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Youth work blog: The power of youth work

6th November 2023 by David Bigglestone, Head of Youth Work, Future Youth Zone

Whenever I’m asked why I work in the youth sector my answer is simple – it’s because I am a product of some excellent youth work. It helped me find myself and to access opportunities I never would have otherwise. I joined my local youth club when I was 11. I went along and never left. As soon as I was old enough when I was 18, I applied for a job as a youth worker as I wanted to repay everything that was given to me.

I’m still in touch with the youth workers who impacted me when I was younger; in a way, I still feel like I’m the young person. Even though times may have changed, the youth work methods and ideas behind it haven’t. Now it’s come full circle, as I recently met up with two young people I used to support who have become youth workers themselves. I met them when they were 10, and they’re now in their mid-20s and working alongside children and young people just like them and just like me.

Over my career I’ve done many kinds of youth work; working with youth councils, youth voice and social action projects to name a few. What’s been at the core of each role is the unique voluntary relationship between a young person and their youth worker. Young people are passengers in so many parts of their lives, things are done for them, or at them, not with them. Youth work it’s different, young people pick who they interact with at a youth club. There’s this beautiful voluntary dynamic that makes it so powerful.

That’s one of many things that’s under-appreciated when it comes to youth work. There seems to be misconceptions surrounding youth work and what we actually contribute to the lives of young people – that includes some of my family, and I’ve worked in the sector for decades! This is why it is so important to dispel the myths and shout loud about the transformative work that happens every day in the youth work sector.

The purpose of youth work

Because of this lack of understanding, it feels as if youth work needs to be justified, as if it’s not a necessity and just a nice to have. Teachers don’t need to explain why they teach. They don’t have to explain the pedagogy of learning. The outside world sees youth workers as the professional pool and table tennis players. But the whole purpose of youth work activities is to be a tool that sparks those often life-changing conversations, to build relationships, and provide support.

That’s why I think we need to do more to sell the importance of our work to others – and why campaigns like Youth Work Week are so important. Part of it is articulating what we do. We are almost like a secret workforce that people don’t see or even realise exists – but that is making a huge difference every day. We’re there when young people need us, often at times when other support isn’t there.

As well as explaining what we do, it can be challenging to measure impact. There’s no GCSE, so it doesn’t work as a tidy pie chart. It has improved over the years, and the work we’re doing across the OnSide Network with the Me App 1:1 evaluation approach built into youth work conversations with our young people is helping us prove and articulate the impact of our work in a different way.

Where I see the impact most clearly is in the stories that come directly from young people, and I have heard hundreds over the course of my career that each bring to life that youth work – that unique trusted relationship between a young person and a youth worker – works.

As youth workers, we sometimes don’t realise the impact of the opportunities we provide young people. It may have been just another conversation, trip or activity, but for them, it was the conversation or activity. It was life-affirming and becomes seared in their memories. My favourite moments are when I bump into young people who I used to work with, and they are able to reflect on what their experiences meant, and how it changed something for them. Sometimes these are huge impacts – like conversations that inspired their future career choices, and sometimes they are small but really impactful changes. For example, I recently ran into Jordan who is now 23 and doing really well. He reminded me of the residentials we went on and how they really opened him up to the countryside. Spending time in the outdoors is now a really important part of his life and leisure time as an adult, and that’s come from his experiences with us as a young person. It’s these moments when you know you’ve made a difference.

Youth workers are often brought in to fix a perceived problem, as if young people have something wrong. But I don’t believe that. Every young person has the potential to succeed.  Being a teenager is a time of testing boundaries, finding yourself, and sometimes taking risks.  Youth workers help young people navigate and assess those risks and challenges and make positive choices. We are so much more than professional table tennis and pool players. The purpose of youth work is to enable young people to build relationships with trusted adults,  and these relationships must be cherished, nourished, and protected in our ever-changing world.

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