Revive youth work to help youngsters

Revive youth work to help youngsters
Laurence Demarco,,
director of Senscot,
Regeneration & Renewal
06 January 2006

In 1962 I was running my own restaurant in Edinburgh when I read a book which changed my outlook. Children of the Sun by Morris West was about a priest, Mario Borelli, who lived with the street urchins – Scunizzi – in the slums of Naples. By winning their trust he was able to divert some of the youngsters from a wasted life of crime.

This story had a profound effect on me. I went to meet Borelli. A few years later I was myself a ‘detached’ youth worker hanging around in the slums of Edinburgh with some fairly wild young lads.

If I had any conscious plan, it was simply to keep some of these youngsters out of the criminal justice system as long as possible. Many young people pass naturally through a delinquent phase before settling down. A minority in our poorer areas get tangled up in a criminal career. I frequently appeared in court to offer the sheriff whatever reason I could think of not to jail these tearaways. Most sheriffs were grateful.

This strategy of trying not to escalate anti-social behaviour is the opposite to current ASBO policy which seems to be about the early identification of young people as somehow out of control. My experience is that such negative labelling can reinforce, rather than discourage, a delinquent career.

Youth work is no longer my field of expertise, but it seems to attract less priority these days. At a basic level, youth workers and youth clubs absorb a huge amount of raw energy which they either channel positively or at least ‘hold’ from becoming aimlessly destructive. But youth workers often have a more profound influence on individuals. Once young people come to trust that you are on their side and that you care about them, the opportunity arises to challenge behaviour and attitudes.

Young people growing up today seem much more disconnected from adult society – what Tony Blair calls ‘less respectful’. Blair proposes that this gap can be closed by the earlier intervention of the law. But I believe ASBOs are just as likely to widen the generation gap. I am more impressed by indications in the Chancellor’s pre-Budget speech that money from dormant bank accounts will be made available over the next few years to regenerate our dilapidated youth service. This will not only improve the physical infrastructure through thousands of halls and clubrooms around the country, but also create a national programme of opportunities for young people to discover and express their generosity through volunteering.