Degrees of Separation

Print More

Boston—In Boston, 26-year-old Michelle Jordan thinks a college degree is so important to her career as a youth worker that she took unpaid days off from work to go to class. In Minneapolis, Vant Washington, who’s been a youth worker almost as long as Jordan has been alive, fumes that someone with the right degree took a job that he should’ve had.

While Jordan happily says, “I’ll need these credits” to pursue her life’s work, a man who has made youth work his life has been passed over and says, “I’m pissed off.”

The American youth service field has been dominated for decades by people like Washington, but the future appears to belong to people like Jordan. Is that good?

Here in Boston, a lot of youth agency administrators think so: Some 91 agencies have sent more than 250 youth workers through a training program that gives college credit. Similar efforts are spreading around the country – from Baltimore to Chicago to San Francisco, backed by foundations and the U.S. Department of Labor.

The objective is to raise standards, raise pay and codify professionalization. But a new report, commissioned by the National 4-H Council, questions the value and scope of existing degree programs, saying, among other things, that they tend to focus heavily on management and offer little education in actually working with kids.

Does college-linked training really make for better youth workers? Or just more youth workers with sheepskin who will soon bolt to higher paying jobs?

Training Day

It’s a cold, rainy January morning, but the 16 youth workers who’ve trudged to the community center in Dorchester are greeted by warm friends: Polka-dotted “Java” pour-boxes brimming with steaming coffee, an array of plain, filled, icing-covered and fruit-slathered doughnuts and pastries, and two casually dressed facilitators – Najma Nazy-at, 29, and Jessica Flaherty, 28.

Coffee cup in hand, Nazy-at stands in the middle of the circle of workers and says, “Find someone you don’t know, talk about the specific things you do, and then after five minutes introduce your new friend to the group, detailing what he or she does.” In the mix is a teen AmeriCorps worker, an Outward Bound staffer and several early- to late-20s directors and employees of community based youth-serving agencies sprinkled throughout the city’s fabled neighborhoods – and Michelle Jordan.

“This is going to be my life’s work,” says the mother of two, a youth counselor at Boston High School and part-time after-school advisor at the Roxbury Boys & Girls Club. “This training will benefit me in trying to get my bachelor’s degree.”

She and the others are here with the 3-year-old Boston BEST Initiative (BBI), one of 15 sites affiliated with the National BEST (Building Exemplary Systems for Training youth workers) Initiative, funded by the Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund. The BBI, managed by an umbrella nonprofit (the Medical Foundation) that deals with community health promotion and youth development, offers an eight-week youth training program. The certificate of completion is accepted as training credit at Springfield College’s School of Human Services, and is worth six undergraduate credits or one graduate class at the College of Public and Community Service at the University of Massachusetts/Boston.

“We’re sincere about professionalizing youth work,” says Bob Monahan, vice president of strategic partnerships of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston. “My board rammed through a proposal that allowed an immediate $500 bonus to any youth worker in our employ who earns a BEST training certificate.”

Breaking into groups of four, the youth workers are sent to different parts of a large room at the community center, where they mount large artist sketch pads on the walls to record in magic marker their answers to queries posed by Nazy-at and Flaherty. Among them: “Describe the youth you work with.” “What are the most pressing issues youth face?” “Define youth.” “How does society portray youth?”

Striding from cluster to cluster, Nazy-at puts these opening exercises into perspective for the participants: “Hearing about other lives and experiences strengthens you as a resource, as a group.”

As BBI coordinator Mo Barbosa puts it, “They are strangers who don’t get the opportunity to get to discuss who they are and what they do. Here they listen and are listened to and find out the value of networking.”

At the end of the initial six-hour session, the participants are expected to identify the goals of the training, articulate at least two facts in the history of youth work in Boston and define the basic terminology of youth development. Other sessions will cover identifying best practices, strategies for youth participation, and behavior management.

“I don’t have a degree yet, but it’s always in the back of my mind to complete my course work,” says Madeline Steczynski, 37, who 11 years ago founded ZUMIX – a small nonprofit that provides “cultural alternatives to at-risk youth” in the geographically isolated area of East Boston.

A BBI graduate of both the youth- worker training program and the six-week supervisors’ program, Steczynski says that before entering BBI she “didn’t know what a youth worker was.” Now she insists that her staff participate in the program.

“My staff who’ve been through the program have adopted a common language and terminology, both with their peers in other agencies and the youth they serve. They feel they’re no longer working in a vacuum,” Steczynski says. And she believes in rewarding degrees. A combination of training, experience and a degree, she says, can boost a salary at ZUMIX “by as much as $2,000.”


Pam Stevens, a former program officer for Wallace-Reader’s Digest fund (who began her job there one year after the launching of the foundation’s BEST initiative in 1991), says a “tension” exists in the youth work field between those with proven ability to work with young people but slim education credentials, and college-trained direct-service workers without much experiential training. “There is a feeling that if one prevails over the other, creativity will be lost,” she says.

