I once worked with a young man for about 7 years, we shall call him Abu. Abu made an impression from the start, he was 15 when he walked into youth club slightly intoxicated, he stripped down to his boxers, got on kitchen counter and started dancing, that is where this great relationship started. Over the years, he knocked his teeth out on residential, was arrested just outside the youth club after leaving, was often drunk, sometimes aggressive, and would always drive to youth club (obviously illegally). But I had a massive bias toward him.
He would get away with more that other young people and he knew it. I liked him, he was charming and engaging young man a bit of a ‘cheeky chap’, and this changed my view of him. I would treat him differently. This was brought to my attention by a colleague, who said ‘you let him get away with too much’. I realised I was making excuses for him and that I had to change my behaviour because I was not demonstrating equality across the whole group.
We all have young people ‘we get on with better’ – that is human nature. But, we need to beware of that bias and the consequences of it across our work.
Tarrick, was a nightmare from the start. He was a Somali young man and looked after his disabled mother, he clearly had a complicated home life and school life. He kept up a consistent level of low-level disruptive behaviour, opening the fire exits, flooding the toilets, or hiding the table tennis bats. He would continually undermine youth workers, especially me. We decided to take him on residential providing he could improve his behaviour. He was booked on with a group of his friends, 10 in total. A week before the trip and after numerous chances he was told he was unable to attend the residential due to his continued poor behavior. He rallied his friends and they said ‘if Tarrick is not going nor are we’. They all dropped out in the end and we lost all the money for the trip. Four years later I start to work in another part of London with a Somali young man with some of the same mannerisms as Tarrick, there was a flash point, and I snapped at the young person over a minor incident. It was reminded me of Tarrick and I realised I had pre-judged this young person based on his ethnicity and changed my behaviour accordingly. We are all racist.
Our bias often falls to our own ethnicity, particularly where we are stressed, in conflict or pressurized. We need to be aware of this and how it affects our work with young people.
This assumption can be very basic, the privilege that I can come home to warm and quiet house, that I can open my fridge and get something to eat, or pick a fresh piece of fruit from the bowl. In the UK in 2016, for some of the young people I work with this is not a reality. Yet I do not find out about the realities they experience unless I ask. Only then do I hear about bedrooms and beds shared with several brothers and sisters, older siblings who act as carers when parents work evenings, fridges and freezers that are empty several days of the week. Perhaps then I have more understanding of the young person who is sleep deprived, stressed-out or hungry. We need to think about our privilege before make assumptions about others.
I’m often asked ‘what makes a great youth worker?’ there are lots of traits that I see in youth workers that I admire. One of the defining characteristics of those that I think have something special in their ministry is the ability to reflect, not just on their work but they on themselves and of themselves. This for me is humility, a fruit of the spirit.