Time to Mark Our Territory

Michael Heathfield
June 1, 2003

While American and British youth work may look similar, they operate in very different cultures and funding contexts. Moreover, the youth work occupation is at different developmental stages in each country, with the United States being a relative novice.

Consider the relationships to schools. “After-school” programs increasingly seem to form the bread and butter of U.S. youth work. A great deal of youth work concentrates on “out-of-school” time and bolstering the formal education system. Here in Chicago, the United Way recently released its four desired outcomes for its funded youth programs; two of them focus on school performance.

While it makes sense to link youth work to educational endeavors, this approach entails risks – as evidenced by President Bush’s proposal to cut funding for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program after an evaluation showed no significant academic gains. This raises the question: Should youth work support, supplement or surround school-based education?

Consider the United Kingdom. Until recently, most youth workers were not involved in trying to supplement the formal school system. And the current U.K. obsession to do so has a broader focus on any kind of accredited success, not just academic success.

Youth workers there feel under increasing pressure to fit their work into any wider system of recognition. This is driven by the British government’s desire to cut down on NEET young people – youth who are not in employment, education or training.
In contrast, the youth work field in the United States has yet to demonstrate to the public a clear difference and distance from mainstream schooling.

The age range of youth involved in programs is another area of significant contrast. Andrew Hahn, professor at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University (and a Youth Today columnist), notes in the U.K. journal Youth and Policy that the U.S. youth policy field has no clear age range for youth work.

This certainly plays out in practice. In Chicago, we have more than 100 youth workers in qualification training programs each week. Some of these workers talk about working with 9-year-olds, while others talk about working with 19-year-olds.

This is unhelpful. The term “youth” needs a sensible definitional boundary. If you look at most curricula for youth work, the concepts of adolescence and transition to adulthood dominate. Surely it makes sense to relate youth work to the broadly drawn age range of adolescence.

There is an age range debate in the United Kingdom as well. Eighty percent of youth work is now designed to concentrate on 13- to 19-year-olds. There is considerable concern that this is too narrow, as some say that both 11- to 13-year-olds and 19- to 25-year-olds should get bigger shares of youth work resources.

But government resources in the United Kingdom are increasingly being targeted at specific youth. The days of universal and generic youth work there might be ending.

This targeting in the United Kingdom and the link to formal education in the United States both seem driven by a desire to increase the legitimacy and impact of youth work. In the United States, this appears to lead to an overbearing emphasis on youth program curricula. While curriculum is important, it sometimes seems to be treated as a magic bullet, or an essential product to parade before funders in hopes of getting money.

Of course, it helps if the curriculum is attached to research-based evidence of outcomes. Yet, as anyone who has sat through an appalling Shakespeare production knows, the script is only the starting point. You need artistry and skill to make it work.

In the United Kingdom, youth work is frequently referred to as “personal and social development.” Workers operate through structured programs and spontaneous interventions to create learning opportunities that reflect wider social issues.

This work is built primarily on the quality of relationships and the processes of engagement with youth. This is distinct from other professions, such as social work, teaching or coaching, although they sometimes use these same approaches.

Being clear about who we are and what we do distinctively is crucial for raising the field’s profile, reach and resources. Being supportive of other systems that help youth is important, but it should be on our own terms, not those defined by the larger resources at the disposal of some of the more established professions.

The question is: How can youth work agencies control the agenda more, rather than having to constantly redefine themselves to chase dollars? And how do we avoid being everything to everybody in hopes that we can practice our much needed craft?

In these times of restricted and shrinking resources, it is even more essential to mark out our territory as distinct from related professions. More clearly defining who we work with, what is special about the personal and social development we provide, and what is distinctive about the results we achieve would be good places to start.