University of Minnesota Extension
Menu Menu

Extension > Youth Development Insight > Inspiring the next generation of youth workers

Inspiring the next generation of youth workers


nextgen-main-logo.jpgHow can we spark the interest of young youth workers to become engaged as leaders in our field? What avenues will the next generation of leadership use to create networking opportunities to meet and learn from each other? In the new world of social networking, will technology become a vehicle for hosting forums and addressing the crucial issues in the field through blogs, Facebook, Twitter? What conversations will be relevant and helpful to connect youth work peers?

As I celebrate my 37th year in the field of youth work - seven years working directly with young people and 30 years at the National Institute on Out-of-School Time, I am impressed with the tremendous amount of growth and change the field has endured. For the most part, these changes have been a positive evolution for a field that strives to be inclusive of sub-sectors including school age care, afterschool, youth development, and summer programming.

But change creates pressures as well. We now face some of the greatest challenges to our field and its survival, including declining resources and an ever increasing need to prepare the next generation of youth workers for success. As financial markets wobble, local and state government continue to experience increased deficits, the impending retirement of a generation of baby boomers looms. The impact of these trends on the social sector, and in particular, services for children and youth, is clear.

Normally I am a very optimistic person, confident that we will figure it out and the next generation will step up to the responsibility of leading the way. Yet after attending this year's National After School Association (NAA) Annual Convention, I am not so sure. I looked for younger youth workers in my sessions but didn't find many. Instead, I was surrounded by veterans, many of whom are baby boomers just like me. Are national conferences obsolete? And if they aren't, what keynotes speakers will resonate with them? Concerned, I sought the advice of my "younger colleague" Jackie Jainga Hyllseth, professional development director at School's Out Washington, who helped me articulate the problem. She shared a report by the Annie E Casey Foundation (2005) called: "Up Next - Generation Change and the Leadership of Nonprofit Organizations." I appreciated the No. 1 recommendation in this report: "Invest in Younger Leaders."

How can the Next Generation Youth Work Coalition invest in the development of the future leaders in the field? What do the baby boomers need to do differently as we prepare to pass the torch to our younger colleagues? Let's hear your ideas! Link this blog to other online networks and start a national conversation!

Ellen Gannett, co-chair Next Generation Youth Work Coalition
Director, National Institute on Out-of-School Time


Cece Gran said:

Thank you for the post! The issue of professional development dollars and youth work has huge implications for the field. Most up and coming youth worker leaders that I know do not have access to the money it costs to attend national conferences like the one we just attended in Orlando. I spent over $1000 in airfare, hotel, and conference fees to be there. Most community youth programs do not have that kind of money to spend on youth worker travel. Unfortunately, professional development opportunities, if they are to be had by young leaders, must be closer to home.

I think that the NAA annual convention would have much more worthwhile for the field of youth work if some of the Fellows in the Minnesota and National Afterschool Matters Fellowship like Angel Peluso, Miigis Gonzalez,and Ge Xiong could have afforded to attend and be part of the Next Generation Youth Work Coalition meeting. Perhaps we can figure out a way to assist these young leaders to be present nationally, especially at a venue where there are plenty of veterans around to open doors and guide the way.

Singhashri Gazmuri said:

You pose some really critical questions for the field, Ellen. I think that the key word here is "invest." I don't think that the field has adequately addressed the issue of professional development and retention for and of youth workers. If the field really wants younger folks to stick around, we have to provide incentives for growth. Those incentives include developing and clearly articulating a pathway that youth workers can take through the field. The pathway can start as young as high school and lead to a career in program management, training, technical assistance, research or academia. For me, I started as a camp counselor at 15 and now (more than 15 years later) I work as an independent consultant supporting youth development and afterschool programs to improve their practices.

In many ways, I forged my own path, but one thing that clearly helped was working for organizations that invested in me. I received top notch training as an Americorps member in my first full-time job out of college. That included two weeks of training before jumping in with the kids and at least four additional weeks of training throughout the year. I was also mentored by more "veteran" youth workers who showed interest in my skills and wanted to see me grow. Finally, I was provided with opportunities to cut my teeth in leadership, by being recruited as a staff member in a San Francisco Beacon Center to take the lead in designing and implementing a week long, peer-led "academy" for other Beacon workers. All of these experiences kept me in the field and growing.

Another way of investing is the old fashioned way, money. Youth workers need to see their paychecks increase every year, as they get better at what they do and possibly take on more. But most youth workers don't see enough of an increase to make a difference. And as their costs get higher (marriage, house, kids, etc.) they will look outside the field for better opportunities to meet their needs. Until the issue of pay is dealt with, we won't see a stable field or a group of younger leaders who want to take the torch. I hope that dialogues like this can get this issue out there and inspire funders, policy makers and the fields current leaders to address it. And partnering closely with k-12 might be a way to make this happen. A strong PR campaign that get the public to see the value of ALL adults who work with kids, no matter what the setting, would send a strong message. That's my two cents =).

