We need to talk about how we talk about young people.
For a sector that is supposedly dedicated to improving young people’s chances in life, we use a lot of language that stereotypes, marginalises and ultimately disempowers young people. After many years of listening to this damaging discourse disguised as inspiration, I have divested from the language of raising aspirations.
Hear me out.
The terminology of raising aspirations is everywhere in the youth and education sector. Schools recruit Assistant Heads with this as a speciality. Charity funding is predicated on the promise to raise the aspirations of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. All of this aspirations-focused intervention and activity would suggest that the reason that so many young people are struggling is in their mindset: they simply do not aspire to achieve their best possible outcome, so they don’t.
But is that really the problem?
I’ve spent enough time around young people to know that they do not lack big dreams. What young people lack is a system that is set up for them to achieve those dreams. The reality is that we live in a society that relies on some people being worse off than others. All the narrative of raising aspirations does is locate the problem (i.e. low aspirations), and thereby the culpability, with the young person. This inevitably leads to pursuing solutions (raising aspirations, building confidence, developing resilience) that completely ignore the reasons that young people’s aspirations might be low in the first place.
A young person’s marginalisation does not occur in a vacuum: they are marginalised by a system that relies on this to happen in order to maintain its survival.
If our work with our young people focuses solely on their individual progress through raising aspirations, building confidence, exposure to role models, etc., without any consideration of this systemic context, we will never run out of disadvantaged young people. Our work will never be done. In Dutch we call this dweilen met de kraan open: mopping while the tap is running, in other words, an endless and fundamentally futile endeavour.
This is not to say that individual triumph over the oppressive structure isn’t a victory – it is! It just isn’t the victory you think it is. It isn’t justice. These individual stories of success often serve to legitimise the system by proving that it is possible to “win” within it, so as to distract from the system’s inherent injustice. The oppressive structure by its very nature will always allow a few people to succeed in order to maintain its own image as a functioning, equal opportunities system that can work for everyone as long as you work hard enough, all the while ensuring a never-ending pipeline of marginalised young people.
So let’s stop talking about raising aspirations.
If all our interventions ever do is tell young people how to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps, without also acknowledging that there aren’t enough bootstraps, we are leading them to believe that it was always their problem to fix or avoid. If we don’t acknowledge the systemic nature of their experiences of disadvantage, we risk gaslighting entire generations with the message that if they’re not succeeding, it’s because they aren’t aspiring to do so.
We are complicit.
Saul Alinsky wrote about those who would go into communities marginalised by society, not to organise them to rebel and fight their way out of the mess, but to get them adjusted, so not only will they continue to live in hell; they’ll also like it. “A higher form of social treason would be difficult to conceive – yet this infamy is perpetrated in the name of charity.”*
So much of youth work is wrapped up in a discourse that actively obscures the structural causes of the problems it attempts to remedy. If as youth workers we only ever focus on helping young people overcome the challenges of marginalisation, we are part of the problem. In fact, our work would then serve to enable and legitimise the system that marginalises them. We should actively be working on preventing that marginalisation from happening in the first place. This requires locating its root causes, and dismantling the systems that routinely marginalise our young people. It also requires a radical reimagining of the world we exist in. This is not to say that the youth sector’s work can’t be meaningful. But we have to critically analyse the role that it plays within a system that will fundamentally never be changed by this work alone. We have to dream bigger. So let’s stop mopping the floors for a minute.
Let’s turn off the tap.
- Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, 1946.
This guest piece is by Imane Maghrani, Spark Programmes Director at The Advocacy Academy.