Informal education and pioneer mission with young people | Jane Barrett [ANVIL vol 34 issue 2]

Introduction

Portrait of the author
Jane Barrett currently works as a branch leader for Worth Unlimited in east Birmingham and north Solihull. She has been in youth work for over 15 years and this has included some time working with Oxford CYM, both teaching and being a professional practitioner. She is committed to working with young people, to listen to them, to be alongside them and to share life with them. When she is not working, she loves being with her family and running.

In this world there are some people who are dog lovers – who have grown up with dogs and who agree that “dogs are man’s best friend”.

I can definitely say I am totally not that person, and would never want to offend those who adore dogs, but until recently I was possibly the other end of the dogloving spectrum.

Fearful of dogs, I knocked on the door of a young person to be greeted by the largest and to me the scariest-looking dog I had ever seen. To add to my anxiety he was foaming at the mouth, but this was the moment I met Oli the Rottweiler!

The young woman I met was referred to me by a friend who thought she could really benefit from the project I was running, which was all about enabling young women to have an entrepreneurial experience.

Pioneer mission

Youth work has and still is experiencing huge financial budget cuts, and one of the initial aims of this project was to think about how enterprise could both change the funding mix of the charity I work for and provide opportunities for young women to develop new skills, with a particular emphasis on enterprise and business. When this project started (over four years ago), I had dreams and expectations that just possibly one or two of the young women would set up their own businesses, become financially more secure, and would feel this opportunity really could change their life for the better. Oli’s “Mummy” (this is real dog-owner speak!), the young woman I worked with, is an incredible photographer and is amazing at photographing dogs; here was the opportunity for her to turn her skill and passion into a small business. I am unsure whether this one example of me the youth worker enabling a young person to set up photographic commissions can in itself be seen as “pioneering”, but it has certainly been a huge learning process for me as I have worked with her and the other young women on the project.

As a female youth worker working with young women, I struggle with the masculine connotations of “pioneering” – the lone hero, full of bravado. I also think there are still a lot of questions about what pioneer mission is and does but I am encouraged by Jonny Baker’s suggestion that we view pioneering as a gift, within the wider gifting of God’s mission in the world: “Mission begins with and in God. Mission is the overflow of God’s self-diffusive love creating, redeeming, reaching out to, challenging and healing the world… It is given through love and not earned. God’s gifts of Godself through Jesus Christ and through the Spirit are overwhelmingly generous. Mission is joining with this overflow of gift, receiving… and giving away again to others.” [1]

In some cultures, Baker continues, there are “strings attached” to gift-giving and receiving: we must do something in return. In other cultures, the total opposite happens: the gift “moves onwards”; it may even go “round a corner, blind or out of sight as it is given to another party. It is no longer controlled. You have to trust the process and trust that the recipient will keep the gift moving.” The Church should embody this “spirit of gift”, “always keeping gifts moving, being generous, being prepared to let the gifts go blind and trust the Spirit”. Within this bigger picture, Baker suggests, pioneering is a particularly “difficult gift to carry and to fathom, but its mystery and ambiguity are part of its appeal”. It is also the gift that “will not be boxed” and “refuses to stand still”: “it is a surprise that keeps surprising”. [2]

If my three-year funded youth enterprise project was a “gift”, then at times it has certainly, in Baker’s terms, been “difficult to carry”, and the temptation has been strong to hold onto it too tightly rather than allow it to “keep moving”. There were times when the project’s targets felt like an overwhelming burden: I was so focused on getting young women through the accredited part of the programme that I was unprepared to be “surprised”. My dreams and expectations at the start of the project were a long way from where we’ve found ourselves three years on. The “gift” has moved in a direction that I had not expected – and certainly a long way out of my hands! In what follows, I want to highlight three aspects of the journey of the “gift” over the last three years, aspects central to the core principles of youth work: meaningful relationships, informal education and the ability to work with surprise.

