A recent IDYW story-telling workshop at Queens University, Belfast, brought together seven youth workers from a range of organisations, alongside four researchers/lecturers in the area of youth work and ‘out of school’ learning.
Using IDYW’s collective story-telling method, workers were asked to think of a story that demonstrates them working as a youth worker. Evocative ‘headlines’ and brief details were shared including “Lads on tour”, “Dipping your toes in the water”, “West Belfast girls take on the wall”, “What does a man say?”, “Flags in East Belfast”, and “Piss off!” Any one of the stories proposed would have made for a deep and useful discussion. Through discussion and deliberation, the group chose the story entitled, “Only tell us what we want to hear”, which prompted a thoughtful and nuanced discussion of practice.
“Only tell us what we want to hear”
Without giving away any details (because stories are only written up later, anonymously, if workers choose to do so), the story enabled us to consider a variety of important issues. How do we build trust with young people, and what do we do when that trust is broken or undermined? If young people are let down by other agencies, how much (and how) do we share our anger or sadness with these young people? When something goes wrong, even if it was not our fault, what do we do with our sense of guilt or failure?
As often happens in story-telling workshops, we moved beyond the specifics of the story to discuss some of the wider contextual issues it brought up. How does relationship-building work, when so many of us are only able to work short-term with groups on specific projects? How much control and autonomy do we have as workers, and do we feel empowered to challenge bad practice? As many of us are working as the only youth worker in a non-youth work setting, where can we go for support and professional development? How can we challenge the structural factors that lead to poor practice amongst some of the professionals in young people’s lives, while understanding the precarious and disempowered working conditions that these workers are often subject to?
“I’m afraid for youth work in Northern Ireland”
We finished by discussing the state of youth work in Northern Ireland, and what action practitioners can take to support and defend youth work as a distinctive practice. While the North of Ireland has, so far, been somewhat insulated from the devastating cuts that are decimating youth work in England and Southern Ireland, this is unfortunately likely to change as Stormont faces increasing budgetary pressure. One of the workshop participants commented, to nods from others, “I’m afraid for youth work in Northern Ireland”. Alongside the threat of cuts, many of the issues facing youth workers elsewhere also affect workers in Northern Ireland, as illustrated by the story we explored – for example, an increase in short-term project work rather than long-term relationship-building, a focus on adult-defined outcomes, and growing isolation for youth workers in multi-agency teams. As one participant said, there is often in youth work ‘a lack of time to think’.
As the facilitator, this was one of the most powerful workshops I have ever been involved with because of the quality of the discussion. The workshop was organised by IDYW alongside British Educational Research Association (BERA), who kindly provided the venue and designed the flyer, and Ulster University Community Youth Work team, who did a great job of publicising the workshop through its networks. Because of the BERA connection, three researchers / lecturers (who were attending the BERA national conference the next day) came along; they did not ‘take over’ from the practitioners, but listened, on occasion asking thoughtful and helpful questions.
Story-telling workshops – at their best – can create the conditions for particularly thoughtful, sensitive and meaningful discussion, and this was certainly the case in Belfast.