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What's shaping youth work today: Systems or programs?

By Joyce Walker

What is the best way to make sure the after-school and youth development workforce is stable, prepared, supported and committed? For youth workers gathering at the National Afterschool Association conference this week, lots of ideas are on the table.

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?

-- Joyce Walker, professor and youth development educator

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  1. Thanks for a thought provoking post! As an extension educator in youth development at the University of MN, a majority of my work focuses on creating and delivering professional development courses for youth workers. The learning and networking that occurs when we bring a wide variety of youth workers into our workshops is an enriching aspect of this work.
    However, the system building that you refer to in the post is essential to the well being and success of youth across the nation. We have many existing resources to tap when looking toward youth work system building. NIOST, Harvard Family Research Project, Forum For Youth Investment, Next Generation Youth Work Coalition, and the U of M Extension Center For Youth Development all offer extensive system level resources. In 2009, I attended a NIOST Seminar for System Builders in Boston. In reviewing the power point and the binder of resource materials from that seminar, I am encouraged that many avenues exist to improve the system level of youth work. The NIOST seminar material offered a system model for after-school, as well as a definition of 'system' : "a group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent elements forming a complex whole. In this case, a group of stakeholders, organizations, ideas and principles forming an after-school system." As a youth worker devoting staff time to the Next Generation Youth Work Coalition, I am excited to work on this level in the coming months and years by engaging in meaningful conversation and action with all of you. Please join us by visiting the Next Gen website at Click on the JOIN US button to become part of a nation-wide group of stakeholders making an impact on the system level.

  2. Interestingly, here in the U.S. we have a tendancy to "reinvent the wheel" and focus on local solutions rather than taking a national approach to field building. As in the UK, many U,.S. states and cities have standards, competencies and career pathways that define the field of youth work. Yet, we resist a national approach. Perhaps it is because our field is so diverse and fragmented. Is it possible to create a common language- a framework- that will help connect and integrate the multiple professional development initiatives that already exist? I think so. If you are going to NAA, come to our session on Building Competent Youth Workers in Afterschool and Beyond to continue this important conversation.

  3. Great comments! Ellen, I think you're right that we resist a natiional approach. As Margo notes, NIOST is one example of an intermediary organization that has advanced systems change work and infused it in their trainings. It occurs to me that system's folks work on systems changes whereas most practitioners put their efforts into the daily work in front of them. And rightly so. But if we are going to have meaningful systems-building, youth workers of every stripe must be involved and supportive. We can't have one small segment of the field presume to speak for the wide variety of youth workers in afterschool, parks and rec, detached youth work, big national youth orgs, small "boutique" programs and more. There are tensions between those wanting to move the field, those wanting to lead, and those wanting to build consensus at the local level. A dilemma.

  4. Joyce,
    I enjoyed reading your post and comments. You pose very thought provoking questions and a couple of things come to mind for me. I would lean more toward the building and sustainability of a system more than individual programs and activities. If we can help build a system that focuses on needs, responds to them, values both the youth worker, the youth, and their communities then the system itself would ensure that programs and activities are what youth need and can benefit from.
    Often we know programs and activities are at the end of their life cycle but it's hard to let go and maybe transition to new and more innovative ways of doing things. If our system is strong, responsive, and flexible to accommodate to the ongoing changes in communities and families then we will have something meaningful for youth.
    Nicole's second point on relationships and not so much on programs and activities resonated with me. As I continue to write and work with community-based organizations within the Latino community, relationships are always at the core of the creation of the program/opportunity. Furthermore, research shows that relationships (reciprocal and meaningful ones) can be the source of important social and cultural capital for youth.

  5. Joyce, great question and very thoughtful reflections. My dilemma is that I do not believe it is an either or question. We need both stronger systems and high quality programs. But the balance here will be different than the UK -- different than both its golden age and its current era. As the discussion indicates American youth work is less well defined and a diverse even confusing non-system of federal, state and local efforts as well as organizational and program dynamics. For my money we have to strengthen systems in ways that improve access, quality and impact through programs and practitioners not to control them. We must find ways we can unite and collaborate, find common language but even more common values. While many might rightly fear the worst of bad systems that are underfunded and wrong headed, we also need to see the promise of what stronger systems can bring- both locally and at higher levels of government. Similarly while we enjoy the variety of programs and diverse approaches rich with opportunities for young people, we must also acknowledge collectively we are failing our youth as these opportunities are not equally accessible and too often not sustainable. The American system - program balance will be different but we must work to find that balance with a new mix of public, private and personal resources.
    Dale Blyth, Associate Dean and Director, Extension Center for Youth Development.

  6. What struck me in Joyce/Nicole's comment section was the reference to England's youth workers capacity to organize opposition and/or support for policy - point #3. I think we're missing that as an element of a field/profession/discipline being discussed here in the US - providng a framework that builds/doesn't impede voice and power for youth workers. While I applaud the diversity and chaos that is the world of learning opportunities outside formal school hours and don't want to in any way limit that, it seems to me that increasing the power of youth workers to speak and impact policy has to be a crucial element as we dream about the future and somehow or another that means creating a system that they see themselves as being a part of and having a voice in determining its future.

  7. Hi there, really interesting to catch up on the debates over there, and only makes me wish I could be more involved... as I think both the differences and similarities between the UK and US youth work are fascinating. A few brief thoughts: appearances can be deceptive although from the outside in the UK can appear unified and significantly more substantive than it is in the US there are still many disparate voices, perspectives and approaches. Having said that I suppose there are some fundamental differences that give youth work at least the appearance of solidity. Firstly I guess it is the establishment of the 'youth service' - an obligation placed upon local government to provide recreational and educational opportunities for young people in their leisure time. Although with the recent savage budget cuts alongside the present emphasis upon the charitable sector this is under distinct threat...
    Secondly the establishment of a semi-independent government body called the NYA (national youth agency, but which has had previous guises for example national youth bureau) which advocates on behalf of youth work and liaises policymakers. Thirdly the development of the trade union has unabled some coherence to be established across the sector over the years. Alongside this has been the development of 'professionalism' which has brought with it associated National Occupational Standards code of ethics. Whilst all these have assisted youth work to survive it is debatable whether or not it has enabled it to thrive, as the more youth work has sought equality amongst other professionals it has increasingly found its principles and practices undermined by policy interventions and requests to work with and for other agencies...
    One reflection on the US situation is that if I'm honest I find the term 'after school' problematic as it is to have heavily associated with the formal education system, and doesn't say enough about the distinctiveness of the approach of informal educators, social educators or youth workers...