Here’s my beef: Real youth work, good youth work, effective youth work, is about relationships, trust, continuity, longevity. This comes out very clearly in research on youth work and, in particular, research on mentorship.
Author and academic Dana Fusco, a former youth worker herself, writes that youth work is grounded in relationships, which are emergent and evolving, not “fixed and predictable.” This reinforces that youth work takes time and cannot be offered in a rigid structure. It has to be responsive, which means it will change as the young people change and as their relationships with their youth workers, communities, schools, families and peers change. What many young people find in their youth workers are non-judgemental ears--people that will actively listen and provide support, pathways, and ongoing guidance.
“Youth work is often the location of youth development for the simple fact that it is centered on non-oppressive relationships.”
Mentorship, in particular, is an effective relationship-based source of support. Mentorship is often cited as improving social and behavioral skills, if the identified best practices are employed. A one-year minimum commitment and weekly face-to-face meetings with with a mentor matched on interpersonal skills and common interests are some some of the key best practices that make mentorship effective. The closer a mentor and mentee are, the stronger the trust and empathy, the better the outcomes for youth.
This is even backed up by the Stepping Up Framework authored by the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, which identifies relationships, including those with caring adults, as key to healthy youth development.
I don’t think anyone who’s done youth work is surprised by this, or anyone who’s done any type of social work for that matter. It takes a long time to build trust and then turn that trust into candid conversations, open dialogue, and real change. Relationships are integral to making impact.
And I don’t think that anyone who’s done youth work is surprised by this: project funding does not support relationships, the key element of youth work. Project funding is short-term and short-sighted...and the most pervasive funding available to most nonprofit organizations, especially grassroots ones.
Pair this with the current sectoral emphasis on outcomes and impact, and you have an absolute mismatch. We want big change with little investment, minimal commitment, and not nearly enough time.
It’s not that I’m “anti-outcome”--I think it’s important to think about the changes we want to see before we dive into doing our work. I think it’s important to measure our progress towards these changes, learn what’s working and what isn’t, and strive to make a real difference. But I am anti-unrealistic expectations: Funding programs that expect the work to make deeply effective changes in less than a year--in less time than it takes to build a strong relationship and see its fruits. I am pro all stakeholders who understand the value of time, and effort over time, in making change. However, the only way we’ll make real change is if we’re in this together, with the same understanding of what real change will look like and the relationships that will get us there.