Youth workers as agents for change

Dec 2016
Igor Čančarević | Unsplash CIMO

It is time for the youth workers to be brave again! We need to recall the radical traditions of youth work. We can support the youth to understand the unequal power structures in society and what they can do if they want to challenge the socio-political status quo. In order to do that, firstly we need to reflect whether we want to uphold the existing unequal power structures or are we ready to challenge them? Is youth work today aspiring to those core values and ideals or has institutionalization of youth work made us servants of the state rather than change makers? Whose purpose does this serve?

Youth work has been defined by the prevailing ideologies and social, political and economic trends of time and place. Different models have been pursued on how to engage with young people and the defined roles of youth workers and educationalists.

In the last decades we have noticed that the radical tradition of youth work has been fading and youth workers have been seen more and more as service providers for youth. The EU and national governments are providing youth workers resources such as training, funds and space to keep the youth out of trouble The trend is to work on the ‘problems’ that young people may face, for example, being unemployed, drugs and addiction, juvenile crime, or to be excluded from society. This model of engagement focusing on the individual has no scope for young people to collectively challenge the existing power structures. The current fear of radicalization further hinders youth workers’ possibilities of engaging young people in activities that facilitate resistance to oppression.

Inclusive dialogue

Today the terms “terrorism”, “extremism” and “ radicalization” invoke a certain image in our minds and portray youth, in particular Muslim youth, as manipulative objects that can be easily misled towards violent behaviour if not saved by the state. 

Youth work and educational institutions are seen as a most powerful state mechanism to counter that threat. This has led to policies that aim to tame youth, rather than see them as important positive actors and change makers in society. For those of us who are working with young people we need to critically assess our motivation, role and competence for the work we do. How are we working with the youth? Why are we working with young people and do we have the capacities we need to foster positive change in young people’s lives as well as in society?

What have we learnt when working in communities affected by internal conflicts, civil wars and occupation, in order to re-build community cohesion and peaceful coexistence among people? The most important prerequisite is the acknowledgement of existing privileges and power structures and how those influence the communication and possibilities of participation of different individuals and groups of people. When facilitating a dialogue process in Sri Lanka we invited youth leaders from all communities to meet together for the first time in 30 years. From the very start we told them that we will provide simultaneous translation for all the meetings (even when it took a great deal of our budget allocated to the dialogue process) and told them that everyone can use any of the national languages or English in the meetings. The youth leaders of the Tamil youth told us later than that was when they decided to commit themselves fully to the process.  When providing them with a possibility to speak their own language, we as facilitators recognized them as equals and how they see Singhalese as a language of oppression. The youth dialogue process ended up being very successful and has contributed greatly to the peace process and re-structuring the Sri Lankan state in the last few years. Without the few thousand euros put into the translation, maybe it would have ended up very differently. Of course there were some other factors that contributed to the success of the process as well. We are not saying that we as youth workers should always provide translators in youth meetings. But we could and should pay attention about the language we use and how the terms and expressions we use profiles individuals and groups of young people or feels exclusive to some.  And that we recognise what are those cultural and institutional practises in our societies which seem neutral to us but are actually discriminatory. 

training in Piispila

We need to learn to recognise and to pay enough attention to the power structures which are complex and often subtle in nature, even when they are invisible to us.  We need to learn to analyse power and to listen to different perspectives.  And then we need to find ways to transfer those analytical skills to young people and help them to make sense of their realities and their role in society. Only then we can support the young people to use their power and ability to create alliances to facilitate change in their realities. 

The core values of youth work include critical dialogue, equality of opportunity, respect and participation which is voluntary and not compulsory. Reflecting upon these values a youth worker’s role is about acting as a catalyst for change and empower young people to lead and take actions on the issues that matter to them. This means supporting them through non-formal education and creating opportunities for young people to build their critical thinking and support them to explore the issues in their realities, acknowledge legitimate feelings of anger and help to translate this into non-violent actions utilizing the democratic processes and legitimate tools available in our societies

For example, recently a group of young people from five different high schools in an area near Glasgow, were invited to explore the concept of dialogue.  A few weeks later some of the students were busy planning for a dialogue event which would bring students and other actors together. When asked why they decided to organise the event they replied that they were massively inspired by the session exploring the concept of dialogue as a means to get to know each other and work on common issues. They felt that the ‘space’ created in the session allowed them to talk to each other on a level that was much deeper than they had experienced before. Their aspiration was to set precedence in the high schools in the area for such activities to become part of the annual school calendar.

The future direction of youth work is closely related to how we co-create and aspire to a higher consciousness in society. A higher consciousness is about becoming much more aware of our own core values, vulnerabilities and the self belief of unlimiting potentials.  This includes a deeper collective awareness that we are all interdependent and each person has a right to be fully nurtured and brings a gift to share to community and society.  

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Riikka and Farkhanda both together and on their own agitate young people to actively change the world and to work for peace. In this article they call for youth workers to challenge themselves and their practice. (The dynamic duo found each other when they were appointed as trainers to the “Piece of Peace in Piispala” training course financed by the Erasmus+ Youth in Action Programme). 

This article has been revised by them for Tools for Learning. The original article was published on the CIMO website here:

Image Credits: 
Igor Čančarević | Unsplash CIMO; authors

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