Meaningful relationships

Power balance

I was keen to create opportunities for young women to gain new experiences and new skills but had taken for granted the value of meaningful relationships. Some of the young women I worked with on this particular project I knew already, and it was actually really difficult to shift what had been a session where we “hung out” and ate together to a more focused session on enterprise. Looking back I definitely wasn’t clear enough about my expectations of this particular project, and what happened was a detrimental change in the power balance of our relationships. When we were cooking together, eating together and didn’t have an especially structured agenda there was a sense of mutual sharing, and both an openness and vulnerability that we were all part of together. The whole enterprise idea had come from me, and I had repositioned myself as someone with something to offer (something my funding needed me to offer!) that in this case was not being accepted.

With this particular group, their disinterest didn’t hinder what I still see as my call and vocation to work with them – a privilege and a gift to me. Andrew Root talks about incarnational mission with young people as not getting them to “accept a message from long ago”, but rather “participating in the living presence of God together with them, right now… we don’t have to do or be anything other than our authentic human selves”. [3] My work definitely feels much more like the latter, and while I appreciate critiques that argue that it minimises any sense of Jesus’ “proclamation” and “holiness”, and might even result in “theological laziness”, [4] I nevertheless believe that something vitally important happens when meaningful relationships deepen, and that this in turn can only happen when we – the “professionals” – are aware of our own identity and our role within the relationship. I am often told I “speak posh” – my accent is much more obviously Berkshire than Brummie. I am conscious of my university education – something none of the young women I work with have been able to access. I am aware of the privilege that comes with my whiteness, even while I might have some common ground with these young women in our shared experience of gender inequality. Acknowledging the power imbalances, as well as what we have in common, the mutual work, over long periods of time, of helping each other become our “authentic human selves” is what enables our relationships to genuinely deepen.

Asset-based relationship building

The charity I work for adopts an “asset-based” approach to its work with both young people and the communities they are rooted in. Such an approach “is founded upon the belief that everybody has something to give to those around them. Every single individual, regardless of where they live, how much they earn, or their academic achievements, has something to offer. This may be a particular passion, such as looking after children or playing music, an area of expertise, such as local history or business accounting, or a specific skill, such as plumbing, cooking or event organising. All of these passions, abilities and skills, broadly known as ‘assets’, are placed alongside other kinds of physical, financial, cultural or social resources that may be present within a community.” [5] To illustrate this approach, I want to revisit Oli the Rottweiler. My relationship with Oli’s owner developed very quickly, from the moment I dared to step out of my comfort zone and voluntarily go dog walking. My inexperience was highlighted by the fact I wore flip-flops to a muddy damp field and all the other dog owners were wearing wellies! But the expedition wasn’t about me – it was about discovering more about this young woman’s passion and one of the most significant things that gave her purpose. She is a hugely gifted photographer and takes hundreds of pictures of her dogs and her friends’ dogs. During the enterprise project she made several calendars and mugs and did a photography commission. Experience has taught me that it will often take huge amounts of time and patience for a young person, especially one with low confidence and self-esteem, to believe they have skills, gifts and talents to offer their communities. But again it is the depth of relationship and levels of trust that means this can become possible.

Barrier removal

As a youth worker, I do not see my job as trying to “fix” the young people. What I have learned to be crucially important, however, is that in helping them address some of the challenges they experience, I am often called on to help them navigate some of the systems and processes that frequently put up “barriers” and “roadblocks” to their development and flourishing. During the enterprise project, I spent a lot of time attending doctor’s appointments, filling in job centre forms, getting ID with the young women, helping them open bank accounts and often advocating on their behalf at important meetings with other professionals. Although this appears, at first glance, to be more “needs-led” youth work, I am convinced that because the young women have had support to remove some of the “barriers”, they are now better connected to other people and have more confidence to take part in and attend other activities in their local neighbourhood. They have got involved in organising a Christmas “do” for the staff and volunteers of our local youth work branch, they’ve cooked pancakes for a church event on Shrove Tuesday, and they’ve started attending a Stay and Play group and a community café as well as continuing with their entrepreneurial experience.