Margo Herman said:

Thanks for the two cents worth, Cece and Singhashri. The common themes I see in your two perspectives are providing opportunity for young leaders, as well as a sense of investing with some financial resources. We have talent out there! How we engage and support younger youth workers with leadership opportunities is critical. Individually we can make a commitment to mentor a promising emerging leader (something as simple as coffee and conversation on a monthly or quarterly basis to help navigate challenging youth work dilemmas or encouragement to pursue a certificate, certification, academic degree). Collectively we can carve out and promote career pathways that inspire professional growth. Certainly the suggestion of a strong PR campaign to advance the public value of working with youth would be valuable to the profession. Are there other tangible ways of investing? Where do we cultivate the resources?

Let's each of us "oldies" commit to co-presenting with a young youth worker when we are invited or have an opportunity to present at a conference or meeting this year. I know travel money is a barrier, but we often have more local opportunities as well. We should be much more intentional about creating and capitalizing on these opporutnities for mentoring and professional development. Some of us plan these events too, so we can be intentional from the get-go about who is invited to speak, participate, etc.

Yes, I couldn't agree more.... its about INSPIRING and INVESTING in the next generation of youth workers! And Nicole, I love your idea for the "oldies/boomers" to co-present with a younger youth worker at upcoming conferences and meetings. One such event is coming up this July at the NIOST Summer Seminars in Boston. Singhashri and I will be co-presenting and role modeling - (guess who the "oldie" is!!). Michelle Seligson, the founder of NIOST and my mentor, will be joining us to share her perspectives on leadership. Hope some of you mentors and mentees will come!

Joyce Walker said:

Thanks for your thoughts, Ellen. I want to share how the NIOST After School Matters Fellowship model has inspired us in Minnesota to invest in inspiring young leaders in the field. From the ASM Fellowship, we saw how the power of an extended cohort experience boosted interest in further learning and leading. This year, in addition to an ASM Fellowship program, we're also inviting 12 young leaders to spend a year together on a Walkabout aimed at capturing the best ideas for supporting youth workers at the same time assuring accountability for the work.

Cohort work is expensive -- it takes strong facilitators and a significant time commitment from everyone involved. However we're finding that "the old Ones" who have been leading really get enthusiastic about giving time to work with the next cadre of leaders in the field. They want to make it a real cross-generational affair. It's a work in progress, but it's all about inspiring and investing in new leadership for our field.

Margo Herman said:

Thanks for mentioning the Fellowships, Joyce. In 2010 I was one of the Minnesota ASM Fellows. It was a transformative experience spending a year in a cohort with young and emerging youth work leaders who are immersed in the daily complexity of the work. The extended experience created a small professional network, the intentional written portfolio created stories to be shared with others, and the academic/reflective time changed my views and my knowledge base in a significant way.

I see a great deal of promise in creative variations on all these suggestions made by Cece, Singhashri, Nicole, Ellen and Joyce to promote experiences that help move the younger generation to a confidence level to become the future youth work leadership.

Jon Ord said:

I read your blog and the associated comments with interest, and can't help being reminded of something Tony Jeffs wrote back in 1979 that 'economic crisis and recession have historically prefigured a sharp decline in central and local government investment in youth services and an equally marked fall in philanthropic support' (Jeffs 1979, cited in Jeffs and Smith 2010 - Youth Work Practice. Palgrave). I think we should always try and and remember the political and economic context within which our work is located. Over here in the UK we are going through very dark times, where the squeeze on public sector spending is disproportionately being felt within youth work and youth services.
We must however try to not lose hope, we must lobby hard within local, national and international contexts, as well as publicise and and communicate the work we do, this will in part perhaps encourage the next generation... (?)
I was heartened during my time over in Minnesota last year by meeting some excellent young youth workers in the city, perhaps one should not draw too many conclusions from a lack of attendance at what are perhaps conferences which can appear once removed from the concerns of practitioners at the coalface, what we do need to ensure is lines of communication remain open...

Jennifer Griffin-Wiesner said:

Great post; great comments. Don't have much to add other than my thanks to you all for participating in this dialogue.

Jon Ord said:

I am reminded that we are 'two nations divided by a common language...' the expression coalface is used to refer to people who actually do the job as opposed to comment on it... so face to face workers would be referred to as 'at the coalface' as opposed to trainers, managers or academics who would not be... (its original meaning of course is derived from miners...) it is not meant perjoritively - I'll try and avoid any more 'english' expressions...

