How did youthwork contribute to the riots?

The dust has settled on the riots, more or less. It’s a shame, because dust should never settle so quickly on so great an upheaval. In the end there was a brief window for us to wrestle with the glimpse we caught of something quite enormous bubbling beneath the surface of our society, before politicians grasped the nettle and subjugated this remarkable happening to their own agendas. To be honest, I suspect the only reason it didn’t happen more quickly was because everyone was on holiday. Either way, the propagated narratives are crystallising and debate seems long gone.

In my blog during the riots, I speculated on the wide-ranging suggestions as to their origin and cause. From MTV Base to fatherless families to consumerism to a lack of gun ownership, we had the lot. Of course, I regarded some as much closer to the mark than others. But if there was one thing which was conspicuous by its absence, it was the fact that no person, or institution, or organisation which I heard came forward and said: this was my fault. Or our fault. Or at least partly. Nobody claimed responsibility, at least not for themselves.

Of course, that isn’t to say it didn’t happen anywhere, or behind closed doors, or in intense discussions in think-tanks or Westminster or around the dinner table. Simply that I didn’t come across any such confession myself. But I have a confession. It’s based, of course, on a certain understanding of the riots which accepts certain theories and rejects others. For example, I don’t think MTV Base is a helpful place to start. I can see that the offerings of MTV Base as reflections of a wider culture, in a certain context, without the discipline of critiquing and reflecting on what is coming through the TV, over an extended period, with a number of other factors which exacerbate the impact of select messages, might be problematic. But to start with it? Ludicrous. My confession starts with the role of organisations like mine, which work with young people.

Some of the most sensible analyses which I have seen are reflected in the excellent book ‘Whatever It Takes’, written by Paul Tough, who takes the discussion about riots/poverty/criminality/insert-word-here beyond the see-saw of Left and Right and into the grey middle, which common sense tells us will always yield a more holistic truth than can be found at the extremes. He rejects arguments that ‘criminality’ is exclusively the terrain of moral decline (right) or systemic poverty (left) and indeed Harlem Children’s Zone, the extraordinary experiment and organisation led by Geoffrey Canada, creates a model which seems to move beyond this decades-old debate on urban poverty in the US into a programme which transforms the odds for an entire community’s children, not the ‘one in ten’ who can be saved with what Canada describes ‘the Superman approach’. Of course, there is much more to understanding both the moral decline (or more helpfully put, the values debate) and the systemic poverty pieces. They have their own histories and analyses, enriched – if that’s the right word – with economic and social narratives which have further entrenched their effects. Phillip Blond tweeted that the riots were the upshot of neo-liberalism and social libertarianism. Whilst I find myself unconvinced with some of the conclusions drawn along the way and how they translate into future policy, I think this interview provides food for thought.

So what’s the confession? Well, I’m a youthworker by trade and have been working with young people for about 13 years. We’ve been everywhere for the past few weeks, youthworkers. Giving interviews, sharing our thoughts, explaining the riots and perhaps most importantly, thinking about how we respond. It’s quite a novel experience for us as a community. We’re usually seen but not heard, except for when someone needs a soundbite on the cuts.

I remember when I qualified as a professional youth and community worker in 2002. I was at the end of a boom in the industry where supply was starting to outstrip demand. A few years before, a number of new youthwork training programmes had sprung up (in addition to the few which had been running for years) to respond to a burgeoning market for ‘professional’ youthworkers: people who had diploma-level qualifications, would work full-time and were in high-demand due in part to policies coming out of government. The people I trained with were a mixed bunch: a diverse group – age, gender, ethnicity, background, outlook – with a common passion for transforming the lives of young people and their communities. It’s one of the reasons we were fairly laid back about the relatively chaotic course administration and the absence of the benefits usually associated with going to university: we just wanted to make a difference.

