Youth & Community Work

Nine dilemmas that will shape the professionalising youth work sector across the globe

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Globally, youth work remains, to this day, a vastly under-supported profession. Much of the infrastructure is absent or lacking, from training and education to evaluation and monitoring. Financial backup is fragile, and too often play- or battleground for political negotiations. The Commonwealth seeks to play a key role in taking youth work forward through professionalisation. Against that backdrop, 300+ youth work professionals met in Pretoria for the 2nd Commonwealth Conference on Youth Work. These are our first impressions.

In March 2016, the Commonwealth Youth Programme convened the 2nd Commonwealth Conference on Youth Work (CCYW). Hosted in Pretoria by the Government of South Africa, the University of South Africa (UNISA), and the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) of South Africa, the conference set out to ‘re-examine the role of youth work practitioners and academics in engaging young people in the development of their countries.’

The conference brought together 300+ youth work practitioners, academics and activists with a shared interest in research, practice and policy on youth work. One objective in particular—to accelerate the recognition of, and investment in, youth work as a profession—and its corresponding programme strand around professionalising youth work piqued our interest, also because it connected well to our involvement in the 2013 youth sector conference on professionalisation in Tallinn.

From India to Malta, South Africa to Australia, Ghana to Guyana, the conference was a great opportunity to explore different approaches and attempts to professionalisation across the Commonwealth. For a recap of the conference, have a look at the #CCYW2016 hashtag on Twitter, where most of the online action was.

We had the opportunity to speak on the final day on global perspectives on youth work professionalisation. Andreas from our team, who started out in youth work before being drawn into research, used the chance to share his take on the discussions at the conference by looking at nine questions, maybe even dilemmas, that accompany the professionalisation of youth work - and that need answering. Many thanks to everyone who helped put together the presentation, and contributed to the discussion!

Question 1: Why do we individualise the problem?


We spend a lot of time talking about the professionalisation of youth workers, but hardly any time about the professionalisation of the youth work environment. Think about the working environment, the salaries, the insurances, the protection, the management… So many aspects worth considering, and yet we tend to focus on the individual youth worker.

Question 2: Why do we localise the problem?


We overemphasise local youth work environments in our attempt to look at youth work contextually. Many struggles are systemic, though, and cannot be resolved at local level. Regional, national, supra- and international policy frameworks frame youth work as well, and we need to consider them adequately, too.

Question 3: Why do belittle the problem?


We fail to acknowledge the scale of the problem. In the majority of countries, there are not enough formal education offers for youth work. The working conditions of youth workers are fragile, at best, and often (close to) exploitative. There are many great initiatives out there to change that, but the problem is bigger than we care to admit.

Question 4: How will we deal with stricter standards?


With professionalisation come new, more and stricter standards. At the same time, youth work relies on, believes in and thrives on freedom and creativity. Will we be able to enshrine the freedom of the profession in those standards? How can we codify freedom, its reach, its value - and its limits?

Question 5: How will we deal with stricter rules?


With professionalisation come new, more and stricter rules and laws. Currently, we often have the liberty of being able to ignore rules when we believe it’s in the best interest of the young people we work with (and often we are right). But how will this change when we will have to start to consciously break rules?

Question 6: How will we deal with stricter authorities?


With professionalisation come new, more and stricter hierarchies. There will be line managers, middle managers, top managers. Right now, we often operate in de facto hierarchy-free, sometimes even management-free, environments. And we love to challenge authority, even take to the streets. How will that (have to) change?

Question 7: When will we start differentiating?


We confront anyone claiming that young people are a homogenous group, but we treat our own profession in just the same way. Youth work is heterogenous, and treating it otherwise not only risks loosing nuance, it also creates an unhealthy insider-outsider-dichotomy. From sports to prisons, we cover a lot of ground. Let’s respect that.

Question 8: When will we start negotiating?


We are very quick at taking sides: we know what’s good. Media might label uprisings as riots, politics might dismiss young voters as confused: we will always be firmly on the side of young people. But we not only compromise young people’s agency by being angry on their behalf, we also loose the powerful position of being able to negotiate.

Question 9: When will we start organising?


The best quote of the conference - not ours - “We fight, we bitch, we bite … but we don’t organise.” There is no better way of describing the absurdity of everyone calling for a more professional youth work environment, but the outright refusal of youth workers to get organised and make themselves more independent from state structures.

This was probably the most strongly resonating message of the conference - that it’s time to overcome the mixture of apathy and aversion to self-organising, but also that there is a strong will, not the least from the Commonwealth Secretariat, to earnestly support youth workers as their profession changes.

The message of #CCYW2016 is loud and clear: if youth workers start organising themselves (at last!), substantial support will be available.

— Youthpolicy (@youthpolicy) March 10, 2016

Let’s see whether the demand, and invitation, gets heard.

Photo credits: (all creative commons licensed): syntopia | juditk | manicmaya | 67289482@N07 | 93102993@N06 | dfbarrero | billysbirds | ionics | 69er.