Many people in many professions specialize in attending conferences as part of their professional endeavours. Like the corner cafe, the beach or the mall for young people, gatherings of this sort become a place for us as adults to see and be seen. They are a forum for marketing our ideas and making those valuable “contacts”. So as one who approaches such gatherings with a reservation or two I ask, after the dust has settled, the brochures have been packed away, gifts have been distributed and the credit card paid off, what remains? What do I have to share back home?
Maastricht in the year 2000
A place (from an African viewpoint) so very European – old cobbled streets, impressive river with bridges, buses running like clockwork and a vast conference venue, accommodating 475 delegates from 38 different countries! A mammoth event by any profession's standards with a program 132 pages long! The theme “The Century of the Child: Changes in views on (Residential) Child and Youth Care” was as relevant to the vast majority of delegates from the north as it was to us as South Africans. Equally so were the sub-themes of “participation” and “professionalization.” It struck me as interesting that we in our strange and idiosyncratic situation here on the southern tip of Africa should be grappling with the same issues as are our colleagues whose worlds and programs look so very different from our own; our struggle for professionalization requiring our collective commitment, and the struggle to right the power imbalance between professionals and those whom we serve uppermost in our minds as we attempt to realise a human rights culture.
Much was said on these subjects in impressive and articulate ways. Plenary debates were held on both sub-themes, pitting the wit and intellect of eminent persons against one another in what to myself as a South African was a foreign manner of teasing out truths. Perhaps we have moved further down the track of developing African methodologies for doing things than we think!
Two important sentences from Dr Shealy’s viewpoint on professionalization struck a chord for me ... “a credible profession cannot be built on field experience alone and core knowledge must be mastered and demonstrated” and “no legitimate profession would tolerate such dismal entry-level knowledge requirements.” Is this not what we as child and youth care workers have been working at for years? I listened to this, feeling affirmed about our insistence on a degree being put in place. Interesting too in this debate was the difference between American and European points of view with Dr Lasson from Denmark confirming the professional status and respect shown to child and youth care workers in Europe. It appears that our different countries are at different places on the same journey.
The participation debate stressed a strengths-based approach to working with children and families. It highlighted a trap of professionals who have gained some status struggle to give up the power they have acquired. A warning I am sure! Quoted was Armstein's ladder of participation with the following categories of participation or would-be participation:
keeping clients fully informed
involvement in service design
This ladder appears to be a helpful checklist for keeping focussed on what we really are doing when we say we are committed to participation of children and families in our programs. Dr De Winter concluded a comprehensive paper by linking the two concepts ... “promoting participation of each child in the care system is a key element of developmental progress and thus a standard for professionalism.”
Reflecting on some of the discussions two participants summarised the differences between child and youth care practice of the past and future very succinctly as follows:
|Problem orientated||Focussed on possibilities|
|Child away from home||Child stays at home|
|Child centred: no relations to social network||Social network centred|
|Especially conversations||Besides conversations you do
a lot and use modern tools
|Conversation at the office of child care worker||Child care worker looks up child
|One predominant method||Child care worker can turn his
hand to anything and uses, depending on the circumstances, different methods
|Child care worker decides for the parents and child||Child care worker supports parents and children in taking their own decisions|
|Child care worker handles, solves all the problems and “heals"||Child care worker supports
the power of the family to
|Organisation decides on the care demand;the supply determines the demand||Parents and child decide on
the care demand: The
demand determines the supply
Interspersed with the plenary sessions were a myriad of workshops, seminars, panel discussions and (of course) tea breaks, where one had the opportunity to meet child and youth care professionals from places as diverse as Lithuania, Slovenia and Pakistan! And so I find that upon reflection on the FICE Congress 2000 I have learned more about us as child and youth care workers, as different peoples and as professionals on a number of levels. It was affirming that we as South Africans are well aware of the seminal issues that make up the “world” agenda in our field. We are well on our way on the journey towards increased professionalism. Some countries seem to be ahead on that journey of discovery. We, in turn, are ahead of others and are able to share from our experiences. It is heartening to know that we bring to the issues our own experience as South Africans who know the richness that comes from working with diversity issues and counting into our practice a broad spiritual awareness. I also believe we can feel confident about our Biennial Conferences, the quality and peculiarly South African style of which, I believe, is certainly in line with world standards.
What we do back home
But the most important lesson from the Maastricht experience for me lies in the challenge to us (in the extraordinary context of our own country) to develop ourselves to the point where we are far better able to articulate what we do. We will then be able to reflect on what we do and in that process develop a South African child and youth care methodology and practice. Clearly a European approach and analysis has limitations in our context, and by thinking, writing and speaking about our work and our profession we accept the responsibility of our own development.
It was highly stimulating to meet so many from other lands. But of lasting value will be this renewed determination to ensure that we think and speak more about what we do – and are not only consumed by the doing.