Published by The Policy Press, 2009. ISBN: 978 1 84742 323 8. 304 pp. £19.99 (paperback) (£14.99 online)
Review by Alison Gilchrist
I read Jeremy Brent’s thought-provoking and insightful book with growing regret that I had not taken the opportunity to have more conversations with him during the time when we were both living and working in Bristol, as well as studying part-time for our PhDs by pursuing very similar lines of inquiry. Jeremy uses his substantial experience as a youth worker on an estate in Bristol to reflect on the nature of community and the role of the practitioner as an ‘inside-outsider’ working to support community aspirations and deal with troubles as they arise. From our different perspectives we came to very similar conclusions: that communities are elusive, complex and riven with divisions and differences, which makes the job of the practitioner difficult, rewarding and full of dilemmas. In Jeremy’s case, his role in running a youth centre focused on the energy, creativity and rebelliousness of young people, and he clearly responded with great empathy and awareness of the wider social and economic context.
He is critical of romantic, homogeneous notions of community, and talks knowledgeably about the complex dynamics of community politics and passions. Like me, he is interested in the networks of relationships that form the ecology of local life and at one point he writes: “the more connections, the more exciting the territory” (p145). Even at its most challenging, Jeremy clearly relished his long-term ‘inside-outsider’ role, illustrating this through a bricolage of anecdote and diary notes, that describe critical episodes and accounts of his work to support different community initiatives.
The book is based on his PhD thesis and as such can be heavy-going in places, with a surfeit of academic terms and theory mainly drawn from post-modernist philosophers. Nevertheless he uses these ideas effectively to analyse his experience. He is thus able to contest and compare images of the estate, to explore the dispersed nature of power, and to consider his own mixed feelings and motivations.
The book makes a strong argument, backed up by powerful evidence, for ‘traditional’ community-based youth work, asserting quite rightly in my view, that “targets are not necessary for outcomes” (p266). I particularly valued his description of the youth and community worker as a ‘kink in the chain of command’ between those who fund and manage the work, and his explanation of the role of ‘coaxer’ in encouraging the young people to expand their horizons and overcome the derogatory reputations they gave grown up with. He writes convincingly about the strain of working in situations where divergent needs and values pull in different directions. Jeremy’s identity and accountability as a youth worker shifts subtly depending on circumstances, but his commitment to the young people and the people of Southmead is clear throughout. His untimely death in 2006 has been a loss to us all.
Searching for community is a valuable addition to the literature on ‘community’. It successfully combines grounded experience with academic, reflective analysis. I strongly recommend it to all students and practitioners of youth and community work.