I first met my youth worker when I was 14. He’d come into school, trying to get a bunch of us interested in this new-fangled thing called ‘Youth Parliament’. Being that sort of 14-year-old, I went along to see whether it could be the beginning of my career as a famous political correspondent for the Guardian and/or Private Eye (it wasn’t). I got involved in setting up the local branch through him, promoting elections, writing a constitution and deciding what our priorities were. I helped him design and deliver schools council training across the county. We met with the local council and tried to influence them. We met with our schools and other services to try and influence them too. I don’t think any of them wanted to listen. But the youth service always did.
Then, one day, my youth worker brought me a job advert. It was for an ‘Active Involvement Young Trainer’ with a national charity. I think even if I’d somehow found it by myself, I would never have applied. What did I know about national policy? And what difference had I ever made? There would be hundreds of people better qualified than me, with more experience and more impact. Instead, he told me; “You’d be perfect for this.” So I applied. And I got it.
That began a period of 5 years of learning everything about participation, children’s rights and children and young people’s experiences across the country. It opened my eyes to a lot of different problems and situations that young people faced, but also reassured me that I wasn’t alone in facing my own. But it didn’t end my involvement with my youth worker. He was there if I wanted to get involved with something, helping me to develop new skills and learn about new issues, and supporting me through mental health issues, family issues, school issues. I learnt so much more with his help than I would have otherwise, particularly about who I was and what I could do.
Eventually I grew up (well, I got old), and he moved away from the area and from youth work. So he didn’t see me get my act together and go to University, or graduate and get onto the Charity Works scheme, or how I remained a passionate advocate for children and young people’s rights. But none of it would have happened without his input all those years ago. He helped me develop my skills, and recognise and have faith in them as well.
Sadly – that’s not really strong enough a word – this particular youth service, like many others, doesn’t exist anymore. The focus in this area at least seems to have gone back to ‘activities’ and ‘getting involved’, rather than active involvement. Fine things, but I fear not nearly so empowering as the old service. I know that other services, voluntary and statutory, have and will emerge to fill that gap, but I worry about a full cohort not having the sort of input and support that I did.
I hope this year’s Youth Work Week celebrates youth workers like mine, and thinks about the impact that they continue to have. But I also hope it helps us to think about what we might have already lost, and making sure we preserve and promote engaging and empowering services for all young people.
Information about Youth Work Week 2013 can be found here.