Youth Work in Ontario is Personal and Political!
by Uzo Anucha, MSW, PhD
Provincial Academic Director, YouthREX
Associate Professor, School of Social Work
Youth workers are the most critical factor in the success of a youth program but what is youth work in Ontario really like?
- How does youth work intersect with the personal lives of youth workers?
- What are the systemic issues, gaps and barriers that youth workers encounter in supporting youth?
- How do youth workers navigate these gaps? What issues affect youth workers ability to do their jobs as effectively and healthily as possible?
These are some of the questions that my colleagues and I at YouthREX have kept returning to since YouthREX launched in November 2014.
YouthREX’s role supporting youth programs with research and evaluation has provided us with wonderful opportunities to collaborate closely with youth programs across Ontario and to get to know the youth workers who make these programs what they are. We have learned so much about their experiences “youth working” – sometimes from informal conversations and, at other times, from “formal” conversations that are captured as part of a research process.
For example, as part of the research for Beyond Measure? The State of Evaluation and Action in Ontario’s Youth Serving Sector, we conducted 60 one-on-one interviews with youth sector stakeholders across Ontario. Though the interviews focused on understanding the evaluation practices of these youth programs, we also heard rich descriptions of what youth work in Ontario is like in these interviews. As part of another research project on youth wellbeing in Ontario in 2016, we held seven focus groups with 58 frontline youth workers in five cities across Ontario (Ottawa, London, Thunder Bay, Sudbury and Toronto).
Thematic analysis of these conversations paints a vivid picture of what youth work in Ontario is really like. We shared the following four themes from this analysis on what youth work in Ontario is really like in a poster presentation at our Knowledge to Action Exchange on October 25, 2018:
1. Youth worker identity and lived experience as a resource
Youth workers described a professional identity that is tied to their personal identities because they identify with the young people they work with. Their professional identity as a youth worker was “not separated or detached” but part of who they are.
“So, for example, as a Black man getting into a racialized community and working with individuals and just getting to be someone they know and can identify with, it puts a smile to their faces, like, hey dude, I can identify with you, I see. So for me the sense of commitment, the sense of passion, the choice I make to want to work with that particular population in and of itself opens a greater door for connection, for empowerment and for opportunity to show that it’s not helpless but certainly there’s that means of empowerment and resiliency.”
-Youth Worker, Central Ontario
2. Youth work as numbers work and the pressure of meeting outputs and targets
Youth workers shared that funding and evaluation requirements sometimes require that their work must be organized in such a way that what counts as youth work meets funding and government targets and measures. This pressure to meet targets and numbers frequently means that critical skills and practices, such as relationship-building, mentorship, empowerment and advocacy, that are difficult to report as numbers, are rendered invisible.
“Because of pressures to get numbers, it’s very hard to concentrate on each individual youth ... We have a program where we try to connect youth with volunteer opportunities in a field they are interested in. And what ends up happening is the pressure from up top, the funding, the funders, we, kind of, just start rushing it and try to fit them in where we can instead of actually giving them something that is meaningful.”
-Youth Worker, South Western Ontario
3. Youth work as rule bending and unauthorized work
Youth workers described the systems within which youth are embedded, including the education, criminal justice and housing systems, as having significant gaps for young people. They discussed how they made these systems work for youth. In some instances, this work is unauthorized.
“There are these rules that aren't practical and they’re not realistic and you see the struggle that this individual is going to go through. … In my head, okay, policy states you cannot do this, you cannot do that. What am I going to do? I have to go against the grain because how else is this person going to survive?”
-Youth Worker, Central Ontario
4. The marginality of youth work and invisibility of youth workers' voices (devalued work and precarious employment)
Youth workers described how precarious and insecure their jobs as youth workers were and how they had to piece together multiple contract-based jobs to survive. They also noted that the youth sector’s precarious and insecure labour market is stratified by race, gender and sexuality. Through unfair and exploitative employment structures and practices, the youth sector is a site of harm and inequity for youth workers.
“There’s no secure employment. I was the only woman of colour there. There were no LGBTQ [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer] people, and there was no secure employment for us. The marginalized people, we were all on contract. And they’re here, preaching about precarious work, but yet they are doing the same thing to us. There’s no secure employment for marginalized people in this sector.”
-Youth Worker, Central Ontario
These findings provide an understanding of the complexities of youth work that stretches across personal, professional and political identities, as well as the precarious working conditions of youth workers.
The findings also provide an understanding of how youth work is enmeshed in other systems and how factors beyond the scope of the youth sector impact and shape youth work on the ground.
We are looking forward to sharing the full report, This Is Youth Work: Voices from the Frontlines of Ontario’s Youth Sector, in early 2019.