Informal education

Conversation

Critical to informal education is the art of conversation – and my approach to working with young women has sought to help them learn through conversation, from engaging at depth with issues of sexuality and gender to Googling together the best outfits to wear on a night out. As Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith, the “gurus” of informal education in youth work, describe it, conversation involves six elements: concern, trust, respect, appreciation, affection and hope [6] – and I want to highlight those elements in just one worked example here.

During the last general election, I took three young women to their polling station to vote. Before voting day, we had had numerous politics-focused conversations, and the young women discussed their varying opinions at length. We were all anxious to know how our country might change depending on who the next prime minister would be. Through these dialogues we were showing our concern and commitment to each other. We also had to trust each other: I had to trust myself, that I was enabling these young women who had never voted before to make an informed choice and not abuse their trust by pushing them to vote a certain way. It was clear that we all had to respect each other, as our opinions were so diverse. In the process we learned to appreciate each other and the unique opinions we all had. Affection in conversation “involves a feeling with, and for, those taking part”. [7] This in some ways was the easiest part for us as we were already an established group who knew each other well. It also created the context in which I could, at times, challenge prejudices that the young people held – around “immigrants”, for example.

Jeffs and Smith’s final element is hope: “We engage in conversation in the belief that it holds possibility. Often it is not clear what we will gain or learn, but faith in the process carries us forward.” Little did any of us imagine that the outcome of the general election would be a hung parliament. On the day of the result, my WhatsApp went crazy with messages, questions and a general sense of confusion. I certainly hadn’t prepared them for that, and we all learned that Britain was a deeply divided country. I remain hopeful, however, that this experience has given these young women a sense that their vote matters and is one way to make their opinions heard – and that they will vote again, next time round.

For some young people, engaging in conversation is not easy. One of the young women I work with genuinely finds talking difficult as she often pronounces things wrongly. “I’m not a conversationalist,” she says. More often than not, she has very important things to contribute, but it is only when she feels really comfortable that she talks. Another has a very shy personality and she opens up best when she has no eye contact. I often walk with her around our local shopping area as we are side by side and not staring at each other. In our wanderings, among other discoveries she learned that she could fit into child-size trainers as her feet (like mine) are small – this to her was a real revelation! As youth workers we need to carefully work out the right environments to enable young people to talk, so we can educate informally – and we need to have a number of different ways of promoting conversation “up our sleeve”, so we can build relationships with the young people we are with.

Surprise

Ritual and tradition

Over the last three years, I have been continuously surprised, in different ways.

We have welcomed two babies into our group, who are utterly cute (most of the time!), and we have included them in most of what we now do.

For the three years of the enterprise project, we met every week at a house owned by the local Anglican church, called the Old Rectory. We had always celebrated Christmas together there, giving each other gifts and playing card games. In December 2017, I was with some of the young women at a Stay and Play group and to my surprise they asked, “Are we doing Old Rectory Christmas this year?” As we had not been meeting in the Old Rectory for some time, I had not even considered it. I had not realised the significance of this to the young women, but we did it again and we gathered there together, babies and all. Though we still all see each other every week, this particular time was one of reconnection and we acknowledged how much we missed each other. The ritual and pattern of this experience had created memories, good ones, and we all agreed that this was and will be our Christmas tradition.

Enterprise – in a new direction!

“Youth workers are potentially well placed to support young people who may not have had access to enterprise education at school, or whose opportunities to join a mainstream enterprise programme are limited. Good youth workers demonstrate skills that are often valuable in enterprise: building partnerships and social capital; encouraging self-belief; acting as a critical friend and offering challenge; being around when things go wrong – these are the professional attributes that provide structure and support for young people.” [8]

I managed to secure additional funding beyond the three years of the enterprise project, and I continue to meet with the young women. After the last project had not gone remotely to plan, I was much more intentional about asking the young women what they wanted to do next. They decided they wanted to set up a clothing line. There was a unanimous decision to actually do something enterprising. I was totally shocked, and literally could not believe it! Currently, it is very much in its infancy, but we are actually in the process of setting up a real business, called Listen Threads: a brand that not only “listens to young women”, but where all profits are going back into supporting our young women’s work. The young women have designed a logo and have picked a clothing range, and we have organised a photo shoot for our website.

