Monday, July 29, 2013

What does a Youth Worker do anyway?

"What do you do for an actual job?"

That was the question posed to me over lunch with a member of my church after the service one Sunday afternoon.  At first I thought that they were joking or had asked the question out of a automated list of questions that you are supposed to ask to fill in awkward moments.  However, that was not the case.  What made the question so shocking was that my job was as the Youth Pastor at the church.  The person asking me the question had kids in my youth group.

I wish I could say that was an isolated incident, but it is a rather common question.  Many people don't realize that the life of a youth pastor or a community youth worker is often times a job that consumes much more time than an actual 40 hour per week job.  That is because of the work that we do is either unseen or noticed.  In fact when we do our jobs well, no one can tell.

  • The teen that struggles with violence does not end up getting arrested.
  • The suicide attempt that the kid has been wrestling over never happens.
  • The group of kids stays in and watches movies instead of drinking at the park
  • The youth center is not surrounded by fire trucks.

However, part of the problem is that as youth workers we often get so busy doing the job of building relationships with the teens in our care that we have little to no energy to promoting our work to others.  The other part of the problem is that the terminology that we use doesn't sound much like work to those that are not involved in it.  For instance, if I say that i was hanging out with a group of kids where we played video games and ate pizza, that sounds a lot easier than pounding nails at a construction site. Doesn't it?

For that reason my team and I have worked hard to help people understand what it is that we do and how we spend our time.

Rather than say we hang out at schools or skate parks - - - we say we INTERSECT with kids in their every day lives in the places they already are.

Rather than say we hang out with kids at a coffee shop - - - we say we INVEST into young people that need a friend and talk about things that matter to them.

Rather than say we hang out with the other youth workers - - - we say we INTERCEDE in the lives of young people as advocates helping their friends, family, teachers and the greater community better understand the issues our young people are facing

Rather than say we hang out with a youth group - - - we say we INCUBATE an environment for growth and development.  That is, we don't force kids to grow or believe the things we tell them, but rather we give them space to be challenge to think in deeper ways if they so choose.

Rather than say we hang out in some cool places - - - we say we INSPIRE young people to make a difference in the world around them, be that picking up garbage off the street or organizing a benefit concert.  We want to help them achieve their dreams.

When you start to look at things that way, you can begin to see how time consuming it all is.  The time "hanging out playing video games and eating pizza" is not an escape from real work, it is part of the job.  Sometimes the job is awesome and fun.  Other times when you on the phone in the middle of the night with a crises it is less so.  Every job has it's good point and bad points.  Just think though, even with just a kid or two, that would take a lot of time.  My team literally comes into contact with thousands of young people every year.

Now when someone asks me what it is that I do for a job when they should know, I am not offended - I take it as an opportunity to help someone understand how important the role of a youth worker is to the kids in the community and I hang the conversation around this phrase.

As a youth worker striving to live out my faith you can find me engaging in the lives of young people and fostering the connections they need to thrive.

That is what a youth worker does.


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

New ad campaign targets boys in the reality of teen parenting

The Chicago department of public health released a series of images that challenge the concepts of teen pregnancy being a primary issue of the female gender.  In these ads, boys are depicted at various stages of pregnancy.  As seen here:

Read more about this campaign by clicking on the image

Some people may be offended at the images, others sing their praises, but one thing is for sure - these ads are creating conversation over the issue of a social issues that is rarely addressed: fatherlessness.  When I first started in youth work, I would occasionally meet a kid without a dad.  Today the majority of young people that I work with come from backgrounds where their dad's are not a part of their lives.  I understand that parents split, divorce happens.  I am not trying to fix broken relationships, but I am an advocate for teaching boys how to be dads.

The new Facebook app that may save your life.

Many young people that I have worked with have accused me of having some sort of telepathy skills. That is, that I have the ability to know what it is that they are thinking.  While the thought of having some superpowers does sounds pretty cool, the truth is that the majority of my skill has been learned through experience and active listening.  What that basically means is that when I am listening to a young person talk I am trying to take in all the cues I can.  How are they sitting?  What is their tone of voice?  What language are they using?  Where are they looking as they talk?  I then merely reflect back what it is that I think they just communicated to me.  Through this process I can sometimes get a sense of what a kid may be thinking.  One reason for this is being able to assess if a young person is at risk of hurting themselves or others.

There is a new app (the Durkheim project) being developed for social media that is trying to do the same thing.  Using a complex algorithm, the app analyzes status updates of users that may indicate if someone is at risk of attempting suicide.  This is based on the online language used by those who have committed suicide.  At this point the primary target demographic is veterans, the implications for young people is immediately apparent.  Has science found a way of eliminating youth workers?

You can read more about the Durkheim project here:

Privacy issues aside, there are some other potential concerns.  One is that analysis outside of relationship is very subjective.  For instance there is a 19-year-old serving jail time exactly because someone stumbled upon a threatening facebook comment left by the kid although he claims it was merely sarcasm.  Action needs to be taken in cases like this, but sometimes that action is that the kid needs to go for a slushie while having a conversation about what is appropriate to share online, sometimes police need to be involved.  It is a fine line, but it is makes me advocate for more youth workers rather than just another app.  Read more about this topic here:

Tell me your thoughts on the subject below.