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27 APRIL 2001
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A philosophy of youthwork in practice

Nate Whittaker

To begin, it is important to outline my “philosophy of youthwork." To put this philosophy to practice, I will be talking about the significance of service-learning and multiculturalism.

To cap my personal “philosophy of youthwork," I start with the culture of youth. Youth are their own entity with their own culture that adults must recognize and validate. Youth work is not only an opportunity for adults to better understand their “being," but includes active involvement in validating these youth and their culture. You are not doing youth work unless you are learning something from youth. Unfortunately, so many adults do not understand that youth are their own culture and discriminate against them accordingly. This is my philosophy of youth work.

This philosophy begins with thoughts about how we should view the youth culture. The aim of youth workers should be to allow youth to develop without constraints on their culture, yet guide them while setting positive limits. There is a period of “letting go" also. When we “let go" and let youth fly on their own, we should allow youth to hold our hand and take us on a journey with them, through their world.

Qualities of youthworkers

Mayeroff (1971) outlined the components of caring; I incorporated a number of these entities into my philosophy. Mayeroff began his outline with knowing (p. 19). Mary Burnison (Professor, University of Minnesota) once said, “I know some things and you know some things" (personal conversation, Fall 2000). Mayeroff strengthens this when he talks about the importance of general and specific knowledge (p. 19). Even though the youth worker may not know all, to care, the youth worker must show that they are inclusive of different ideas by the ability to relate or give opinions.

Mayeroff goes on to talk about youthworkers who are patient and honest. Mayeroff believes that without patience, an individual (adult) my not only lack time to give to youth, but may actually take time from them (pg. 23). To be honest, youthworkers should attempt to give youth the best advise they can give, which mainly comes from experiences their life which they have survived. And they should tell them about their life. Youth workers must also trust youth. Trust allow youth to grow in their own way, thus respecting their culture. Trust allows youth to be independent within their existence among adults (Mayeroff, 1971: pg. 27).

Finally, youth workers must “put themselves out on a limb" and fear not humility. There is something to be learned from making mistakes and admitting our ignorance. With this, we must trust that our mistakes will enable us to have hope once we fix those mistakes. But youth workers must also be courageous to do so (Mayeroff, 1971: p. 25-35).


My philosophy of youth work includes an interpretation of “self." This is the most important component of my philosophy. The first sub-division of interpretation of the “self" is Balance (mind, body, spirit, and time). When all “things" are moving positively in a circular motion, I am content. Because many of those things are physical (touch and see), when they are taken care of, I feel a sense of accomplishment. Positive feedback from other individuals in my life who see this working also enhance my sense of accomplishment and self-confidence.

Secondly, Balance (of both pleasure and pain). Just like the “ying-yang," my life is full of pleasure and pain which I must recognize balance each other out. But like the “ying-yang," even if pain does exist, it is important for me to make solutions through pain and find meaning in pain.

Third, knowing who one is in all context. My friend and Advisor, Terrance Kwami-Ross (University of Minnesota), informed me just the other day that I needed to know who I was during every moment, in every environment, within any context. If I was able to do this, I would better understand what I thought, what I knew, and what I hoped for; it is “accepting the process" which in turn may have better effects on the individuals around me. It would also allow me to be more patient with myself and the context.

I do have my biases of effective youth work though. I believe that youth workers:

Putting this philosophy into practice

I am a strong believer that an organization that values service-learning and multiculturalism is the answer. Many of the biases that I have outlined, I feel, can be obtained through service and a multicultural consciousness. Why? Because the ingredients of service-learning and multiculturalism are what, I feel, ignite a process and/or chain reaction for youth to become accomplished, positive, self-sufficient, and the new teachers of new generations.

When we recognize the importance of not only working for youth, but with youth, and not only assisting youth, but learning from youth, we begin a dance towards equality between the adult world and the youth culture. The rhythm of teacher/student, helper/helped, will flow through our communities with every wave and the sound of the music will be addictive. But it will not simply be the community which is effected; the individual will strengthen his/her self-pride, sense of accomplishment, belonging, and “being."

With the implementation of my philosophy's concepts, multicultural conscious youth will surface who will then become the new leaders of today; this practice begins with appreciation. Appreciating difference, equity, and becoming a multicultural/multiethnic conscious person is essential in service learning. One definition of service-learning is, “instructional methodology [that] integrates community service with academic instruction as it focuses on critical, reflective thinking, and civic responsibility. Service-learning programs involve students in organized community service that addresses local needs, while developing their academic skills, sense of civic responsibility, and commitment to the community" (Johnson Foundation, 1989).

I am a strong believer that service-learning produces leaders. There are qualities to a leader that I find important; each quality has the possibility to bring about multicultural conscious individuals. These individuals then initiate communities that address local needs and engage in volunteerism that develop their academic skills, sense of civic responsibility, and commitment to that community.

