What will youth work look like in 2013?

Today I am stoked to continue our series with a guest post from one of the worlds most well known youth work professors. In this series we have heard from Shae and Stephen Pepper from youthworkinit.com and will continue to hear from some of the leading minds in youth work from throughout the world culminating in early 2013.

Today’s Guest Post is written by one of New York’s finest, Professor Dana Fusco. In over 20 years as a lecturer in youth work she has shaped the argument for youth services in the United States encompassing areas such as reflective practice, after school services and youth work in interdisciplinary teams. Dana has a BA in Psychology from SUNY at New Paltz and a Phd in Educational Psychology from CUNY Graduate Center. She also runs the facebook group Advancing Youth Work: Current Trends, Critical Questions.

So Dana, what will youth work look like in 2013???

Dana Fusco, Professor, City University of New York, York College, United States

In the United States, youth work is not a unified or singular practice; rather, it has been described, and still is, a family of practices (Baizerman, 1996[1]). That family provides, in the most ideal circumstance, a plethora of diverse opportunities for young people. What we, as youthwork practitioners hope is that the set of diverse experiences known as ‘youth work’ will help young people to live rich, healthy, and fulfilling lives now and into the future. Our praxis is grounded or contextualized in the actual, not theoretical, lives of young people; is responsive to their lived experiences, their hopes, their aspirations and dreams; and proclaims a participatory and democratic approach that supports youth voice and agency as a part of community engagement.

In the places where youth work looks like this in 2012, I suspect it will continue to do so in 2013. That said, there are some trends on the horizon that potentially put the family of youth work practices in jeopardy. If we think of youth work as a stew, then each practice is an important ingredient towards a ‘tasty’ and healthful creation. In the U.S., our stew seems a bit ‘soupy’ these days, with ‘critical’ and emancipatory forms of youth work being those most often removed or replaced. This trend was precipitated by several sociopolitical and economic factors, with the most direct consequence being the pressure for out-of-school, nonformal environments to link up to, connect with, and supplement school. The goal for those who hope to formalize out-of-school environment is that there is a collective impact towards meeting NCLB (No Child Left Behind) targets (standardized test scores in reading and math).

The trend of youth work moving towards formalized education began with the development of a billion dollar federal reserve for afterschool programs under the Clinton administration, known as 21st Century Community Learning grants. These grants had two contradictory consequences. On the one hand, they put into the public eye, the importance of afterschool environments, many of which at that time were the youth-club-in-community-center variety, and legitimized these spaces as critical for young people. On the flip side, those dollars came with “strings” to improve academic outcomes. Some community agencies with a strong history of local work with young people have maneuvered within the structure to work in participatory and emergent ways. Many have closed their doors. Those newer to the scene might be doing good educational and ‘youth development’ stuff after school, i.e., enrichment and project-based learning, but not youth work in the way we have known it.

This situation leaves us with two potential possibilities for the future of the field. First, we can name these afterschool practices as part of the family of youth work practice and accept them as such. Second, we can decide that this form of afterschool, which is geared towards ‘a priori’ academic outcomes, might be too predetermined and ritualistic to be considered youth work at all. If this is the case, we must not only define youth work by what it is not but by what it is – an emergent and relational form of workingwith young people that is community-based, participatory and responsive, or what I am now calling, critical youth work (CYW).

If we choose the second option it will be critical that we more clearly define the purpose and values of CYW. As I see it, CYW aims to co-create spaces with young people where they can lead and learn. In this formulation, youth work begins with young people’s concerns, interests, goals, and/or needs, and positions practitioners to construct a ‘use of self’ that creates a relational web of possibility. Then, in this conception of the future, it is the education of the youth worker that becomes increasingly pivotal.

