Finding the Soul of Youth Work

Mark Krueger
June 1, 1998

Perhaps people shy away from speaking about youth work as a process of interaction because it is complex. There are no easy answers or simple solutions. Moreover, the major challenge is to be there for youth and understand, not to change or prove. And this is not what most funders want to hear.

Fortunately, a small but growing number of workers, educators, and researchers are addressing this challenge. They are trying to define youth work practice as it is — or as Jerome Baker, editor of the Child and Youth Care Forum, suggested, “to hear it deep.” For instance, I’ve recently been engaged in monthly roundtable discussions with workers from several youth serving agencies in Milwaukee, including Pathfinders Shelter Care, St. Rose Girls’ Residence, COA Neighborhood Center, and Holton Youth Center. As we eat pizza and converse about topics such as boundaries, gender issues, youth work as a vocation, and recreational activities, we share our stories about our work with youth.
During the discussion, one gets a sense of youth work as a journey. You can feel the texture, tone, mood, space, struggle, and rhythm of daily interactions. Workers and youths emerge as unique developing beings. Participants are invited to delve into their own experiences and recall the challenges of adolescence.

With a similar desire to understand daily interactions, students and teachers at universities — such as the University of Victoria in Canada, Harvard, NOVA/Southeastern, and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee — are trying to understand how youth from different cultures, families and neighborhoods make meaning of their surrounding, and how organizations, human interactions, space, atmosphere and activities contribute to development.

Also of interest in recent years has been the work of the task group of the North American Consortium of Child and Youth Care Education Programs. The practitioners, educators, and administrators in this group have identified a curriculum based on an interactional/interpersonal/contextual perspective. The major thesis from this perspective is that youth develop in moments of discovery and human interaction — and that these moments are enhanced when youth workers have the capacity to teach, counsel and care for youth in harmony with their unique developmental strengths and the context within which interactions take place.

The discussion generated by efforts such as these has increased our understanding of youth development at the micro level, as well as within and across systems. It has also provided insight into how inputs are linked to results. In other words, this work is beginning to give us a better handle on how outcomes, such as belonging and social skills, are interpreted and achieved in different contexts.

Thus, as the field moves towards best practice, managed care, and outcome and competency-based approaches to youth development, it seems wise to give more consideration to knowing youth work. That means to shift from focusing so much on results, competencies, outcomes, best practices, assets and proving something, to understanding youth work as it presents itself in daily interactions.

In discussing the will to identity — the quest to discover and express one’s uniqueness as part of a community — Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright and president, wrote, “By perceiving ourselves as part of the river, we accept responsibility for the river as a whole.” In this context, youth work is a river.

Mark Krueger is a professor at the Child and Youth Care Learning Center, University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.


Krueger, Mark. "Finding the Soul of Youth Work." Youth Today, June 1998, p. 51.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.

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