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Extension > Youth Development Insight > Reframing the politics of youth work

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Reframing the politics of youth work

By Amber Shanahan

A passion for youth work is often what drives us to join this profession. We love young people and feel enriched by the rewards of helping them to become the best person they can be.

But our passions can get derailed by politics. It might be a power struggle between passionate volunteers, or the meddling of an influentially connected parent, or the fickleness of a funder attracted to another cause.

Politics can kill your passion for youth work, making it feel more exhausting than empowering.

How can we turn these situations around to create forward momentum? It can be done. In fact, you can use power struggles to demonstrate effective leadership with youth.

High-quality youth development programs have democratic features embedded into their frameworks: active engagement, encouragement, and collaboration, to name a few. We often limit our thinking around program quality to how these attributes will effect youth, but what if we applied it to the political climates where conflicting ideas live?

In his book, Healing the Heart of Democracy,  author Parker Palmer focuses on issues in education and leadership and pursues the relationship between “work of the heart” and democracy. He defines five habits of the heart that, when applied together, have a crucial effect on sustaining democracy, and can lead to a positive political climate. These habits mirror the levels of the program quality pyramid.

According to Palmer, we must:
  • Understand that we are all in this together. Create a sense of belonging and togetherness. Consider asking members of your committee to “break bread together” by sharing personal perspectives at your next high-stakes meeting. With each person providing a piece of the pie, a richer sense of unity will materialize. 
  • Develop an appreciation of the value of “otherness.” Palmer says, “The more you know about another person’s story, the less possible it is to see that person as your enemy.” This entails creating a safe environment where emotional safety is considered and respected. A “potluck” approach (each person bringing something to the table) can be used as a tool to create space for shared storytelling, which may provide clarity towards common ground. 
  • Cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways. Create a supportive environment that’s conducive to contradictory views and provides time to re-frame conflict. Palmer asks, “How do we resolve dilemmas that force us to choose either this or that and instead hold the tension long enough to allow a ‘third thing’ to emerge?” Use tension as a positive force that sparks the formation of a creative alternative that everyone supports. 
  • Generate a sense of personal voice and agency. Provide explicit opportunities for planning, decision making, and reflection, and ensure that engagement is occurring. As a leader, take intentional time to consider your own motivations and objections, and be open to sharing your rational. 
  • Strengthen our capacity to create community. According to Palmer, “without community, it is nearly impossible to achieve voice.” Politics are a breeding ground for both disengagement and collaboration, but collaboration is the only action that provides voice. Interact with your friends and foes to gain knowledge and understanding, strengthening your ability to create forward momentum. 
As engaged youth workers and youth leaders, we have the power to make a change in the many communities in which we are involved. I urge you to discover the splendor in creative tension, embrace “otherness,” share your inner self, and gravitate towards democratic communities. Above all, welcome the political cards you’ve been dealt as youth workers, and turn turmoil into the passion you need to continue making a difference in the lives of youth!

What do you think of this approach to politics in youth programs? What strategies have you used to control political fires within your youth work experiences? How can we share our voices in a productive, empowering way?

-- Amber Shanahan,  Extension educator

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8 comments:

  1. Amber, this is such a wonderful piece! Thanks for taking on this all-pervasive (but rarely explored) topic. I love Parker Palmer's work, and in terms of politics in youth work, I definitely have found great wisdom in developing an appreciation for "otherness". It is amazing how much can be healed by developing an understanding of and appreciation for the human being who I might be having a conflict with. I also find, as he writes, that creative tension can indeed be a positive force. If we can get beyond the Minnesotan aversion to conflict, we can discover that just like tension creates the beauty of mountains, it can also be generative in pushing us to find solutions we would not otherwise have considered.

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  2. Thank you for your thoughts, Kathryn! Yes, politics provide a tricky, unexpected element to our field that many youth workers are not prepared to take on. I myself have been in situations where a “hard edge” was required to push initiatives forward, and being “tough” was certainly not within my comfort zone. I enjoy Palmer’s work because he points out that opposition and politics do not have to go hand in hand- there is almost always a middle ground out there, it just takes initiative (and time) to uncover it. Of course, the frustrating part about this piece is that all parties need to be onboard for discovering common ground, and that is not always the case- which means that we might be left with continued frustration. The point I hope my readers take away from this post is that, most of the time, people are willing to consider alternatives if they understand perspective and values, and demonstrating this dialogue is an excellent way teach this as best-practice for our youth. We might not always find common ground in the politics of youth work, but as professionals we have the ability to teach the value of “otherness” and personal conviction which, in turn, provides our future citizens with the skills to practice positive politics in the same way.

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  3. Thanks, Amber, for this post. Oh, we are all so good at avoiding conflict, aren't we? But it's true that conflict is often what we need in order to resolve deep-seated issues. I tend to think that conflicts come up precisely so that we can deal with those unresolved issues. And if we take care of the little ones right away, that often prevents bigger ones from presenting themselves. When I think of what strategies I tend to use in response to the "politics" of youth work, the word transparency comes to mind. That's the one thing I think is there but not emphasized in Palmer's habits of the heart. The other word that comes to mind for me is humility--also something touched on subtly but not emphasized. But I think both are important if we want to build the trust that's necessary in building relationships.

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  4. Thanks, Amber, for this post. Oh, we are all so good at avoiding conflict, aren't we? But it's true that conflict is often what we need in order to resolve deep-seated issues. I tend to think that conflicts come up precisely so that we can deal with those unresolved issues. And if we take care of the little ones right away, that often prevents bigger ones from presenting themselves. When I think of what strategies I tend to use in response to the "politics" of youth work, the word transparency comes to mind. That's the one thing I think is there but not emphasized in Palmer's habits of the heart. The other word that comes to mind for me is humility--also something touched on subtly but not emphasized. But I think both are important if we want to build the trust that's necessary in building relationships.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for these additions to our list, Jess... It's amazing what a little transparency and humility can do for an organization- it provides a space for such open, honest conversation and, hopefully, creates an environment where politics can be practiced in a positive way, and conflict does not even have an opportunity to surface. I'm glad that you included these... such important reminders!

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    2. And, I should clarify... "negative" conflict does not have a chance to surface, as we know that conflicting perspectives can be a powerful means to new perspective and ideas :)

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  5. Thanks so much, Amber, for lifting up the five habits of the heart in relation to youth work and the politics surrounding it. The work you and your colleagues do with young people is dear to my heart! So it's wonderful to get a sense of the vitality of the field and those who are working in it. I'm glad you find my book helpful. With gratitude, Parker

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  6. Parker,
    I so appreciate the time you took to read and respond to my blog post. Thank you!

    One of the things I loved most about your book (Healing the Heart of Democracy) was the ease I found in applying your concepts in a practical way to our field. Youth work, both in formal and informal settings, is often considered carefree and inspiring. Yes, society recognizes that it’s hard work, but society frequently assumes that it’s gratifying because we’re making a difference for youth, and less often recognizes the challenging politics that can overshadow our youth-focused work. Too often I see educators and youth workers who are worn thin trying to stay afloat while managing organizational democracy. By “healing the heart” of our field, and equipping our professionals with tangible tools to practice the habits of the heart, we will provide a space where honest discussion can flourish and tension will be viewed as a device for change rather than a burden. This is where true growth will occur, and our professionals will again feel gratified by doing the work they hold so dear.

    Again, many thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m humbled by your contribution to my blog!

    Best,
    Amber

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