Can you tell me about yourself?
My name’s Helen, I’m 38 and I live in Brighton and Hove on the south coast of the UK. When I’m not working with young people, I’m involved in housing, specifically housing co-operatives and I play for a gender-inclusive roller derby team called the B-town Brawlers.
How long have you been involved in youth work?
I’ve been involved in UK-based youth work for 11 years now, all at the same organisation, the Hangleton and Knoll Project which is a long-standing community development project, based in one of the wards in my city. I came to it from a background of international volunteer projects and European youth exchanges, so in ways I’ve been involved in youth work, in its different forms, most of my working/volunteering life.
Tell me about the first time you met Maddie and what you thought/noticed/picked on?
I first met Maddie when she was 13, when she came along to our young women’s project. She was super bright, had lots to say, knew her mind, and was never afraid to argue a point!
Can you tell me about your work and practice – what is it based on?
Hard to sum up in a few lines! For me, youth work is still fundamentally based around relationships. Between youth worker and young person, based around concepts of trust, of communication, of listening and of caring. And then between young people themselves: youth work as a group process, about informal education, about learning and understanding through doing something together. It is a long-term process, built in and over time And it is (or should be) political. Both in itself – such relationships are not prioritised in individualised, neoliberal times – and in encouraging and supporting young people to engage politically with the world around, to take action to change this world.
I have this amazing opportunity to see her grow and develop, to really get to know her as a person – how she is, how she thinks, her hopes, fears, likes, dislikes, challenges, how she sees and engages with the world around her.
In your experience what makes youth work different to other professions that work with young people?
I think the primacy of relationships is something that is pretty unique to youth work. And is often the means through which young people then get involved in the other practices that are associated. So Maddie talks about how she started attending the project because her friends were going. And when we’ve talked about her involvement in the campaign, her relationship with youth workers is something that always comes up as playing a key part. But then how she ran with it was totally her own. So as she says, she didn’t really make banners, or take part in the march, she just went to loads of council meetings and kept putting really difficult questions to the councillors!
How would you describe your relationship with the young person?
It is not always encouraged to talk about love in a professional context of working with young people, and this is something I’ve thought about a lot recently. With Maddie, as with many young people I work with, I have this amazing opportunity to see her grow and develop, to really get to know her as a person – how she is, how she thinks, her hopes, fears, likes, dislikes, challenges, how she sees and engages with the world around her. There’s a lot of love in that.
Have there been any challenges?
I’m fairly sure there’s been some clashes at points! And sometimes there’s quieter periods where Maddie isn’t so involved, and that’s fine, because that’s another of the key parts of youth work. And that I realise over and over again, that young people engage as and when they want to (of course recognising that there are barriers to young people taking part, and that needs to be something you are constantly aware of, and looking to change). At the moment, I’m seeing Maddie quite a lot, she’s been coming to our office to do her sociology revision for her first exam.
What’s the best thing about your job?
The young people!
If you were to sum up the journey that you have both been on what would you say?
It’s just been a privilege and she has demonstrated more resilience and tenacity than I thought possible, never let any adult think that young people do not matter or are not interested in politics or the things that effect them…Maddie constantly amazes me.
by Pauline Grace (2017)
Pauline Grace is a youth worker and head of the MA programme youth work at Newman University in Birmingham/UK.
Photos © Helen & Maddie