Early in the month we posted the draft Choose Youth manifesto, asking for comments.
Following debate at last week’s IDYW Steering Group Bernard Davies has produced the following reflection on the question of the proposed Choose Youth Manifesto and its relationship to the IDYW desire to encourage an open discussion about the issues we face. We hope as ever that this will prompt further responses from our supporters, followers and critics.
A Manifesto for Youth Work?
Why a manifesto?
As a document in its own right, there is much in ‘A vision for a new youth service’, the draft manifesto which is up for discussion at the Choose Youth AGM on 6th February, which I personally would wish to support. This includes its view of youth work as an educational practice which ‘inspires, educates, empowers, takes the side of young people and amplifies their voice’; which they ‘freely choose’; and which develops their learning from and through their relationships with youth workers.
However, though I do have some specific reservations about the draft, my main ones are more fundamental. A – perhaps the – purpose of any manifesto is surely to attract signatories who wish, and feel able publicly, to endorse its key messages and propositions. Getting to this point of agreement often – usually – requires a sustained and carefully negotiated process. This can not only be time-consuming. Worst-case scenario – it can also be counter-productive by highlighting serious, even indeed unbridgeable, differences which end up overriding areas of consensus. At this moment in youth work’s history, with debates running very deep on its very meaning, who should provide it, how, and how it should be funded, this seems to me to be a very real danger.
The risk here may have been somewhat lowered by the proposal to seek endorsement at the Choose Youth AGM of only the more general and perhaps less contentious sections of the draft manifesto. These however seem to me to be so general, and indeed at points rhetorical, that as a manifesto it could end up being worth very little. Moreover, the fact that hanging in the background is, for example, the much more divisive proposal for a licence to practice – or indeed for a National Youth Service Advisory Board with the role and powers suggested – is likely still to lever organisations apart rather than bring them together.
Whatever happened to the ‘Future of Youth Work’ conference?
All of which brings me back to my earlier point: that agreed manifestos usually come out of a considered, sustained and open sharing of views amongst ‘partners’ who, through that experience, have come to understand and so trust each other rather better. That is, through something like the conference proposed to Choose Youth some months ago by IDYW, aimed at bringing together key organisations and groups committed to youth work. Indeed, despite our sometimes sharp criticism of some of their practices, significant support has already been given to this idea by NYA and NCVYS, and also by UNISON.
When IDYW first suggested such a conference I had my doubts about what it might produce. However over time I’ve become increasingly supportive of it. In part this is because it embodies IDYW’s search for open, critical – and self-critical – debate about a practice, youth work, which itself has long been contested. More importantly in the present context, an event framed in this way could provide an arena for some honest conversations across the youth work field on how organisations are now defining youth work, the possibilities for and barriers to its current and future practice, aspirations for and constraints on encouraging this, and how all this relates to current policy-driven notions of ‘targeted’ ‘work with young people’.
What the youth work field seems to me not to be ready for at the moment is a rapid move, with limited collective preparation, into an event specifically designed to achieve some form of tying-of-ends consensus. Instead, by applying what we as youth workers know about the importance of process, shouldn’t we first, as preparation, be looking for an opportunity for exchange, dialogue, debate and clarification of positions, out of which might – might – emerge the widely ‘owned’, underpinning agreements essential for any authentically endorsed youth work manifesto?
Such as, perhaps, an open and pluralist ‘Future of Youth Work conference?
Bernard Davies December 2012