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Black to the Future: Sankofa Youth Work Practice by Dr Yansie Rolston

August 21st, 2018



March 2017

How Did We Get Here?


I’m in a space where I intend to learn a considerable amount and in some respects, it’s a space filled with trepidation.

I have never worked in a youth club, but have mentored young people including at risk youth, and hosted learning events for young people, but much of my youth work experience has been on a strategic level. I therefore start this journey with a bit of discomfort because I know that some of the decisions made during my tenure at local government have crushed the hopes, desires and dreams of youth workers who provided invaluable services to what was then called ‘BAME’ (Black and Asian Minority Ethnic) youngsters.

How do I know the decisions were crushing?  Because I have sat in meetings when some of the most conscientious, dedicated, hard-working youth workers had to be told that their youth clubs are being closed, that they are going to be made redundant, and that there was no real workable plan to address the needs of the displaced participants who looked forward to the sense of family and comradery they got at the youth clubs.  I’ve heard the anger in their voices, seen their despair, and observed the tears trickle down their faces and wonder to myself how can we (the decision-makers) choose to ignore the value of the youth clubs because it helped to balance the budget.

Insufficient considerations were given to the disaffected youngsters – what would they be doing instead of attending youth club; where would they go for the support they need; who would observe when they are acting out of character; where would they go to upskill themselves; who would be their listening ear as they cope with the challenges of adolescents? So many questions inadequately thought through because the emphasis was on saving £ pounds.

Now I find myself in a space amongst youth workers across the generations carrying out the Black to the Future project – mapping black youth work practice past, present and future. How did I get here? I’m not sure of the answer, but I am pleased that I did because we will be capturing the enriching stories – the good, the bad, and the ugly truths of youth work over the years. We will be finding out what is emerging for black youth here in the UK, Amsterdam and Germany, and the knowledge garnered can hopefully be used to further enhance youth work practice.

Thank you team - the journey has begun.



May 2017

The Coming Together


We meet, we greet, we stand, we sit, we eat, we drink,

We stop for a second to take it all in.

We were in a circle but now we are not.

We are learning about each other, but we still don’t know a lot.

What are we meant to be doing, why are we here?

Who is missing, are they coming or not?

What are we meant to be doing - That what is causing some anxiety, That what is causing excitement, That what is the journey we decided to take together.

We have come together to look backwards, inwards, forwards and outwards, to strip, to critique, to congratulate, to contemplate, to acknowledge, to twist it, and turn it and work out ways to make it better. But who is the WE, and what is the IT?

The We is a collective of youngsters and older than youngsters - some may choose to call us elders but I choose to disclaim the title because the energy in the room is vibrant and youthful. The We is an ecletic mix of youth worker, youth leader, youth work tutor and student from the university, former youth project funder, those who attended youth clubs and those who set them up, all coming together for a common purpose – to work on the IT

So what is the IT? - The IT is a Key Action 2 Erasmus+ funded Black to the Future Project that takes an intergenerational Sankofa approach to Youth Work Practice within African Diaspora Communities in Bonn, London and Amsterdam. The IT is a project using ethnographic type research to find out how first, second and in some instances (such as in London), third generation youth workers, understand the experience of African Diaspora migration, resettlement and integration and how that is developed within youth work.

The We came together on the 16th May with the purpose to start the ball rolling because in 18 months the collective are committed to have produced:

  • a Digital Map – that places the information such as photos, interviews, links to other websites, and stories from youth workers and older than youngsters to a geographical location;
  • a tool kit – a users guide targeted to a diverse audience in terms or race, ethnicity, culture. A guide that is visually engaging with a clear methodology and purpose; and
  • a report with clear objectives, recognising people’s individual and collective experiences, that looks at the differing perspectives, and acknowledges emerging patterns.

The We will embark on a series of transnational study visits and training opportunities to help in the processes of collecting and documenting good youth work practice developed by African Diaspora communities. The first of which will be to Bonn, Germany in June hosted by the MigraAfrica Project.

The We decided that the project journey will involve digital mapping; story telling; recording; artistic interpretations; oral story capturing; creative approaches; and engaging with young people and older than the youngsters in Europe.

It will involve visiting libraries to collect experiences; identifying places young people can go to learn about history such as the Black Cultural Archives and the V & A Museum in the UK, and that it would identify migration points and the stories from the other European partners – Stichting Interlock and MigraAfrica.

But the coming together also brought up memories and the We noted that young people have developed an increased sense awareness of the issues going on around them and they are become more radical and critical in their thinking.

