Shortly after joining the International Centre in January 2016, I started to work on a project examining the role of detached youth work provision in making public spaces safer for young people. While detached youth work has changed over time and according to local contexts, it may broadly be defined as a type of youth work provision that delivers informal education to young people on their own terms and in spaces of their choosing. Detached youth workers develop relationships with young people over time and then work with them around a range of issues, such as employment and education, youth violence and child sexual exploitation.
The study included observations of detached youth work sessions and a series of focus groups with youth workers, young people and multi-agency partners. As someone new to the field of applied social research, co-leading on a project was an interesting challenge – I had never before engaged in ethnographic observations or conducted focus groups. Through the study I was able to stretch my skillset and ‘learn by doing’.
While I anticipated my own professional growth through the study, I am surprised that I continue to reflect upon what I heard during focus groups with young people. I remember quite clearly what young people said about their lives and neighbourhoods. I found it sad and disturbing to hear young men, many of whom are gang-affiliated, speak about how much more they wanted out of life – how they want to ‘get on the right path’, yet do not know how:
‘Certain people think we’re just stupid, just trying to go through the cycle, but we actually – we see as well – we can see that there’s a cycle’. (Young Person 1)
‘You can see it through their body language – the way they [members of the public] speak to you, you can see they’re really looking down on you…It’s not my fault, I just live here, innit. I’m not trying to stay forever. I’m not trying to be 40 and still live [here]. Crazy. That’s not my mindset, to stay forever. I’m not trying to be 30 or 40, have kids and live in this area… Nah’. (Young Person 2)
It was also moving to hear young people speak so highly of detached youth workers. There was a strong sense that detached youth workers really care about young people and provide a unique service:
‘Like I said before, just a little – it doesn’t have to be the whole world telling you, but if someone’s telling you – they don’t know you personally, they don’t know your family, they don’t know – if they come out of nowhere trying to help you change this and say, “Yo, you can do something good” – that little piece of comfort can help you mentally as well. And you could be like, “You know what, cool, let me try again’”. (Young Person 1)
‘It’s because we’ve got a certain level of trust that I can have that confidence to tell them things’. (Young Person 1)
‘Because S. acts like our friend so we feel like we can tell her more things by her doing that’. (Young Person 3)
Listening to detached youth workers express their frustration with the current youth work landscape also struck me. Many perceive that the current ‘targeted youth work’ culture undermines the unique contributions of detached youth work provision:
‘We haven’t got enough time to invest in the old style – going into the area and meeting with the neighborhood and the parents. I often find myself these days more – almost like – like avoiding certain roads because I know that we’ll walk there and the parents will be hanging out on their balcony … I know that sounds awful’. (Worker 1)
‘When you’re walking the streets and getting to know the neighbourhood and seeing deprivation, or you’re seeing the vandalism or whatever, then when young people are talking to you about their area, you know what that means – you know that the shop down the road has been closed and looks awful, and the rubbish is out there, and it’s shit, and the door doesn’t work. You understand that. That’s the other thing about being out there. If that becomes less and less, you don’t get that same flavour’. (Worker 2)
The study concluded that detached youth work offers unique opportunities to engage young people in their social environments. By entering these social spheres, workers are able to develop relationships with young people and public environments and ultimately improve individuals’ safety within contexts that pose a risk of harm. Workers also create safe spaces in which young people can interrogate their own opinions and behaviours, and try to embody healthier alternatives. In some circumstances, workers are able to transform risky environments themselves by addressing gaps that created risk in the first place.
Yet despite detached youth work being a neighbourhood-based service, workers’ ability to create safer environments is limited, in part due to a targeted youth work culture that emphasises individualised outcomes on specific issues. Often the goal is to help a young person reenter education or secure employment, rather than transform the conditions in harmful environments that place young people at risk in the first place.
As detached workers adapt to the realities of limited funding, they often take on multiple roles, which undermines their capacity to develop relationships with young people and the broader community. Overall, detached workers continue to engage and intervene in contexts around a young person, but the impact is often individualised.
‘[The detached youth workers will] speak to you in a reasonable way – they’ll chat to you and be like, “Yo, why’d you do that? These are your consequences now”. But for someone to come up to the circle and be like – expect they know you from the system – Nah, don’t do that. I don’t know you. Nah, stay in your league… For [the detached youth workers] to come and speak to me – it’s not like they’re disrespecting me. There is privacy… Obviously, you think eventually when you’re by yourself, “you know what, yea. I shouldn’t have done that.” Not everyone is bad in these estates. It’s the choices we do, innit. Certain choices are good, certain choices ‘aint good. No one’s perfect. But obviously that’s where they come in – they help us a little bit and they can talk to us like that’. (Young Person 1)