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  • Writer's pictureDavid Whewell

In Praise of Detached Youth Work - Guest Blog by Carl Bowen of Creative Youth Network, Bristol.

There’s a lovely African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child - a reminder that helping young people make a success of their passage from child to confident, empathetic adult is a shared, societal responsibility. I guess if we are to take this responsibility seriously it means us being able to offer young people skillful, informed support to develop the necessary personal and social skills and confidence.

By appropriately ‘informed’, I mean an approach based on a wide range of understandings about the things that affect young people’s development, both social and psychological; and by ‘support’ I mean an approach that they recognise as credible, respectful and very easy to access. Get all this right and those who most need us will walk towards us, get it wrong, and they will walk away.

The transition to adulthood is fraught with difficulty, not least because the adolescent brain is switching young people’s developmental emphasis over to the relationships they have with each other, whilst the society around them is being fashioned, almost exclusively, to meet the needs and priorities of adults.

As if this transition was not challenging enough, too many adults - quick to forget what this process felt like for themselves when they were younger - make it even harder for young people by ladling on negative stereotypes and scapegoating them for all and any of society’s ills, including the second wave of Covid-19. Because of this, there’s a risk that services we provide for young people will be dismissed as un-credible or irrelevant if we continue to lazily fashion them through the lens of our adult norms and priorities.

It’s youth work’s role to be society’s specialist offer of relevant and respectful support to young people

And especially to those on the most challenging route to adulthood who are also coping with disabilities, poverty, discrimination, bullying and a contextual proximity to crime, conflict, abuse or exploitation. It stands to reason that we need to be there with and for them almost every step of the way.

This means offering quality building-based provisions, that are credible enough for them to want to been seen socialising in and frictionless to access; stimulating projects and programmes that blend developmental opportunities with their own needs and interests; and also being out there, working with them in the dynamic they create for themselves in the streets and parks of their communities, on evenings and weekends.

This is why detached youth work is so important

It is in these spaces where youth workers build the necessary trust and rapport to support, inform and challenge young people in a negotiated way that respects them and tries not to undermine their desire for autonomy. The great advantage is not only are young people being enabled and encouraged to form positive peer relationships with each other, as is their developmental priority, but they are also being reminded that adults still have something valuable to offer and are not all about trying to reimpose their diminishing authority.

To keep asking what is relevant, engaging and respectful of young people is a foundational principle of all youth work. Like all of us, young people can discern who respects them and who doesn’t. If we reach out and engage young people where they are, and complement this with other services (youth clubs, one-to-one support, education, training) that they tell us are useful to them, then that ethos of respect will shine through, a strong, holistic service model.

Supporting young people successfully into adulthood means respecting them enough to ensure they experience being seen, being heard, having a voice, and listening to others. These social and personal skills are easily as important as maths and history in equipping young people to navigate our ever more complex, volatile and uncertain world.

Youth work is a wise investment, one from which we all benefit

  • Everywhere there are youth services there should be a detached strand, a cord of practice that runs through all youth provision.

  • Every school catchment should have two youth workers able to deliver detached work alongside a range of other services within the community.

  • They should be visible and resourced, complementing a range of neighbourhood spaces dedicated to young people.

Creative Youth Network is a registered charity based in Bristol, in the South West of England.

We are youth workers, creative professionals, volunteers and campaigners. We help all young people to reach their potential and live fulfilling lives, by building secure, positive relationships with them based on the unique needs of each person. Click on the following link to access the Creative Youth Network. This article was originally written for their blog.

Carl Bowen has over 30 years’ experience of youth work. Having graduated from art college in Cardiff and then trained as a youth worker in Manchester one of his first roles was attached to a school, working with other youth workers to engage young people across the catchment. Carl went on to set up a successful detached project in Bridgewater focusing on its 2 most disadvantaged estates and the Town Centre. This was evaluated by Sheffield University as an ‘excellent example of best practice’ for the impact and outcomes it achieved - including a measurable reduction in anti-social behavior and unprecedented levels of youth involvement in community development and decision-making.

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