This event felt like a unique and unusual opportunity to come together to share practice and ideas with fellow youth workers and feminists on the very real challenges and discoveries around working with girls and young women in the present moment. I was struck by the commitment amongst participants to thinking through these issues and applying them to their practice. The combination of opening plenary, interactive workshops and lots of time for discussion during breaks created a feeling of an ongoing and developing discussion.
A key theme from day one was around youth work practice and how it relates to CSE. Jane Senior’s opening plenary was a fascinating insight into the benefits of using a youth work model with young people that are being sexually exploited and how important it is to fight for youth values in this fraught and ever changing context, whilst acknowledging the pressure youth services and individual youth workers are under to work to a social care model or as ‘assistant social workers’ in multi-disciplinary teams. Jane’s example from Rotherham clearly demonstrated the vital but undervalued role youth workers play in drawing young women back to safety when they are experiencing exploitation. Rebecca Wood further demonstrated the importance of a relationship building approach to CSE work in her account of working with a young woman that had both witnessed domestic violence and been the victim of CSE. There was discussion about whether CSE work could ever be true youth work in the current context of social care led approaches.
Another interesting theme from day one was around our youth work spaces and how well adapted for girls they are. Lilian and Kat from the Water Adventure Centre project used examples from their work to show how we as workers have an impact on gendering our spaces, they had found that where women workers go, young women follow. Folks from Manchester also shared some brilliant ideas around auditing youth clubs to look at which workers take on which tasks and the positive effect switching it up (E.g. Not always having women workers inside doing the cleaning/cooking) can have on young people accessing the service.
The third theme that I picked up on from day one (I’m sure there were lots more!) was around definitions of consent. We discussed the different meanings of the word and how we use it both when obtaining permission from a young person (e.g. A consent form) and when we are discussing sex and relationships. There was discussion around the importance of doing education work with both young women and young men about consent and Elsie Whittington’s research into young people’s understanding of consent was really eye opening for me – she demonstrated that consent is not always as simple as one person asking and the other saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’. We discussed this as a group drawing on our own experiences and those of the young people Elsie has worked with. There were some interesting challenges to traditional feminist youth work ideas in that young people identified sexual experiences that were ‘not consensual’ but that they were unwilling to class as ‘rape’. Elsie had also identified the need for us to have more positive and varied language around sex to help young people to be able to explore sex and pleasure on their own terms.
I found the day really energising and a great combination of loads of brilliant feminists in one and pragmatic, practical discussions about applying feminist values to practice as it stands today. The final thing I was struck by (although not surprised at) was the sheer number of hours and extra voluntary work that was being put into the services that were being discussed. I reflected on the fact that we as youth workers at conferences such as this rarely make time to discuss our own mental health and wellbeing, particularly those working in the charity sector that is largely made up of female-identified people that work extra hours ‘because they care’ or because funding is short. Perhaps this could be something for next time?