Figure out your youth work goals and realities
All digital youth work should always serve the goals of your particular flavour of youth work, and online approaches are no different. Take a look at your pre-distancing activities and take into account your organizational strategy and any relevant action plans. How did you work towards these goals before? Does that directly translate to online environments, and if not, what do you need to change?
Our work should always serve young people’s needs, and those haven’t changed overnight. Then, logically, the overarching goals of our work shouldn’t have changed either. If it feels like they have, you might be confusing strategic goals with the practice itself. Immediate concerns of young people might be different during this epidemic, but most of youth work’s core values aren’t. We still need to help young people connect with their peers and figure out who they are; have secure, neutral adults that they can rely on, and have something meaningful to do together.
One recurring pothole on the road to successful online youth work practice is one that is present in almost all forms of digital youth work: never use a technology just for the sake of using new technology. If a platform doesn’t serve your youth work goals, it is undoubtedly the wrong platform to implement. Likewise, young people will not flock to your new youth work service just because it’s on a specific platform, just like they won’t come (or at least come again) to a youth center with a lovely couch. What young people need from youth work is youth work, not the technology.
In the very early planning stages of your online approaches, you should also be very mindful of organizational limits or national legislation regarding online work. Especially when you look at examples from other European countries (which you can find, for example here) you need to always tailor your approach to your local realities. While it might be tempting to “go for it”, it would be an exercise in frustration to have to shut down a fast-growing approach because you didn’t do the legwork on limitations beforehand
How are young people using the services you plan to use?
Most of the time, we end up going onto services and platforms that young people are already using. Leveraging established user bases is a good idea since it lowers the threshold of young people participating. But you also need to be mindful of the fact that almost every online service has its own operating culture, which is especially evident among young people. For example, Snapchat is a service where users expect you to be present on a very informal and personal way, so appearing as “Youth work organization x” with stiff communication guidelines doesn’t necessarily work. Likewise, TikTok is a place where you should be a bit silly and get on all the awkward challenges.
You should also make sure that the cultural aspects and “rules” of your selected service play nicely with your youth work goals. To be clear, I am not talking about the terms of service of the service provider, but rather the social rules within every single platform. Get in, look around, and do your best to learn the lingo. Once you start engaging young people, it will pay off. Don’t force it, though – you are allowed to be genuinely yourself and an adult!
Make a plan
When jumping headlong into a new form of youth work, it helps to have a strategy while finding your feet. Figure out what your core offering is in this particular service and place of time. Also figure out your primary target group (or groups, though services might be different for each group) and make sure that you have chosen the right platform. Goals can always be revised, but you need to have something to measure against.
When making a written plan – preferably together with everyone doing the actual work – use any existing planning tools available in your organization. It is probably clearer if the structure of the plan mirrors those already in place in your work community. You can also use available tools specifically for planning online youth work approaches, for example, Verke’s.
When jumping headlong into a new form of youth work, it helps to have a strategy while finding your feet
Hop in and start using your selected service. Be sure to get the word out to your target group that you are reachable online, or about the activities that you are initially offering. Don’t be discouraged if everything doesn’t go smoothly right off the bat, or if young people don’t instantly flock to your online offerings.
Even when starting and experimenting, be mindful of how you structure your work. Take care that you have a clear division of labour in your work community, and be sure to collect statistics about how everything goes. This way you have something to refer to in the next step, and (sometimes more importantly) something to show to your superiors or financers.
Especially in the first weeks of online activities, you want to be open to experimenting and fine-tuning your approach to see what fits, or abandoning what doesn’t work after a few tries. After all, there is no one recipe for online youth work that would work in every situation, every group of young people and every set of youth workers. After all, we do this with our personalities, whether offline or online. Be sure to reflect often with your colleagues as well.
After taking your first steps and trying a few different approaches, look at your goals. Are you on the right track to achieve them? What do the numbers say – are young people finding your online offerings or should something still be done in regards to communication? It’s also a good idea to do what we all (hopefully) do with young people naturally – talk to them about how they feel about what you’ve been doing and get their ideas on what to improve. Be mindful that the same rules apply as in face-to-face youth work – you as the responsible youth workers are setting the boundaries and rules, though hopefully together with the kids using your services.
You should not evaluate the performance of your new online work against your “normal” work. It’s not feasible that you would reach, for example, the same numbers of attendance when you’re starting your online youth work journey. Look instead at the development since you began and reflect on the goals you’ve set. As long as your making progress and learning on the way there, it’s all good!
Once you’ve gone through the above cycle, it could be a good idea to diversify. What’s the next thing we could experiment with? What could serve our youth work goals even better? Stay moving, stay creative and keep on doing quality youth work. It is still needed, no matter what the environment.
by Juha Kiviniemi (2020)
Juha Kiviniemi is a planning officer at Verke, a hopeless tech geek, a passionate maker and an Erasmus+ trainer – sometimes all at once.
Title © Johannes Krupinski on Unsplash,
don´t panic © Tonik on Unsplash
portrait Juha © Sandra Bano
all others © Domagoj Morić