channeling thoughts about why you could be the change a young person needs…
(This piece was originally published on Medium in 2020. I’ve updated it slightly to link to current times, and reposting here… )
I qualified as a youth worker in 2013 and prior to this like most people I had quite a lot of experience being a young person, and knowing what it feels like to be and not be listened to. Since I qualified, youth work has become more and more devalued, where underpaid positions are the norm and not the exception. We are in a world where the profession I trained for really isn’t being recognised for the lives it can change, or for the impact of meeting ‘that youth worker’ who makes a difference. During my Youth and Community MA, I had the pleasure of studying with a pretty musical bunch, and when we realised we had fiddlers, pianists, singers and guitarists among us, we wrote a campaigning song against the cuts to the youth services, news that dominated much of our reading at the time. We saw provision we all treasured in a not too distant past as mostly women in our 20’s and 30’s, being ripped away before our eyes. We were going into a profession with the feeling of being surrounded by politicians telling us that our jobs didn’t matter. What we were training for wasn’t important. And most devastating of all that the development of young people through lifelong relationships built through youth work wasn’t a priority on the political agenda. This was of course before more Tory years, before Corbyn trying to carve a better world, before Brexit and long before a global pandemic became our reality, and when youth workers suddenly became needed more than ever.
I trained as a face to face worker, it’s what I’m good at. Talking to young people. Listening to their stories. And learning. I later trained as a journalist because I wanted to tell these stories in a different way. Young people were constantly teaching me, and that’s what I loved most about working directly with young people. Different workplaces and university placements also taught me too, and made me a better advocate for myself and what I need. At university we studied group work, informal education and participation models. I had ingrained in me, long before that training, from my own youth workers, about the importance of actually listening to young people and making them feel heard. Making their voice really count. Listening to young people is instrumental in helping them to feel valued as an adult, that no matter what system or situation they find themselves in, that their voice matters.
I will always remember the day when I told my youth worker I wanted to deliver a training session to the group of young people. Not a bizarre request, you say? It wouldn’t have been, if I wasn’t a shy, quiet teenager who was ridden with anxiety. I barely spoke a word because I didn’t believe I’d be listened to or that what I had to say was important. No one had ever given me the time to actually be heard before. Not tokenistic listening, when organisations say they consult with young people to go through the motions, but don’t open their ears. Actual listening. I didn’t know what that felt like.
But then the day came when I felt heard for the first time.
Me: “Would it be okay if I run this next one…?”
Youth worker: “Yes of course you CAN.”
She didn’t know what to expect but there was no hesitation in those words. She knew I was worth more than just a chance. She saw something in me, no one else saw. I go into this in detail elsewhere but being labelled as SEN from a young age and being pigeon holed into boxes` isn’t great for your self esteem or wellbeing, especially when you’re often not given the tools to understand what this means as a teenager and then later for your life as an adult. The messaging tells you that you’re different and you don’t fit, and learning there’s more to this is hard to see without a tiny bit of guidance. Diagnostic reports or PIP assessments often scream how your differences are defined, but very rarely highlight what you can achieve.
So back to the youth session. In this moment, after asking that simple question, I was told I can. And that was all I really needed to hear. Since then they discovered my almost natural ability to stand up in front of a room of people to speak with confidence and conviction. My double act age 16 with the Director of Education at the time who then became Children’s Commissioner for England several years later, is one of my favourite moments.
“From now on you can deliver more sessions,” she said.
Young people want to feel listened to. Understood. Cared for. And acknowledged. Adults aren’t much different. We want a place at work, at home and in our community, where we can fit in, and belong. A place to feel part of something. Our experiences as young people, and the adults we have in our lives, often influence how we respond to the world as adults. Of course other lived experiences and trauma have a part to play too. It’s about how well we’re equipped to deal with this, and the bank of resources we’ve developed throughout our lived experiences, starting from when we’re young.
Youth work training teaches us the importance of having difficult conversations. Having that chat. Trying to “get it”. Does the young person in your life know they matter? You may not be a youth worker by profession, but you will likely know a young person, whether it is a relative or neighbour, who needs to hear that their views are worth listening to. Principles of participation teach us about allowing that space to explore and debate, eventually leading to youth led decision making, and gaining ownership of those decisions. At the heart of this model is listening. If we don’t feel heard it’s challenging to believe that we can be part of decision making that really matters.
