Getting Beyond the Taken-For-Granted in Practice
This section was written by Paul Hogan with Debbie Marsden, practising youth and community workers.
What did you do?
How are you able to get them to listen?
A Youth Worker is asked these questions on a almost daily basis by peers, partners, funders, parents and many other stakeholders who come into contact with us and our practices. Until recently my answer has been unintentionally vague if not totally dismissive of the complexities that youth work and the relationships within it. I found myself stumbling, trying to find the words to explain something I feel so passionately about. The answers I’ve given include:
I just do! It’s just natural!
I don’t know really.
I just talk to them!
These are just a few of the responses I, and I’m sure other youth workers, use on a regular basis. On reflection these responses are naive and do not help the credibility of youth work or explain its complex nature as an important contributing factor to the lives of many young people in England and across the world.
This is why I found the story-telling workshops a profound but simple way of developing my ability to understand and explain the unique practice which youth workers take for granted and others do not understand. Yes – I do believe an individual can have a predisposition to support and enhance the development opportunities of young people. However, actually efficiently and regularly choosing the appropriate approach to effectively engaging with young people in their varied endeavours is a complex, multi dimensional and learnt skill – a skill that is developed both consciously and unconsciously through the youth worker’s personal and professional experiences.
Choosing a story: from apprehension to excitement
When first approached to take part in the IDYW story-telling workshops, I admit entering the process with apprehension. Yet who could dispute the idea of having your practice, which you care passionately about, being open for discussion and debate? However the foundations on which the session was built helped develop a feeling that I had a story worth telling. All participants first offered a brief account of an example of youth work practice from their own experience and then the group democratically decided which story they would like to hear in more depth.
This process – a kind of friendly competition – generated both a sense of excitement in me and, though still apprehensive, a sense of pride that one of my peers would choose my story. When all the votes had been cast and my story was chosen there was also some satisfaction that these colleagues would now hear what I had to offer. This was not just because I felt I had a positive story to tell. It was also because these people would hopefully not only recognise that but would enhance my skill-set for future work by examining it through their own vast experiences and knowledge.
So what does this story tells us? Opening up practice to the way peers see it
When a young person is successful in a situation or task, do we as youth workers suggest that that it was ‘just natural’ or do we acknowledge the effort and distance travelled by that young person to achieve their positive outcome? I found the storytelling process a way of identifying not just the positive impacts I/we have made on young people but also the journey we took as a youth worker during this specific engagement. For each of my actions there was a logical explanation for that approach which at times was only identified by my peers delving through many layers of nonchalant answers, which became more detailed as the questioning became more specific. By the end of my storytelling I was therefore clearer about my role and why I had chosen the different techniques and approaches in this situation.
For example: initially I explained how I had chosen the two young people as leaders for the project – both of whom became key elements in its success – as if this had been a random choice. However, when pressed through detailed questioning, I explained that this was the result of work which had gone on for six months – something which, in the workshop discussion, I had at first treated if it was irrelevant even though it was clearly key to the two young people even eventually revealing their leadership qualities and so ultimately to the success of the project. (Subsequently while involved in a workshop where a similar dialogue developed I observed the storyteller not only trivialising the depth of her own journey but also hugely underestimating her impact).
The storytelling experience thus helped me develop my ability to reflect, leaving me feeling better equipped to deal with future situations since only by striving to understand more fully my professional performance can I hope to replicate, alter or avoid similar outcomes.
As touched on previously, confidence is a key factor in a person’s response to any task or situation. In our everyday practice we discuss the importance of confidence to a young person’s ability to achieve goals. As adults we are no different and acknowledgement from peers is incredibly powerful for self-esteem. In a safe positive environment the storytelling process provided me with a platform to receive positive feedback, empathy and constructive criticism from those I respected. Though until this point I believed that the work I was doing was taking place across the country, my peers acknowledged some unique elements of this particular project. They also offered advice in areas where I felt I had exhausted my own ideas or knowledge base. I thus left the workshop not only with a renewed drive that I had the knowledge and skills that could support young people but – more than that – feeling that I was not on my own in this endeavour.
Story-telling and story-sharing: an opportunity for reflection and self-reflection
The nature of the sector and the financial climate in which it is now operating means I constantly have to promote the services I/we offer. This, together with the pressures of ever increasing workloads, leaves me little opportunity to truly reflect on my practice and how I can improve it. Through telling my story I was able to focus in hard on my performance and my strengths and acknowledge how I can make this improvement. Time for that kind of reflection is sadly missing in my working week and I’m sure that of other youth workers around the country.
The workshop also helped me to clarify my current role and see how closely that still aligned with the cornerstones of youth work as advocated by IDYW (see Story-telling workshop programme). Through my storytelling experience, for example, I was able to understand how I’d created choices for the young people involved, how I had given them the opportunity to develop the project in a way that best matched their needs and interests and how I used my experience and knowledge to take different roles at different points of the project. All this helped young people to grow in a safe environment that truly reflected what they wanted to achieve from engaging with the project. From here I could compare these findings to the narrative we were using to describe and promote the project in which I was working and to refocus my and the organisation’s aims and objectives which could perhaps get lost in the hustle and bustle of my working life.
So – what’s left behind?
The storytelling experience is perhaps the most eye-opening professional experience I have ever undertaken. Although the idea of having your practice interrogated can in prospect seem a frightening one, the reality is a much more positive experience. It is of course important to be clear that the ideas and advice offered during a workshop are just that, with individuals interpreting the situations and relationships being described differently as they react according to their personal understandings. Overall however, the process enables the story-teller as well as others in the workshop to better understand their actions, increase their ability to replicate and develop practice and so develop the tools for best describing and promoting youth work in a way that gives a true reflection of its complexities and impact.