Recently, community youthwork leaders in New York City were invited to discuss the past, present and future of youth work. Members of the group had several things in common: they work in some of the most challenged areas of the city; they have dedicated their lives to working with young people; and they are a creative and inspiring group of master practitioners who manage to navigate a sometimes unforgiving system in order to ensure that young people in some of the most toxic environments thrive. It was through our conversations with this esteemed group that the contrast between the past and present of youth work practice became starkly noticeable. The youth work of the past was a relational practice that was supported by humanistic policies and conditions. Each of the leaders spoke of times when you could expose young people to the vast world around them, broaden their horizons and restore hope. This was done gradually through a variety of experiences that emerged from getting to know the young people. In conversation with young people, their dreams, wishes, questions, concerns, misconceptions, and ideas were released and then built upon. Youth work was not “about” something predetermined but was an emergent, responsive way of being with young people that dealt with multiple personal and social needs.
Today, practitioners describe the conditions of working in community youth organizations as stressful, overwhelming and impossible. Such conditions give rise to what we have called the Accordion Effect.
The Accordion Effect describes the squeezing out of quality in afterschool caused by simultaneous top-down and bottom-up pressures. Such pressures and growing expectations to do more with less arise from the increased framing of OST in managerial terms. Swelling bottom-up demands due to growing needs of youth, families and communities at a time of decreased resources are adding to the squeeze. Youth workers are caught in the middle in stressful attempts to keep up and keep on.
We believe that managerial and epistemic models are out of alignment with, and creating barriers to, relational practice. In the name of accountability, youth work is diminished to results that are easily measurable but not necessarily most important. Children and youth are seen as widgets that can be fixed more efficiently if the right algorithm is applied. This squeeze and squeezing out of quality is not specific to New York City but is the experience of those throughout the nation and indeed the world. At a recent national conference, we found very strong agreement on the universality of the Accordion Effect among audience members who were from cities and towns around the country. Recent efforts in the U.K., such as the In Defence of Youth Work Campaign, suggest similar struggles overseas. Youth work professionals are voicing their concerns passionately that it is time to turn the tide.
Like all squeezeboxes, accordions require expansion to work effectively. In the original article, we offer five recommendations (FAITH), which rest on the essential principle: Youth work is a relational practice that is holistic and emergent. To get back to that practice, we need Flexibility to response to emergent needs of youth and their families. Accountability that understands that human growth is not linear, takes time to ‘appear,’ and is not reducible to human bits. Inclusivity as a necessary methodology for beginning the work. Trust and explicit respect for youth workers whose professional judgments are made in response to the dayto- day needs of young people. Humanistic budgets that treat workers with dignity. Advocacy of FAITH is a critical next step if youth work is to be reclaimed as a responsive practice.
Adapted from Fusco, D., Lawrence, A., Matloff-Nieves, S., & Ramos, E. (2013). “The Accordion Effect: Is quality in afterschool getting the squeeze?” Journal of Youth Development, 8, 4-14.