us ask once again which other practitioners might be prepared to work in this way. One person wrote about how to develop a relationship and offer support through texting. To wait for a reply and not give up felt very grounded in a youth work ethic:
I text open ended questions, I wait, 7 minutes pass, no response, I send a summary of where we got to last week, and I get a reply. I have not done text support before, so every text I send and the response I receive, is a moment for reflection, how could I have worded this differently or created a more engaging space. I decide to ask her what if there is anything she wants to talk about?
Another worker reflects on how the isolation of remote working unsettles both the ability to support learning and to give real encouragement.
Can there be resilience lessons learned so that I can better insure their lives, for the storms that may come their way in the future. Or is this a lesson too far, would their already precarious lives be damaged by the ongoing uncertainty of the current climate, especially around schooling, college or University? When working is increasingly feeling isolated since it is done remotely, am I enough to deliver these lessons adequately?
Other diaries reflect with humour on what is involved in the creation of the ‘activity packs’ (being funded in many areas it seems) and delivered as a way of keeping contact with young people:
…all to be delivered in the next couple of weeks. Myself and a colleague had to blow up 260 balls with a pump so I’ve been seeing balls in my sleep. I felt it necessary to remove all large label inserts from Table Tennis sets because when I read it, I had to pronounce it in a particular way and thought young people would do the same: ‘Fu-Qin’.
There is something to explore about the way the young people’s family contexts are more present to youth workers now (for example, when delivering something direct to their home rather than engaging with them in a youth work setting) and a sense that perhaps fewer risks (such as having a laugh about Fu-Qin) can be taken.
Another extended and much more serious example of youth workers being prepared to go the extra mile relates to emerging issues of policing as young people begin to gather in groups outdoors again.
A good example of a youth work approach is in one area… we are seeing the formation of a local group of young people, potentially morphing into criminality. The approaches we are pushing are a detached youth work response and a contextual safeguarding approach. Youth work approach, sending in experienced detached youth workers, is to see the group as young people first, as local actors, recognizing the reason they are grouping together is they have no stake in the area, no sense of ownership, no local power or influence. It’s seeking understanding (not condoning) why the white young people, commit the racially motivated attack, on the university students, walking through the newly invested-in park. There is a sense these young people feel they have no stake. This has got to be part of the youth work response, identifying what they want from their local area and seeking to work with them to achieve it. I watched Craig Pinkney’s webinar about gangs and youth work and was interested in his pipeline from street to custody through exclusion from school – nothing radically new, but it shows instinctively our attempts to prevent young people from getting into trouble and challenging them. On this estate, the police will not go in or leave their vehicle but it’s the youth workers and housing officers who are on the estate talking to young people and residents. It is an estate that was flooded on Boxing Day in 2015, and I spent the Christmas period working as our local youth centre became the flood relief centre. I reflected on how the youth workers are needed more than ever to get to places others can’t and to have that truly strengths-based human-first approach.
Youth workers have been described as ‘the last nerve ending of a community’ (In Defence of Youth Work, 2011). This could still be the case.
However, there is a sense of exhaustion and weariness at times.
I’m finding it hard to focus on tasks or do them as well as I would like. My reports are shorter and less detailed and I feel like I’m coping, not thriving. Although I am confident that my work is ‘good enough’ I miss the passion that I normally feel about my work. So although I’ve started waking up rested, I’m wondering if this is a sign of burnout. A COV-19 burnout? A ‘working from home during a pandemic’ burnout? The symptoms don’t quite match my previous experiences of burnout but there is something eerily similar as well in my demotivation and lack of energy.
And then, again, there are new energies, often accompanying the return to face-to-face working.
I’m not sure where this month has gone, it seems to have flown by compared to previous months, I guess because I went back to work. Excited and exhausted. I describe myself as an overtired toddler.
As in previous months there are examples of youth workers who are really struggling. There are economic struggles with issues of housing, precarious accommodation and homelessness, and there are also issues of mental health and wellbeing, including issues of social isolation. These are a stark reminder of the low financial value placed on some of this work, and the precariousness of livelihoods and life as a result.
Finally, the diaries show, yet again, the resources of self-care which almost every worker draws on. This includes prayer and meditation, practising gratitude, reading, swimming or climbing, and being in the outdoors. For many, at the beginning or end of the day, sometimes both, this connection beyond the immediacy of practice with a wider flow of life is a heartbeat or a rhythm through these youth work diaries.
My first thought: has the fox been digging in the raised bed again? I put the kettle on and went out in my pyjamas. The wire cover I’d placed over the bed was intact but she’d burrowed beneath it, dug half a meter down, strewn earth around the place. The rocks and half paving slab I’d placed there to slow her down had been moved aside. The previous night I’d woken and caught her in the act, told her off as if she was a dog; she had looked at me with her bleary eyes. I thought she looked a little embarrassed as she slunk off. We know each other a little, she has raised three cubs here this year. Like her they are wild, beautiful, destructive. This morning she was nowhere to be seen, sleeping off her efforts perhaps. I wonder what she wants with that particular bit of ground. I don’t want her to have it, her existing den takes up half the garden as it is, but there is no negotiating. I sweep the earth back into the hole, try a different arrangement of barricades, water the vegetables, bang my head on the doorframe, pick the first six raspberries of the year and come in for coffee and toast before doing some work (mostly in front of a computer today).
As one reader of this diary said, this could be (and is) a detached youth worker talking… it’s the relationship – even with the fox – that makes everything possible again. We wondered if this is close to the practice of reflection, so widely encouraged as essential in the informal practices of youth work.
The value of youth work is being stated throughout these diaries, and not at all in the policy language of impact, but in much more fully nuanced accounts of care. These immensely valuable, informal support practices are being sustained by a workforce not widely understood or recognised, and most certainly, often not well paid. The frustration this creates is obvious; the humour which youth workers often bring to bear in response to it is less widely recognised and deserves celebration.
We will continue to collect youth worker diaries throughout the autumn and we welcome new as well as existing diary writers. See our call for contributors here. It is impossible to convey all that the diaries include but we want to share these findings and our reflections on them regularly, as support to the field in these times.
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Last Updated: 5 October 2020
In Defence of Youth Work (2011) This is Youth Work: Stories from Practice https://indefenceofyouthwork.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/20252-youth-stories-report-2011_4th-1.pdf.
The authors have written this article as Citizen Researchers in a personal and volunteer capacity.