The coming together reminded us of the New Cross fire that occurred during a house party south-east London where thirteen young black people died in the blaze and one died by suicide two years later,

It reminded us of Stephen Lawrence who was murdered in a racially motivated attack and the mishandling of the case and the institutional racism that prevailed at the time and still does,

We remembered the Battle of Lewisham when 500 members of the far-right National Front attempted to march from New Cross to Lewisham and the counter-demonstrations,

We spoke about Linford Christie wining gold and becoming the first man in history to hold the Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth titles in the 100 m, and

We reminisced about the late Muhammad Ali who has continually been recognized for his humanitarian efforts and achieving 56 wins throughout his career.

The IT is taking shape by the WE coming together and starting the learning journey on Youth Work to find out the what, why, how, when, who, where, and why.

BeFunky Collage BttF.jpg


August 2017

Developing the Workbook


It’s Thursday 10th August, Michael, Yvonne C – who gets the extra letter to distinguish her from our other Yvonne who is Yvonne F, and I are having a skype meeting.

We think, we ponder and wonder what should be included in the workbook, we are not yet sure how we want it to look, but spend time working out the content.

We have seen some examples – some good, some excellent, and some were definitely mediocre but they have all been useful guides on how we want to proceed. We must be creative and innovative so that our time is not wasted, the task is to create a tool others will use, that is helpful, insightful and informative.

We begin with History!! Yes, history because after all, the whole premise of Sankofa is about going back to get what was taken. The Black to the Future Project is based on looking backwards at youth work practice in order to move forwards from a position of knowing. Therefore we need to document what happened in the past, and use that knowledge to shape the future. So yes, history will is the key that weaves in and around everything the project explores.

Enquiring minds will wonder about history in all the project activities, History will be included in the visits made, in workshops delivered, even in the meals we eat, yes history will be grounded in everything we do.

And then there is Social Change. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know who was steering youth work practice before? Who were the key players then, and equally interesting who is coming into youth work now - what drives them, what motivates them, what keeps them engaged in it? What do they get from it? Those are just some of the questions we are seeking to answer.

But, what else should be included in the workbook? How will it look?

How about Identity and Identity politics? Maybe others want to know how black youth engaged with LGBTQI+ spaces, or maybe how religion and faith influenced those engagements. We know from experience that it was only later on that black youth could feel engaged in some places, and it was not easy for them to be accepted, so how difficult would it have been with sexuality as a dimension?

And what about Gender, what’s the knowledge around females and youth clubs. Were the youth club activities gender biased? What was the gendered make-up of the youth workers and of the participants.

There is so much to learn about the African Diaspora youth work experiences in Europe. Do we know what models were used, how they were developed, and who were and are the key players in that arena? We wonder about the issues that are experienced by the migrant communities, issues such as navigating the terrain as a refugee who does not speak the local language. How does that play out in terms of youth work practice, what are the experiences of having to learn a second or third language.

There is so much we want to cover in the workbook, but most of all we want it to be engaging, visual and interesting.



October 2017

A traitor in the midst – visit to Tottenham Hotspurs Foundation


In British culture football is everything and for many it is as important as religion. When else do you see men from all walks of life publically expressing their emotions, shedding tears of joy or sadness without fear of being judged. Loyalty in the game is important – When Ashley Cole left Arsenal he was called “Cashley” and “Judas” and fans even waved fake £20 notes at him, and when Emmanuel Adeboyor left the club, first heading to Manchester City and then to Tottenham Hotspurs, he was subject to all manner of abuse.

You should know that an Arsenal supporter going to Tottenham Hotspurs football ground is not the done thing, so the guilt I felt as I passed each security checkpoint was real. I felt as though there was a stamp on my forehead saying ‘Traitor’ in spite of knowing that the purpose of the visit was not football related. So what is it that got me to ‘cross the line’?

As the BTTF project is about exploring youth work practice I thought it would be a great idea for the team from Amsterdam, Germany and the UK to find what is done at the Tottenham Hotspurs Foundation which is the football club’s award winning charitable body. Truth be told we were all excited to be visiting the Spurs grounds.

We found out that the Foundation does some very amazing work locally, pan-london, nationally and internationally from Health and Wellbeing, Education, Employment, and Community Outreach which is the project we were visiting. That team is made up of a core of 10 with roughly 25 casual workers, and our excited group of BTTF members were warmly welcomed by Richard Allicock, the Community Development Manager - a black man from the local area who is determined to do what to can to support people from the community.

We spent a few hours in the company of Keiran and Omari both Development Workers, and Jayden who is training to be a football coach. They were all incredibly open and honest about their life experiences, and explained how being involved in the Foundation kept them safe, gave them discipline and direction, helped them to explore their talents, and shaped their careers. They explained in myriad of ways in which they are passing on the knowledge and skills to other young people in the local area who are disadvantaged, socio-economically challenged, or at risk, to help them get a sense of purpose, and achieve their potential.