In 2020 a global pandemic hit us, without a section of society who hasn’t been affected in some way, although as always disadvantaged families are often worse off. And we’ll only really understand the trauma we’ve all collectively experienced in years to come. If Covid-19 taught me anything, apart from that I didn’t realise how much I’d miss hugging my friends until it had been taken away, it’s that youth work changed. The way we deliver work with young people may never be the same again, and that it will take time for youth workers and young people to recover from what they’ve experienced. I say this in 2022 still being able to vividly recall conversations I had with young people in the middle of the first lockdown, that I never thought I would have in my job. During Covid I worked with young carers; young people who were caring for a parent, sibling or other family member with a disability, mental illness or substance misuse. I literally transformed over night from a youth worker facilitating social action projects aimed at developing a platform to share young carers stories, to a crisis worker. I was not prepared for this transformation and on reflection youth workers were not supported as much as they should have been during the height of the pandemic, when we were suddenly faced with the daunting prospect of literally keeping these young people and their families alive and emotionally well. I was supporting families who were struggling to have their basic needs met. Families who relied on food parcels to ensure food was on the table, and even then this wasn’t always enough. Young carers who had to write to their MP to put pressure on local supermarkets to be considered as “priority” for the quieter shopping hours. Young people who struggled with homeschooling because they only had one laptop between four children. Some of our young people had to do all of their online lessons on a mobile phone. Some had no access to internet at all. Single parents who had no support. There were families who were struggling to keep all four children of different ages entertained. And others who really needed more than an hour a day to take their autistic children outside. And most of all these children and young people were terrified for their families health, more so than they had ever been. I dealt with and supported other people through their trauma, without even considering my own. And how as a youth worker, although I wasn’t a key worker working on Covid wards, this sudden situation of being surrounded by crisis was affecting me.
I once asked a group of young people over a zoom call when they thought the Pandemic would end, one of them looked at me despondently and said: “never, it will always be like this.” And another shook her head and replied firmly: “No it will end in 2050.” They had concluded that their childhood had changed forever, and to me this was devastating to hear. It’s hard not to shed a tear when you know young people were really being hit hard and there’s very little you can do about it, other than quite literally, keeping them going with online zoom sessions, checking in over text and maintaining some level of stability. And that’s what I did. I was there. I made sure that the young people who I worked with were my priority, and longed to see them face to face again. So we could play daft games again, they could laugh at my latest cat stories and we could share reflections about the week. As I waited for that day I offered emotional support. Practical solutions and advice when needed. And some kind of normality and familiarity in my weekly zoom sessions.
Youth workers really were holding up the families struggling the most, while the rest of the world argued about wearing face masks, not being able to go on holiday and shouting at politicians during daily briefings, youth workers were solving the problems often hidden from view. While schools closed for six weeks, we were all of the support some young people had. When all of my work turned virtual, I put young people forward to receive laptops so they actually had a fighting chance in our ever changing digital world, I applied for funding for bikes so young carers could get outside in the fresh air and have a break from their caring responsibilities at home. And most of all I became an immediate source of crisis support for struggling families. Panic buying made the challenges of those who already struggle to put food on the table increase ten fold. I contacted organisations for emergency food parcels. Made sure I checked in with young people. I made it my priority to listen to how the young people were feeling. I texted if video chat felt like a step too far. I was always there. When many organisations, schools and services closed their doors or were furloughed, we remained open and able to react to anything that came our way. It wasn’t just me who did this, I worked with a whole team of colleagues, some with backgrounds in youth work and social work. And I know up and down the country youth workers did exactly the same, recognising a crisis and responding to the ever changing needs. The pandemic wasn’t predictable, or the length of time we’d be shut away from the world unable to see our young people face to face, so life two years on from that first lockdown certainly isn’t. Youth workers who’s jobs were once being cut and told they’re not worth reasonable pay, suddenly became the back bone of society, and now continue to support young people to unpack trauma following the pandemic and current cost of living crisis.
Youth workers are the support young people need, in a time when many young people’s mental health has been exacerbated by the effects of Covid. A profession that really needs to be recognised for being on the frontline of the pandemic. Demonstrating the impact youth work can have.
As a young person who struggled with my mental health, and now as an adult who continues to do so, being involved in conversations about services I receive and knowing my views are important is where I have seen the most powerful change in myself, and in those around me too. If I was able to recreate at least half of that feeling for the young people I worked with, I’ll know I’ve made it in becoming the kind of youth worker, who changed my life eighteen years ago, by laying out the tools to believe I can.
The pandemic has changed most of our lives for good and shaped how we now view the world we all share, but for youth work, this change is only just beginning, and will continue for years to come.
Listening not only changes lives, but it saves lives. And best of all, it’s free! Showing a young person that they matter, will help them recognise how, why and where they matter and belong as an adult too.
This messaging really is important. You could be that change.