Thursday. It’s about 3 in the afternoon and I’m already two coffees in. Nestled behind the Bankstown railway station is a quaint café which I’ve walked past many times but have never been to—until today. I don’t usually drink coffee twice a day since it keeps me up at night, but at the time I was trying to keep up with the youth worker who had taken me there. Only 24, Kurtis Lyon is a father, a full-time youth engagement officer and above all, a young man with positive aspirations, so it’s no surprise that up to ten coffees a day and sleep on a needs-be basis is the norm for him.
“Streetwork”, Kurtis says, “is the foundation of BMYS”. What BMYS does is nothing short of phenomenal and what many people—myself included—would consider to be potentially dangerous. At night, the youth workers venture into Bankstown’s alleys, parks, and other hotspots where young people with disadvantaged backgrounds often gather. Not all of them exhibit deviant behaviour or engage in criminal activity; many of them don’t have a safe home to return to or a father/mother/brother/sister figure to look up to.
Kurtis explains to me that it’s sometimes difficult to approach these young men and women because they initially think that the youth workers are “undercover cops”. But with repeated contact, most of them begin to understand what the youth workers are trying to do and wholeheartedly welcome such support. BMYS is unique in that it throws away a centre-based approach in favour of pounding the pavement: Outreach, their flagship programme, is one such example of their aggressive work ethic.
BMYS and its youth workers are refreshingly unconventional in both practice and philosophy. They are anything but figures of authority. Homebass, a popular but now defunct space established by BMYS, gave young men and women from different cultural backgrounds a chance to interact with one another without fear of prejudice. It is in such environments that they are afforded a rare opportunity to open up and to tell their stories. The youth workers are not there to tell them what to do and what not to do: they’re there as a mentor, a friend, or even a brother or sister; a father or mother.
And it has been this way since at least 1988, the year in which BMYS was first incorporated. The history of BMYS is very much the history of Bankstown, which means that it’s a history with equal parts strife and equal parts hope. Bursts of mass immigration from the 80s and onwards have given my community a lot of time for fighting and a lot of time for working things out. At the centre of this story is Bankstown’s youth.
There are many reasons why I approached BMYS but the most important one is this: a crisis of identity. You see, I have lived in Bankstown for as long as I can remember but I didn’t attend high school here—the formative days of my youth were spent away from my local community. Having enrolled in HSTY3902 and viewed many amazing pieces of local history, I have seen the influence which local communities can have on an individual’s identity. What is it that allows someone to claim to be from a certain place and not from another?
There is just so much to learn and to get through but to my surprise, my greatest fear is not that I won’t meet the submission deadline in time. Rather, how can I approach this project without making it seem like a 20-page article or a 20-minute video is the sum of BMYS’ achievements? It’s been a fast-paced two days since I’ve started working with BMYS but it’s already clear that all that they’ve done and will continue to do cannot be put into words, pictures, or numbers. But anyway… we’ll see.