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31 AUGUST 2001
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Why Train Youth Workers?

Michael Baizerman

Youthwork is a form of education, i.e., a facilitating process in which an individual penetrates his taken-for-granted reality and, by so doing, comes to understand how reality for her is constructed. Thus are extended the possibilities of finding moments of (for) choice and, in this, for extending and living her freedom. Youthwork is a process of creating the opportunities for a youth to choose more often about more things in her everyday life and in this way more thoroughly construct herself. Choice is a freedom-in-action.

Training in youthwork is directed at the development of the youthworker so that she too can choose. Further, it is focused on unlearning a wide variety of cultural, taken-for-granted, hence invisible, ways of seeing and thinking so as to be able to perceive the world in its uniqueness, similarity, normalcy and possibility, i.e. to see what might become. This type of unlearning is necessary before the youthworker can be an educator of youth.

One necessary unlearning is the uncoupling of apperception and perception, or at least learning to be conscious of how one joins these. Related is the uncoupling of perception (as a form of interpretation) from biography. It is precisely here at the moment of looking, seeing and grasping the other that youthwork is born and exists as a challenge to the established helping professions and the ways in which they work with youth.

Youthwork exists through its ways of seeing possibility, meeting in the grounded present and confirmation of the unique Other, the youth. Youthwork as here conceived is to work without a method, except for a faith in emergence and possibility, and without a protocol, except for the theological metaphors of “availability" and “presence" as these are driven by hope and caring.

This is not a whole lot to go on! It is seemingly naive, romantic, anti-intellectual and metaphysical, to say the least; a simplistic, pseudo-philosophical (i.e. theoretical) and an incomplete mix of existential, phenomenological, Buberian and other metaphysical ideas! (So there!) Well, is it? And if so, why should youthworkers be trained to work in their way? Youthwork as conceived and presented herein is clearly of a different order than is work with youth by practitioners in the human services. This kind of youthwork does have source in theology, philosophy and the human sciences, particularly in their existential and phenomenological wings. This is not a false or pseudo-scientific practice. Rather it is a full humanistic and poetic practice, more like applied aesthetics, or applied philosophy than applied psychology. This means that there is clarity in the spirit of the enterprise (sounds metaphysical, no!), but not in its specifics.

Training in youthwork as herein conceived is directed at developing the skills necessary to pierce one’s taken-for-granted, ordinary, mundane life so that one becomes aware of how the ordinary is constructed and how one is implicated constructing one’s own reality. Joining this skill to awareness of how one’s biography pre-forms the present gives the youthworker the possibility of seeing in the moment its manifold possibilities, not simply what is there. Done well, all of this slows down the instantaneous process of seeing and making meaning. Once slowed, the youthworker can “control" how she makes sense, and, in this way, come to be accountable to herself. Once aware, she can tell how she came to understand as she did, i.e. present her reasoning.

The tension here is put well by Johnson in his Existential Man – The Challenge of Psychotherapy: “Explicit awareness destroys the spontaneous expression of the self ... Impulsive action without self-awareness has no existential significance. An action is mine only if I am present in it".

The tension is between the slowing down necessary for heightened self-awareness and the spontaneity necessary for life, i.e. between the “pure" and the “forced". This issue is found framed in the idea of “the encounter" (or “the meeting") as basic to youthwork (as this is derived from existential and related theory and therapy practice.)

Encounter may be the basic unit in youthwork training for it is therein that the concrete person, the youthworker, is immersed in the concrete moment, is with a youth. It is this concreteness that is crucial, particularly in its grounding to the ordinary. Central to encounter is confirmation, the process through which one makes the other present in her uniqueness and “induces this other’s inmost self-becoming" (Friedman, 1981). To Buber and Friedman, this occurs through “real meeting". In professional language, meeting can be conceived of as a youthwork skill, but this is not so. It is the quality of a moment between people, one not created by skill, but human being-ness.

Buber writes that in confirmation “ ... I wish his particular being to exist", in his uniqueness, his particularity. Thus, youthwork training is orientated away from the explanatory and towards understanding, away from diagnosis and the medical model within which it resides, and toward the youth at that moment in her concreteness and uniqueness. Away from notions of “personality" or “character" or the like and toward this kid, now, as she is now: “Why?" does not matter; what is and what emerges does. Life is forward and is to be lived together, worker and youth, from “right now" to “next minute".