But it seems that youthwork, somewhere along the way, lost its soul. As supply outstripped demand for serious youthwork jobs, hundreds of short-term, part-time, stat-led initiatives sprung up all over the place. Youthworkers were a dime a dozen, and a sort of lowest-common-denominator youthwork emerged. Perhaps the discipline simply struggled to move forward, to understand itself outside radical Leftism when society and policy changed. New Labour policies and the subjugation of youthwork to state surveillance and economic unit production activities (a question which was hotly debated in the 1980s and before) further confused a professionally naive workforce intent on securing funding and maintaining activities regardless of cost. Mixed in with the political cocktail of quick-fix solutions and sexy numbers, many parts of the sector has seen a near-complete loss of professional integrity over the past ten years. Let me be clear: this is not a dig at one government. I have no doubt that youthwork would have been seen and utilised in the same way regardless of the colour of government. This is about the hard place which youthworkers occupy, between the hardest-to-reach young people and a wider society impatient for peace.

Let me give an example. Most youthworkers understand that, whilst there must always remain a drive to improve effectiveness and efficiency, the nuts and bolts of our trade are fairly common sense. Long-term relationships beat short-term relationships. Young-person-centred conversations beat funder-stipulated-conversations. Community-based initiatives trump centralised or super-centre initiatives. And this is in relation to impact: to making the difference which whether you’re a neighbour, a funder, a councillor or a youthworker, we all agree on.

But we have not maintained these working practices. There is pressure to bring young people in through the door (even if they’d rather meet outside). There is pressure to record their behavioural changes (with their token endorsements). There is pressure to gain them ‘qualifications’, whether or not these are meaningful in the employment market or are what they really want to do. And this has led to incentivisation, increasingly coercive approaches to engaging young people and underming the core values of informal education which lead to an individual voluntarily, responsibly and productively choosing to engage with mainstream society and to be bound by its (mutually beneficial) social norms. To paraphrase, youthwork has increasingly been guilty of encouraging young people to engage for what they can get, rather than investing in the best ways to inspire personal growth and civic responsibility.

Please don’t get me wrong. Funding requirements are partly to blame, but so are we (and this is only one area in which youthwork has compromised). It is not enough to resent administration and to point to the virtuosity of our work as an adequate basis for its continuation. The fact that youthworkers are often nice people doing nice things does not mean we should be invested in. If we are unhappy with what is required of us on this front, if we feel that the existing methods of evaluation are inadequate for capturing impact, then we should be at the front of the field for developing models which do exactly that. A criticism which has been levelled at the industry (and apparently me) is that our ‘positions depend on the continued creation of [these] dysfunctional miscreants who wreak havoc’. We should be clear: when people invest in youthwork, they invest in impact, not in nice activities. We want to solve problems, not maintain them. And we should be at the forefront of explaining that.

Youthworkers have been on the frontline for many years. Almost all of the young people involved in the riots will have had a youthworker or contact with one, especially in London which is saturated with provision. The question is whether this provision has been high quality. This is the difference between simply having ‘somewhere to go’ or having a significant adult who builds a long-term, trusting relationship and understands their mandate for facilitating personal growth, social education and civic responsibility. It is the difference between taking a certificate home for the sake of ticking a box or investing the time, energy, commitment and resources in a young person which not only allows them to build dreams and futures but communicates to them their worth and our commitment.

Youthworkers are not, of course, responsible for the riots in any sort of all-encompassing way. I have sought here to reflect on what we as a sector might do better in the future, not to absolve or ignore the plethora of other causes which need to be explored (and taken responsibility for). As the last line of defence, we should ask what has happened to the midfield. And we should ask whether youthwork is best positioned solely as the last line and not as the attack. But while there is the dreary squabbling and co-opting of the riots for agendas far and wide, we must seize them as a wake-up call. The impact we have had is not enough, and we must own that. If we are to have the sort of impact which brought many of us into this line of work we must sit down honestly and openly and be prepared to criticise our own practice as well as the policies and approaches which have exacerbated this problem. We must reclaim the power of youthwork as having a transformative capacity which empowers young people to claim fuller, happier and more responsible lives. And we must lead the way in capturing, explaining and securing investment for exactly that.


2 thoughts on “How did youthwork contribute to the riots?

  1. Thanks for a thought-provoking piece, Paul. Much needed. Will link to it on the In Defence of Youth Work site.From a surviving Radical Leftist [?], who agrees that we have never been self-critical enough about our practices in those times.Tony Taylor


  2. Great article, really valuable points. I agree, we need honesty about what has worked and what needs to be improved. Also a willingness to take on board criticism and adapt to change. Thanks for posting.


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