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Creating the Youth sector’s Black History Today | Our Thoughts


For ‘Our Thoughts’ and in celebration of Black History Month, Director of Programmes Sope Otulana considers the impact and value of creating a ‘Black history of the youth sector’.

I grew up experiencing Black History Month as a Nigerian immigrant to the U.S. Part of the experience of moving to the UK as an adult has been the joy of embedding myself in the wonderfully vibrant patchwork of Black folks in diaspora here, and participating in the sharing of shared and personal histories that accompany the annual reflections about Blackness in this country that take place each October. On both sides of the Atlantic, Black History Month is an opportunity to elevate and make visible the contributions Black people have made to society.  

In keeping with this spirit, I had originally thought I would anchor this blog in a discussion of the actions and contributions of Black youth workers to the creation and development of the youth sector as we now know it. However, as is the case across other areas of history, I found that contribution difficult to trace. The absence is both in time and in tale. Black people’s innovations, activism and leadership in response to their communities’ needs are largely lost in the mainstream telling of ‘the events’, unseen in the sequential listing of key dates that form the record of remarkable progress in advocating for young people’s rights.  They are also generally obscured in much of ‘the account’, the stories that string those dates together and create the narrative we tell about how youth provision developed in the UK and where it should go next.  

As many have reflected, Black history is still being written today. And with this year’s encouragement to embrace #ActionsNotWords, I am reminded that we don’t have to wait until next October to make visible Black people’s contributions to the youth sector in a way that goes beyond individual anecdotes about good practice, and leads to a systemic valuing of Black young people and practitioners. If we are to create Black history in the present, we must highlight and acknowledge the ways that the diversity of Black voices, knowledge and lived experience enrich our approaches to youth provision and policy.  

Our vision is for all young people to have access to high quality services that give them the skills they need to explore the world around them, and ultimately thrive. Though the precise language is unique to YMCA George Williams College, I believe the sentiment is shared across the sector, by practitioners, funders and policymakers alike. However, the world young Black people explore and where Black practitioners work is one in which racism and racialisation play a damaging function in society’s systems and institutions—including those within which youth provision operates. One of the most exciting prospects of creating Black history in the present would be tapping into what some have called the ‘expansive ambitions’ of those who created Black history in the past, and drawing rich heritage of pioneering Black activists in the 1970s and 1980s who developed and delivered services for young people in their communities.  

Though the term is fraught, identity does matter, and it is shaped by and reflects generations of dynamic interplay between social differentiation,  politics, and power—especially power to shape systems and set standards.  What we count as good, what we consider relevant or appropriate, and what we view as a positive outcome are all considered through those identities. Creating a Black history of the youth sector will mean that Black identities and experiences shape the entire sector’s understanding of these matters. We can move from words to action in response to some questions: How well do those of us entrusted to define impact and quality through research and evaluation share that power with Black practitioners and young people? How does a lack of these experiences narrow the lens in which we observe provision and services? What are the consequences of this? 

Various networks in the sector are conducting research into the impact of institutional racism on youth provision. While welcome, those making decisions informed by this research must move beyond the realm of analysis, and commit to actions that enable the youth sector to embrace anti-racism as a core tenet of practice, and actively disrupt institutional and structural racism.  

Turning words into action will also require accountability. Within the team at the College, we sometimes use the language of those ‘on the pointy end’ of inequity when discussing young people and practitioners whom anti-Black bias is not conceptual, and reflect on the extent to which our equity efforts would pass muster with them. 

The directive of anti-racism is societal transformation, and the empowerment of Black and minoritised groups that isn’t contingent on conflating whiteness with excellence, or only accessible to a small elite. The directive of youth work is to support young people’s personal, social and educational development, and enable them to reach their full potential. This year’s BHM hashtag reminds us that neither of these goals can be accomplished without turning consultations, discussions, and debates into action.