Case study 1


The workshop group was made up of two local youth workers, three students on a youth and community work qualifying course and three of the course tutors. All but one were women. Two were black. The facilitator was a white man.

The worker whose story is the basis of this case study was very new to the youth club concerned when the events she describes occurred.

The case study focuses on two areas opened up for analysis and debate by the group’s ‘unpicking’ of the story.


My overall aim when I started out was to get together a group of young people to take action on issues affecting them in their area. I hoped that doing this would eventually encourage them to form a local youth forum. As I was new to the club I had to start from scratch in making contact with the young people there and building up some sort of relationship with them.

My very first attempt to do this was on one of the first evenings I was in the club. I noticed a small group – three girls and a boy – chatting round a table in the coffee bar and decided to approach them. I walked across the room and introduced myself and started a conversation with them. I told them that I’d grown up in the area and that my family still lived there. I asked them what they thought of the area and had they any concerns about it. After a while I tried to test out whether they’d be interested in doing anything about any of the things they mentioned.


A. Negotiating the very first moments of a contact

Youth worker: I walked across the room (to the young people) …

Focusing in on this single sentence in the worker’s narration brought to the surface some potentially significant features of the practice which she seemed to have largely taken for granted:

  • She had made this approach to four young people who did not know her – an action which in everyday life would be unusual and even perhaps socially risky. Nonetheless, she‘d just assumed that it was a ‘given’ element of her practice as a youth worker.
  • In making that ‘journey’ of just a few feet, she’d had to deal with the kinds of tensions and uncertainties which anyone launching themselves onto a group of strangers was likely to feel.
  • These feelings were likely to be sharpened by the fact that her action wasn’t just a casual or random one. It was made with the deliberate aim of starting a planned longer-term piece of work which, to succeed, would have to prompt interest and eventually motivation in the young people.
  • The youth worker’s mind was concentrated, too, by the knowledge that the young people were there by choice, probably mainly to spend ‘free’ time with each other. She therefore had to make her move knowing that, however politely or even perhaps non-verbally, they might choose to tell her where to go – a response, she accepted, which they’d be fully entitled to make.
  • Whatever words she actually used, how she made the approach would therefore carry important implicit messages with possible continuing effects – messages which, it turned out, she had in fact to some extent planned in, albeit at a barely conscious level. For example, after being asked how she’d introduced herself to the young people, the group spent some time considering:
    • why she had ‘automatically’ chosen to use her first name;
    • whether there were any implicit assumptions in doing that about, say, how she wished to be seen by the young people or about the kind of power relationship she assumed she would have with them – and which she needed to convey to them.
  • Group questioning also revealed that even before she made the approach to the young people, she had made a tentative reading of their relationships with each other so that, when she opened the conversation, she sought eye contact with the one boy in the group because, she’d concluded, he seemed – seemed – to be the shyest of the four.

B. Exploring the personal-‘professional’ boundary  

Youth worker: I told them I’d grown up in the area (of the club) and that my family still lived there.

The group’s ‘unpicking’ of this passing comment brought to the surface for explicit debate some significant issues about the existence and nature of personal-‘professional’ boundaries in youth work. Though it was recognised that what was shared didn’t involve any particularly intimate personal disclosures, broad agreement emerged that:

  • As in other practices, such boundaries existed and needed to be observed in youth work.
  • For youth workers, however, they were often, and often needed to be, more permeable – because, for example, if young people were to be willing to share something of their more private selves in what was an entirely voluntary relationship with the youth worker, they needed to see something of ‘the real person’ in that worker.
  • Here, too, the offer of even ‘low key’ personal information of this kind, at least potentially, conveyed an important message about the worker’s openness to a more equal power relationship with the young person – as evidenced for example when young people say of youth workers –‘they treat us like adults’. 


Was this youth work?

If so how – for example when tested against IDYW’s ‘cornerstones’ of youth work as outlined in the workshop programme? (See Story-telling workshop programme: a template)

Some possible links to the IDYW ‘cornerstones’

      • In setting herself the long-term goal of helping to set up an area youth forum with young people, the worker made explicit her overall understanding of youth work as informal education.
      • However, as her tentative first approach to the young people in the club showed, she took their voluntary involvement in the club and its activities as a given. It also demonstrated her assumption that her engagement with them would be in and through their peer networks.
      • In beginning by asking the young people: ‘So what do you think about the area where you live?’, the worker also assumed that any educational opportunities that developed would start from young people own agendas, some (perhaps most) of which would prioritise issues in their here-and-now.
      • This starting point also seemed to recognise youth work as a democratic practice which would seek to tip balances of power in young people’s favour.  
      • At least implicitly, the discussion about boundaries took as its starting point youth work’s commitment to developing mutually trusting and respectful relationships with … young people.
      • In combination, the worker’s strategic aim to help set up an area youth forum and her ‘on-the-spot’ decision to address her first comments to the young man in the group could be seen as an example of youth work as an improvisatory yet rehearsed … practice.

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