You only have to say ‘Tottenham’ and for many it will evoke thoughts of either Spurs football team, the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985, or the 2011 Summer riots. But it’s a shame more people don’t know about the positive, and in some instances life affirming projects such as the community enterprise, and employment and skills hub being delivered by the Tottenham based Foundation.

Just in case you wanted to know, let me tell you about some of the structured and un-structured provisions delivered by the Foundation. They do School Mentoring programmes, apprenticeships, and the Duke of Edinburgh Awards. They also do Coaching Qualification courses, and work with gangs, children in the care, in the prison system or in hospitals ,and take up some of the slack of the Council who are lacking the financial and manpower resources to provide the level of services required. Their strong commitment to workforce development is evident in the 1500 jobs undertaken by local people.

Jayden the confident young man we met is a beneficiary of the services and explained how his own involvement in the foundation began when he was introduced to the football sessions at the age of 7. He is still there after 10 years supporting other youngsters.

But what about the females I hear you ask, well it turns out that the ‘Spurs Ladies Football Club’ which is one of the biggest clubs in London is also involved in the Foundation ensuring that there is female participation in the projects.

The visit was worth every moment of being a traitor in the midst.

Thank you Richie, Keiran, Omari and Jayden for giving us of your precious time, for your openness, ensuring we were fed and watered, and for the Spurs merchandise - mine is now the prized possession of the only Spurs supporter in the family.



March 2018

Dear White HVA


“It’s there, it’s that building over there” says a voice belonging to someone who is showing signs of hunger and tiredness. Weary feet rush into the doors of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences /Hogeschool Van Amsterdam aka HVA, and thankfully the cafeteria is still open for service, so we can refuel our engines. The menu choices are limited because lunch time has long gone and I am a fussy vegetarian with a deep loathing for mushrooms – they smell awful, the texture is revolting and the taste is vile – A word of warning to mushroom lovers, don’t even bother wasting your time trying to convince me of the deliciousness of that ghastly alien thing. So with little choice I settle for Heinz spring vegetable soup (other brands of canned soup is also available).

After being fed and watered we stride up the stairs purposefully. Eager to find out what the session is about the door to the classroom is pushed open with gusto, and immediately I come face to face with an image of a young woman her mouth gagged with tape with the inscription  “DWHVA”. It’s not what I expected, actually I am not sure what I expected, but that image certainly wasn’t it so I was taken by surprise.

What is the context, what’s the background story – I start conjuring up snippets of narrative about the ongoing refugee crisis; domestic violence survival; anti-racism protests. Who is she, is she ok? A quick scan of the room reveals that she is present in the space. Phew, she’s alive and well! But the question remains – What’s this about?

The title of the presentation is  Dear White HVA and I immediately assume there will be a parallel with the series on Netflix “Dear White People” which is a satirical drama about everyday racism in America. But what is the connection?

Mahutin Awunou, Sameha Bouhalhoul and colleagues introduce themselves and give context to the session. Dear White HVA is a collective of concerned, passionate and determined staff, experts, and students working to co-create responses to the challenges of racism and discrimination within the education system. They are unapologetic about tackling issues such as White Privilege, and spoke openly about  the ways in which the institute disadvantages minority students. Their determination to find ways to ensure the college is culturally inclusive is evident, but according to them, addressing systemic, institutional discrimination within the education system can elicit raw, hard hitting discussions that can be hard to swallow. They explain that the focus in only about talking with and empowering others, but ensuring that inclusive education is part and parcel of curriculum development, that teachers, educators, and students are culturally aware and able to contextualise the experiences, behaviours and language in relation to diverse cultural backgrounds. They are also challenging the continued portrayals of Zwarte Piet aka Black Pete in which Dutch people black face.

The group share some of the methodologies they use for example Peer to Peer Education programmes based on the Train the Trainer Principles where the year 2 students pass on their knowledge and experience to the 1st years.  They also host documentary afternoons and open discussions where others are invited to “Come and listen to the experiences of others”.

They are also involved in Urban Collective – The Black Archives which as it happens, we had visited a few hours prior meeting Jessica and Mitchell and learning about the valuable work they are doing in logging and archiving black culture, history and knowledge of the black experience in the Netherlands.

Our participation in the interactive poll was an eye opener and showed the stereotypes many people have about Amsterdam. It reinforced the need for the work of Dear White HVA as advocates against discrimination and inequality in the education system.


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