In 2010 about 400 people came together in Ghent for the first European Youth Work Convention representing many countries and the impressive diversity of youth work in Europe. Participants from the field of professional open youth work, who met there again or for the first time, while being motivated and impressed by the serious and creative atmosphere of the conference also shared the feeling that their specific area of work was under represented in the political debate. On the spot they signed a letter of intention to get together and change that.
It was easy and fun to find people that had a good story to tell .
Two years later the time was ripe to officially found a new European Network that would focus on professional open youth work – POYWE. Since then poywe strives to create a better understanding of youth work in an open and professional setting and to work for its benefit and needs – through lobbying, exchange of experience and practice and fostering of quality and innovation.
The new Erasmus+ program introduced Strategic Partnerships for creating and strengthening networks and strategically tackling innovative ideas that are relevant for the field and thus gave us a tool for a more coherent and structured approach to our main aim of creating a better understanding of our profession. The „Mapping Professional Open Youth Work“ project was born and the interest was high. Also partners who are not (yet) members of poywe from grass root youth work to formal education institutions were keen to join and due to the limit of maximum ten partners per project unfortunately we even had to turn some of them down.
The partners that gathered felt that it needed two dimensions for our goal: One to discuss and agree on a common definition and guiding principles that we share across Europe and two to tell the stories of professional open youth work in a way that would make it easier for people to grasp the core and heart of this field of action. From the very beginning it became clear that it was easy and fun to find people that had a good story to tell and a clear red thread of who we are, what we do, why we do it and who are the young people we do it with was visible. We created a new platform: LOGBOOK featuring an E-Magazine that takes up current issues and trends in professional open youth work in Europe and describes the various realities we face, a Video Channel where youth work experts share their ideas and experiences and Webinars to create room for discussion and exchange. All those features are working with visuals trying to reach out to a wider audience including grass root youth workers and all those who are not keen on reading long reports.
It got much more complicated when we started to put on paper what we mean with professional open youth work, because then not only the common European English started to show its local colours, but also concepts, beliefs and the two worlds of formal and non-formal education had to be brought down to a compromise. A compromise that everybody could find their place in but trying to avoid the usual way out of getting so vague that „it does not hurt anyone“. We did believe that what some of us call open youth work others call professional youth work or in some realities they would simply call it youth work has a distinct profile and a need to speak up also on European level – for our own interest but also in advocacy of the young people we work with. And we had a lot of common ground to start from: voluntary participation, relationship building as a central element, co-creation and confidentiality – just to name a few.
Every country involved had their own history and concepts and current challenges resonating in the process and thus while some things were easy to agree on, others were fiercely discussed. How does the ideal of openness translate into action – is it only about low-threshold offers and no required membership or is there more to it? Targeted youth work has had difficult effects in some countries, but what if on the other hand some young people need tailor made offers for being able to connect to us? Can we say that we work with marginalized young people or is that already excluding and questioning the principle of voluntary participation? Do we all have to invite young people into our boards like they do in Norway for meeting the aim of participation or is the idea of co-creation also valid on other levels? Can we seriously say that we create safe spaces when we work with groups of young people at the risk of becoming criminal on the streets?
And then of course there is this tricky issue about the word professional. A word that can mean so many different things and tackles almost a primeval fear of social work and youth work in particular that depends largely on the passion and engagement of volunteers: Are we downgrading them if we talk about professionals as in contrast to volunteers? Can young people rightfully expect something more or different from paid staff? If we see youth workers as educators in an non-formal setting what does that mean for training and education, but also self awareness and reflection? To start us off all partners asked young people themselves about their expectations towards professional open youth work and in all countries they clearly put a lot of trust in those adults that interact with them within the youth work setting – a trust that has to be established, re-earned every day and used in a professional way to support those young people in their growth and independence. We are talking about professional youth workers meaning people that have an education, commit to ethical standards, reflect on their interventions and the quality of their work and get a fair salary befitting a responsible task. We do acknowledge that there is thousands of volunteers that are also trained, reflective and responsible and organisations that take care of that.
So when the end of the project drew nearer, we had to condense what we discussed and put it on paper. We are aware that every other national youth work reality will bring up new points of discussion, doubts and ideas – yet we put this Declaration of Principles on the table for field to chew on. We hope that it might inspire some, invite for further discussion and spark controversy because only in constant debate and exchange of ideas we will together shape an ever changing and developing profession.
Partners of the Strategic Partnership were:
poywe – applicant organisation/coordinator
bOJA – bundesweites Netzwerk Offene Jugendarbeit/Austria
Ungdom og Fritid/Norway
n.e.t.z. – Netzwerk der Jugendtreff und -zentren Südtirol/Italy
Stichting JONG Rotterdam/The Netherlands
HUMAK University of Applied Sciences/Finland
Institute for policy research and analysis/Lithuania