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Virtual club: youth outreach during Covid-19

Even before COVID-19, youth clubs were getting inventive in an age of austerity. Now a fast-paced digital pivot is turning a crisis into an opportunity, writes Emma Warren

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City youth clubs are making a digital pivot at speed to support kids in communities
City youth clubs are making a digital pivot at speed to support kids in communities

Ten long years of austerity meant the south London borough of Lewisham has been bringing a high degree of inventiveness to its youth work. One of the borough’s remaining youth clubs took place in the spacious foyer of the Glassmill leisure centre, a pop-up where teenagers in school uniforms scuffled about, eating crisps and laughing with youth workers while families streamed past for a swim in the pool. 


Now, like other providers of youth services worldwide, the social enterprise that took over Lewisham’s youth clubs and adventure playgrounds in 2016 is having to adapt again. 


“We’ve had to work out quickly what Lewisham’s virtual offer will look like,” says Youth First’s CEO Mervyn Kaye. Quick to see the upside, he adds: “Interestingly, my staff are getting much quicker with [our digital] offer. Staff who are real luddites are like, ‘I’ve got to do this now,’ so out of a crisis comes an opportunity.” 


“Youth work is a fricking profession like nurses, doctors, teachers. It’s not easy, as a lot of parents are finding out right now”


He pauses, before delivering the inevitable downside. “The danger is that funders go, ‘Oh, that worked well and it’s cheaper so let’s fund that.’ There will never be a time when you don’t need space for people to socialise. This moment is not an excuse to say that we don’t need space because we can do it online. We’d be storing up a massive problem.”


Over in north London, the Copenhagen Youth Project (CYP) has been running against the odds for two decades. It’s an old-style youth club off the Caledonian Road in Islington, running traditional youth club sessions three evenings a week alongside football for boys and girls, an enterprise programme helping young people start their own businesses, peer mentoring, a cooking club in the local primary school, and a fully kitted-out music studio. It drew more than 300 young people through its doors last year. 


“For me, it doesn’t matter what [we’re offering] – it’s about the space and what the space gives you to progress in life,” says CYP project director Stephen Griffith. He grew up in 1970s and ’80s London, when there were multiple youth clubs in the city and country-wide.


Griffith recognises their ongoing value: “They offer a core social education,” he says. “Don’t do to people what you wouldn’t want done to yourself. Respect the rules of the building and respect people. The very basic things we do to get on.”


We need to support youth clubs, he says, because they socialise young people who might not get a social education anywhere else. 


“It helped us form an identity. It allowed a sense of belonging”


There’s another reason that youth clubs matter – they’ve acted as an invisible foundation for UK music and culture over decades. In south London, a network of youth clubs offered teenagers ‘lovers’ rock’ and reggae dances, immortalised in John Goto’s famous 1977 photographs. Sheffield DJ Winston Hazel remembers a network of youth clubs across Sheffield, Birmingham and Nottingham in the 1970s and ’80s, with juice bars and disco rooms where local breakdancers and proto-DJs could practise and showcase their skills to their musically literate peers, who went on to become musically sophisticated audiences in emerging UK club culture. 


“There was nowhere else for young black kids to hang out together other than on the street, so youth clubs would bring us together,” he recalls. “It helped us form an identity. It allowed a sense of belonging, but it was a breeding ground, unbeknown to us, for what was to come later. We learned as individuals what we had to offer our collective: dancing, clothes, personality, music. It helped to fashion different elements of what was possible for us.”


In Bradford, there was even a ‘jazz officer’ whose role was to work with teenage dancers and DJs – many of whom went on to influence what became the countrywide explosion of rave culture that began in the late 1980s and positioned the UK as a globally influential centre of new music. During the late ’90s and early 2000s, a network of youth clubs in Tower Hamlets centred around Oxford House in Bethnal Green provided space for MCs, DJs and audiences to create grime and later spawned globally influential artists such as Stormzy. By 2019, British music was worth £5.2bn.


“This moment is not an excuse to say that we don’t need space [for youth clubs] because we can do it online”


When COVID-19 hit, CYP created an online youth club through Instagram that provided challenges and opportunities with rewards – always a good way of keeping in touch with young people, says Stephen Griffith – as well as a variety of WhatsApp groups for the footballers, the musicians, and those into arts and culture. “We’re doing it so we can continue to support and maintain the relationships,” he says.


They’re also finding ways to support young people IRL (in real life). “We have youth workers going round the estate twice a week. We have young people walking around with trauma. There are some who will be fine behind a screen, but there will be others who won’t cope. It’s about reassuring young people. Those who are anxious anyway – this will be a real struggle for them.”


UK Youth is a national organisation for youth work and youth workers. It’s been running for 50 years and last year, it worked with 5,500 organisations, reaching more than 1.6 million of the 11 million-plus 10-24 year olds in the UK. The vast majority of young people in its network – more than 90% – are faced with at least one significant barrier to progression, such as living in an area of high unemployment and homelessness or because they grew up in care.


It’s obvious but worth stating: the people who force councils to shut youth provision rarely have experienced its value. 


Instagram and WhatsApp groups are being used to maintain relationships
Instagram and WhatsApp groups are being used to maintain relationships

It’s also worth stating how brutal austerity has been on the sector, not to mention the ambient devastation caused by cuts to all the interconnected surrounding services. More than 1,000 children’s centres have closed since 2009 and 760 youth centres have closed since 2012, according to UK Youth’s annual report. Meanwhile, the average cut to spending on youth services by local authorities over the past three years alone is 40%. 


Nationally, UK Youth is now dealing with the same questions as CYP and Lewisham’s youth clubs – how to maintain relationships in the face of enforced social distancing.


One response is the social media hashtag #StillYouthWork. A quick scroll through the tagged posts shows a range of ways youth workers are managing this conundrum: helpfully collated round-up lists of ideas; Queen Bee in Leicester getting its young people to make a stay at home video; youth workers in Bristol creating ‘boredom busting’ origami tutorials on YouTube; or the launch video for Somerset’s new ‘virtual youth club’. There are also links to UK Youth’s open letter asking the government to provide immediate support for the sector to meet the needs of vulnerable young people and to name youth workers as key workers. 


It’s something that Youth First’s Kaye raises independently. “Youth clubs are run by trained professionals – and I’m making a key point here about trained professionals – and therefore paid,” he says. “Youth work is a fricking profession, like nurses, doctors, teachers. It’s not easy, as a lot of parents are finding out right now, to entertain and keep kids safe.”



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