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

By Cecilia Gran

A 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, former associate program director and state faculty member, Youth Work Institute

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  1. Thanks for bringing up this critical issue of ethics! I think it’s important to distinguish personal ethics and values from professional ones. Invariably, people bring to their work their own personal values. Then there are professional principles that underpin a practice like youth work.
    In terms of the latter, I like the "Ethical Conduct in Youth Work: A Statement of Values and Principles from the National Youth Agency" because it lays out broad principles of ethical conduct with the aim of promoting and guiding ethical practice, reflection and debate. It is not a checklist or rulebook prescribing exactly what youth workers should do in every situation. Like your list from Urban Sanctuaries, it gets at the way that youth workers should treat the young people they work with and the kinds of values they are working towards. I think this kind of document can be a touchstone to help anchor ethical decisions in daily practice.

  2. You are so right about the National Youth Agency's Ethical Conduct Statement Kate. We could organize some study circles around the creating a "Statement" to help guide us in daily practice. Anyone interested?

  3. What a good and complex example, Cece! In Sarah Banks' book on ethics in youth and commuity work (forget the name off hand), she talks about two ways to frame the ethical choice. One is to ask yourself, "What is the right thing to do?" Another is to ask yourself, "What is in the best interests of the people involved?" Neither are easy questions, but it's clear the answer is not "What is the best or easiest thing for me as an adult leader?" It critical to remember that we're most often looking at dilemmas rooted in the question of what is just and appropriate for the young people involved. No one ever said this work is easy!

  4. Jennifer Griffin-WiesnerMay 27, 2011 at 6:10 AM

    A key question for me is whether she engaged the young people in determining an effective solution. It sounds like not and therein for me lies the heart of the ethical issue. Thanks for the post, Cece.