[“Youth at Risk” was formed in America in the 1990s as a means to deal with gang-culture and other problems affecting the young; it has since set up operations in a number of other countries including Britain. Its basic modus operandi is to assign adult volunteers to work with teenagers who choose to be thus paired for a given period of time – usually six or nine months. The teens targetted range across the spectrum of emotional disturbance: young criminals and the victims of criminal behaviour; bullies and the bullied; sufferers of all kinds of abuse and neglect and loss and family dysfunction, or the absence of a family altogether. With their partner, directed and monitored by the YaR apparatus, they set three major goals for themselves, three specific improvements in their lives which they would like to attain but currently cannot: they work through the allotted time to achieve these aims. Very many success-stories have been recorded by the use of such tactics.
Because anyone participating in the programme may well have to accept a sense of potential and self-determination that s/he has never previously considered possible, and because any achievement will only come after working relentlessly on areas of trauma and psychic disturbance, the pairing of a teen with his/her partner is preceded by a process where the means and ends of the YaR methodology are laid out in as intense a manner as possible. One such occasion is the Residential: youths who sign up – always on a voluntary basis – are taken away from their hometown and put up somewhere else, usually a remote countryside hotel, typically for a week or so. During that week they will wake at 8AM every day to exercise and then spend the remainder of the day, until sometime after midnight, with breaks only for meals, talking. They will talk about their lives, their pasts and their projected futures, they will talk about themselves to each other at a level most people strenuously avoid even contemplating. At times they will cry or retreat into silence, they may manifest aggression or outright violence: they will be guided through this, through one day after the next, through aspects of therapy and psychodrama and self-revelation, through new concepts of liberated behaviour, also through one day of high-altitude ropes-course in which they climb to take a literal leap of faith and then place trust in someone they may only have met a couple of days before in order not to fall, they are guided by a team of energetic and miraculously dedicated YaR professionals and assisted by a support-network of volunteers, people from all backgrounds, from all over the country, who come along to offer time and enthusiasm and an assortment of life-stories and personal triumphs.
The previous such Residential – in England – took place in Derbyshire last August. There was a relatively small turn-out: fourteen youths from Salford took the opportunity to be whisked away by strangers to a strange place to do something ever so strange, not to mention difficult. Twelve made it to the end; two stole a car on the second day and made it as far as a pub where they were found and escorted back to Manchester. The Residential lasted five days: there were tears and fights and breakthroughs and joys and upsets and boredoms and excitements, and everyone felt drained and inspired. On the final afternoon, after all present had accepted the possibility at least of a new life, had ritually shed their past, their limitations, their failures and fuck-ups – immediately before we hugged and went home – two soldiers from the British army got up and spoke for between ten to twenty minutes about employment opportunities within today’s army. They told the assembled teens of the qualities needed to be a soldier – the courage! Discipline! The determination! Teamwork! – and then spoke for a while about the ways in which these kids’ current lifestyles might get in the way of such adventure.]
Thank you for thanking me for assisting on your August Residential. You ask why I’ve “resigned” – if one can be said to resign from a volunteer position – and hazard a guess that it has to do with the incident on the last day. Quite. Your proffered justification – that the majority (though certainly not all) of the kids in the room had expressed an interest in joining the army – doesn’t really work for me. A couple of points:
1) Take a group of people from highly disparate backgrounds, people who do not know each other. Add to the mix six Jehovah’s Witnesses who know each other well and have worked together for a long time: that in itself will slant the attention and interest of the group some way towards the Jehovah’s Witnesses. That’s fine and natural, and if they want to talk about their beliefs as and when the issue crops up in conversation, so be it: I would consider it perfectly legit for them to provide information to anyone interested, i.e. the location of their nearest Kingdom Hall. However, the point at which they reach into their pockets and start pulling out Bibles and copies of their “Watchtower” magazine to distribute is the point at which I consider them to have crossed a line. Well, we had half a dozen soldiers on the Residential and they did indeed come equipped with glossy promotional “Join The Army” brochures which they were handing out over the course of the week. These didn’t fall into the soldiers’ bags, nor did the men bring them of their own initiative: this is the army, initiative is frowned upon. Certain people sized up the YaR method and decided to take advantage of it. Of course the majority of the youths expressed an interest in joining the army.
2) Continuing my analogy: suppose the Jehovah’s Witnesses, after several days of distributing Bibles, were then given a slot on the final afternoon in which to inform the youths at risk that they are sinners but that they might yet be redeemed by forgoing blood-transfusions + refusing to celebrate birthdays + all that shite. The timing, I think, is crucial. The army’s recruitment-drive occurred at the conclusion of the week: the subjects had been relocated, bewildered, had seen their basic notions of everyday existence overturned e.g. when to wake up and when they could sleep, how and when to obtain food; they had to accept every order from a benevolent but dictatorial hierarchy from morning till midnight, they were told what to talk about, what to think about, what to reveal, they were told what to do, where they could and couldn’t go, they had to learn several dozen new names and a whole load of terminology, they were physically drained and emotionally worn-out, and they had accepted this, had moved from sullen fear and resentment to all-out participation, had consented to invoke their absent parents and tell them what they really felt about them, had spoken about everything bad they had done, or had had done to them, then written it down and destroyed the text in an act of ritual rebirth, they had reached the end of the ordeal with a glowing – all twelve of them, glowing – energy, they were in a state of what dear old Doctor Leary called “imprint vulnerability”: empty, they were ready to be filled, were ready to change their minds, change their lives, adopt new behaviours, and this, this was the moment when you allowed them to sit and be advertised at.
3) I have one further objection to this idea that the recruitment-drive was acceptable because the (majority of the) youths seemed to want it. The whole week they had been told ad nauseam that the Residential WASN’T about what they wanted, it WASN’T going to be tailored to fit their whims and desires: on the contrary, an “our way or the highway” attitude was in evidence throughout: YaR knows exactly what it’s doing, and the youths, in accepting the opportunity to come, are accepting YaR’s non-negotiable prerogative to do its thing and only that. What’s more, there was a constant sense throughout the week that every last minute was planned for, every second was valuable and had been allocated: the schedule, although it could be stretched if we were in danger of not completing an activity, could not be altered. And then, what, on the last day you just changed your mind? And would you have similarly changed your mind had the majority of the youths expressed an interest in midwifery or world-travel or carpentry? Did you ask how many of them were interested in midwifery or world-travel or carpentry? Why not?
I should add, firstly, that I had no personal problem with the soldiers: they were a decent enough group of people and I thought that, propagandising aside, they worked really well throughout the week. And, finally, that I write this letter with considerable regret: I have been impressed with YaR since I started working with you at the beginning of this year, it’s been a fascinating and genuinely transformative experience and I have felt humbled and privileged to be allowed the chance to peek, hopefully helpfully, into the lives of people I would previously have disregarded or avoided on the street.