A young person is a leader who empowers others. A leader knows about his/her passions or at least searches for those passions. A leader does his/her best to create inclusive communities, environments, and encounters/connections. A leader recognizes that he/she can also be led. A leader is a “sender" as well as a “receiver." Finally, a leader makes things happen which is notably important within service-learning. “The actions of leaders represent a major trigger of social change. In the most general sense, a leader is someone who has the power to influence others or who is in charge or in command of a social situation" (Ferrante, 1998, p.478).

My philosophy in practice includes being careful of ignoring service recipients. One reason multiculturalism is so vital to service-learning is the fact that we, while we serve, may ignore recipients' voices and needs do to the nature of our service. Weah, Cornelia-Simmons, & Hall (2000) believe that the ideologies and mission of service learning today are intended to “do good things" but are not necessarily acknowledging communities of color or those committed to change (p.1). It is particularly meaningful to understanding why multicultural/multiethnic perspectives are important in service-learning and then, make adjustments.

Even if the possibility is there for service-learning to be ethnocentric, it is not entirely unhealthy per se. It is important to look at how the act of service-learning has the potential to produce multicultural/multiethnic conscious individuals who are then further prepared to serve. Service-learning can have a powerful effect on how the servers think about their “being" in the world. It has the ingredients that are needed for individuals to think about their race, ethnicity, and culture due to their service-learning experience with individuals different from themselves, or environments different from their resident environment. Weah et al. (2000) outline four potential reasons why service-learning may assist in the development of multicultural/multiethnic servers/individuals (p. 2):

  1. Service-learning is more experiential and engaging, motivating students to go beyond personal perspectives to learn about the perspectives of others.

  2. Service-learning provides structured opportunities for students to reflect on and discuss their concerns, questions, and confusions regarding the challenges that relate to race, culture, and other differences. Such reflection and dialogue are keys to actually changing long-term attitudes and behavior.

  3. Service-learning gives students opportunities to practice respect for diversity as they confront tensions and conflicts that arise among people of different cultures and as they strive to find commonalities.

  4. Unlike other approaches to addressing racial and ethnic issues, service-learning provides opportunities for all people in a community to participate in the solutions.

These four reasons demonstrate that the service-learning experience has within it, like any experience, lessons to be learned. It is through experience where most of our “fears of difference" are broken down. This interaction with difference and our fear of difference, give us a new perspective. Without new perspectives though, we are in danger of engaging in “Either/or = Oppositional Thinking" which “is structured to influence perception and thinking so a person is forced to see the world in polar opposites and to choose one as better than the other." (Gardner, 1997, p.6). Examples include the polarization and superior thinking about male/female, rich/poor, heterosexual/homosexual, God/devil, and even hot/cold relationships.

My philosophy recognizes that multicultural conscious youth can better the service-learning organization. Service-learning can equal new multicultural/multiethnic conscious individuals, but those who have already made great strides at becoming a multicultural/multiethnic person can also greatly effect service-learning experiences for their co-servers and those served. In the long-term sense, these individuals also have the potential to begin a “domino-effect" in positive multicultural/multiethnic service-learning outcomes. Multicultural/Multiethnic conscious individuals empower others to be like themselves and in turn, those new multicultural/multiethnic individuals empower those coming up in the long line of new servers.

Carl H. Marbury in his article “Curriculum Transformation and Service-Learning," taken from Ploumis-Devick & Follman (1995), outlines four elements that multicultural/multiethnic individuals (and curriculum) have to offer servers and service-learning (p.12):

  1. Understanding human diversity results from the exercise of compassionate public service when those who serve also seek to learn from those they serve. A better understanding of diversity is a necessary component of good citizenship.

  2. Participation citizenship recognizes personal responsibility toward the common good and promotes cooperation in the midst of a competitive culture. Public and community service increase social awareness and civic participation.

  3. Social justice requires that people pose critical questions concerning the ways in which social, political, and economic institutions affect individuals. Social justice also requires collaboration in a process of social change.

  4. Human solidarity, according to Pope John Paul II, is “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good, that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all." Public and community service, then, is a means to achieve human solidarity.

Reasons for success are evident within the power of the outlined information. I find it damaging that so many academic institutions across the United States (and World) value research, but research seems to be unusable and unrealistic until a young person is out in the community practicing his/her new perspectives and knowledge. Not only does this philosophy embody youth, but it is inclusive of their community, peers, friends, and family. This is a perfect way to involve the families of these youth.

This is why I feel this practice will be successful ...

What is my first memory of organizationally serving others? It's difficult to remember past my Senior year in high school due to a lost childhood. In high school, I met a remarkable individual named Diana Dokos, a literature teacher. She was the first person in my life to sit me down and ask “what do you feel is right, just, and real?" Diana challenged my every thought, assisted me in a development of critical thought, and helped me sort out my values and beliefs. Diana gave me so much of her time during high school. She waited for and initiated conversations on emotional stability, physical well-being, spirituality, and diversity – the realms in my life required for me to be “whole." My feelings at this time were aimed at a sense of individuality, belonging, autonomy, and the need to be pro-active.

I became involved in Multicultural groups based in Minneapolis and St. Paul immediately. Organizations that served others within a diversity educational setting. Organizations such as the AAYLTI (African American Youth Leadership Training Initiative), The Harry Davis Leadership Institute, and the URR (Underground Railroad Experience).