One example of the tension recently occurred at the Center for 4-H Youth Development at the University of Minnesota, where veteran youth worker Washington, 52, was interviewed recently to become director of the 12-year-old Twin Cities Youth Work Coalition. Washington feels he lost out, despite more than 20 years in youth work, because he didn’t have the right higher education background. (He has a degree in theater and mass communications.)

“I was passed over and I’m pissed off,” Washington fumed before the final selection was announced (but knowing it wasn’t him). “I’m afraid they’re going to put somebody in the position who is college-educated and hasn’t been in the trenches.”
Washington says he has worked with youth since he was “19 or 20,” has been employed by 4-H “for many years” as an instructor and served as co-chairman for the Youth Work Coalition. “I was a natural choice for the position.”

The job went to Suzette Hunt, who has a bachelor’s degree in human services administration and is approximately the same age as Washington.

Regardless of the role that the right college degree played in the selection, Washington’s perception illustrates how many youth workers – especially veterans who learned about youth work on the job, not in the classroom – may feel left out of jobs, promotions and raises as the college degree trend grows.

Elaine Johnson, director of the D.C.-based National Training Institute for Community Youth Work (which has managed the national BEST program since 1997), disparages degrees not closely related to youth work. “How can a degree in art history have any applicability in the youth field?” she asks.

A recent youth worker survey among BEST participants showed that 39 percent of those who participated had a college degree (two- or four-year), while 13 percent had attended graduate school.

Elizabeth “Elee” Wood, training director of Twin Cities and Minnesota BEST, places a premium on degrees because they teach people “to think critically about planning and organization.”

“Money is the bottom line,” she says. “Many agencies find a way to hire these people. If not, those who have acquired degrees may move to another agency or just leave the field altogether.”

The Bandwagon Rolls

Ditra Edwards, who doesn’t have a degree and is director of training and youth development at the D.C.-based LISTEN Inc., feels that “a hire shouldn’t depend on whether someone has a degree or not.” The key is whether the person has the learning and skill-building opportunities “to make young people more productive. I believe it is important that workers come from an experiential background.”

But more and more agencies see the right college education as a vital part of a youth worker’s credentials, along with experience. Programs designed by Kentucky’s State Department of Juvenile Justice and the California Youth Authority, among others, have forged relationships with colleges and universities to bring established standards to the field, raise salaries and codify professionalization. In addition, 13 sites have been selected by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to divvy up $1.5 million in the first round of Youth Development Practitioner Apprenticeship grants.

The 18-month grants are designed “to initiate training that will issue accredited certification that will provide career pathways for youth workers,” says Irene Lynn, director of the DOL’s Office of Youth Opportunity.

Geoffrey Canada, CEO of the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families in Harlem, has “heard rumblings of discord” involving degreed and non-degreed youth workers.

Canada, a Harvard Graduate School of Education alumnus and author of “fist, stick, knife, gun: a personal history of violence in America,” believes “there shouldn’t be too much of one at the exclusion of the other.

“All of our under-25 employees must be pursuing a GED or college or university credits. We steer them to scholarships, loans and grants and adjust their hours to accommodate their studies. And we do it for two reasons: One, it helps develop the field and two, it serves employees well by letting them know they’re not trapped in one position.”

Canada’s agency has formed a partnership with the College of New Rochelle whereby youth workers can further their careers by amassing credits toward degrees. “You don’t have to have a degree to be talented, but by pursuing it, it shows re-engagement in the field,” he says, “and upon attainment, the pay is more concentrated.”

‘Critical Need’

A recent report on existing degree programs at colleges and universities featuring youth work study components may give advocates and supporters of college-linked training some cause for reflection. Commissioned by the National 4-H Council, “Educating Youth Development Professionals: Current Realities, Future Potential” offers these conclusions:

•Degree programs offered by colleges and universities focus more on program management than on developing the skills needed by youth workers. These courses offer only a portion of the skills and education that workers need to interact and understand youth.

•Courses applicable to youth are typically found in numerous departments, and the degrees are not specific to what a youth worker does.

•Only a few universities have the specific knowledge, faculty and skill-based programs needed to teach about youth work.
“There is a critical need for more high-quality educational opportunities,” says report author Lynne Borden, a professor at the University of Arizona’s School of Family and Consumer Sciences.

As for youth worker training programs offering certificates and accreditation, Borden, says, “There is good training out there, but its access is extraordinarily limited.”


Elaine Johnson, Director
National Training Institute for Community
Youth Work
1825 Connecticut Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20009-5721
(202) 884-8334

Laurie Jo Wallace, Director
Health Training Innovations
The Medical Foundation
95 Berkeley St.
Boston, MA 02116
(617) 413-6734

Elizabeth Wood, Training Director
Center for 4H Youth Development
270B McNamara Alumni Center
200 Oak St., SE
Minneapolis, MN 55455-2022
(612) 624-1972

Lynne Borden
School of Family and Consumer Sciences
University of Arizona
P.O. Box 210033
Tucson, AZ 85721-0033
(520) 621-1063

Geoffrey Canada, CEO
Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families
2770 Broadway
New York, NY 10025
(212) 866-0700

Ditra Edwards, Director
Training and Youth Development
1436 U St., NW
Washington, DC 20009
(202) 483-4494