As I reflect on the horrific public lynching of George Floyd, and the killings of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and far too many others during a global health pandemic, in which the death toll is steadily rising, I am reminded of the necessity of youth work at this moment. This is perhaps not a surprising direction for my thinking. The core of my scholarship focuses on the role of community-based organizations in the lives of minoritized youth and the working lives of youth workers that are the heart of such community spaces. I spent a month this spring as a visiting scholar at the Spencer Foundation (virtually), reflecting on, writing about, and organizing a webinar about community spaces and their role in education. My time at Spencer coincided with the global pandemic and the wave of national uprisings against anti-Black violence. These events and my scholarship have me thinking about the power of youth work.
Roughly 10 million children participate in out-of-school programming, and even more would participate if given the opportunity. Community-based educational spaces provide a relevant and vital supplementary developmental context to schools, offering more than just academic support. These sites can be critical locations for social, political, and cultural development for young people, particularly those experiencing multiple layers of marginalization and oppression. As a researcher and former youth worker, I want to highlight three important things we should keep in mind to help reimagine how we understand and support community-based youth work in scholarship and practice. As difficult as it may be to think about the "good" that can come from this moment, it shines a light on the strengths of community-based education in fostering deep connections to the outdoors, strong relationships rooted in care, radical healing, and a focus on cultural, social, and political development and resistance.
Acknowledge the Power of Community
Youth work—the nurturing, guidance, and mentoring of young people through various stages of development, often within community-based spaces—should be celebrated and nurtured in its own right and not presented as tangential or purely supplemental to learning within schools. In my work, I use the term community-based educational spaces to reclaim education and intentionally decenter schools to affirm community power. Schools never have and will never be the only space of learning for young people. Power and agency exist within communities. We must acknowledge the range of academic, social, cultural, and political support these spaces offer youth and neighborhoods. Although community-based spaces are imperfect, they often have more flexibility than schools. Community-based youth organizations serve as places of hope, radical care, and critical resistance for young people experiencing compounding levels of oppression and suffering.
The Spencer-supported webinar I organized last month, Lifting Up Youth Work, reconfirmed for me, and I hope others, that learning, solidarity, possibility, cultivating dreams, and resistance rooted in communities are at the heart of youth work. We must be particularly vigilant at this moment to preserve what is unique about community-based spaces. As narratives about "learning loss" dominate public discourse in light of the pandemic, I worry that pressure will be placed onto community-based spaces. The strength of community-based spaces is their ability to meet the multiple needs of young people that go far beyond academics. In our efforts to reimagine what research can look like, we must avoid the pressure to narrow the work of community-based spaces.
Investment in Youth Workers
Youth workers are exceptional at modeling what it means to enact community care. They are educators, pedagogues, mentors, coaches, and hold many other roles in their work with youth. Youth workers are responsible for guiding, teaching, and mentoring youth across many spaces. In some community-based programs, youth worker pedagogies are rooted in humanizing and culturally relevant practices that acknowledge young people's lived realities and affirm their identities. These approaches acknowledge young people's humanity in ways that schools often disregard. The process of youth work, namely, the relationships between youth workers and young people, are sacred and vital. However, youth workers are not widely represented in educational research and educational policy discourse as important actors in young people's educational lives. They also face extreme economic precarity as positions can be part-time, unstable, and lack professionalization in ways that other careers may offer. Decades of scholarship on the youth work sector has shown that youth workers are vulnerable. In this current health pandemic, youth workers are even more susceptible. We must shift our thinking about who can be an educator. What might we be missing about what pedagogical innovation, social identity development, or radical care looks like by not engaging youth workers fully in broader education discourse and practice?
Fostering Dream Spaces for Youth
The Lifting Up Youth Work webinar raised critical questions about supporting youth and community-based educational spaces during multiple pandemics. Despite the current reality, both panels shined a spotlight on joy and healing in resistance. Discussions reminded us of the privilege of working with and alongside youth. Webinar participant Shannon Reed of the United Way Greater Milwaukee raised an important question: "How do we infuse more imagination and dream space for our young folks?" When I'm feeling less hopeful, questions like this remind me that imagination, creativity, and dreaming are necessary for youth (for all of us), especially young people experiencing multiple layers of oppression. I see community-based youth work as sacred work. Within these spaces, dreaming and imagining takes place, often without the constraints experienced in schools. To continue this, we must invest in youth work – which means supporting community-based educational spaces/ youth organizations and youth workers financially and validating them for their incredible work.
This moment offers us an opportunity to appreciate youth work anew and provide the support and investment that it requires to lift up the aspects of youth work that contribute to a more just society. And yet, we must also hold that anti-Black violence isn't new. State violence with impunity isn't new. Assault on Indigenous communities and family separations are not new – in fact, they are endemic to this country. Coping and working under the stress of a global health pandemic indeed produces challenges in how we exist within physical space, how we mobilize, and how we educate and approach our research in the future. Community-based educational spaces can cultivate opportunities for youth to share, process, and develop a critique of the world and strategize ways to resist structural oppression in their lives. As a community of scholars and educators, we must push ourselves to think deeply about how we can listen to young people and how they identify the ways we can support them. We also must honor and nurture the community-based spaces that fight for them every day.
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