I’ve been struck once again this month, while reading Youth Today, by how the stories and commentaries demonstrated the complexity of what it takes to meet youth and families where they are – struggling to succeed in spite of homelessness, facing the realities of institutional biases that are condoned in staff, speaking out against youth violence, or receiving a disproportionate share of scholarship funds promoted as available to all. 

Amongst these, an opinion piece titled “Radically reimagining youth work in the wake of ‘freedom summer’” stood out to me. Torie Weiston-Serdan asks the questions many are asking. Did the protests, discussions and reforms that were sparked by George Floyd’s murder reduce the pain that Black youth, and in particular Black boys, experience daily? What can we do to protect Black children now? I appreciate her posing the question and, with one painful example, providing us with the answer.

I agree with her advice that “our resources, and the ways in which we apply them for [youth’s] benefit, must … be radically reimagined.” Specifically, her suggestions that youth work must do the following:

1) “continue to meet the youth where they are,”

2) “curate transformative spaces for healing-centered engagement,”

3) “focus on building healthy communities and destroying harmful systems,”

4) put “resources directly available to us into the hands of young people.”

But I’m not sure youth work needs to be reimagined so much as proudly reclaimed. Reimagining is definitely called for in K-12 education and other public systems. And a part of that system-specific reimagining has to focus on better and more strategic connections with the less bureaucratic, more diverse, primarily community-based organizations where the tenets of youth work are practiced more freely. The purpose of these connections is to create more equitable, sustainable ecosystems by empowering adults in all systems to embrace the tenets of youth work fully and have the capacity and incentives to connect across system lines.

Weiston-Serdan has itemized the basic youth work tenets powerfully by putting equity at the center. These tenets have been codified by the federal government in the Interagency Working Group on Youth Program’s definition of positive youth development. These are youth work non-negotiables. 

Our charge and responsibility is to improve how we attend to them to ensure they are baked into our practices and policies.They need to be claimed and explained. Even when we practice them, we often don’t fully claim them as proudly and easily as we did two decades ago when the release of “Community Programs to Promote Youth Development” legitimized our work.

Over the decades, in order to get funding or gain favor, we began to lead with what we do (STEM, pregnancy prevention, college access, creative arts, civic engagement) or with where and when we do it (school and community spaces, afterschool and summer). We adopted systems language and approaches to considering the whole child rather than sharpening our own. As a result, we have balkanized our work, diluting the power of our collective presence.

It is time to reclaim youth work as youth-focused rather than system-focused. Youth work can and should be done everywhere because youth services workers are intentionally integrated into every system while keeping their roots in community. It is time to tell the story of who we are and how, why and with whom we work, in our own words and with our own research and agendas for changing systems and policies. The promise of reforms associated with “freedom summer” is waning. Black youth justifiably feel abandoned.

The promise of reforms associated with “COVID partnerships,” which elevated the role all kinds of adults play in young people’s lives,  is also waning. Black, Latinx and other marginalized youth will disproportionately feel the impact of this slippage.

How did schools so quickly forget the power of community-based youth work?  I think it is because we provided valuable services but we didn’t fully articulate a scalable, sustainable strategy. We didn’t generate the authentic community demand needed to push it.

All young people will lose out if we don’t work together, combine our voices and make real on the promise of youth work as a field that is vital to the success of all youth-serving systems

Youth-serving professionals and volunteers in multiple systems and sectors have an opportunity to explain who they are, what they do and why they do it via the Power of Us workforce survey. While a survey alone won’t create the change we need, it can help us come out from behind the walls that separate us so we can reaffirm our commitment to the youth work tenets Weiston-Serdan has challenged us to uphold.

Check the original column on Youth Today!


We welcome your contributions to the topic. Please reach out to talkwithus@kpcatalysts.com if you’d like to join to the discussion.

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