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Context means everything in youth work

By Joshua Kukowski 

I recently attended a 21st Century Community Learning Center summer conference in which the keynote speaker spoke about how context means everything in youth work, and yet we frequently overlook it when working with young people. The speaker's own context was amazing, inspiring, and tough to hear, yet compelling. It affirmed my own conviction that a young person's context is powerful, and that out-of-school-time programs have the power to tilt young people in the right direction.

Context is important for youth workers as they design and launch programs. I work with the Minnesota 4-H State Ambassadors, which is entering its forty-eighth year of service and learning. Recently, the ambassadors and I met with the founder of the program. What a great opportunity! How often do you get a chance to visit with the founder of the programs you work with? The context she provided was amazing, inspiring, and further motivated us to excel. She said back then, there was an inherent demand for this program, which she recognized, but it was too edgy for program leaders to accept at first. Context was against her, but she persisted and insisted, and eventually prevailed. The program has provided leadership opportunities to youth and benefits to the program itself for nearly half a century.

In service-learning projects or programs, there are many layers to consider to make them truly impactful. This context is essential, otherwise the service may be less than altruistic and, in some cases, cause actual harm. True service and service-learning can lead to mutual benefits and impactful work. Evaluating context from a provider and a recipient’s point of view is the first step -- the priority should be to serve recipients, not ourselves.

Context is essential when working with tribal youth. At a recent planning meeting for Indian Country, we spent the better part of two days taking steps forward while also looking backward at history. The context of working with American Indians is complex, and requires a significant level of understanding of tribal sovereignty.  In this setting, a lack of understanding of context can sink the partnership.

Context is important when when exploring partnerships. I offer these questions to consider when meeting with new partners: Why are we meeting now and not previously?  Within our organization, how did we get to where we are now?

How do you take context into account? How do you explore it in your partnerships, and with new audiences? How do you calibrate yourself with historic or innovative programs?

-- Joshua Kukowski, Extension educator

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  1. Joshua,

    It's true, context is very important. I agree that a lack of understanding of the context, especially with American Indian communities, can cripple a partnership. I appreciate the link about tribal sovereignty...I am printing it off to bring home and read and I encourage other readers to do the same. Within our organization, "sovereign nation" is mentioned often when referring to the American Indian communities we are attempting to collaborate with, but I don't think many have a clear understanding of what it actually is and how it plays into a balance of power and decision making. Some may even have the impression that the organization we work for holds more power, but in actuality, it is likely the sovereign nation. I'm posing this thought to everyone who might read this: How do we first work to build awareness of the context, then consider and respect it as we work in partnership?

  2. You bring up a good, but tough point...we often rely on our expertise in youth development or some other content area to begin relationships. I hope with experience that will help this out...I will also be more intentional with volunteers and staff that I work with to be prepared when working with our American Indian partners.

  3. I would consider context one of the basic tenants in youth work development and yes it can be easy to overlook—too often we achievers want to “dig in and get programs going” without taking time to consider the demographics, geography, cultural dynamics of the environment and our audience.

    Josh referenced the Minnesota 4-H State Ambassador program—and yes, the context for developing that program was complex—4-H was moving from a more adult-led program to greater youth involvement as spokespersons and leaders on the state level, the “cows and cooking” programming primarily in rural areas was moving to the city with new efforts to reach more urban audiences with projects that were timely and relevant . Generational differences between senior staff and newer younger staff were present. All part of the context of designing a new program—but patience , critical thinking , respect and persuasion all paid off.

    As the Minnesota State Fair winds down, I can’t help but think of 4-H programming in that context—much different than summer camps, 4-H project meetings, etc. An important part of our job is to prepare our youth for the experience. In our 4-H Speaking Up for Animal Agriculture program one of the first things we talk about with the youth is Why are you here?—They are there for themselves the opportunity to exhibit, they are there for the fair—why does the fair board want 4-H’ers at the fair? What are their responsibilities to the livestock industry and 4-H in this setting?

    As 4-H moves in the First Generation focus and we continue to work with and reach more multicultural audiences context will be even more important—and taking the time to listen, learn and then lead as we build new partnerships will be important.

    I personally have had a long-time interest in Native American culture and the more I learn and study the more I appreciate the complexity of understanding our history . A good read is Jack Weatherford’s book Indian Givers. How Native Americans Transformed the World”

    1. Juanita,

      Thank you for your comments, ideas, and suggestions. I especially like how you talk about our First Generation Focus - I read your words and focus on the patience required to make this focus successful...

  4. Joshua,

    I am glad you pointed out the importance of context as it relates to partnership building. I have often seen staff in Extension (myself included) brainstorm potential partners in their community that could potentially support and work with and support the 4-H program. The potential partners are approached but the collaboration is not as successful as it could be or is limited in its capacity.

    Why? As you pointed out, people failed to explore context beforehand.

    When approaching new partners, it is important for us to provide the story and impact of 4-H in that community. If we provide data on how the program is positively impacting the lives of youth and how we see the program expanding, we can invite potential partners into the conversation. Getting a background picture of how potential partners can benefit by working with 4-H will provide context to conversations and increase potential success.

    1. Michael--I like your comment on "providing the story and impact of 4-H in that community". I believe it is one way that you can build a relationship on common ground--usually leadership, citizenship within the community. Many people do not understand the history of 4-H, our relationship to the University, etc. --hopefully in your conversations you can point to 4-H alumni who have been and are role models in careers, community leadership, service and citizenship.


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