Youthwork training must concentrate on uncoupling and demystifying time as chronos and remystifying it as temporality and as duree. This is crucial in part because adolescence is understood as time, a span of (linear) time, as is development. Neither is life lived. (This is not simply the so-called subjective experience of time. Instead, it is time as lived).

Also part of youthwork training must be a grounding in philosophical anthropology and language and meaning. The first is the big picture or the underlying assumptions about human being within which root the derivative notions of adolescence and youth. Language and meaning are central, practical, everyday concerns in life, and in youthwork. So too in recent academic philosophy, the human sciences (in their European forms) and the humanities. Yet in youthwork, little attention is given to these topics. Attention must be paid because, as these other subjects teach us, a youth is a “linguistic locus", her self given presence through talk; her “personality" a form of discourse; a juvenile court a place where narrative structure is judged guilty or not. Each therapeutic school had its conceptions of language and interpreted words and symbols using its own dictionary. Later work suggests that meaning lies in use, and there may be need for multiple dictionaries, which in the end too would be insufficient. Meaning lies in use, meaning is tied to context and context is situation. Another road is laid to a situational youthwork. Youthwork is done through the alternation of silence and talk. We believe in the power of our words to cure or change the other, while too often we accept the words of the other as data about his condition and/or as entry to his “real self". Can these be silent youthworkers? Can cross-cultural youthwork occur without mastery of the local language? To ask these questions is to show the power of talk and to urge a considered position on the place of talk in youthwork. A possibility is that talk will be heard as an invitation to silence or talk. Thus, youthwork is an ongoing conversation which ends when it is done. To Giacametti, the artist, the drawing was finished when it was delivered to the buyer. For us, the conversation deepens the talk which in turn deepens and enriches the conversation.

Youthwork education and training must focus on how to learn about youth from youth in their terms, so that the youthworker can struggle with accepting them on their terms. This is a basic youthwork value and set of skills. It is also suggestive of the basic youthwork orientation – an anthropology of youth in everyday life.

This is the general context for understanding youth and the particular youth one is with. Note that understanding precedes, in logic and in fact, the processes of youth-changing. Fixing, therapy, intervention are not the basic youthwork task. Indeed, they may have no role in clinical youthwork. The youthwork goal is never to change the youth. It is to join with her in a joint exploration of the possibilities of a relationship. A result will be the natural changes which are an a priori aspect of relationship. But this is not the intention. That is always the walk into possibility.

Youth must be understood in context, in situ, as it were. Hence our need of an anthropology of situations and contexts. Ask first horizontal questions about a youth in the context of her friends so as to establish context before asking a vertical question about biography so as to establish a history.

Youthwork is grounded in a powerful belief in normalcy and in the transitory nature of personal trouble and problems. When these persevere, in effect they teach the youthworker that the believed-in normalcy is not present, i.e. that the normalcy assumption must be treated as a failed hypothesis. To believe in normalcy (while being open to its disproof) is a learned perception, one which is always challenged in most social service agencies and by most human services professionals. The perception and language of pathology and pathogenicity is more common as these are grounded in a model of adolescence as a medical condition.

Normalcy is a perspective grounded in at least two places: a philosophical anthropology and an empirical anthropology of difference. The English language is more exact in the negative than in the positive, with the result that the language of hurt, pain and conflict are more easily articulated than the experiences or ways of being of health, joy and peace. The latter are spoken of by the poets in a challenge to the measurement attempts of the Neo-Positivist scientists. Youthwork training and education must include thus the unlearning that difference is a priori bad or ill, and, almost reflexively, concluding that help, caring or treatment is needed. In part, this is a recognition of the broad range of typical and ordinary or normal, and that much of what is seen as different is simply out on the edge of a normal range. (The issue here is far more complex, but it is left at this, here).

In short, presented herein are some themes for youthwork education and training. To use these is not to guarantee a product. Rather, it is to assure the youth that her worker is aware of the impossible vocation called youthwork.

From: Youth Studies, University of Minnesota. From The Child Care Worker, Vol.7 No.1 July 1989