Last week Richard Branson posed the question, ‘why aren’t more business leaders online’, in which he stated, “Where possible, everyone within a company should be engaged in what is happening elsewhere within their business, and in the wider world. Social media is a great way to do this. Also, it can furnish a spirit of community, not least amongst global, widespread companies”
He’s right of course, but I suspect that if business leaders can’t identify the return on investment of their time then they are unlikely to participate in what could be construed as a high risk strategy of disseminating power and voice amongst their staff and clients, and as they are ultimately motivated by wealth accumulation, unless the opportunity that social media presents can be quantified they won’t bother, at least not yet.
Much more important, in my view, is why those that are actively working towards social change, the creation of opportunities and challenging inequality are still not all online, which brings me to the question of this blog, ‘Why aren’t more youth workers online?’ Surely those members of our society who should be engaging in their wider world and creating a ‘spirit of community’ more than anyone else are youth and community workers.
The National Occupational Standards defines youth work as “Enabling young people to develop holistically, working with them to facilitate their personal, social and educational development and to enable them to develop their voice, influence and place in society”. As we stand-by and witness more and more provisions and services closing down, dramatically reducing the opportunities for in-depth youth work, we must find new and creative ways to engage directly with young people.
When I was first training as a youth worker some 20 years ago it was all about detached and outreach work, it made sense, how else could we engage with the most disenfranchised, those who we never saw in our youth clubs and didn’t even go to school? If they don’t come to us, then we as youth workers must go to them, locating ourselves where young people locate themselves. In the 80’s and 90’s this meant developing relationships on the streets, meeting in McDonalds, hanging out in estates, surreptitiously dishing out leaflets about STD’s or drugs, initiating controversial conversations about sexism or homophobia, and encouraging them to join our latest group work project. But over the following decade with resources stretched and funders demanding a wider reach of skills development in the place of deeper impact, detached youth work largely fell off the agenda, with only a very few local authorities and voluntary services keeping it maintained.
However the same needs today are still very much present, perhaps even more so, but things are now of course tighter than ever, so what can we as youth workers do about it? Well, exactly the same thing as I did in the 90s, locate ourselves where young people locate themselves, which today isn’t just the local park, the housing estate or McDonalds, but most significantly online.
A 2011 survey by Local Government Information Unit, Equipped to Engage, found that just 25% of local authority organisations are using social media in youth work and/or social work contexts, (if anyone knows of more recent studies please let me know). But even in we discount this study as out-of-date the anecdotal evidence is still stark. I work with youth workers every week, I train them, I advise them, I sit on steering groups with them, I attend conferences with them, and I will always ask them ‘are you on Twitter, how about Facebook, or Flickr or You Tube?’ and more often than not I get two responses, ‘No, why?’ or ‘Yes, but I don’t really use it’. I then usually go headlong into a diatribe about how their organisations must engage online, how if they don’t they are missing a massive opportunity, missing out on rich conversations, missing the sharing of good practice and most importantly missing the chance to engage directly with hundreds of young people they might never normally have reached.
There are of course numerous committed people and organisations actively working to drive youth work practitioners online, and using social media within a youth work context; to engage with young people, to collaborate, and to share practice. People such as; Tim Davies (@timdavies) who amongst other things moderates Youth Work Online – a fantastic resource which has almost 1200 members, The Site (@TheSite) – providing an online guide to life for 16 to 25 year-olds, Stephen Carrick-Davies (@StephenCarrickD) from Munch Poke Ping – exploring how social media and mobile technologies are being used by young people, Katie Bacon (@Katie_Bacon) of Online Youth Outreach – supporting young people & family services in safely and effectively using social media platforms, and The Nominet Trust (@nominettrust) – spearheading the ways in which the internet can be used to stimulate social action at a grass-roots level.
There is some really excellent work going on there, but it is the youth workers on the ground, those at the coalface, that must begin to consider whether online is the new frontline, and to quickly begin to develop individual and organisational wide strategies to make the most out of all the opportunities social media can bring to effective and engaging youth work.
More youth workers online will mean more great practice being shared, as well as creating more great ways of working directly with young people. So I call on all youth workers and youth organisations to jump on the social media bandwagon for the benefit of the profession and the young people we seek to engage.