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ARTICLE BY PAUL KLOOSTERMAN   |  MARCH 8, 2022

THE PROBLEM
with youth workers…

the problem with youth workers - drawing of mousetrap with cheese

Once I overheard a conversation between two youth workers; a professional conversation. The topic was ‘cleaning agents’; which were the best to use for cleaning tables, floors, toilets etc. I don’t remember the outcome of the discussion but it shows the wide range of tasks within a youth workers’ profile. Because next to cleaning tables you might, as a youth worker find yourself taking care of the drink stock in the youth centre’s bar, putting back all the tables and chairs late on a Saturday night in the hall where a fabulous evening just took place – but where in the morning the local bridge-club will be meeting, looking for the cheapest tickets for a youth exchange, preparing the budget for next year, finding the best insurance for an outdoor activity, talking to the police about complaints of noise disturbance from the youth clubs neighbours, writing a report for the region because they contributed 300 euros to the sports day, writing a ‘thank you!’ letter to all the small businesses that gave 50 euro for the same day, renting a van for the outdoor weekend, driving that van, sending out next month’s programme on all social media, updating the website…

 

STILL THE YOUNG PEOPLE


Well…and then there are of course still the young people! Talking with them, listening to their stories, finding out what moves them, asking helpful questions, doing activities with them, helping them tackle the challenges they meet, motivating them to participate and be active, and all these other things that make youth work… youth work.

The problem with youth workers is that they are nice people. Well, let’s not generalise but most youth workers are very nice people. Walk into a room full of youth workers and you will feel surrounded by people who are passionate about their job and the young people they work with, full of ideas about all that is possible, open to listen to the stories and ideas of colleagues and above all feeling very responsible for the work they do and the kids they work with.

There’s nothing wrong with being nice and feeling responsible but the combination risks that in the end you are spending too much time on cleaning tables and toilets, finding cheap tickets and all these other things that have good reasons to be done but maybe are not the core aspects of a youth workers’ competences.

To overcome this dilemma, I see two actions that should be done at the same time; ‘stepping back’ and ‘stepping forward’.

 

STEPPING BACK!

 

Although I can imagine very well why youth workers feel responsible for things going well and looking good, that responsibility might take away opportunities for young people. The main task of a youth worker is to take care of an environment in which young people feel safe, feel challenged, can try out, can create, can grow, and can learn. An environment which has to be created again and again together with the young people. An environment which is owned by the young people. To make that happen the youth worker needs to step back and to let go. Which sounds easy but is maybe one of the most challenging jobs for a youth worker. It means having real trust in the capacities of young people and being able to give that trust. It also means that things can go wrong or go different from what was planned. Above all it means giving young people the possibility to act, to experiment, to make mistakes, to succeed, to learn. There’s a lot to learn from collecting money for the sports day, preparing the space for an activity, searching for tickets for a trip, making a budget for an activity and updating the website.

 

STEPPING FORWARD!

 

Surely stepping back doesn’t solve everything. Since I’m in youth work already for a long, long time I can state that at least for the last 45 years we constantly complain about not being recognised. There we are, leaning against the wall of the dance club but nobody invites us for a dance. Let’s leave that wall and step forward! We need youth workers who are able to communicate their passion to the outside world, who can state the wonderful outcomes of their work, who can build networks, who can lobby for their young people but also for themselves; youth workers who can fight for their right to ‘youth work’!

 

A NOTE TO THE READER:
We are producing a series of blog posts for the FOCUS learning web site based on youth work and learning in youth work. If you have something you would like to share in the form of one page of text or a topic you would like us to cover, please contact us through the web site. We also welcome further discussion on any of the issues or topics raised – agree or disagree – so please leave a comment below. Thank you.

“The problem with youth workers is that they are nice people”

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Comments (7)

I find some similarities with being a good mom. Which means being fully involved in making the life of a child wonderful and smart, suggesting entertainment, education, responding to all needs. In the end you become so tired of driving, running from one spot to another, feeding, cleaning that no energy is left for playing with a kid or doing something out of a day plan. In these particular moments I try to put on the button called “alcogolik mom”. Which is about relaxing and stepping back. And leaving space for something to happen

Hey Ruzanna. Thanks for your reaction! I think you’re right; there are similarities with being a good mom (or dad). Stepping back and letting go creates space for others. But it is not always easy. When you act you feel in control, you (think you) know what will happen, what will be the result. If you step back and let go you have no clue what will happen. It’s about having the trust that mostly great things will happen when you let go; creating space for people to flourish

Paul,

This is great and spot on….. We can get worried that a ‘failed’ moment will rebound on us, but we have to enable those environments that may produce errors (learning moments!). My mantra as a practitioner was ‘I will only do things FOR young people that they cannot do by virtue of their age’ (ie drive the minibus!). I was not a leisure time activities provider or tourist organiser. When we went away, young people organised the food and bought it, but younger people got some guidance and advice: hence my article about ‘tea towels and toilet rolls’, the things that might easily be overlooked. And I agree with your stepping forward, too: there are those who enable youth work on the ground but there also have to be those who advocate youth work to others, both operationally at the local level and strategically in policy thinking. That was what came out of the youth worker education and training thinking under the EU Presidency held by Finland. All best wishes, Howard

Thanks Howard! Totally agree. Advocating youth work is crucial and soo much needed. When it comes to youth worker education I have the feeling that advocating is a competence that should get more attention. It’s part of the job. Since I’m in youth work, over 40 years(!!), we are talking about the need to be recognised; let’s work on it even more!

Love this. Just what I needed to hear. Thank you

Thanks Louise. You’re welcome!

So true.
Stepping back: focus on what young people already can do an learn by themselves or with their peers. Step in temporarily to support them in a way they can continue themselves again. Otherwise you deny them the possibility to learn and to build up their self esteem.

Stepping forward: there are youth workers who are moaning that politicians make the wrong decisions and that partner organizations have the wrong expectations of the aims of youth work. For more then 35 years I tell them that politicians, decision makers and many actors we cooperate with are laymen in our line of work. If we want them to make the right decisions and have realistic expectations we, youth workers, have to inform them what youth work is and can achieve and what our limitations are. Who better to do that than the practitioners themselves.

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