In 2013, it is not only changes in youth work practice that we must attend to but also changes in youthworkeducation (YoEd) In the U.S. we have seen an explosion in YoEd within higher education, a 900% increase over the past four years with most of these framed as ‘youth development.’ Conversely, in the U.K. and Australia, longstanding youth work courses and degree programs have closed their doors including those found at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia, University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, and Manchester University. While the reasons for such closures have been couched in economic and enrollment terms, one wonders why Youth Work/Youth Studies then and not Latin or philosophy, which equally might enroll under five students each year. The lack of understanding among higher education administration about community-based youth work is partly to blame. The title itself, youth work, leans towards the vocational, not the liberal arts. In 2013, it is hard to predict where those who want to study youth work and youth studies in these countries will go. If they go into existing, related disciplines, e.g., social work, then youth work will too likely become case management; if they go into education, then youth work will become para-teaching. With such potential outcomes, an international community of youth workers and youth work educators is needed whether in the form of an association or something else in order to work towards saving/reclaiming and re-thinking the discipline of youth work. I believe today it is in our international community that we have collective power and bargaining to legitimize the work and the body of knowledge that we have co-created as a viable area of study and practice for working with young people.

In 2013, this would be something to aim for!

[1] Baizerman M. (1996). Youth work on the street. Community’s moral compact with its young people. Childhood, 3, 157-165.

Professor Dana Fusco

For more than 20 years, Dana Fusco’s research has focused on youth work as a practice and a profession and has led to increased national and international recognition. Recently she was the keynote speaker at the History of Youth Work conference in Minnesota and presented at the International Conference on Youth Work and Youth Studies in Glasgow. She serves on a national panel of leaders in youth work, the Next Generation Coalition, has authored dozens of peer-reviewed articles and produced the documentary, “When School Is Not Enough.” Professor in Teacher Education at York College, CUNY, She received her Ph.D. in Education Psychology from the CUNY Graduate Center.

Dana is The Editor of the path-breaking book Advancing Youth Work: Current Trends, Critical Questions, which brings together an international list of contributors to collectively articulate a vision for the field of youth work. This book is a must have and is one we would recommend you all get. We did. You can buy it here.


Aaron Garth

Aaron Garth is the Executive Director of Ultimate Youth Worker. Aaron has worked as a youth worker in a number of settings including local church, street drug and alcohol outreach, family services, residential care, local government and youth homelessness since 2003. Aaron is a regular speaker at camps, retreats, & youth work training events and is a dedicated to seeing a more professional youth sector in Australia. Aaron is a graduate of RMIT University and an alumnus of their youth work program. He lives in Melbourne with his wife Jennifer & their daughters Hope, Zoe, Esther, Niamh and son Ezra.

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  1. A fascinating piece, which gives much food for thought. Despite the differing continents and differing circumstances there are significant parallels between the picture depicted by Dana in the US and that of the UK. Here though the threat to critical youth work is not on the horizon, it is firmly in the foreground. Hence in 2009 we formed the In Defence of Youth Work campaign to resist the shift from youth work as a critical conversation uncertain of its destination to diverse forms of work with young people premised on the imposition of prescribed outcomes. Interestingly the notions of youth work, youth services, work with young people are conflated so that the distinctiveness of youth work practice disappears. At a recent meeting of students discussing placements 18 out of 20 would-be youth workers opted for youth offending with hardly a dilemma in sight. In the UK that looks to be where the jobs will be. We refuse though to be downhearted and central to our activity is building alliances. For example in January we are contributing to a first European Open Youth Work conference in Vienna. Next stop, perhaps, the international community of Dana’s dreams!?

  2. I agree: Dana’s piece has many echoes of what’s happening to youth work in the UK. Though that certainly includes youth workers being drafted into schools, even starker evidence is provided by their widespread re-deployment into programmes with required attendance and targeted at the ‘at risk’ and the ‘risky.

    The resultant damage to the kinds of emancipatory and democratic forms of practice which Dana is advocating is all around us, and not only, as she points out, in the closure of professional courses. Evidence of the even more immediate and direct effects are the boarded-up youth club buildings and the growing number of full- and part-time paid workers being (sometimes) replaced by (at best) minimally trained volunteers.

