Creativity, Spirituality and Youth Work: Claiming the Territory

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Embedded in the pages of the October Youth Today were two pieces that are worth revisiting so that they can be connected. Consider this a low-budget instant replay with comments.

The first piece was Peter Benson’s column, “Youth Development and the Creative Life,” in which he lamented the continued decline of investment in the arts and offered data that suggest that the most common source of “spark” for U.S. teens – “the interest or talent from which we derive energy” – is the creative arts. According to Benson’s research, “music, art, dance and writing are mentioned twice as often as sports” by both boys and girls.

The second piece, in the Report Roundup section under the “Youth Workers” heading, was a brief summary of “Is There Common Ground?” – a new report from the Search Institute and the National Collaboration for Youth. The summary acknowledged the common commitments and priorities among youth workers in community- and faith-based settings, but it zoomed in on the differences: “While 77 percent of faith-based youth workers say it is essential to help young people grow spiritually, only 14 percent of community-based workers agree.”

These prompted three comments and a recommendation.

Comment 1: I wonder if the survey results would be reversed if the question had been whether youth workers think that helping youth grow spiritually is essential to helping them find creative outlets. Some of the findings from the Common Ground study suggest that this is possible. For example, community-based workers were more likely than faith-based workers to say it’s essential for them to help youth respect diversity.

I ask this not to point the finger at faith-based workers, but to suggest that if we polled all workers on the full set of skills or competencies we believe young people should have, we would probably find that most workers believe it is essential to support their primary developmental mission area – be that spiritual, creative, physical, cognitive, civic or social development.

Comment 2: Having read the full Common Ground report and participated in discussions of it, I think readers should know that the interpretation of the 77-to-14 split mentioned above isn’t as clear-cut as it seems. First, it is important to note that the survey did not define spirituality. Youth workers were left to base responses on their own definitions, which ranged from general (such as nature and higher forces) to specific (focused on a particular religion), with most leaning toward the specific.

Second, the differences between the percentages of faith-based and community-based workers who were interested in receiving training, resources and/or educational opportunities to develop the skills to support spiritual development were much closer – 56 percent vs. 38 percent. Third, only 8 percent of community-based youth workers felt well-prepared to support spiritual development, compared with 27 percent of faith-based workers.

Comment 3: Combined, these three data nuggets lead to a very different take on the situation: It is not surprising that 83 percent of religious-based youth workers felt prepared or were interested in training to develop a competence that 77 percent felt was essential to their jobs. But it is worth pondering the fact that 46 percent of community-based workers felt prepared or were interested in being prepared to provide a support that is only being required of 14 percent of them.

The energy lies inside this difference. If we send community-based workers a signal that spiritual development is important, the response, based on this survey, is likely to be strong and positive – perhaps not as strong as the response to a call for supporting creativity, but not as weak as we might believe.

Recommendation: Seize the day. Let’s claim powerful words like “creativity” and “spirituality” and make them our own. Let’s define them in ways that reflect and respect diversity and capture the essence of what makes us human – the desire to find the spark, the spirit, the connection to something bigger than ourselves or something deep within ourselves. Let’s acknowledge the central role that youth workers can play and are playing to help young people find themselves.

Claiming “creativity” as a central goal requires making the case for its short-term and long-term relevance. Claiming “spirituality” as a central goal requires distinguishing it from religiosity and making the case that youth organizations are an appropriate, if not ideal, venue that complements rather than competes with faith-based institutions.

This is a much harder task. It may be made easier if we yoke the two goals together. In any event, it needs to be done.

The Commission on Children at Risk issued a bold statement in its 2003 report, “Hardwired to Connect”: “In a society in which pluralism is a fact and freedom a birthright, finding new ways to strengthen and not ignore or stunt children’s moral and spiritual selves may be the single most important challenge facing youth professionals and youth serving organizations in the U.S. today.”

I think we’re up to it.