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Work with girls

Contributions to CYC-Net’s discussion group over the past month not published at the time by reason of their length and meatier nature ...

A member of the group had commented on the growing proportion of girls coming into care, and the fact that more of the girls were difficult or involved in the youth justice system. Ideas on programming with girls was requested.

Fred Anderson, Residential Treatment Unit Team Leader (Oasis), Batshaw Youth and Family Centres, Montreal, Quebec, replied ...

So many of my friends and co-workers expressed concern and bafflement. I had, after all, escaped. I was the one cuckoo who flew over the nest. I was the parolee banging on the jailhouse door in search of refuge from a now unfamiliar and threatening world. Better by far, I was the death row inmate blessed with a last minute stay of execution! My behaviour was, alas; proof enough of their long held suspicions that I was not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Had it not always been rumoured that it took me 1/2 hours to watch 60 Minutes. What of the occasion for these public ruminations on the status of my mental health? I had decided after much reflection, to leave the world of the "group home" and return to the residential treatment services division (Dorval Campus - Oasis).

The usual suspects
So many of my co-workers were consistent in their resolve to never practice in an all girls' setting. They are seemingly unshakeable in their long held view that girls are so much more difficult than boys. Girls were so sneaky, ungrateful, nasty and vindictive. The world of girls in out-of-home care, according to them, is best viewed through the prism of a preoccupation with cosmetics, phone times and boys. These were not observations considered to be potential linkages to differential treatment considerations but rather the notion of "being difficult" as a delimit to engagement and self-actualisation. These views were not, as some might suspect, confined to male co-workers. I had previously worked with girls on the Dorval Campus. So I knew that it could be an extremely thrilling, and challenging experience. I knew in what ways I had changed during this period in my life. I knew in what ways that my personal and professional lives had connected, so that I was able to chart real learning, satisfaction, and growth. I knew that I was not going back to the same place. Alice Walker, author of, The Colour Purple has a new book entitled The Same River Twice: Honouring the Difficult, in which she observes: What I discovered in any event was interesting. An old idea: you really cannot step into the same river twice. Each time it is different, and so are you.

Clients and citizens
Adolescent girls are not merely difficult but are ever changing in their struggle to make meaning, to embrace, and fight their way through the difficult. Acts of assertiveness manifested by adolescent girls are, all too frequently, labelled as "being difficult" or "inappropriate acting out". However, these acts are often legitimate sources of resiliency and strivings for an equivalent voice in how they would like to see their world put together and run. The challenge is to embrace the "difficult" in search of a new discourse as to how we work with young women faced with diminished life chances and difficult choices. Such a vision must start from the premise of supporting interventions which enable adolescent girls to identify themselves as knowing actors; defining their reality, shaping their new identity, naming their history, and transforming their lives for themselves.

My return to the world of adolescent girls' services is based on the recognition that groundings and practice must concentrate on promoting resiliency and self-esteem in adolescent girls. A substantial body of research and practice wisdom exists to support this argument. This approach maintains that these clients' ongoing drive towards personal growth and competence requires us to focus on their assets and build environments that support the growth process. Resiliency research has demonstrated the significance of positive relationships and perceptions of opportunity in the lives of young people considered to be at risk. There is a body of complementary research which demonstrates that group work intervention can be a valuable dimension to more traditional casework service. Additionally, adolescents have been the most frequent age group targeted for group work since they are developmentally predisposed to more open communication with peers rather than adults. It is through talking to one another and doing things together that people get connected and this connectedness leads to shared meaning. So the goals of grounding and promoting resiliency and self-esteem in adolescent girls is best accomplished by creating a structured and safe space wherein girls are encouraged to:

Giving voice to feelings
When girls voice their ideas and opinions in a safe environment, it strengthens their confidence and encourages them to express themselves more fully. By examining cultural expectations in a safe and supportive setting, girls gain greater awareness of their options and strengthen their ability to make choices that are consistent with their values, interests and talents.

A call to action
I invite other interested practitioners to develop structured support groups designed to promote resiliency and serf-esteem in adolescent girls, help girls maintain authentic connection with peers and adults in the care setting, and the community, counter trends towards self-doubt, and allow for genuine self-expression through verbal sharing and creative activity. Talking, listening and self-expression through creative focused activities such as role playing, drama, journals, poetry, drawing, collage, and so on. Engaging and grounding in themes which are related to girls' lives, such as being a girl, trusting themselves, friendship, body image, goals, competition, and decision-making.

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In a discussion on building self-esteem readers had been warned to look beyond mere achievement and external approval.

Hans Skott-Myhre wrote in to say: Below is a bit of rather dense prose about youth/adult relations and the self that I have playing with lately. Personally I think self esteem is a profoundly reactionary idea with little to recommend it ...

