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Really fine youth work

I have written about Backtrack before, outstanding programme where young men get to handle, train, care for…border collies…and then take them to shows around the country where they compete at jumping. And the dogs win! If you haven’t seen them before you might take a look at this video.

I was asked to write a little something about this programme for YAPRAP, and in the end wound up writing what appears below. So thought I might include it here, and shortly will put the YAPRAP article up as a Downloadable PDF.

A terrific youth work programme based on common sense,

creativity and good evidence

‘I think the BackTrack programme run by Bernie Shakeshaft in Armidale is absolutely stand-out youth work. So why does Bernie’s stuff work? Here are some thoughts, not deeply though-through and not carefully edited. Just thoughts. Here goes:

 Motivation: Anything I have ever read about motivation tells me that for something to be ‘motivating’ it needs to be interesting, it needs to be meaningful, it needs to make some sort of a difference to those involved and those exposed to it, it needs to be challenging and it needs to include choice. Backtrack has all these ingredients

Resilience: I read a lot and what I read about resilience (popular word these days) and wellbeing tells me that people flourish when they feel they are doing something worthwhile, something that has purpose; when they feel part of something, when they feel connected to it; when they feel like they can actively participate in what is going on, when they have worthwhile relationships within what they are doing, when what they do enhances their sense of identify and self and when they have some control over what they do. Again Bernie’s projects have all these ingredients

Rules? Young boys in particular seem to do well when they have clear guidelines/boundaries/containing markers…whatever we want to call these things. When I ask the boys in PAWSUP and IRONMAN welding if there are any rules, they always say ‘no, not really.’ But what I notice is a constant discussion about how everyone is doing, how to treat each other, and how to act and speak…for example, stopping along the road on the way to a gig in Tamworth and asking how everyone is: ‘from 1 to 5?’ And asking: ‘What do we do if anyone is a 1?’ And the chorus is: ‘Leave them the fuck alone.’ And then as we approach town there is the quiet reminder: ‘Okay, town language.’ And all the F and C words just stop

Built in principles. Communication, getting along, looking for the best, are all aspects of PAWSUP. All the principles for a good and respectful life are built into the programme, how the boys approach the dogs, look for the best in them, care for them, help them jump high, look after them if they don’t make the jumps. Same with the welding shed, constant collaboration about how to build a gate, weld a logo for a shed, design a bench. The principles of living well are built into the experience…AND as well….

Extending the learning. I think it is possible for young people to have a great time in a project/event and then walk out the door and do a break and enter or punch someone. Having fun isn’t enough and excellence, membership and interest aren’t enough to make a worthwhile youth programme. So Bernie asks the boys: you see the way that dog jumped? What did you do to get the best out of that fella? And how did you feel when you did? What do you need to do to get the best out of your teachers? Out of yourself? Constant learning, and ‘discussion’ beyond the obvious is built into the process

Boundaries.  Bernie manages to break what for others would be set rules, and yet keep it all in order. I am met at the airport by one of the boys driving Bernie’s truck. Many of the boys have been to his home, know his family, play with his dogs, ride his horses…and it all seems okay. These are things that for many workers, and in many settings, would be crossing boundaries. Muddling up professional and personal. And I would agree. This is tricky territory. But Bernie lives in a country town, as a whitefella works with a high percentage of indigenous young people, and is known, trusted and supported by the families of the young people he works with. He doesn’t know every family, because some of the young people he works with are out of touch, and need to be out of touch, with their families. So not all. But where it fits, Bernie seems to have this delicate balance well sorted

Big brother system.  Bernie is constantly bringing the older boys into the process of looking after, guiding, discussing with and mentoring the younger boys. And this works well. It takes the load off Bernie, it increases the responsibility and sense of responsibility of the older boys, it develops relationships between the boys independently of Bernie, and it gives everyone a more meaningful sense of what is expected of them, and a deeper sense of connection with the overall programme

Always a place.  Bernie says that the boys can choose to stay or they can choose to go. At no time do they get kicked off the programme. This doesn’t mean boys pop in and out as they please. But it does mean that a boy might, for whatever reason, need to be part of the Welding Shed or PAWSUP for a while, then need to be absent for a while. And then return. With discussion, this is fine. Which means there is always an open invitation, always a sense of unbroken connection and belonging on hand; always a welcome

Charm, charisma and individuality. I do think Bernie does have a particularly good way of working with young people. It is his own individual, respectful, engaging, challenging and interesting style. Yet beyond this, I also think there are lessons to be learned and principles to be identified from the work that he does that go beyond who he is as an individual. And I think we can pay attention to these and create other projects/events/programmes that embrace these ideas, principle and guidelines

9 to 5 and obeying the rules. This is a delicate issue here and so this comment needs to be heard for what it genuinely is. I have asked Bernie if he thinks he could do the work he does if he worked regular hours and obeyed rules. Well, the boys are regularly up at 5 to go to dog jumps in other towns. And one of the boys lives 20 ks out of town and Bernie lends him the truck (he is trustworthy and also a legal and good driver) so that young fella can pick up other boys on his way back to the town center the following morning. (Bernie can then sleep in to 5.30!) So not exactly office hours. And when I ask Berrnie about rules he says something like: ‘We don’t exactly break rules. We kind of ignore some, manipulate others, stretch some…’  

This is not a pitch for overworking and breaking rules. But it is a pitch for thinking about what works when, where and who with. One size does not fit all. Youth work always requires great care; it also sometimes requires equal amounts of imagination and bravery.’

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