Youth Workers Beyond Competence?

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By Michael Heathfield

I am in the joyful position of being both insider and outsider to youth development work in the United States. As a recent immigrant, I am an outsider in the world of community-based nonprofits and the decentralized approach to the professionalization of youth work. Yet youth work has been my profession for more than 20 years.

I come from the United Kingdom, which has a long-established national qualification for youth and community work, and I am no stranger to centralized approaches to professional change. Indeed, the British government has recently instigated a new profession of youth adviser under the “Connexions” strategy and is working out how this complements youth programs and youth workers.

Many of the debates about the adequacy of youth work travel the Atlantic rather well.

I see professionals in both countries battling to register alternative voices about youth issues and youth programs. The dominant political and public view of youth still cannot shake the instant link to “risks” and “problems” and deficit-laden interventions. In both the U.S. and the U.K., strong voices push an alternate view – a view that acknowledges the reality of most young people’s lives and celebrates their potential, assets and community involvement.

It is this notion of dominant debates and alternate voices that I would like to explore with regards to youth worker training.
In December, the U.S. Department of Labor’s youth development conference in Chicago illustrated that some people in federal government have grasped the significance of a systematic approach to youth development. But as a trainer, I was struck by the subtle contrast between the inputs directed at youth and those directed at the work force.

The dominant message for working with youth is that they should be coached, mentored, programmed and led to productive futures. To support this journey of self-awareness, youth workers ask kids to have a bold vision, to dream large and strategize to attain their goals and fulfill their dreams.

In contrast, youth workers themselves are to be trained, constrained, programmed and led on a journey to “competence.” What a disappointing and limited vision of occupational development!

There are many problems with relying solely on a competence framework, not least of which is that no one knows what a competence actually is. The idea is attractive from a management perspective because it sets a necessary minimum performance requirement. No one wants incompetent youth workers. The problem is you are either competent or not – a typically Western and simplistic either/or choice.

Surely we can imagine a professional culture that dreams beyond requiring minimum performance requirements. Surely a professional area so committed to supporting youth in bold visions and to registering alternative voices can think of professional development in a more empowering way.

There is more than enough U.K. and U.S. evidence to tell us what qualities, capabilities and aptitudes contribute to good youth programs. We know what distinguishes exciting and successful youth work from mediocre, dull and unsuccessful work. As Karen Pittman noted about the National Academies report last year on youth development: It told us nothing really new about youth development work. It just said what we know with authority.

At its heart youth work is about the empowerment of youth – which means that power in all its forms is a central issue. This process of engagement rests fundamentally on quality relationships in which power is mutually shared, explored and practiced.

Good youth work is delivered by workers who know this and have the skills, capabilities and learning capacity to develop these mutually beneficial relationships. Good youth workers connect with teens in this way and distinguish their craft as a profession because of this ability to connect in truly empowering and life-changing ways – often with those disconnected and abandoned by the adult world and by more prestigious and better-compensated professions. Good youth workers do this because they not only know how to hear alternative voices, but how to search them out, support and nurture them.

If only we could use this distinctive professional capability in our own professional development strategies. Let’s lift up our heads, be bold and look beyond competence.

Michael Heathfield, MSW, Ph.D., is coordinator of education and training at the Chicago Area Project.