A youth worker in Minneapolis told me about how she dealt with conflict between English-speaking and Hmong-speaking youth at her neighborhood recreation center. The English-only speakers accused the Hmong speakers of talking about them, and situation brewed into a fistfight. To resolve the problem, the youth worker made a rule that they must all speak English while they were at the center. She felt that her solution attempted to level the playing field between the groups of youth. But did it?
I think this youth worker had good intentions, but the outcome of her decision ended up being unjust and unfair to the Hmong-speaking youth. Our decisions and judgments are never neutral, even when we intend them to be.
Decisions like the one this youth worker made are are decided in the moment with the intent to be as fair and just as possible.The tricky thing is that these dilemmas and their subsequent decisions are informed by our own ethics and values. Often, they require more reflection and forethought than the situation feels like it allows.
I believe that staff development opportunities can be designed to encourage and enable a collective of youth workers to uncover and explore their own ethics around youth development and learn ways of intentionally modeling and transmitting ethical values to youth in ways that meet their basic needs. Youth workers who have done this sort of interior ethical exploration tell us that the need for this kind of educational opportunity is highly relevant to and useful to their practice.
Back in 1994, Milbrey Wallin McLaughlin, et.al., wrote a seminal work that every youth worker should read: Urban Sanctuaries: Neighborhood Organizations in the Lives and Futures of Inner-city Youth". McLaughlin studied and described the most important characteristics of effective youth workers and youth work practice. In the study, youth described the adults in the program as ethical. It found that the most effective and trusted youth workers:
- Make it clear that they see potential rather than problems in the young people they encounter.
- View the young person, not the activity, as the priority.
- Convey a sense of power and purpose for themselves and for the young people around them.
- Are described by young people as authentic - real, not phony, with a genuine interest in and concern for young people.
- Are motivated to give back to their communities, neighborhoods, families and organizations in return for the good things they received from caring adults when they were young.
Does this list describe you and your practice with youth? What ethical stances are revealed by your youth work? How do you prepare yourself for the ethical situations and dilemmas that arise in your work?