RESPONDING TO A YOUNG WOMEN’S DISCLOSURE OF HARASSMENT BY SCHOOL FRIENDS WITHIN A YOUTH CLUB ACTIVITY GROUP
The workshop group: Apart from one youth and community work course tutor from another institution, this was made up of eight mainly mature students on a degree course in social and community care – seven women, one man, all white. Their previous experience included residential care, child protection, the prison service and youth offending. Though none were currently working in open access youth work settings, two of the women had done so in the past.
The worker who provided the story drew on her past experience in an open access youth club where, as a volunteer, she had run a weekly ‘positive activities’ group.
The facilitator was a white man.
The case study focuses on three areas opened up for analysis and debate by the group’s ‘unpicking’ of the story.
THE YOUTH WORKER’S STORY
The ‘positive activities’ group usually had about 15 to 20 young people, mostly aged 12-14. ‘Louise’ had come to the group quite often before though she wasn’t a regular. She’d said at an earlier session that one of the reasons she came was to stop her ‘getting pissed in the park’. On this particular evening while we were sitting around talking and eating the food we’d just cooked together. she started to tell me that some of the girls at her school were harassing her on her phone. She said she’d told a teacher but it was still going on. She said all this in front of the others in the group.
‘UNPICKING’ THE STORY
A. The disclosure of the phone abuse: what is the problem?
The workshop participants’ immediate response to the story was to ask questions like: ‘What is Louise’s family situation? ‘Is she “engaged at school”?’ ‘Does she have friends?’ – all, it seemed, starting from assumptions of problems in her life and even perhaps that she was ‘the problem’. When none of the worker’s responses supported these assumptions, the facilitator challenged the group on why they were adopting that as their frame of reference.
B. The disclosure of the phone abuse: why in this group; why now?
The group then moved on to explore why Louise had chosen to raise the phone harassment with the worker and why she’d done this in the group. One suggestion was that, even though she was something of an irregular attender, she’d come to see the group as a safe place to talk about her worries. For some workshop members this possibility gained further credence when the worker described how supportive to Louise the group had been when she first talked about the harassment. (‘That’s terrible’. ‘We need to do something about it’).
Discussion also focused on the fact that Louise had chosen to confide in the worker directly – suggesting that over the weeks Louise had come to see her as an adult who could be trusted. However, when the facilitator asked her to be more specific about her immediate responses to Louise’s disclosure, she described her own supportive comments in an almost dismissive way, making small throw away-type gestures with her hands as she talked. It took a number of contributions from workshop members to get her to consider the possibility that, far from being accidental, Louise’s decision to raise the issue with her and within a group where she was the main adult presence followed from past work she (the worker) had done in the group, particularly in building trusting relationships with the young people.
These exchanges within the workshop group also made more explicit some other elements of the worker’s practice which she herself seemed to be treating as ‘just what you do’. These included – especially after the teacher’s apparent failure to act – the worker’s unquestioning acceptance of Louise’s disclosure as needing serious attention; her supportive comments and suggestions; and her support for the group’s exploration with Louise of how she and they might deal with the situation.
C. Challenging group behaviour
What seemed to start as a diversionary discussion prompted the worker to acknowledge that she may well have missed opportunities for encouraging the group to take more responsibility for planning and running the cooking sessions. As part of these exchanges, she also mentioned, again in passing, that the young people were expected to clear up at the end of the session including doing the washing up – something, she added with a laugh, ‘they’re really bad at’. When questioned on what she had done about this, she again laughed and, with some embarrassment, admitted that she usually re-did the washing up herself after the young people had gone. Asked if she’d ever challenged them on their washing up, she said she hadn’t because ‘I didn’t want to create a bad atmosphere or put them off coming back’. Further questioning led to the suggestion that she may well have had some (possibly considerable) credit with the young people on which to draw. Supporting this was the fact that most of them had been coming back over a number of weeks; and that Louise had not only chosen to confide in her about the phone abuse but had done so in the group. Workshop members then discussed with the worker whether – albeit with a light touch, with humour, etc. – she might have drawn on this credit to challenge the young people on their unsatisfactory washing up.
POSSIBLE DISCUSSION POINTS
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 her reluctance to challenge group members on their poor washing up for fear that they might stop coming, the worker was recognising – indeed affirming – young people’s voluntary attendance.
- However by questioning her decision not to challenge the young people on the issue, the workshop members seemed to be suggesting that she might have created a low-key informal educational opportunity for the young people – by for example asking them to consider how they were working together as a group and sharing their time together.
- Louise’s willingness to disclose the phone abuse to the worker and to do this during the group session were seen as indicating that her previous practice had created mutually …. trusting relationships amongst young people and between the young people and the adults.
- By giving immediate and serious attention to the phone abuse, the worker started from Louise’s agendas and responded to what was important to her in her here-and-now.
- The fact that the group took on the phone abuse issue as a shared concern provided an opportunity to work with and through young people’s peer networks.
- As the interrogation shifted away from a problem/deficit-focus on Louise, at least implicit acknowledgement was given to her and the young people’s individual and collective strengths and potential as important focuses for the work.
- The cooking session was an example of youth work’s use of an activity both as an opportunity in its own right (it resulted in food which the young people could eat and enjoy together); and as a vehicle for wider personal development (the chatting provided the space for Louise’s disclosure and for the worker and the group to offer collective support).
- However the workshop group’s discussion on young people’s potential role in helping to plan the cooking menus also assumed that such an activity could act as a vehicle for youth work to operate as a democratic practice within which young people play the fullest part in making decisions which affect them.
Learning from the workshops: individual and shared
The work of the small groups as illustrated by these two case studies constitutes the core activity of the story-telling process which, it is hoped, will have value and be valued in its own right for the personal as well as ‘professional’ insights it makes possible. However the programme also allows for this learning to be shared briefly in a final full group session. Given youth work’s growing precariousness within the UK, and especially in England since 2010, this can also provide opportunities to consider how managers as well workers might defend open access provision against the swing to ‘targeted’ work with labelled groups for pre-determined outcomes. (See How are we responding to policy?)
Though not seen as a requirement, one other ‘product’ from the workshops may be a fully written up ‘story’. This could be shared locally or within a specific organisation and/or made available to a wider audience via publication or on the internet, with the aim of prompting wider individual and shared reflection on practice. Examples of how and in what settings this has been done are examined in greater detail in Story-telling in action.