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Extension > Youth Development Insight > May 2011

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Dilemmas of practice: What's a youth worker to do?

Kate-Walker.jpgYouth work practice is complex and dynamic. It is riddled with situations that are layered and involved, dealing with multiple considerations and changing circumstances. These dilemmas represent the knotty situations even experienced practitioners face every day. In these situations, there is no formula or manual that tells the youth worker what to do.

Last week, Cece wrote about how personal ethics inform decision making in these situations. Much of my work focuses on the dilemmas of youth work - exploring the range of dilemmas encountered, as well as the features of effective responses.

This spring, youth workers participating in the Youth Work Institute course Deliberate Practice Matters were introduced to recent research I co-wrote on the diversity and complexity of dilemmas that youth workers face daily, and how their responses influence program quality. Together, they dug into the sticky challenges and issues of everyday youth work and examined ways to respond to real-life dilemmas. In addition to reacting to dilemmas identified by research, participants discussed and mind-mapped dilemma scenarios from their own work, including:
  • How do you deal with a "three strikes and you're out" policy that results in losing the very youth the program is intended to serve?
  • How do you respond when you witness a youth helping a parent tamper with a drug test in order to avoid jail?

The law, organizational policies, and ethical codes all speak to these tensions, yet they don't necessarily help the youth worker figure out how to respond to particular instances in ways that balancing competing concerns in ways that feel consonant with youth development values and principles. It can be difficult to figure out what to do, and often youth workers are left to navigate these challenging decisions on their own.

One way to help youth workers understand and effectively respond to dilemmas is to create a forum for them to talk about their struggles with one another. This might be through a course like Deliberate Practice Matters, dedicated staff meeting time for discussing dilemmas, or even social media, such as Australia's Youth Action and Policy Association's blog on ethical dilemmas in youth work. I don't have answers - in fact, I would argue that there typically is no one right answer. But I have seen how powerful - and empowering - it can be to strategize responses to these dilemmas with peers.

What resources do you use to guide your responses to dilemmas of practice? Consult a trusted colleague? Rely on your formal training? How do you decide what's right to do and good to be in your work with young people?

-- Kate Walker, research associate

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

How do your ethics reveal themselves in your work with youth?

Cecilia-Gran.jpgA youth worker in Minneapolis told me about how she dealt with conflict between English-speaking and Hmong-speaking youth at her neighborhood recreation center. The English-only speakers accused the Hmong speakers of talking about them, and situation brewed into a fistfight. To resolve the problem, the youth worker made a rule that they must all speak English while they were at the center. She felt that her solution attempted to level the playing field between the groups of youth. But did it?

I think this youth worker had good intentions, but the outcome of her decision ended up being unjust and unfair to the Hmong-speaking youth. Our decisions and judgments are never neutral, even when we intend them to be.

Decisions like the one this youth worker made are are decided in the moment with the intent to be as fair and just as possible. The tricky thing is that these dilemmas and their subsequent decisions are informed by our own ethics and values. Often, they require more reflection and forethought than the situation feels like it allows.

I believe that staff development opportunities can be designed to encourage and enable a collective of youth workers to uncover and explore their own ethics around youth development and learn ways of intentionally modeling and transmitting ethical values to youth in ways that meet their basic needs. Youth workers who have done this sort of interior ethical exploration tell us that the need for this kind of educational opportunity is highly relevant to and useful to their practice.

Back in 1994, Milbrey Wallin McLaughlin,, wrote a seminal work that every youth worker should read: Urban Sanctuaries: Neighborhood Organizations in the Lives and Futures of Inner-city Youth". McLaughlin studied and described the most important characteristics of effective youth workers and youth work practice. In the study, youth described the adults in the program as ethical. It found that the most effective and trusted youth workers:
  • Make it clear that they see potential rather than problems in the young people they encounter.
  • View the young person, not the activity, as the priority.
  • Convey a sense of power and purpose for themselves and for the young people around them.
  • Are described by young people as authentic - real, not phony, with a genuine interest in and concern for young people.
  • Are motivated to give back to their communities, neighborhoods, families and organizations in return for the good things they received from caring adults when they were young.

Does this list describe you and your practice with youth? What ethical stances are revealed by your youth work? How do you prepare yourself for the ethical situations and dilemmas that arise in your work?
--Cecilia Gran, Youth Work Institute associate program director and state faculty member

Monday, May 2, 2011

Valor Publico: Translating youth leadership from Mexico

Pamela-Nippolt.jpgOn a trip to Mexico a couple of weeks ago as a participant in National Extension Leadership Development, I had a chance to see a community health organization that is still going strong 20 years after being founded by a group of youth. As a youth development educator, I was struck by the power of youth when they are engaged as leaders in their community. As an program evaluator, I got to thinking about factors that play into sustaining a program and its overall value to the public over time.

Our hosts, a family of five, warmly oriented our group of three Extension educators, despite our limited Spanish. We quietly sat with the matriarch of the family in the courtyard under the rock "gate," a formation that crowns the nearest mountain and creates an opening to the sky. The eldest daughter Lety greeted us as she returned from the Atekokolli clinic in the village that she helped to found on communal land.
As a child, Lety was at her grandmother's side as she treated community members. Mexico.jpg Lety  learned where to find the healing plants, how to
harvest them, and how to use them in treatments. When she was a teen, Lety and 20 other young people in Amatlan started a project they called Atekokolli - the Nahuatl word for the conch shell used in religious ceremonies. "We got together and talked
about what we could do to help the community," Lety remembers.

They agreed to create a place where traditional healing is provided to everyone who needs it. Over the years, the group grew and shrank in size and worked together through times of growth and uncertainty to realize the original plan.
Eventually, they secured funding of 35,000 pesos / US$3,000 from a
competitive funding source, which allowed them to begin building on a
designated site in the middle of town. The considerable time Lety spent
at Atokekolli took away from the kitchen, leading to tension with her
mother. Despite this and other obstacles, Lety notes that when the project sat dormant for a
period of time, it was her mother and her grandmother who told her that
she should see it through to completion.

Twenty years after Atekokolli 's inception, Lety leads the clinic
with two colleagues. The three founders who continue the vision for the
clinic prepare the herbs and plants for use, oversee the temascals (a
healing ceremony similar to an American Indian sweat lodge), offer
massage, and chiropractic services. Their clinic is busy and clientele
draws from a large area. Lety is especially focused on diabetes
prevention as obesity and less active lifestyles are taking a toll on
the health of community members.

Back at my desk in Minnesota, I am reflecting on the success of this
"program." In Extension, we strive to demonstrate the public value of
programs for youth. The Atekokolli model lacks the typical trappings of a
program, yet accomplished what we hope to accomplish with youth through
programs. What did these 20 youth leaders bring to it, and how did the
community that they lived in contribute to make Atekekolli so valuable to so many? What examples can we point
to of similar youth-led development efforts that have staying power in US communities?

--Pamela Larson Nippolt, assistant Extension professor

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