This next phase in “doing life together” feels exciting and scary in equal measure but the dream is big, and I hope I can be the kind of “good youth worker” described in the National Youth Agency report above. The importance here is that the whole business is about making the young women’s ideas come to life. We have had some sample flip-flop slider sandals produced, and when they saw them in real life, the smiles on their faces were full of disbelief because the product they chose and designed looked so good. One young woman writes:

I have been a part of Listen Threads before it was a project. To be a part of something that allows your ideas and views to be listened to is really important to me. As a young single parent it is easy to be judged and not listened to. Having a youth worker has also helped a lot and I can’t wait to see the brand go far.

Change that comes as a surprise

Josephine Macalister Brew suggested (in 1946) that an informal educator should be “capable of entertaining himself [sic], capable of entertaining a stranger and capable of entertaining a new idea”. [9] This link between self-reflection, hospitality and a change of mindset appeals to me. Our conversations and relationships can, and will, surprise us and change us. I have been surprised by how much I have changed over the period of working with these young women – not least in my attitude to dogs. When I went dog walking, the Rottweiler never strayed far from the young woman and was her protector. He would always look out for her to see that she was close by. I will always have an ingrained element of caution around dogs, but my observation is that this young woman has brought her dog up to be a bodyguard, a companion to her, and an animal that she loves and treasures. This has hugely helped me understand the bond between pets and their owners in a way that I had never thought possible. As my confidence around dogs has grown, in turn I have been able to help my daughter be less scared near dogs too. I have not only “entertained a new idea”, as Brew puts it, but have even embraced it to the point where I find myself voluntarily looking at dog pictures on Instagram!

I love the quote by Lilla Watson: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” [10] There are different levels, or dimensions, of liberation of course, and the one I talk about here does not go all the way to undoing some of the structural injustices of our society. However, through my deepening relationship with this dog-loving young woman, not only have I overcome some of my own fears about dogs, but I have been able to help her overcome some of her fears and social anxieties, as we look forward to working together later this year on a wedding, with her as the official photographer and me as her assistant.

Conclusion

Our three-year funded enterprise project did not, in the end, involve a huge amount of enterprise. Taken in isolation, it might look like a failed piece of work. It did not meet the outcomes I had initially hoped for, but even without the surprising development of “Listen Threads”, I am proud of what we had achieved by the end of those three years. It has underlined the wisdom that really good relational youth work is often about a quiet patience, a deep-rooted commitment to listening, and “being with” and “doing life” with young people over long periods of time. This is a gift, a gift to be shared – and one I would love you, the reader, to share in with me. It may not be an easy gift, but it may be a life-changing gift: one for you to take, to unwrap, but most of all I would urge you to help keep it moving!

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Notes

[1] Jonny Baker and Cathy Ross, eds., The Pioneer Gift: Explorations in Mission (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2014), 17.
[2] Ibid., 18.
[3] Karen Jones, “Holistic Pastoral Care,” in Christian Youth Work in Theory and Practice: A Handbook, Sally Nash and Jo Whitehead, eds. (London: SCM Press, 2014), 169.
[4] Ibid.,170.
[5] “Tackling Poverty in England: An Asset-based Approach” (Church Urban Fund): 3, accessed 19 March 2017.
[6] Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith, Informal Education: Conversation, Democracy and Learning (Derbyshire: Education Now Publishing, 1999), 42.
[7] Quoted in Jeffs and Smith, Informal Education.
[8] National Youth Agency, “Final Report: Commission into Young People and Enterprise” (2015): 20, accessed 20 March 2017.
[9] Jeffs and Smith, Informal Education, 113.
[10] “Lilla: International Women’s Network,” Lilla, accessed 20 March 2017.

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Making disciplesEvangelismPioneering
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