Our intention for this project is that it has genuine relevence beyond our academic communities; that the findings can be useful to those people working with young people or on issues that affect their lives – from education policymakers to youth and education practitioners. As a team, we’ve written critically about how we are positioned in relation to the ‘impact agenda’ and the challenges we’ve encountered in communicating our research to the media and policy communities. However, we have enjoyed and benefited from productive and generative conversations with practitioners who have engaged with the research – from teachers who have supported us on Twitter and came to hear our talk at the Media Education Association, to careers educators who attended our workshop at the CDI conference, and the many practitioners from across teaching, careers and youth work who came along to our interim workshop in October. One participant at the workshop was Tania de St Croix – a researcher, campaigner and youth worker. In this guest blog post, Tania shares her thoughts on our emerging findings and the challenges in making these meaningful and useful to those working with youth in times that are challenging for both young people and the sector itself.
On my way home from Celeb Youth’s recent workshop for practitioners, contradictory thoughts floated around in my head. Mostly I was enthused and stimulated. It’s always good to meet with other practitioners, and the beautiful space and delicious food were conducive to discussion and reflection. The team’s early findings felt ‘real’, resonating with conversations I regularly have with young people in my role as a youth worker. But the final question that the researchers raised with us was bothering me as I walked to the tube: how can their findings be made useful for practitioners?
This should not be a difficult question; the Celeb Youth research is deeply relevant to practice settings. The project portrays young people as thoughtful and critical, challenging the stereotype that they ‘just want to be famous’, and using celebrity as a lens through which to explore issues of opportunity and equality. I am particularly interested in the team’s analysis of how young people’s attitudes are partly informed by a meritocratic ideology that obscures the structural inequalities of class, gender and race; and how young people themselves think critically about these issues. But what does this mean for myself and my colleagues on a wet Thursday night, chatting with young people on the streets of Hackney?
The most concrete idea from participants at the workshop was for a resource pack, but I wasn’t convinced. If young people are already talking about celebrity, do we need structured activity plans to encourage them to do so, or can we respond to their spontaneous conversation? Even if some of the best resource packs spark ideas and challenge attitudes, they are no short-cut. They still require time for preparation and evaluation, sensitivity to deal with whatever arises from the activity or discussion, and flexibility to depart from the plan when needed. Most importantly, perhaps, a resource pack is of little use unless we have thought about our own views, knowledge and prejudices on these issues. We are not exempt from the discourses which affect young people.
How often do we engage colleagues and young people in discussions of whether everybody has the same opportunity to do well, what structural barriers exist, and what we might be able to do about it? How can we think about what is meant by ‘hard work’, whose work counts, and whether this is fair? Could we discuss whether there is more to life than the treadmill of earning and spending, while also addressing many young people’s urgent need for a job? Meritocracy, gendered understandings of work, and structural inequalities are complex; whether or not we find resource packs useful, we also need time and space to think and talk in depth about such issues.
But thinking and talking can feel indulgent – even impossible – in the pressurised, money-strapped, time-poor context in which most of us work. Like other practitioners, youth workers have been affected by severe cuts and redundancies in recent years, and a steep increase in managerial practices. Flexibility to think about something new, perhaps responding to current affairs or new research findings, is limited by a growing focus on pre-determined outcomes. For my PhD research I have been interviewing volunteers or part-time youth workers, many of whom are left to do the face-to-face work with young people while their experienced colleagues are overwhelmed with administrative tasks. These volunteers and part-timers are inspirational, passionate and achieving great things, but they could be far more effective if they were working in a policy context which valued open-ended and critical conversations with colleagues and with young people.
Given such barriers, how can research findings be made useful for practitioners? Resources and spaces for thinking and conversation are a great start, so Celeb Youth’s workshops and blog are genuinely valuable. But a more sustained link between critical qualitative youth-related research and practice requires changes on a wider level, including a greater value placed on critical conversation with young people which starts from their own concerns, and more time for us to educate ourselves together. Research can help us to think more deeply about the complex issues which affect young people’s lives – but only if we have more space to do this thinking and put it into practice.
Tania de St Croix is a youth worker with workers’ cooperative Voice of Youth, and is involved with the campaign network In Defence of Youth Work. She is researching how grassroots youth workers experience their work in a changing policy context, on a studentship funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ES/101800X/1).
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