    Values and a concern for purpose have undeniably been deeply embedded in the UK struggles against these policies. However, though Dana argues for defining these more clearly and more positively, they have not for me been a primary focus – not least because many other youth practitioners seem to share them at least in the broad terms in which they are usually articulated. What have increasingly needed explanation and defence have been the defining features of the face-to-face practice – what the open letter which launched the UK In Defence of Youth Work campaign identified as its cornerstones. (See http://www.indefenceofyouthwork.org.uk/wordpress/?page_id=90)

    Recently, I have particularly found myself defending the settings in which this practice takes place – what Dana calls its ‘co-created spaces’. This has often involved a bottom-line struggle with the question: how far can these still be self-chosen by young people? However, especially in the context of what Taylorakis describes as the conflation of youth work with other forms of work with young people, a reoccurring focus has also been on how far the culture of these spaces enables young people to feel some (significant) ownership of them. In part, of course, this will be shaped by their physical make-up, by the activities that go on in them and by their location. However, also crucial to nurturing this culture will be the processes of negotiation and relationship-building through which co-creation is constructed – processes which, rooted in a search for more equal power balances, extend from the initiation of the very first contact with an unknown group through to delivering on offers of trustworthy personal support and stretching educational activity.

    As Dana emphasises, a key concern in all this is what will happen in the future to the training of youth workers. The challenges here certainly include where – in which institutions – this will take place and who the trainers will be. Others loom however, especially given students’ changing understandings of youth work highlighted in Taylorakis’s comment. A key one is going to be whether training agencies can find practice arenas – above all open access settings which young people choose to attend – where those negotiation and relationship-building processes are often particularly most testing and where therefore students need opportunities and support for affirming and internalising the necessary skills. Currently however, at least in the UK, all this contains a double irony: that on the one hand these settings are increasingly being replaced by pre-structured and targeted programmes of group work; while on the other the advocates for these very programmes are repeatedly asserting their need for the well developed ‘youth work skills’ of experienced youth workers.

    In trying to deal with issues like these, especially in a globalised neo-liberal world which puts profit before people and individual achievement and competition before collective sharing and caring, I can see how exchanges within and through what Dana calls ‘an international community of youth workers and youth work educators’ could have valuable pay-offs. Echoing Taylorakis, could perhaps the Professional Open Youth Work in Europe initiative being launched in Vienna next month be one prompt for such a development?

  3. This gives me a lot to think about and reflect on, Dana. Part of my thinking on it is that Youth Work IS and absolutely must be a part of our education of young people, and that schools and school-based programs need to better integrate the types of learning and opportunities that CYW facilitates. There is the danger in this of course of getting sucked into the dysfunction that exists in our formal public education system in the US, but there is also a tremendous amount of opportunity to engage in the conversation about what learning and school and human development means to us as a people.

  4. There is a conversation in the sector about the difference between ‘work with youth’ and ‘youth work’. One of my earliest jobs was as a school based youth worker and i loved it. There was a number of issues around the dysfunction of the education system which needed to be navigated (not the least was teachers thinking they could also be youth workers) but it also provided a great opportunity to speak into the lives of a number of young people. Food for thought.


  5. Another thought!

    both Bernard and Taylorakis make great points. Youth Work is being driven to the fringes and enveloped by other areas of practice. This is a product of the economic rationalists managing the human services industry as a whole on a world wide scale.

    we do not see an issue with youth worker’s working in youth offending, or a statutory organisation like child protection. In fact we believe there needs to be more of them. It will take us being “Canny Outlaws” as Barry Schwartz would say. But it is only through our intense involvement that the system can and will change. It is in the co-created spaces within the broken system that youth work flourishes.

    Hats of to the 18 would-be youth workers! and Good luck to them. May we all be as gutsy.

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