I know there may have been times that I “served" others much before high school but they were extremely difficult for me to remember. Most of my childhood was a horrifying experience due to health problems, child abuse, poverty, amongst other things, and I have difficulties finding anything positive about those years.

How do I imagine myself working with youth or with an organization that uses service as a strategy? The type of service I envision is within multiculturalism. Services that build pride and strengthened individuality within youth or any individual for that matter ... any age. I imagine working with an organization that focuses on the education of multiculturalism specifically. A place dedicated to organizational change, activism, experiential learning, and service learning. A place that teaches others through experience and with a group of individuals that have some type of passion that they hold on to strongly.

When I think about “Service" and “youth development" and their connections for me, I can not get the Paulo Freire grant that I am applying for off my mind. My current opportunity is to live in South Africa for three months this summer and work with South African youth on multicultural issues as a volunteer position. Something I “volunteer" my time and energy to, but at the same time, take so much more home with me than imaginable.

The service for me includes not only an amount of “volunteerism," but also an portion of “community service" that when put together creates an opportunity of “service learning" for me. With this opportunity comes the community/group that I will be working with which is South African youth. This addition of youth to the service-learning equals the “youth development" piece and the connection of “youth development" with “service learning."

I'm not real sure if I have this totally off cue or not, but the definitions are difficult to understand ... their differences anyway. How I understand it is “volunteerism" as something that I GIVE; “Service learning" for me is GIVE AND TAKE, OR RECEIVE. “Youth Development" encompassed both of these to better the experience for not only myself, but the youth that I work with. The youth teach me ... I dedicate time/energy to those youth ... “Youth Development" is the result. This “give and receive" relationship, I feel, is close to the “purpose" of citizen development and/or community development (or youth development). If you help an individual to become strong, that individual will help create strong communities. With this, the strong communities enable wonderful support systems within its members which in turn create healthy families, schools, and the like. This strengthened environments allow people to become strong individuals ... the cycle begins again.

My experiences in life, and proved to be successful, are the base to my reasoning. I cannot be sure that it is right for all youth, but it is an important beginning.

Putting it all together

My personal philosophy of youth work begins with an understanding of a culture...a youth culture. When adults recognize the importance of this youth culture (its language, colors, music, thought, expression, and creativity), they are ready to care for those youth. Caring for youth means that an adult or youth worker is knowing, patient, honest, trust worthy, able to handle humility, and courageous.

This philosophy includes “knowing oneself" as a youth worker. This awareness includes BALANCE (of both pleasure and pain), BALANCE (of pleasure and pain), and KNOWING ONES SELF IN ALL CONTEXTS (awareness). The question that begins such a thought is “how can we help others when we cannot help ourselves."

Finally, my philosophy has biases. These biases are though, the base to which my practice is initiated. This practice is based on a service-learning and multicultural context. The ideas around this service-learning/multicultural approach is:

  1. Service-Learning Creating Leaders
  2. Service-Learning Produces Multicultural/Multiethnic Servers/Individuals
  3. Multicultural/Multiethnic Servers/Individuals Better Service-Learning Experiences

With this process in motion, I am confident that I will be a youth “change agent." I will better prepared to deal with the difficulties of youth work, make changes in the youth work field, and empower youth to be the architects of their own lives. I will be a smiling face, open arms, a teacher, and a student to young people. This understanding will bring me closer to youth which in-turn will lesson the available space for failure and/or conflict. Equally important, I will continue my fight as a multicultural conscious person and activist.


Berrington & DeLacy (1993). Making a Difference. Middle School Journal, March 1993.

Burnison, Mary (2000). Personal Communication. Fall 2000.

Ferrante, Joan (1998). A Global Perspective. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Gardner, LeRoy (1997). Multicultural Relations Course Guide. University of Minnesota, 1997.

Gibran, Kahlil (1923). The Prophet. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Publisher. Jenks, Chris (1996). Childhood. Routledge.

Kwami-Ross, Terrance (2000). Personal Communication. November 21, 2000.

Marbury, Carl H. in Ploumis-Devick & Follman (1995). “Curriculum Transformation and Service-Learning" in Appreciating Difference: Teaching and Learning in a Culturally Diverse Classroom. Classroom Guide.

Maybach, Carol W. (1996). Investigating Urban Community Needs. Service-Learning From A Social Justice Perspective. Education & Urban Society, 28, p. 230.

Mayeroff, Milton (1971). On Caring. New York: Harper Perennial.

Novick, M. (1994). The Missing Child in Liberal Theory. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Pedersen, Paul B. (1997). Culture-Centered Counseling Interventions, Striving for Accuracy. Sage Publications, Inc.

Samovar, Porter, & Stefani (1998). Communication Between Cultures, 3rd. Wadsworth.

Weah, Cornelia-Simmons, & Hall (2000). Service-Learning and Multicultural/Multiethnic Perspectives-From Diversity to Equity. PHI DELTA KAPPAN.

What Is Service Learning? (1989). The Johnson Foundation.

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