I received a message this week from a friend wishing me ‘Happy Youth Work Week!’ in a similar way to someone saying Happy Birthday. It was thoughtful and well meant, but a fellow Youth Worker in the country, Dempsie Earles, posted on a youth work forum, and it got me thinking too, what are we celebrating?
Around 13 years ago, the government decimated the youth service, closing centres, and the sector hasn’t truly recovered. I doubt it will. Some councils are putting out jobs (fixed-term) whilst down the road, redundancies loom large. My route to being qualified began the same year the cuts happened. Mad, perhaps, but I’d signed up for a degree in a field I was passionate about, and hoped would find a way through, whilst watching everything vanish around me. Dempsie notes the resilience of workers in his post, and I would agree. He explains that if the end of the world came calling, we’d probably still be trying to set up a youth service so our young people felt safe.
Having managed youth centres out of dire straits, it’s amazing how resilient you must be. Everyone knows better. There’s the stress of where the money is coming from to open the doors, how you pay your team what they are worth, and how you recruit in the first place because there’s not many qualified workers who only want three hours a week for half of what they should be paid. Then policies, risk assessments, and more, overtake your days whilst you’re trying to deliver front line services. With a large team, it’s bearable, otherwise it’s a challenge, and something has to give. Often it’s the workers who need job safety and security to be able to deliver safety and security to the young people. No workers -> youth work dwindles -> data concludes closure required.
Many Youth Workers are still around though, and as the theme for Youth Work Week is ‘Youth Work in Every Place and Space’ we’re asked to raise a glass (of Ribena, I suppose) to where it’s happening. Despite the closure of more than 700 youth centres, and 25% of youth services closing during covid never to reopen, the workers are found ‘in custody suites, …social care teams, there’ll be one there on the hospital ward if a young person is unfortunate enough to get stabbed,’ and as Dempsie says, ‘I applaud that but not without recognising that they may be needed there because the very thing that may have prevented the issue in the first place was cut/closed’.
There’s the argument that we don’t need centres with pool tables, dart boards, and craft. We could do Detached and meet them on the streets. That’s been happening for a long time, but those centres are more than just bricks. They’re a hub of hope at the heart of communities, where the underfed can eat, even if it’s just toast; they can talk to a trusted adult quietly rather than on a street corner with their mates jeering on; they can, to all intents and purposes, be themselves in a place where they otherwise wouldn’t for fear of being jeopardised. Most importantly perhaps, they can build sustained relationships where advice about all aspects of the world can be at their fingertips, and they can potentially be prevented from slipping in with the wrong crowds – all this in one space. It’s warm and dry too, especially important in these gloomy months. What a boost to young people’s mental health it would be if these places were open with sufficient investment that qualified workers felt valued enough to run them.
Meanwhile, we’ll continue to appear in these other places and spaces, often temporarily until the next bit of funding appears, and doing the best we can because that’s all we really can do, so Happy Youth Work Week to my fellow Youth Workers wherever you may be. You’re doing a fine job and we’ll continue to celebrate our wins every day not just this week. If you wish to send me a card with a cheque inside for the upkeep of a youth centre, you’re more than welcome.