Away from Radical Youth Work?

Radical youth work moves from simply implanting skills, knowledge or ideas in young people towards engaging them as full human beings who co-construct the world we share. This youth work is radical because it departs from seeing youth as empty vessels to be filled by all-knowing adults. Instead, it engages them in active c0-learning, co-examination, co-building, advocating, and leading throughout our communities.

Between 1989 and 1999, I was a staff member in a dozen youth work programs across the United States, with several of them easily positioned as radical youth work. During that decade I looked for jobs I thought were “cool” where people “got it” and “knew what they were doing.” I didn’t have the language for it then, but I was looking for radical youth work that empowered young people to change their own lives and the world.

Starting in my own neighborhood as a teenager, I was an assistant director for a theater program that took low-income youth from public housing projects and taught them basics that led them to a performance for their families and neighborhoods. After that, I taught independent living skills for foster, homeless and runaway youth; led nature education activities in Midwestern prairies with bison and sandhill cranes abounding; developed a mentoring program for Kurdish and Iraqi refugee children; staffed a youth drug treatment facility; led inner-city youth in high adventure wildness activities in the Pacific Northwest; developed a youth center for high-risk pre-teens, and; consulted schools in northern New Mexico on service learning.

Throughout that journey, I learned about youth-led community activism, participating as an adult ally to youth demanding rights in their communities; developed my understanding of popular education, employing it to make critical inroads for learning among fellow low-income people; and built praxis among fellow youth workers who identified as marginalized or excluded from mainstream cultural, educational and social activities.

The way was dangerous along that road. There’s a flame of righteous indignation that burns within the hearts of people who are committed to changing the world. That flame is lit by hopefulness, but is doused by setbacks, depression, failure, and even success sometimes. Conscientiousness costs, and the passionate nuance of democracy can cause people to feel the bends and twists of social change in hyper-sensitive ways. More than just poor outcomes from contested elections can slice at the heart of radical youth work. When you hear a youth voted negatively; another one committed a crime that affected the whole community; another “dropped off the face of the earth” and disconnected from everything in their life that was empowering; and another grew up and went to work for a corporation with no apparent ethical baring in their lives; all of these things cut.

There’s a temptation to give up on youth, but I would suggest its more necessary to give up on radical youth work.

Rather than quit young people and walk away from them entirely, there are times when it can be necessary to quit the thinking and action that led to the disenchantment. Rather, to rest from it we have to relax the mental muscle and instead simply be. Be a youth worker, be an adult ally, be hopeful but with boundaries.

This isn’t about showing grit or resilience; it is about survival. We must survive. Through these years of wrestling with myself, my work, its outcomes and the possibilities ahead of me, I have had to rest a lot. Today, I’m thinking that sometimes that means walking away from radical youth work–and that’s okay.

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