Local Youth Work (Part 5)

24 March 2010 — 2 Comments

The following is an excerpt from my opening chapter in Journeying Together. Growing youth work and youth workers in local communities. The book is a 144 page collection of writings looking at the practical issues effecting locally-based youth work. Although it is based around the experiences of The Rank Foundation, it will be of great interest to anyone working with local youth projects and agencies.

You can order a copy from Amazon here.

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Local Youth Work (Part 5)

Being local
Now that we have a better understanding of what youth work entails and the significance of the worker in facilitating it, we shall explore the importance of being grounded locally in established good practice.

We must first define what we mean by the term ‘local’. We have already used the word ‘community’ to describe the sense of belonging and association that youth work can foster in people (Crow and Allan, 1994: 6) yet ‘community’ is also widely used to refer to a specific place. In everyday conversation, we generally take, local, to mean a particular geographical area around where we live, work or visit. It is about proximity to us. There are local shops, local people and a local community. In this section we will be primarily using the idea of place, when talking of ‘being local’ and ‘community’.

Local workers
At the beginning of the chapter, I described how I got involved with youth work in my home town. If I’m honest, I was surprised that I was given the job, as I had very little experience of working with young people professionally. However, I did have a great advantage over the other candidates: my local knowledge! Having grown up in the area, I already understood the issues and tensions affecting the community and was able to relate well to people. I knew the area well, could find my way around certain streets, knew where the young people went after school, and many other little bits of information that you pick up from living in an area for a long period of time.

Although, at the time, I was not conscious of this particular ability, my employers knew that I was well placed to connect with the local young people and build relationships. As Geertz (1983: 168) argues that education ‘works by the light of local knowledge’ and I was local!

‘Home-grown’ workers often get involved in youth work as a helping hand, to fulfil a particular need, such as coaching a sports team, running the snack bar or driving a minibus. Over time, many end up leading or developing the work:

I got involved because I was too old to continue going to the club. I would come back to help with certain activities and ended up getting training and leading some groups!

It is within this local context that youth work really thrives! Despite the recent ‘professionalisation’ of youth work by the government and a shift towards more outcome-driven work among the statutory sector (DfEE, 2002) youth work has always been largely run and maintained by voluntary workers and organisations (NYA, 2007: 2). The vast majority of youth work is run by local volunteers in various clubs, groups and organised activities.

There are many advantages to this ‘localised’ approach. McLaughlin and colleagues (1994: 5) found that locally-grown youth work tends to have a better understanding of the needs of the area, is able to be responsive to local concerns, and is more highly regarded by those who use its services.

Working in a smaller area, it’s easier to form relationships and bonds with people. If you come from outside, the barriers go up and people don’t trust you.

When something is defined as local, close and familiar, other things have to be ‘outside’, distant and unfamiliar. There is an invisible, flexible boundary that dictates what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out’ (Cohen, 1985: 12). This perception changes between individuals, groups and places: a person from a particular community might refer to a certain pub as their ‘local’, because it is the closest to their home, while their neighbour might choose to frequent a more distant pub, because of the social opportunities it provides them. ‘Locality’ is subjective.

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Part 6 will be published next week. Click here for the full series of posts.


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I am a qualified youth worker, writer and consultant based in Littlehampton, UK. I've worked in the voluntary youth sector for over 12 years, am married to Kirsty and we have two daughters named Hope and Eloise. Check out 'Journeying Together: Growing Youth Work and Youth Workers in Local Communities' and read my opening chapter.

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  1. Tweets that mention Local Youth Work (Part 5) | Jon Jolly: My Life & Youth Work -- Topsy.com - 25 March 2010

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  2. Mistakes I’ve Made #8 | JonJolly.com - 21 June 2011

    […] I was offered the job! I later found out it was because of my local knowledge (as I wrote about here), but my manager spent the next few years publicly encouraging me at every […]

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