Just outside Cardiff there’s a new open Museum of Welsh Life: St Fagans. There’s an indoor skate park in Brighton Youth Centre, with wide windows overlooking the sea. In trendy Manchester Northern Quarter there’s an Old Curiosity Shop building called The Horsfall, a dedicated small arts and performance space next to and joined in with The Space, Forty Second Street, a young people’s resource for mental health support. In Bradford, there’s Theatre in the Mill, home to Common Wealth (clue in the name). And last up, Tate and the Circuit Programme for Youth Engagement.
Places and gatherings for critically chatting about how the traditions of a youth work that is voluntary, improvisatory, associative, without guarantees might reconnect in the future with performance practice and with the visual arts. We’ve explored themes about partnership; the politics of space and the space of politics; time and trust; and, over and over again, CLASS, the Elephant in the Room.
These network gatherings have been convened by Professor Gabrielle Ivinson and Janet Batsleer from Manchester Metropolitan University, and funded as an AHRC Network. The network emerged out of a range of inspirations, most immediately and directly from Dr Nicola Sim and Dr Frances Howard, who together co-ordinated the 2015 BERA event on Youth Work and the Arts. But of course the inspirations are older: in adventure playgrounds, at Bolton Octagon, in the Youth Theatre movement, in Ed Berman’s Inter-Action in Camden, in participatory arts practices of happenings and street events and flashmobs, Red Ladder, Joint Stock and the Islington Bus Company.
There have been some wonderful moments and the opening event, in which an actor dressed in an elephant costume got everyone singing to Oasis ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ before 12noon shines brightly in my memory. The elephant was speaking about being working class and finding a way into theatre as a performer (let alone a director) and what that’s like, now in 2018. This provoked a sharp set of conversations about ‘CLASS: The Elephant in the Room’. Here a young member of a learning disability project declared: ‘No-one has ever asked me about my class before. If you’re learning disabled you are treated like you don’t even have a class.’ ‘Class’ as a topic has never been far away in these gatherings. Some of the theorists invoked are people who wrote about class and culture: Raymond Williams and Pierre Bourdieu, exploring structures of feeling and practices of distinction that create companionable or exclusionary atmospheres. Sometimes it is Brian Massumi’s thinking-feeling enlivens and the conversation turns to matters of cocreation and living knowledges. In recognising the role of youth workers, gatekeepers, necessary to the whole project of ‘socially engaged arts practice’ in many ways, the divide between part-time youth workers and those also precariously employed young people trying to make their way as ‘creatives’ has been present in every case.
Often articulated: a sense of the limited nature of youth work practice, from the point of view of those practicing as artists. The failure of expectation to surprise, to entertain something new which artists encounter in youth work projects. The preference (again often expressed, with many reasons given) for working with schools. I have started to feel that I am living with and hearing the consequences of the discrediting of youth work as a practice and its disappearance as a profession. But there is more to it than this, as for many years now I have been teaching people on youth work courses who arrive with a strong sense of lack of entitlement to be at University, a certain dislike for ‘academia’ (associated with reading and writing, which they see as ‘not their strong suit’) and a very limited range of experiences in relation to a wide cultural offer. A range of sports opportunities seem easier to access, more in tune with a sense of themselves.
Here are some things I’ve heard in the network meetings so far, just plucked out of a very rich flow of conversation.
Two young women (both working on close to a minimum wage, as artists) … ’Do we need to do all the support work as well?…the youth workers don’t do anything….we want to do the art-based practice but the young people need us to do the support stuff even more. They need help with accessing benefits, they don’t know where to go to get help with stuff…’
A dance practitioner: ‘Youth workers are scared of offering anything other than DJ workshops or street dance to young people; they don’t have confidence themselves for a wider set of offers.’
Some-one running a radio workshop/digital arts project: ‘We see the value of short-term projects; youth workers turn away from things that aren’t long term.’
And I hear casually repeated class-based prejudice about people who ‘lack aspiration.’ Mums just want to get houses, have children, get married, claim benefits…’ from staff working on heritage projects who see their offer of engagement as a form of moral rescue.
Because of the relative absence of youth workers from the conversations (with the exception of the Brighton event), there has been little talking back from youth workers about their experience of such ‘co-produced projects.’ This absence has often been explained as a reluctance and unavailability on the part of youth workers but I think it may speak of a deeper tension that has something to do with a fear of being put down and excluded. I used to take my students to the Art Gallery in Manchester. Most of them had never been in a gallery before. I wonder how many would again. Those intimidating steps and pillars that designate a temple for the worship of the beautiful. These can become internalised and tell us ‘not for the likes of us’ over a lifetime. This needs enquiry, unsettling, improvisatory work.
In Brighton young people spoke eloquently about the impact an open and longstanding relationship with youth work projects and arts projects had had/was continuing to have on their lives and spoke directly to the youth workers who were there with gratitude: ‘you let me take my own time; you didn’t box me…’ In particular I remember one young man who said that suddenly, when he came to Brighton from London, he was no longer being seen as a potential knife carrying gang member who would only respond to certain genres of music and spoken word. Youth workers spoke about the principles of young people as creators not consumers; about the time needed for relationship and the principle of voluntary relationship and the freedom to walk away. But young people/young creatives spoke about their mental health, the need for down time, the need to have spaces just to be as well as to create. They also spoke about the difficulties of outreach now and how to engage with and through and alongside social media. Who are these young people? Why are they here? Why are they here? are still central questions for the beginning of a youth work process of engagement, but they are supplemented by others too: ‘where are these/those other young people?’ ‘why are they not here?’ It’s good that youth workers and the young people they work with still see themselves as ‘creators not consumers’. But they are also nurturers and in need of nurture. We need to take in and receive good things as well as make new ones.
‘Class’ as a theme nowadays then speaks of the lack of work in and lack of worth attributed to youth work, the part-time and casual employment and the lack of opportunity to develop work and for youth workers to self-educate, to experiment and try things just ahead of engaging young people in them. Creative Youth work seems a largely precarious and peripheral activity nowadays. In each of the Creative Margins sessions Arts methods have been used to provoke and to connect… to present ideas and to invite participation. In the Manchester event, the poet Ella Otomewo returned the sense of ‘the margins’ (as somewhere other, perhaps, as a place where we are not and need to go to) to us. It expresses well my hope for what may yet emerge from this network, my hope that, in the poet June Jordan’s words, our lives will continue to declare these meetings open.
Let’s have a show of hands
For any-one who’s ever woken up
Knowing that their best ideas yet
Is dissolving away with last night’s dream
Luckily for us
There is ample time to redo our mistakes
And meet each other at the place where we
Have fallen down. Meet me where I think I’ve
And I’ll meet you where you start.
Meet me at the heart of it.
Meet me in trust
And let me speak as if you weren’t there
But as if I had invited you
I do invite you
I hope you keep inviting each other.