Cornerstone Challenges for European Youth Work and Youth Work in Europe: Making the Connections and Bridging the Gaps’. Howard Williamson reflects.

Howard at the second European Convention

Back in early April 2015 I welcomed with some enthusiasm Howard Williamson’s ‘magisterial and challenging traversal of the European youth work landscape,’Finding Common Ground : Mapping and scanning the horizons for European youth work in the 21st century’, written for the 2nd European Youth Work Convention held in Brussels later that month. Five years on with the 3rd Convention in the offing Howard has repeated the feat of producing an overview of the dilemmas haunting the European scene that begs to be read. His preparatory thoughts on implementing the European Youth Work agenda are to be found in Cornerstone Challenges for European Youth Work and Youth Work in Europe: Making the Connections and Bridging the Gaps’.

Hopefully the following Executive Summary will encourage you to explore the paper in its entirety.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

This paper seeks to capture and delineate the key challenges that continue to face  youth work in the 21st century

Youth work in its many forms has always had to adapt to variable and changing  contexts; the risk of ever attempting a precise formulation of youth work as a practice  is that external expectations of its role – from young people on one side and those who  support it through funding and advocacy on the other – may rapidly change.  Nevertheless, certain principles have guided the diversity of youth work practice over  time, even if they themselves remain subject to challenge and debate. The first part of  the paper therefore considers not only the contemporary context of youth work policy  development in Europe, notably through the 1st and 2nd European Youth Work  Conventions and the political outcomes they produced (the EU Resolution on Youth  Work in 2010 and the Council of Europe Recommendation on Youth Work in 2017) but  also the many lessons that emerged from the History of Youth Work in Europe project  that produced seven volumes of youth work knowledge and highlighted what might be  called the ‘tension triangles’ within which youth work has to navigate with some skill.  The history project identified twelve such triangles. The final, unexpected, context is  clearly the Covid-19 pandemic that has been afflicting Europe throughout 2020, the  outcome of which remains unpredictable but the impact of which – on youth work as  much as on all other aspects of established life in Europe – has been dramatic and  transformative in many different ways. 

The second substantive section of the paper focuses on what are considered the nine  persisting challenges facing youth work in Europe, and European youth work, today.  First, despite the apparent consensus across the youth work community of practice that  all youth work is simultaneously about providing young people with ‘spaces’ (for youth  autonomy and self-determination) and ‘bridges’ (to support positive transitions to the  next steps of their lives), that common ground remains disputed and contested. It  needs to be strengthened further. Secondly there are at least five challenges that have  always prevailed within the youth work debate: how to manage the diverse pressures and expectations placed upon youth work; where (in what kinds of spaces) youth work  needs to operate; balancing the different rationales for the provision of youth work;  establishing the balance in different styles of practice; and how to evaluate youth work  – agreeing a basis on which to judge its value. Third, there are equally traditional  disputes about the boundaries of youth work. Where does youth work start and stop  in relation to age (very different forms of youth work operate across a broad age range  of young people), target groups (what should youth work be ‘targeted’ on, if at all) and  issues to be addressed (can, and should, youth work be engaging with all issues caused  or experienced by young people)? Clearly, youth work does not cover everything that  affects the lives of young people but, as that is the case, what are its parameters? 

Fourth, there are important questions about the structural arrangements for the  delivery of youth work, from the European level (and the concept of ‘European youth  work’) to national and local provision. Fifth, there is the challenge of building rapport with other agencies, professionals and groups that work, in many different ways, with  young people. 

The sixth challenge relates to education and training for youth work, particularly as  most youth work continues to be provided largely by volunteers, raising questions about  professionalism if not professionalisation. Relatively little is known in detail about the  diversity and delivery of youth work across Europe, even at the local level, which has  inevitably invited questions, and criticisms, as to what exactly does youth work do?  What kinds of outcomes and impact does youth work produce? This raises a seventh  challenge concerned with the quality assurance dimensions of youth work. Proponents of youth work often talk about it as if it is a pervasive practice imbued with  shared understanding and relatively uniform provision throughout Europe. A small  scratch below the surface reveals this to be a patent myth. There are, as an eighth  point, at least three striking missing links. The urban-rural divide is a huge fault line  for youth work. The transnational divide conveys starkly that there is not yet any kind  of level playing field throughout Europe. And there are still huge debates about the  distinctions and (lack of) connections between European, national and local youth work.  Understanding, traversing and bringing closer together these three, and other, missing  links remains a significant challenge for youth work. 

Finally, there is the perennial cry and challenge to do with winning recognition for youth  work. If youth work was everything that those within its community of practice  proclaimed it to be, it would not have to struggle to secure its place within political  advocacy and youth policy development. But rarely, if ever, has this yet been the case.  Winning hearts and minds beyond those already converted to the value of youth work  remains the ultimate ‘political’ challenge for youth work. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has clearly affected all aspects of societies. The third section  of this paper considers the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on young people, on youth  workers and youth organisations, and on youth work practice. Many negative  consequences have been well documented but innovation and responsiveness,  particularly through digital practice, has provided youth work with an opportunity to  claim its stake in the process of rebuilding and refocusing Europe in a post-Covid world. 

The paper, in conclusion, and in preparation for the development of a European Youth  Work Agenda, proposes that attention needs to be given to four key strands of youth  work. The conceptual challenges are, at one level, self-evident, yet their resolution  remains elusive; as soon as some definitional consensus is reached by some, others  are eager to dismantle it. There are challenges to do with the competence of youth  workers: what kinds of knowledge, skills, attitudes, values and critical understanding  are needed for the practice of effective youth work and how should these be  engendered? Then there are the challenges around the credibility of youth work, in  terms of its social and political recognition and the security of funding and occupational  pathways that may flow from that. And finally there are the challenges of making  appropriate connections, both vertically within youth work (from the ‘European’ to the  local) and horizontally between youth work and other sectors.

Such challenges need to inform the deliberations of the 3rd European Youth Work  Convention and contribute to the shaping of an emergent European Youth Work  Agenda.

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