Ellen Gannett said:

I love that this blog is now officially international! And while we may be perplexed by some of your expressions Jon, I think we have much in common. Your point about the relevancy of conferences for practitioners "at the coalface" may be true in some cases, but our NAA Convention has worked hard to make sure that there are workshop tracks designed specifically for them. Thinking back to Nicole's earlier suggestion lets see if having next generation youth workers as workshop presenters or co-presenters with seasoned practitioners draws a bigger attendance next year. When the request for workshop proposals come out, lets commit to recruiting younger youth workers as presenters.

Jason Wyman said:

Thanks for posing the question Ellen.

I, personally, feel that there has been a lot of missed opportunity by those on the top in the youth development/leadership/after school fields in keeping a younger generation engaged in leadership development of the field. Next Generation Youth Work Coalition is a prime example of this disconnection between where it was, where it is, and where it hopes to be.

As part of the Youth Development Peer Network, we sent young youth workers to some of the initial meetings of the Next Generation Youth Work Coalition. A large amount of money had been given to Next Gen in order to make this happen and as a result, Next Gen was able to truly engage more of the folks on the ground. Next Gen was able to pay for airfare for young youth workers to attend these convenings and even paid for lodging. This reduced the participation barrier for young youth workers (or even just poorer youth workers) to actively be a part of Next Gen.

Then, funding priorities shifted, the leadership of Next Gen changed focus, connections were lost. These changes happened multiple times over multiple years. Rarely, if ever, did Next Gen reach back out to the young youth workers (who are no longer young youth workers) that were actively engaged in helping create the work of Next Gen. (Please know this is not a judgment statement it is just what happened.)

During this transition, momentum and trust were lost. I know that I personally have a hard time figuring out where I fit in to this conversation for many reasons. One of those reasons is seeing how many adults speak about youth leadership and development and how few of the adults who speak about youth leadership and development are actually doing it. As an example, Nicole's suggestion of having youth co-present alongside adults isn't new or revolutionary. In fact, if we as a field are just getting to the notion that we should have young people presenting alongside adults, I wonder why we are even promoting youth development. In fact, we should be beyond just having young people as co-presenters. They should be presenters. They should actively be given prominence in national conversation.

There is a whole generation of young people that have been brought up with the youth development philosophy/framework. These young people have had amazing opportunities for leadership development and understand the power of their voice. Then, they want to give back, so they start working for a youth program or an environmental program or an arts organization. When they get their job as a line staff, they instantaneously learn that they no longer have power. Everything that has been taught to them through the programming they received is now ripped out of them, and they now need to learn how to operate within the hierarchy of afterschool/non profits/education/youth development. This is the largest and biggest problem within our field: we disempower those whose power we have cultivated when they were a "participant".

This is a structural problem. It is an ageism problem. It is a problem about people wanting to hold on to their power because we all have a need and desire to be our own decision-makers. And in a world/country/society that does everything it can to limit our own decisions we cling on to what we can when we get it.

Also, something I have noticed here in the San Francisco more and more people (including more and more young people) are not identifying with youth development/youth work as their issue. They care about arts, media, technology, the environment, spirituality, poverty, making money, ethics, governance, city planning. What they care about directly translates to how they talk about it. In some ways, by framing this as "youth worker" (and hey I boldly and proudly use/used that term) we have disconnected ourselves from a younger generation.

Youth development is not just a field; it is a way of seeing power and programs and organizational structures and finding ways to incorporate youth into whatever "field"/company/non profit it happens to be (eg. technology, healthcare, etc). In some ways, we have done ourselves a disservice by not honing and refining and acting on the much deeper issues that need to be relieved in order to get to a point within our society where young people are valued intrinsically and seen as resources to their communities.

And as far as conferences go, maybe it has to do with the organization, management and structure of the conference itself that doesn't allow the space for young people to be there. If there are not young people attending, my first question is "And were there any young people in leadership positions from the initial planning stage?" And if that is a yes, then my next question is, "And did you listen to them and incorporate their ideas?" My guess would be no to both of those questions.

We as a field need to walk the walk.

Final thought:

For me, that has meant that I no longer view youth development solely as my field. I now am intentionally situating myself within an intergenerational framework: How do we actively build the bridges between the generations? This for me is the most crucial conversation right now. For we are missing the opportunity to build on the legacy of the work of our elders while bringing in the new perspectives and energies of our youth while honoring the bridge role those of us in the middle play. And that can't happen under the moniker youth development because it is generational development.

The motivation of the youth leader is an important ingredient in motivating the group to do something. Your own motivation is therefore of utmost importance. Also there is no money in voluntary youth work.

Thank you for the post! The issue of professional development dollars and youth work has huge implications for the field. personally, feel that there has been a lot of missed opportunity by those on the top in the youth development/leadership/after school fields in keeping a younger generation engaged in leadership development of the field.

  • © 2014 Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.
  • The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer. Privacy