Making connections: the role of the youth sector in supporting social mobility

9 April 2018

  • Blog

By Bethia McNeil Director at the Centre for Youth Impact. This blog is based on a talk given by Bethia at UK Youth’s parliamentary event on 26th February 2018.

Social mobility is one of the clearest examples of what is referred to as a ‘wicked problem’: It is an issue that can’t be addressed or ‘solved’ by any one individual or agency, and neither can it be removed from its context, fixed, and then put back again without fundamentally affecting that context.

Social mobility is like an invisible thread that weaves between and into every aspect of our lives. Sometimes we don’t know its influence is there, but it is powerful enough to both trip and pull us up.

Social mobility is structural and relational: it is about our relationship to one another, but also to the institutions and influences in our lives. It is not static, but it is incredibly challenging to fundamentally shift these relationships. It is about every facet of young people’s lives, but social mobility is not a ‘problem’ that we can solve for young people, or something we can do to young people. We must address this with young people, particularly because there’s an interesting balance between the internal and the external when it comes to thinking and talking about how social mobility affects us. Does it matter whether individuals feel themselves to be socially mobile? Or should we go more on what data tells us about their relationship to other structures in society? It’s likely that the two are symbiotic.

Informal and non-formal provision for young people has the potential to support young people with both the structural and relational. This is one of the sector’s greatest strengths, and I believe it may even be unique in its potential to do this. For many young people, their engagement with youth work and other out of school provision will certainly occupy a unique role in their lives.

At its best, informal and non-formal provision supports young people ‘in context’: it engages with the rich, complicated and sometime messy nature of their lives. It recognises their strengths, assets and challenges. It respects and seeks to strengthen their bond with their communities, peers and families. It helps young people to sense, create and take opportunities. It goes with the grain of young people’s lives, and offers them the space and support to explore and understand their relationship with the world around them – and sometimes to change that world.

Informal and non-formal youth provision has a long and powerful history of creating spaces for young people to take the lead, to explore their potential to effect change and challenge injustice, and to shift societal and community structures. Social mobility is not a static concept: we need spaces and support for young people that enable them to imagine different futures and reflect on the changing world around them. This is what the youth sector does.

But what sits at the heart of informal and non-formal youth provision – and having spent the last eight years thinking almost exclusively about impact and how change is created, I can say it comes back to this again and again – is relationships. The relationship between the youth worker, mentor or supporter, and young person is perhaps most critical, but so are the relationships that are supported with peers and others who are ‘around’ the young person. Social mobility is relational, and we should not overlook or downplay the vital role that the youth sector plays in building, nurturing and sustaining trusting, challenging and transformative relationships with young people.

And for some young people, these relationships are even more important, either because they don’t have such strong relationships elsewhere, or because they’re facing significant challenges in their lives. This might not always be who we think: sometimes this can be something that young people realise for themselves, as relationships develop, which is why open access youth provision is so important.

This isn’t just about equality. Equality means fairness, or treating everyone the same. We also need to talk about equity: enabling and providing what young people need to be successful. This is about social justice. Social mobility itself shows us that not everyone starts in the same place. The playing field isn’t level. It’s no good just giving everyone the same access to the field. We should never give up trying to level the field, but we must go beyond equality to talk about equity. This means being both proactive and responsive: designing and resourcing a diverse, balanced and rounded offer for all young people, which also listens to, engages with involves them at every step.

Finally, we will have all heard the saying “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. This is a nice soundbite, but it’s not really true. Evidence highlights that there is particular knowledge and understanding that matters in every circumstance in our lives, just as our connections and networks do. It’s what we know and who we know. But I think there’s something else too, something I’d argue is much more powerful: how we relate.

Social mobility is about all three: what we know, who we know and how we relate. It’s also about how we reflect on all three and how they “show up” in our lives.

It would be a mistake to say that the youth sector is “just about relationships”, both because informal and non-formal provision also plays a critical role in learning and connection, and because it’s never just about relationships.

You can follow Bethia McNeil and the Centre for Youth Impact on twitter, or visit their website here.

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