It has been my observation, as a youth-worker for over a quarter century, that traditional youth-work works very hard to construct young people as coherent, singular identities with a unitary psychological core self rooted in western psychological notions of individuation, esteem, purpose, boundary and assertion. Deviance from these normative formations is both expected as a “normal“ part of the disintegration/reintegration process predicted in the western cultural formation of adolescence and corrected as part of the transition to adult privilege as a “mature“ adult. As we have outlined previously, this construction of adolescence within western capitalist culture serves multiple purposes and holds distinct political agendas both culturally and economically. The political formation of subjectivity, developed through the disciplinary apparatus surrounding adolescence, has significant implications for the de-colonization of adult subjectivity within the space of youth-adult relations. As Judith Butler (1990) points out in relation to gender:

If the “cause“ of desire, gesture, act can be localized with the “self“ of the actor, then the political regulations and disciplinary practices which produced that ostensibly coherent gender are effectively displaced from view. The displacement of a political and discursive origin of gender identity onto a psychological “core“ precludes an analysis of the political constitution of the gendered subject and its fabricated notions about the ineffable interiority of its sex or its true identity.(p. 174)

Similarly, if the struggles of youth as a marginalized and disenfranchised population/multitude can be localized within the psychological confines of the core self, then the political and cultural constructions of youth as subject are obscured from view. The local knowledge of youth about their own conditions is always subjugated to the hegemonic knowledge of adult society and its developmental sciences. This framework constructs youth as a,

... colonial subject. . .constructed within “an apparatus of power which contains, in both senses of the word an other knowledge: a knowledge that is arrested and fetishistic and circulates through colonial discourses that limited form of otherness, that fixed form of difference, that I have called the stereotype. (Babbha as cited in Chambers, 1990 p.27)

This stereotype of youth, as core identity, locks and circulates the vibratory oscillation in youth-adult relations as a space that can only repeat its production within the confines of striated space. All variance must be appropriated to this end and brought into circulation as a part of this repetitive circuit. Hence, constructions of youth as offering viable alternative constructions of society or subjectivity must be discounted as meaningful, on the basis of their idealism, lack of maturity or emotional instability. Transience of purpose, focus, ideal or identity is seen as confirmatory of this construction of youth as stereotyped transition to an idealized utopian maturity conceived of as stable, continuous, and responsible to a core identity and function. To rethink this formulation requires an alternative construction of subjectivity that steps away from psychological subjective essentialism and begins an exploration of self as surface, plane and line; a heterogeneous array of mobile assemblages; an interplay of space and intersection. Such a:

... perspective suggests an overlapping network of histories and traditions, a heterogeneous complexity in which positions and identities. . .cannot be taken for granted, and are not interminably fixed but tend towards flux. (Chambers 1990, p.27)

For youth and youth subculture, I would argue these networks are played out on planes of cultural pastiche and collage. They are constructed not as essential or core identity formations but as fractured and discontinuous lines of improvisational performance as characterized in hip-hop free styling, punk/skin slam dancing, the dynamics of the mosh pit, the constant rechild and youth careled agglomerations of punk fashion and the multitudinous splintering of youth subcultural trends such as skinheads into old school, new school, sharps, street punks, crustys, mobs, etc.

This shattering and dispersion of youth subcultural identity cannot be accomplished through self-conscious processes of analysis, categorization, review and reflection. Rather it is an effect of radical performances of self. The becoming selves of youth subculture are produced as call and response. Not, however, in the sense of reaction, but in the relational dynamism of the call-response singularity. It is, in this regard, that youth subcultures produce lines that cut both across dominant cultural constructions, but also slice open fissures and produce cracks within the edifices of psychological and rational self. In this regard youth subcultural formations of self are performative in the sense Bordo (1993) describes in delineating the work of Judith Butler and Irving Goffman: “For Butler, as for Goffman, our identities . . . do not express some authentic “core“ self but are the dramatic effect (rather than the cause) of our performances.“ (p.289)

Such effects exist within grids of Foucauldian power and along lines of Deleuzian desire. They become visible in the intersect points, knots and nodes outlined by Foucault, but they exist in full force along the lines in between. These are lines of infinite edge, whose substance is scavenged in tangles of promiscuous crossings of culture, history, ideology, technology, art, politics, the sciences (human and otherwise) – to choose but a few among many. The general terrain of these crossings has been outlined as encompassing primarily three domains. As St Pierre (1997) points out:

Deleuze and Parnet say that both individuals and groups are made up of a tangle of three kinds of lines: (a) lines of rigid segmentarity (sedentary lines like family, school, profession etc.: (b) more supple lines of molecular segmentarity (migrant lines that operate at the same time as rigid lines but confound their rigidity, e.g, the hidden or mad things that happen within families or schools, or professions, etc.); and (c) lines of flight (nomadic lines of creativity, lines that are always in the middle, lines of flux-not synthesis-that disrupt dualisms with complementarity). (p. 37)

The performative subjectivities of youth/subculture are certainly made up of these tangles, while simultaneously traversing them on lines of flight, whose edges pick up bits of flotsam-jetsam/cultural debris rending such bits loose from their moorings along the lines of rigid or molecular segmentarity. Such material collides, slams, melds and dances forward along a hybridized line of becoming that holds continual multi-valent tension along its full length. This tension in the skinhead/punk community constructs massively polar oppositional continuums such as the political range encompassing nazi's, anti-racists, communists, anarchists, isolationists and communitarians all within and along the same line of subcultural subjectivity. This effect, which becomes visible at points of intersection, where certain schools, mobs or musical forms become identifiable, exists in an ongoing dynamism as a vibratory impetus towards release that drives the line continually forward. It is this pre-subjective nomadic effect that outlines the recuperative spaces within which new forms of youth-adult relations might be formed.