At a time when cuts to youth services meant jobs for youth workers were limited, I made the decision to become a youth worker.
Well queue up for high fives because for the last five years I have had the pleasure of saying that I am exactly that!
A common problem I’ve found however is that actually, the majority of people haven’t got a clue what that means, resulting in this very common and genuine question:
“You’re working… Isn’t it half term?”
Now, with the aid of Google I could find some very fancy definitions of what youth work is and its importance. In fact our very own CEO, Jodie Lloyd-Jones, wrote a blog article all about youth clubs and the work of youth workers which you should definitely check out.
For me when thinking about what youth work is, I believe there are some simple factors that are as undervalued as they are important!
It cannot be said enough how important it is for people to have places where they can just be. Youth clubs and youth provision offer this to young people and you can never truly measure how important this is for so many different reasons. A controlled environment where young people can grow, make mistakes, learn and question and seek information to make informed choices and decisions… it has the power to change people’s lives!
Every youth worker will tell you that they are there to offer support in whatever way young people need. Whether it’s supporting with school work, job applications, providing advice and guidance, having someone to talk to or simply being there. As a youth worker you do what you can to meet the needs of individuals. The key is that no one is forcing young people to take us up on the offer. Young people engage because they want to, not because they have to.
As a Youth Worker I don’t have a curriculum of things I need to cover with a young person. I’ll talk to them about their life, issues that might be affecting them, about the world and what’s going on – ask them what they think and how they feel and what they know. It’s scary how many young people are shocked that someone cares about what they think!
With all the good will in the world if young people don’t trust you then forget it. Relationships are key!
In my experience this isn’t about them thinking you’re cool. In fact most young people think I’m pretty lame and to let you all in on a secret, they’re not wrong. Young people are people, and nothing feels better than feeling like someone is happy to see you or that they are interested in you, your life and what you have to say. I don’t feel a pressure to come across as cool to engage young people because what I know is that there isn’t a young person I’ve worked with who I haven’t wanted the absolute best for; whatever that looks like for them. When you feel something so passionately, you have to believe that people will recognise that authenticity and want the best for themselves too.
We can only hope…
In my mind youth work is an ‘act of faith’. A youth worker can have a conversation with a young person today that could have a positive impact tomorrow, in a month, in 20 years or maybe never. Sometimes there is no way of knowing if you’ve made a difference because you will never see it first hand, but the key is to never stop trying.
When I meet people that don’t understand what I do, it makes me think…maybe that’s why youth provision was and could be cut so drastically. If people don’t understand what they’ve got and its importance, how can they ever appreciate it or miss it when it’s gone?
Hindsight is a beautiful thing and in my opinion a cruel reality. Cuts are made to youth provision and a few years down the line more and more we see major issues like exploitation rearing their ugly head – never truly acknowledging that maybe a valuable prevention service was taken away and what we have left are the few youth workers, youth services, and volunteers who are still able to fight that fight, feeling stretched, overworked, and underappreciated.
In my position at Oxfordshire Youth I am so lucky to work with and for youth organisations across the county by supporting with direct delivery youth work. I see first-hand the victories and struggles youth workers come across and, for what it’s worth, this I will say to all youth workers… You are amazing. The work you are doing is amazing. Know that you are making a difference to the lives of the young people you are working with.
We live in a time where we are facing issues that we don’t fully have the solutions to, and as youth workers, we are in the privileged position to offer support in a way no other service really can. By simply opening your youth club weekly or engaging young people at places they go, you are providing a prevention service, you are providing them with a trusted adult, someone to talk to. YOU could be the difference in their lives and have probably already helped more people than you know.
Never underestimate the positivity your influence can create, and watch this space because, to me at least, it’s starting to feel like others far more important and influential than myself might be realising that too!
If you are part of a youth organisation and feel like you would benefit from any of the support we offer you can find out more about becoming a member here. You can also find out what youth provision is available in your area on our interactive members map!