The following is a short article I wrote that was published in Youth Work Now Magazine (A supplement of Children & Young People Now) this week. In addition to the print copy, it can be found on the CYPNow website here.
Leave the hidden agendas behind
I recently read a quote from London mayor Boris Johnson about the need to “build human capital”.
Now we all know Johnson has a habit of making flippant remarks, but this one caught my attention. Talking at a charitable conference, he said: “Faith groups who want to slip in the odd coded message in favour of salvation: I have absolutely no problem with that.”
Although I work for a faith organisation, I have a problem with the approach that Johnson advocates.
I’ve spent a huge amount of time trying to justify to members of the faith community why we run generic youth work with no faith content. Conversely, I’ve often had to defend the faith aspect to those colleagues in non-faith environments who assume we are trying to convert young people. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk, especially when people are unsure of your motives.
What I’ve learned from all this is that faith groups need to be upfront and honest about their intentions – both to the general public and to young people. If we’re going to run a generic youth club, then it should be just that. If we want to do an evangelistic event, then it should be clearly communicated so that young people are not tricked into attending a religious service. Slipping in a “coded message” is simply not acceptable practice.
The same principle applies in the wider youth work context. Think how ridiculous it would be for youth workers to try to hijack an organised activity to promote a particular message. Imagine 15 young people sign up for an ice-skating trip, yet as soon as they get on the minibus, the worker starts a lecture on safe sex complete with hand-outs. Those young people would feel that their trust had been betrayed.
While that may be an exaggerated example, there have been a number of claims over recent years that youth workers across the sector are forced to become more dishonest in order to achieve targets. I have heard workers talk of “playing the system” or inventing ways to get the young people to “want to learn things” so that recorded outcomes can be completed. Many lament this, but feel unable to do anything else.
This manipulation of young people is dangerous territory. When we start to enforce a hidden agenda into our work, we limit the possibilities for open and honest relationships. Our craft is based on our ability to earn respect, so a secret agenda is damaging to our work.
Of course, there are always times when opportunities for dialogue and conversation present themselves, and it might be appropriate to broach certain subjects or introduce particular themes. At times we may even need to give our opinion or argue for a distinct course of action. But this should come out of relationships, not a prescribed agenda.
Youth workers, including those in the faith communities, must continue to be upfront about their motives.
It’s vital if they want to earn young people’s respect.
You can view all my Youth Work Now articles here.