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Are we building a workforce, a profession, or a field?

By Dale Blyth

What is our vision of ourselves? What do we in the youth development, out-of-school-time, non-formal learning field want to become?

During discussions at the National Afterschool Association Annual Convention in Orlando, Fla., a weekend of great sessions and discussions about the future of the youth worker workforce sponsored by the Next Generation Youth Work Coalition, part of a series of critical conversations that started back last fall at the History of Youth and Community Work Conference I was struck by these most basic questions.

Do we want to be a workforce with multiple job categories and a checklist of the skills each should possess? Something that systems can support but also control, as Joyce discussed last week? Is that enough?

Do we want to be a profession with a defined body of knowledge and a set of values and ethics driven by both practice wisdom and research wisdom on what works and how? If so, are we professional front-line youth workers? Or are we professionals at many levels from part-time to full-time, from doers to managers and from program designers to system intermediaries?

Or do we really want to be a field -- a field with a set of workers of many different types in allied professions with various levels of competence and expertise, and who work together for the learning and development of our nation's children and youth?

Perhaps the real answer is D) all of the above. I believe that what we are really talking about is the breadth, depth, and differentiation of who we really are:
  • Breadth: We must include everyone in the community workforce who supports the development of our children and youth. Our field is broad and varied and we should claim that breadth.
  • Depth: What are the core competencies that bring us together and which we can begin to assess authentically, not as items to be checked off but as knowledge to be understood and a frame of mind about the very heart and nature of this work. A profession whose values and ethics unite us even as some of our skills and expertise varies in the content and context in which they are practiced.
  • Differentiation: We must recognize that we are a set of differentiated professions that share a common set of core competencies, values and ethics that drive our work and differing perspectives and skills. Perhaps we are a field of researchers, evaluators, educational designers, content translators, bridgers of research, practice and policy, organizational leaders, recreation workers, child and youth care workers, and afterschool professionals who enrich the developmental diet of young people in our communities and our nation, and work to ensure they have choices in how they exercise their learning muscles growing up.
Perhaps we are already a broad workforce with deep professional competence and expertise in an allied set of professions who make up a field that needs to understand itself -- to build an identity that is as broad, deep and differentiated as our reality.

What vision do you have for our field? What types of debates, decision, tools, and other actions will help us build our identity?
-- Dale Blyth, associate dean and director


  1. Thanks Dale for this great synthesis. I couldn't agree with you more!
    It is clear that work is already underway in all of these areas. I think we are ready for a new metaphor - one that capture the complex interplay between workforce, profession and field. Perhaps option D is the simultaneous building of many different systems that are all connected -- an Ecology of Youth Work?
    ~~ Dana

  2. Dana,
    I love the idea of an ecology of youth work! It capures the sense of dynamic forces at play and the multiple levels from front line practice to theory, research and policy contexts that surround youth work. Perhaps it is time for a new book on Recognizing and Shaping a new Ecology of Youth Work! It might help us stop seeking the answer and start seeking to better understand the dynmaics involved and how we can work to improve the ecology overall by making changes in critical places and spaces through competeancies, expertise, caccredidationa nd certification as well as evaluation and accountability.
    All the best and thanks for commenting.
    Take care,

  3. This idea of using an ecology model to talk about youth work aligns with the work of Reed Larson and Kate Walker on the dilemmas inherent in the practice of youth work. The five categories of dilemmas in their research are coded around the concentric circles of Uri Bronfenbrenner's ecological model of youth development. Thanks for the good ideas Dale and Dana. Cece

  4. Cece,
    Thanks for connecting the work on dilemmas to the idea for an ecology of youth work. Would be helpful for those "listening" to the conversation to know more about the five categories you mention. Connecting them to Urie's framework is helpful. What next steps could we take in expanding the thinking on an ecological model of youth work?
    Thanks for the comment.

