In light of today's tough budget times, where should we put our energy -- into system-building or into improving the quality of youth work practice?
In this country, we have focused on strengthening programs and activities. Leaders in US youth work have long admired the system in the United Kingdom, which has focused on creating systems that support nonformal learning and the professional workforce.
I recently discussed this question with Nicole Yohalem. Nicole and I serve on the board of the Next Generation Youth Work Coalition and she is special projects director for the Forum for Youth Investment. She observes that we can learn a lot from the British system, and makes three important points.
1. The UK's youth work profession, which includes standards, competencies and multiple pathways to credentials, is defined as distinct from, but equal to teaching, counseling, social work and what they call "play work" -- work with children primarily 11 and under. At the core of that system is a cadre of well-trained, organized youth work professionals.
2. Relationships and interactions are the defining features of youth work -- not activities or places. Activities are the medium for personal and social development. And in terms of infrastructure, until severe budget cuts began, local governments were mandated to develop youth service plans for coordinating public and private efforts to support the personal, social and civic development of all young people.
3. Youth work professionals are organized, vocal advocates for work that has helped generations of working class young people find themselves, find a path, find their passion.
This year, the picture is changing in the UK. The new government is slashing spending, including spending on local youth services. In response, these passionate young people have launched an impressive opposition, together with the Community and Youth Workers Union. A recent rally in London attracted half a million protesters.
The US has some great youth programs, but not much of a youth development system. Many of us here have striven for the development of a systemic approach. And some US communities do follow the UK model of adopting standards, inventorying programs and services, expanding professional development opportunities, and aligning investments around a shared vision. Ironically though, with budget reductions, the British are becoming more like us -- moving toward the provision of very short-term, activity-focused programming that we in the United States are trying hard to move away from.
It remains to be seen what will happen to the British system. But what about here at home? As we move to support the workforce in our non-system, what can we learn from the UK and others? What degree of government regulation is desirable? In the debates about youth worker certification, competency requirements and measures to support the field, where is the balance point that pushes quality and retains flexibility?
What focus do you find compelling enough to work on in the coming year? Given certain budget cuts and undesirable policy choices, where will you spend your valuable time and energy? Will you work to build the system, or focus on the quality of your programs and practice?