What is youth work? Where did it come from? What is the state of youth work practice today? We explore the development of the theory and practice of youth work in Britain and Northern Ireland – and its uncertain future.
The meaning of the term ‘youth work’ is difficult to pin down. When people talk about youth work they can mean very different things. For example, they might be describing work with a group of Guides; running a youth club; making contact with different groups of young people on an estate; mentoring a young person; or facilitating a church fellowship; or tutoring on a mountain walking course. Over the years contrasting traditions of youth work have emerged and developed (see Smith 2008). When we explore the theory and practice involved with these we can find some key elements that define youth work. In this piece we look to five dimensions:
- Focusing on young people, their needs, experiences and contribution.
- Voluntary participation, young people choose to become involved in the work.
- Fostering association, relationship and community, encouraging all to join in friendship, to organize and take part in groups and activities and deepen and develop relationships and that allow them to grow and flourish.
- Being friendly, accessible and responsive while acting with integrity. Youth work has come to be characterized by a belief that workers should not only be approachable and friendly; but also that they should have faith in people; and be trying, themselves, to live good lives.
- Looking to the education and, more broadly, the welfare of young people. (See Jeffs and Smith 2010)
Central to understanding this way of working is an appreciation that historically what we know as ‘youth work’ has taken place through the action of volunteers and workers in local groups. As Jeffs and Smith (2010) have argued ‘Youth work was born, and remains fundamentally a part, of civil society. It is wrapped up with associational life, community groups and voluntary organizations’. This is recognized in Ireland where youth work is defined in law. It is to be provided ‘primarily by voluntary youth work organizations’ (Government of Ireland 2001).
The benefits of this way of working are great. We know, for example, that those who belong to groups are happier and healthier than those who do not; and that neighbourhoods where there is community activity tend to be safer and economically active. We also know that the relationships that workers form with young people – because they are born out of spending time together, a willingness to have fun as well as educate, and of involvement in local community life – can be incredibly powerful (Jeffs and Snith 2010). Indeed, the research shows that they are much more powerful than many other mentoring relationships (see, for example Hirsch 2005).