So you may be aware of the other ‘Four Cornerstones of Youth Work’, namely:
- Participation and empowerment
- Voluntary engagement
- Personal and social education
- Equality of opportunity
…although I’m not totally sure who decided they were the cornerstones in the first place [citation welcome!]. What I’m talking about here are the cornerstones that are present in the murkier parts of youth work, propping up the palace of poor practice.
I’m going to be quite candid and describe when I’ve seen these in my practice but also ask the question more broadly about whether these things are an inevitable part of our profession or things that we should be trying to work against. And how bad are they really?
So, this is like the antithesis of ‘participation and empowerment’ – you have your plans for your project and you aim to subliminally bury them deep inside young people’s brains so that they regurgitate all the answers you were after in the first place.
In a time where project funding is more easy to come by than core funding it’s no massive surprise that we ‘guide’ young people to aligning their ideas with that of a funder. I myself have been guilty of this, helping teen groups to the low hanging fruit and making it all seem like their idea. Possibly not the most evil of all activities but this one needs to be kept in check; continue down a path like this and your group, who started out putting on holiday activities for other young people, are all of a sudden involved in a film-making project about peer-led refugee counselling.
Now we all know about this, surely! I’ve extolled the virtues of pizza-peddling before, but how ethical is it? If those young people aren’t turning up because you’ve made the content engaging in the first place then are you simply indulging tokenism?
This is me playing the devil’s advocate – on one occasion I actually told a pair of young people who were being interviewed for ‘Youth Opportunity Funding’ that every time they mentioned the words ‘sustainable’, ‘inclusive’ or ‘value for money’ I would give them a Maoam. So extremely crude! I thought it was inspired at the time. They learnt the meanings of the terms and it made the whole thing quite good fun for those on the inside track. But still – definite bribery. FYI, they didn’t get the money anyway.
In a profession that is supposed to be young person-centred, how much of it actually is? I’ve heard people say they have gotten into youth work “to save themselves” or met workers who really struggle if they aren’t well liked by everyone they work with – that’s ego. I’ve even met a youth worker who disallows anyone to eat meat at the youth club because he, himself is a vegetarian; ego. As well as compromising opportunities to really put young people in the middle of decisions being made, it can generally reflect badly on our profession.
Scaled up, ego gets in the way of some excellent work happening. A few people have been credited with saying it, including Ronald Reagan: “Imagine what we could achieve if we stopped worrying about who gets the credit”. It’s so very true.
Linked to ego this cornerstone is about what we go around telling everyone. It’s how fantastic everything is going, as long as it’s a funder, politician or even internal senior management are asking. Fudgery and falsehood stand in the way of progressive work – if something isn’t going well you really need to discuss it, collaborate on solutions or just pack it in and channel your energies more positively elsewhere. So many times I have seen projects flogged like the proverbial dead horse; workers get bored and young people get bored. Take it as an opportunity to shake things up! Or just carry on wearing those rose-tinted spectacles.
So, which of the more nefarious aspects of Youth Work have been omitted here? I’d like to hear your opinions on the other worst bits of practice in our profession. Examples of your own wicked practice are left here at your own risk though!