“The role of a mentor is to encourage people to manage their own learning and development… surely there is no room for repetition or ‘character cloning’.” Youth workers are often presented as mentors and role models for young people. At the same time, it feels like the vast majority of the world undervalues the social impact of youth work. Do youth workers make suitable role models? Why wouldn’t they?! A contribution by Chris Ward.

Role models and identity in youth work
‘People seldom improve when they have no other model but themselves to copy.’

Oliver Goldsmith

Very few of us can fail to have recognised the significant influence of individuals during our life time, especially at key stages of our own development. Individuals who we held in such high regard that consequentially led us to challenge our own aspirations through a desire to replicate their behaviour and attributes. If we accept the status of a role model in its purest form—a person who serves as an example by demonstrating behaviour and characteristics emulated by others—then one should indeed consider youth workers as a potential source of inspiration. Furthermore, if we assume that characteristics we consider desirable in our profession—those of patience, integrity and creativity—when combined with the values with seek to instil in our practice—those of honesty, trust and fairness—are on show to the impressionable young people we engage with daily, then surely it becomes an inevitable consequence of relationship-driven youth work.

Why wouldn’t a youth worker make a suitable role model?

The title instead could read ‘why wouldn’t a youth worker make a suitable role model?’ The attributes I believe I possess has enabled me to work productively and enthusiastically with many young people across a diverse range of situations and communities. I feel my abilities in making strong connections, building emphatic relationships but maintaining clear and consistent professional boundaries should be celebrated. Though it often feels like the vast majority of the professional world is dismissive or undervalues the important social impact of youth work and the significance of investing in young people themselves, this doesn’t mean we should be equally dismissive of our own powerful potential in positively influencing those we work closest with.

A true role model should never aspire to be replicated.

Paradoxically, however, I believe that a true role model should never aspire to be replicated. If as a youth worker I consciously try to create a role for the young people I work with to adhere to, having made a judgement on what needs a young person possesses, I ultimately disregard a key value of our profession – to engage with young people by accepting their own starting points. By deliberately trying to influence them in this way, I will not have appreciated the unique nature of their individual characters. Implementing a pied-piper approach, dictating the terms of young people’s involvement in the youth project and actively encouraging the replication of set behaviour without allowing the questioning of need or significance to the young people themselves, would ultimately be a betrayal of principles.

Role models and identity in youth work

If we understand that the role of a mentor is to encourage people to manage their own learning and development in order to maximise their potential in becoming the person they want to be, then surely there is no room for repetition or ‘character cloning’. This is not to say that I don’t seek to offer individuals opportunities to benefit from our engagement. Certainly I do indeed hope that I can, as both a youth worker and a person, inspire others by my achievements, deeds and behaviour. But this is not born out of a sense of superiority. If people do indeed take something positive away from interacting with me I would see this as nothing more than a compliment.

Young people can often be hindered by the enforced discipline and codes of behaviour that exist within circles of society. The pressures to conform to social norms have as much of an influence on young people’s construction of identity as any one individual. If we accept at times that intervention and support can be justified in order to help young people avoid the long-term consequences of youthful naivety or mis-education, is it right to question the importance of both conscious and unconscious influence at both an individual and societal level?

Forcing someone to replicate the behaviour of another by following strict social behavioural guidelines is straightforward manipulation. For me this is simply wrong. Yet, it should not be confused with the importance of positive influence and support. Giving young people the opportunities to reflect upon actions and consequences of personal choices and to learn from others the benefits of positive behaviour can be a powerful scenario.

Ultimately, the danger comes only from the misplaced assumption that a person needs to be changed. Assuming they have the right to make a change is anything but.

Written by Chris Ward

Youth Work Manager, Castelnau Centre Project in Barnes, London