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Jo Hrabi headshot

10 November 2020

Jo Hrabi, Youth Empowerment Coordinator at Cambridge House, was the winner of the Youth Professional of the Year at the London Youth Awards in November 2019. One year on, we interviewed Jo about the experience of being a youth worker in 2020.

What was the situation for youth work and the youth sector in London going into 2020?

My biggest concern was the funding. I don’t want to dwell on the lows, but it would be silly not frame it in that context. Where we’ve lost something like 70% of our funding from government, it makes it tricky. Because we then have to clamour for funding from trusts and foundations, which often don’t have a huge pool of money. That’s been the context that we’re now working under and have been for a few years.

That being said, there is so much amazing work being done on the ground and I’ve seen lots of youth programmes going from strength to strength. Ours is, certainly!

Innovative is a buzzword at the moment, but I’m so passionate that intervention needs to be long-term. That’s the problem with funding at the moment is that they will fund small, pop up programmes. But those existing ones that are actually doing a really good job chipping away year after year are crying out for funding and not receiving it.

The issues are so much broader and youth work is picking up the slack. An education system that does not always cater for people with behavioural, emotional or learning needs; a mental health system where you’re waiting month if not years for intervention; and poverty. Charities are having to pick up the slack, but with very few resources.

I read about the Government’s new £500million Youth Investment Fund, but loads of organisations have fallen by the wayside because of lack of funding and then new organizations are going to have to come in and replace them. What that means is there’s a whole generation of young people who’ve had their support pulled from them, only for new organisations to come in whenever short-term funding becomes available and have to start from scratch. Trying to create new trusting relationships is going to be even more difficult now. Funding across the board just needs to be more stable.

We did some research with young people where I’m based after their youth organisation went under, and a number of those young people have tragically been killed since. They weren’t getting the peer mentorship or an older trusted adult, who they might not have in their household or anywhere else in their life. Those service users were left high and dry, and what they really missed was mentorship and food – food poverty was a massive issue for them.

Before the pandemic, the biggest challenges for young people were mental health, emotional well-being, and lack of mentorship.

Mentorship is so important because so many young people have low-level mental wellbeing needs and others are in perpetual crisis. Official intervention will come in through social services, or CAMHS and the NHS. That will only last for a certain amount of time, but then nobody is there to swoop in and pick up the pieces and be the mediator. A lot of young people will slip though the net; they won’t go to their GP and refuse to engage with mental health services.

They need somebody like a youth worker who will hold their hand and take them to appointments, and act as their advocate with social services. They need a trusted adult, who they have a really good bond with.

What was the experience of being a youth worker during the pandemic, particularly in lockdown?

The pandemic has obviously affected all our lives, in particular young people who didn’t get the chance to sit their GCSEs or A-Levels, as well as those transitioning into uni life. That being said, there have been positives. It’s actually been really refreshing to have the opportunity to reflect on how we run our programme.

I’ve had to ask how I can change what I do, because I’ve always put such an onus on face-to-face work. To me, that is still the best way of creating a real relationship, but where that wasn’t possible, I’ve been doing one-to-one mentoring over Zoom or on the phone. There are some young people I’ve never met face-to-face because we continue to receive referrals. Actually we have formed a really good bond!

It’s made us older people realise that tech is such a large part of young people’s lives and they adapted really easily. Some of the feedback was that often they found it easier; they were able to disclose things and cry in their own bedrooms where they felt supported. They could fall asleep or whatever way they had of soothing themselves afterwards. Some of them would actually share a lot quicker than they might have done had we met face-to-face at Cambridge House.

Working from home has been a challenge. Because I’m not going into Cambridge House and leaving at six o’clock, it’s been easier to extend that last phone call for an extra two hours. I can give more of my time to young people, but I’ve had to learn a different way of respecting my own boundaries and making sure that I don’t burn out.

One of the reasons I think our engagement has been high is our services are holistic and they’re an open forum for young people to say what they want to say. We’re not dependent on meeting up and playing football for example; what we do can be done from young people’s bedrooms. Last year’s cohort were invited to be peer mentors this year – it builds a family network. They hear how those mentors have changed and benefited from the programme over a year. To hear that from another young person’s perspective has been really powerful for them. Even unofficial peer support in the group workshops makes it more tangible for young people.

Role models, motivation and inspiration are so powerful. Having another young person say I was bullied, these are the things that helped me, and we can talk about it again in a group safe setting online and try out different things that might work. They have found it very motivating that they can see that other young people who are similar to them have come out the other side and are thriving.

What should be our ambitions for youth work in the future and as we look beyond the pandemic?

I deferred this question to young people because they’re the ones we should be centring this around.

A lot of the feedback I got was around the visibility of youth work. Youth work isn’t really well-known and it doesn’t have a massive reputation, but “in reality youth workers make the biggest impact on children’s lives.” Across the board young people said youth workers helped me more than anyone but it’s not out there in a public forum. Charities are picking up the slack of statutory bodies. Our names aren’t out there!

One young person said there should be less tokenistic inclusion of young people in wider discussions. I think young people feel dictated to, so support activities should be designed in collaboration with them, more on their terms. Young people do have busy lives. It’s just such a difficult time of life and then they’re asked to be involved in things where there’s all these caveats and they have to be available immediately. I want to hear from the young people, because often they’re the ones with the solutions.

If we were talking again in 10 years, I’d want to be able to run a smooth service from now until then instead of worrying about finding funding year on year. There’s a panic that every cohort is your final cohort.

I want young people to be empowered and not dependent on me or any other youth worker. But I want them to have the comfort that I’m there in the background if they ever need me for anything.

What was it like for you to be named Youth Professional of the Year last year?

Being voted youth professional of the year last year, was literally the proudest moment of my life. Talking about it now, my eyes are tearing up. If you do this job for the right reasons, you don’t do it for the recognition. You do it for the love of it.

I got into youth work because of my own personal circumstances as a teenager. It was difficult but because of that, I can empathise. I can talk to young people. I try to understand them by listening openly and asking the right questions, and not be shocked. Genuinely I can’t think of anything I’m more proud of because I just love it so much.


You can read more about Youth Work Week at London Youth last week, or find our latest news and updates here