Youth work is, and always has been, about human potential and human transformation. It is a practice that emerged 'on the streets' in response to the sometimes severe and dire needs of young people who were struggling to find their way. In New York City, as in other places in the country, smaller community-based agencies are striving to hold on to their capacity to meet young people 'where they are at.' There is concern that youth work as a humanistic, transformative and responsive practice is quietly disappearing, being replaced by more narrowly defined opportunities to learn during nonschool hours.
In my research into the developmental opportunities provided by after-school programs, the literature consistently suggests that neither younger nor older children fare well in rigidly structured programs but benefit from attending flexible programs with varied activities, supportive staff, and a recognizable product resulting from activities. When youth work becomes a pre-designed, overly structured space for reaching predetermined outcomes rather than allowing youth to voice their needs, kids can tell the difference. Youth workers who are youth centered, strive to tailor to individual youth, and use a participatory, holistic approach to meet the developmental needs of youth are considered responsive youth workers.
A group of community based youth workers in New York City recently reminded me: "We are not an extension of school." They believe, as do I, that youth work was not designed to do what school was designed to do, nor are they eager to take on that agenda. Rather, youth work is a developmentally responsive practice, one that responds to the needs of youth and families on the ground, in real time. This means that when young people voice the need for 'school' after school, youth workers provide 'school', and when young people voice the need for something else like life skills, they respond to that, too.
The value of this responsiveness was expressed recently to me by an after-school program director. A 12-year old girl in his program explained to him that state exams were scheduled immediately upon return from spring break. She was concerned that the students were given a study guide the day before break, with no further instruction or support, and she suspected no one would be studying during recess. The director responded by providing support, responding to the request by the youth in his community. In this situation and in relation to a need expressed on the ground and in real time, academic support was provided. However, to my way of thinking, regulating that this type of support becomes the norm removes community leaders' capacity to remain flexible and responsive; it also undermines their judgment calls and leaves the decision making about programming to those most removed from practice.
What do you think? Are we staying responsive as youth workers? Are we limiting youth workers' capacity to engage in developmentally responsive practice by regulating what they do, and when they do it?