What constitutes youth work around the world today? What does youth work or being a youth worker look like? What barriers are faced and how are they overcome? In this article, Colin Brent argues that we need to reconsider what we see as international youth work and consider the difference it can make to the lives of young people around the world. He also invites you to discuss and explore the challenges of youth work today.
International youth work – put this into any search engine and you will come up with the usual suspects – international NGOs, university courses and conferences. All perfectly reasonable, presumably all engaging in important work to further the lives of young people.
However, far from the rounds of supportive statements on youth at global summits or continental cooperation projects, around the world there are countless small projects, rooted in their local communities, maybe only working with a small number of young people, who form the backbone of youth work internationally. And whilst these projects may lack any significant profile outside of their area, they are often the ones working with the young people most affected by the fluxes of global capital and the struggles they entail. From the young people increasingly alienated from the work market in Western Europe to the victims of the wars of central Africa, it is here that we can find the importance, as well as the impotence, of youth work around the world.
In the face of the enormity of these global processes, local, small-scale youth work projects can feel like little more than a distraction from the inequalities many young people face, offering just enough to ensure they feel they have a stake in society, without the possibilities to enact real change.
So what is it that youth work and youth workers do in the face of these issues? Working with the day-to-day problems and triumphs of young people, it can sometimes feel that youth workers are doing nothing more than providing a brief respite in the face of the maelstrom of far more powerful forces. Indeed, it is easy to question whether these are issues that youth work can have any effective influence on at all.
The importance of youth work, therefore, lies in its role as a catalyst, a stepping stone in young people’s engagement with the processes that affect them, supporting them to build resources to overcome, either individually or communally, the barriers they confront. This means continuing to support young people to achieve their immediate goals, whilst encouraging them to engage in the world, to explore their role in global processes. We must work with young people as both local and global actors. Supporting young people to navigate their differing and conflicting positions in these spheres can be challenging, but is the best way to ensure the relevance of youth work in young people’s lives.
At any place in the world, youth workers find themselves situated between the pulls of the local and the global, the pressures of the material world confronted with the need for social and spiritual development. By adapting to local conditions, whilst engaging with broader processes, youth work is in its nature endlessly diverse. It is this diversity that enables on-the-ground, day-to-day youth work to remain effective in the face of global forces. This allows youth work to play an important role in mediating between conflicting forces, and means that even the smallest project can situate itself as a key player in truly international youth work.
We hope that this section of youthpolicy.org will become a place were the issues involved in youth work around the world can be aired and explored, the dilemmas discussed and the stories of day-to-day practise told. For anyone with a stake in youth work, whether it be a part-time volunteer on a local project or a high-level policy maker, we invite you to join in with this process. If you wish to contribute in any way, please leave a message in the comments.