Betty Pedley died a few weeks ago at the age of 80. She wasn’t a famous youth work figure. She was but the caretaker, until it was demolished, of Briarcroft, the largest youth centre in the Metropolitan Borough of Wigan. In fact, when our paths first crossed in the early 1970′s, she was the cleaner at the same place, a rambling ex-National Coal Board building, where I was a part-time youth worker, sweating energetically in the sports hall. I tried to tell her over the years, yet I am not sure she ever believed me, that she was an inspiration. Diminutive in stature, large as life, she exuded without pretension a concern for others and especially a deep affection for young people.
A few years ago at a National Federation of Detached Youth Work conference I named the best half-dozen youth workers, I had ever known. Two were JNC qualified, one a teacher, another a social worker, another a drama graduate and then there was Betty. In doing so I questioned the much recited notion of there being discrete youth work values and skills, the exclusive property of a particular profession. Betty knew little about this pretentiousness. For her part she did believe passionately in equality, justice, respect and democracy. In her own right she did possess a wonderful willingness to listen, a splendid unwillingness to leap to judgements and a chuckling sense of humour. For these attributes young people loved her dearly.
None of this is to say that Betty would not have gained from entering Higher Education. We talked often together about this possibility, but the road was strewn with too many pot-holes. And becoming professionally qualified itself is no guarantee of enlightenment. For Betty this was proven back in 1979/80 when there was significant opposition amongst the Youth Service staff to the idea of a ‘Boys Rule Not OK Week’, challenging sexism within the Service, For Betty this was ridiculous and narrow-minded. She warmed to the idea, exclaiming, ‘ I wish I’d had this opportunity’ , whilst being present in all manner of roles during the week’s activities. For this stand she earned the respect and affection of all the workers involved.
In saying any of this I am not giving credence to those two common-sense clichés, on the one hand, ‘youth workers are born not made’ or on the other ‘ anybody can do youth work’. Betty’s ability to relate positively to the centre’s young people was informed by her immersion in a tradition of working class aspiration and solidarity, which sought a better world for all. It was informed by her experience as a working class woman and mother, who rejected authoritarian models of parenting. This history, these informal processes of self-education, enabled Betty to become the young people’s trusted friend and confidante. We forget at our peril that there are many paths to becoming the sort of personality, who might make an emancipatory and democratic youth worker. Betty was never official. Today she wouldn’t even be allowed to be unofficial. But she was one of us and it is a privilege to have known her.
Tony Taylor [ in a previous life a youth worker and a youth officer in Wigan]