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Social distancing: What happens to face-to-face youth work now?

Lahna Pottle

19 Mar, 2020


School is cancelled and social distancing – or self-isolation – is the new status quo. Lahna Pottle speaks to other youth leaders to wrestle with what this means for working with young people.


Yesterday I sent the email out to parents and volunteers; all non-school based youth work is suspended until the end of June. No youth small group, no after-school clubs, no Sunday school or Sunday night chill out. No youth band, no prayer buddy meet-ups and no Easter trip. My calendar has gone from a colour-coded rainbow explosion to a daunting white page. Many of us are finding ourselves stripped back, having to innovatively re-create what our youth work looks like in this new context.

For us youth workers, those who live our lives for person-to-person interaction, whether it’s classrooms, small groups, mentoring, or assemblies, this call for social distancing is going to provoke some big, unanticipated questions: what happens to face-to-face youth work now? What does youth work look like in a world of social isolation?


Shifting to digital?

The initial response from many youth workers seems to be to move everything over to digital and social media platforms. It’s where young people already are and it’s where they’ll be a LOT more when schools close. YouTube Live for talks and discussions, Instagram daily posts, WhatsApp group chats, TikTok video challenges, Spotify playlists, FaceTime “meet-ups”. Scanning the youth work horizon on Twitter and I see the first movers stepping into the digital. They are hopeful, they are innovating out of necessity and adapting to a changing landscape, something youth workers have a long history of doing. The challenge is this: remain at a physical distance without creating a relational distance between them and God, them and you, and them and each other. Social media and digital technology are now crutches many of us are relying on to sustain and grow these relationships.

Yet when I spoke to some youth workers about this in more depth, there seems to be a deeper, honest, underlying worry. Emma Barlow, a volunteer youth worker in Croydon shares, the really good work happens when we do all the games and things to get them out of their shell. But over text – that is just so much harder”. The reality of shifting from face-to-face to digital isn’t as simple as same content different format. She continues: “online is just no way gonna be the same because I don’t think they’ll be massively into us doing a team FaceTime – they are awkward enough as it is most of the time!”.

How are we going to do effective youth work without being face-to-face with young people? A huge area of our skill as youth workers lies in creating safe spaces to share and open up. In person you can see engagement and disengagement, you can perceive when someone is closing up or opening up, and we can help modify the environment to help them feel at ease. The move to digital presents us with a fresh challenge to re-create safe spaces, and learn how to help young people open up and get engaged with youth work in this space.


Shutting down?

Emma Barlow also works for UK Youth, a youth charity who run lots of programmes and support other youth clubs. Describing UK Youth he says: “we’re supporting a lot of youth clubs across the country who are saying what the hell do we do? How do we support our most vulnerable young people? And actually a lot of them are just closing.”

Rev Fred Onwuchekwa works at a community youth centre in Southend. He is currently facing the closure of the youth centre he works at, and it is raising huge questions for him and his team as to how they continue to support young people. Even before the centre is shut, he explains: “We have noticed reduced numbers as parents are making these decisions [to withdraw their young people] themselves. I guess once the schools are shut in the next weeks or so, we will be directed to close down all youth services as well.” The capacity and remit to extend care for young people beyond these youth centres is limited for some community youth workers across this country.


Seemingly in contrast Dan Crook, a paid youth worker at a church in Southend, has also suspended all face-to-face youth work, and is keen to ensure that although in-person meet ups aren’t happening, that he can still support and care for his young people in other ways.

“I don’t really have any fears about it, my only fear I guess is that young people start getting incredibly bored and driving their parents crazy! At the moment my best idea is posting daily challenges, and spending time trying to understand TikTok. I thought we could also tap into song-writing for those who like me, care about music. There’s so much possibility of what we can do, it’s just getting people together to think about it. My young people are already battling with so many negative things in their life and this whole pandemic only adds to it. So where we can, I want to share positivity with them.”

Dan’s response to this opportunity like many, is one full of curiosity, a touch of nervousness, and a wise understanding that we will need to be flexible and willing to adapt and change our plans as we go. He explains his plan is to “see what the impact of taking things online is, try it and see how it goes, and if they start responding well then go for it and develop stuff, but if not – then think about something else.”


Unprecedented times

And so as youth workers, we continue to innovate, within these new boundaries to support our young people in social isolation. Catherine Bannister, Parish Nurse in Southend, is calling youth workers to encourage the young people we are working with to take care of their bodies and minds, as much as their spiritual health. The restriction of face-to-face communication can take its toll on young people’s mental health and so her advice is to “follow the government advice, phone or facetime as much as you can, get them to exercise and get outside alone, but reserve 1-1 meet ups for absolute exceptions”.

These are unprecedented times, and as youth workers, it’s never been more necessary to innovate, create, collaborate, and to prophetically re-imagine what our youth ministry needs to look like. We are the Church, we have a call that goes beyond running a youth service. We are called to cross barriers, to go the extra mile, and to do what it takes to support and connect with God’s young people. We are a people full of hope, resilience, creativity and the spirit of God. Face-to-face youth work may be suspended for now, but our call is not, our remit is not, and our God is not.

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