What is youth work?
The National Definition
Youth peaks across Australia were involved in the development of the National Definition of Youth Work with AYAC during 2013 and the final outcome was the following definition.
“Youth work is a practice that places young people and their interests first. Youth work is a relational practice, where the youth worker operates alongside the young person in their context. Youth work is an empowering practice that advocates for and facilitates a young person’s independence, participation in society, connectedness and realisation of their rights”
The definition contains three key statements:
The first statement is about who our primary commitment is to. It is clear that regardless of how we are funded, or who employs us, or what kinds of pressure from parents or communities or schools or police that we might come under, our first priority is about what needs to happen for the young person or group of young people that we are working with.
The second statement is about the context in which we work, or the field of practice, if you like. It says that we are interested in the ‘lifespace’ of the young person: their peer group, their relationships with school or the workplace; the place they live and the relationships there; sometimes with their family. It is often (but not always) outside school or work, in their leisure time, though the intention is not primarily to provide recreation. It also is not primarily concerned with the ‘internal space’ of the psyche that psychologists and counsellors are into. Youth workers are skilled in helping young people work out what is going on in their social relationships or their social resources, what might need to be fixed, and helping them find solutions that work for them.
The third statement is about the purpose or intention or the work. This acknowledges that while the teenage years are all about finding your feet as an adult, about taking responsibility for yourself and making a contribution to your family and community, young people often feel that they have no control over their lives and no opportunity to shape its direction. Youth workers work to clear barriers and create opportunities for young people to experiment, to try out new roles or new capacities, to have a voice in the things that matter to them.
What is not youth work?
Just as there are many important people working in healthcare that aren’t doctors, and many working in law who aren’t lawyers, many people who work with young people are not Youth Workers. This doesn’t make their contributions less important, but it does distinguish them from the profession of Youth Work. This distinction is important for many reasons. Primarily it is important for young people to know what is and is not a part of their relationship with you to allow them to make an informed decision about how they connect with your service.
To be considered a Youth Worker in Australia, you should practise according to the definition above, and in New South Wales your practice should be aligned to the Code of Ethics for Youth Work in NSW. If you find it impossible to align your work to the Code of Ethics, your role wouldn’t be considered youth work.
If the following statements don’t apply to your service or to the way you work with young people then it’s probably not Youth Work.
The young person is the primary client, their interests as they see them come first (not their interests as you see them)
The young person is ultimately empowered to make their own decisions about their participation, and the choices they make
The young person’s engagement with you is voluntary (it’s very unlikely for an involuntary service to be considered Youth Work)
The following roles are not considered Youth Work by the sector because the nature of the professional relationship with the young person or the definition of their role is materially different to that of a Youth Worker. This list is not comprehensive.
Social worker: A social worker cannot make a commitment not to act against the interest of the young person they are working with. Their professional role is to balance the claims and responsibilities of all of the stakeholders in a situation. So they may be involved in the criminal justice system, and might recommend a term of imprisonment to a court. Or that a child is removed from a teenage parent, even though that might be tragic for the parent. Those kinds of decisions might be necessary in some situations, which is why we have social workers. Our role in such a situation would be to advocate for the young person, to help them make their case.
Teacher: Teachers can be powerful positive influences in young people’s lives, and may actually spend more time with a young person than any other adult. They are also working, in their own way, to create opportunities for the students they are working with through the process of education in the broadest sense as well as gaining qualifications and credentials. But again, they are working within a structure that requires the relationship with a student be subordinate to their responsibility to the school and to the Department. And while many teachers’ involvement doesn’t stop at the school gates, the context of their work is more limited and its purpose more specific than a youth workers’ would be.
Counsellor or Youth Psychologist: For a counsellor, the young person should be their primary client rather than their parents or other adult stakeholders, though that isn’t always the case. Their purpose might also be to help the young person get some sense of control over their lives. But the context of the practice is the internal psychological life of the person, rather than their social context of friends, family school and other social relationships.
Youth Justice Worker, Youth Detention Officer or Prison Officer: Many workers who are involved with young people in custody or in the justice system genuinely care about the young people they work with and have good relationships with them. But at the end of the day, the requirements of the court must be carried out, independently of what the young person might want to happen. In short, the young person cannot be the primary client in these contexts.
Coach: For some people involved in sports coaching, it is about the game. For others, it is about the opportunity to help young people and contribute to their development. Could a sports coach see themselves as a youth worker, or could a youth worker do their thing through involvement in coaching? A test might be about what happens when a young person doesn’t make the cut. What are the criteria for making the cut? Are we thinking about the young person, or about making the winning team? What about the ongoing relationship with the young person? Is that where the relationship ends? Is the primary obligation to the young person, or to the team?