  5. Interesting discussion here … let me jump in.
    I just returned from the 2011 DoD/USDA Family Resilience Conference in Chicago. I was particularly intrigued by Ann Masten’s lecture on resiliency. For me, she put a new twist on the old topic by referring to resilience as - the capacity of dynamic systems to withstand and recover from significant challenges that threaten stability, viability or development – I am paraphrasing here but I think I captured the essence of it. She also used the term “adaptive system” in which I found particularly intriguing because it can be applied to individuals or groups and suggests that systems grow, change, or even become hijacked; at its root is Urie Bronfenbrenner’s take on the ecological model that recognizes that children and youth (all people for that matter) live in (and are composed of) embedded systems that are interactive and interdependent.
    So with that in mind, youth work could be positioned as a critical part of these embedded adaptive systems and the catalyst that mobilizes or improves adaptive systems for all youth.
    - jennifer

  6. Seeking Metaphor
    Thanks for reminding me of Bronfenbrenner's model. It is a helpful developmental model for understanding individuals in a broader context. I always wondered whether Urie's conception was in part informed by playing with matryoshkas (Russian nesting dolls). I do question whether Bronfebrenner's model, though one of human ecology, captures what I have in mind. I find myself needing a visual that is less encapsulated or contained (less nested) as i seem to recall his concentric circles are. It seems to me that human ecology as a complex interconnectivity of systems must follow at least three principles if it is to promote development: 1) It must remain open and participatory; 2) it must remain flexible, nimble even; and 3) it must be prepared for its own demise. Whereas Bronfenbrenner's model seems to explain individuals based on a geographical position (where they are somewhat passively), I would advocate for an Ecology of Youth Work based on what people do and how (actively) which would include then asking: how do we engage young people and those who work with them to impact the very systems that impact them?

  7. Jennifer and Dana
    Thoughtful comments. While Urie's model is too often seen just as concentric circles in reality he saw it as much more dynamic and interactive - and with youth influencing it as well as being influenced by it. The visual ecological model that Ann Masten showed at the conference is a better representation of the multi level, multi-system, and dynamic nature of a youth's ecology. The circles where pulled apart and existed at different levels in a more three dimensional space.
    When we think about an ecology of youth work, I think of it as a dynamic multi-faceted ecology much like our environment. Many things can change it but it is also adaptive. It can be gradually shifted to improve or alter the adaptations of the beings in the ecology - both youth workers and youth. In a sense, that is what issues like core competencies and standrads can do - shift the environment and forcing adaptations.
    It is interesting to think about youth work as a hot spoty or zone where young people's adaptation to their world can be significantly influenced and where they can use the opportunities to significantly influence their environment. Perhaps positioning the field as supporting youth's adaptive capabilitiers and the adaptability of the systems around them as Jennifer suggests is a new vision for the field. Community learning opportunities that are non-formal and voluntary have special roles or power to transform a young person's world view and identity under some circumstances. It is this special combination and "location" in their ecology, and ideally the responsiveness of youth workers and opportunities to tithe youth's growth and actions, that makes them so important in a rapidly changing world where learning occurs 24/7 and 360 days a year.
    Perhaps the forces shaping the workforces breadth, the professions depth and the field's differentiation are all resphaping the ecology of youth work - hopefully in a way that increases its responsiveness and flexibility for the young people with whom we work. Makes me wonder how we could change the ecology of our field by placing more emphasis on engagement with youth and on youth as colleagues in our field, not just clients.
    What would happen if our field was held accountable for engaging young people in authentic ways and we worked with some youth more as colleagues than clients or participants? COuld we adapt? Are we as a filed or system dynamic and resilient enough?

  8. Ooh Anne's visual sounds interesting...anyone have a link?

  9. Hi Dana -
    The conference proceedings will be posted 5/5/11. I will post a link when it is up.
    - jennifer

  10. Let's keep an open mind on this. Though the ideas presented here are very sound. I think you made some good points here. Thanks.