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Mar 16

Amandla Youth Work

Anya reflects on 7 days in South Africa at CCYW2016

Ara Taiohi newsNgā Kete o te Wānanga


power to the people, power to youth work

I’ve just returned from an amazing 6 days in South Africa, where against a backdrop of student protests, broken skyscraper shells, spoken word and civil unrest, I heard about the importance that developing and developed nations across the Commonwealth ascribe to the work that youth workers do.

I think we're used to thinking of the Commonwealth as a fusty anachronism, a vestige of British colonisation. My experiences at CCYW2016 were a jolt to these assumptions and showed me something different- an organisation working hard on limited resource to support developing and developed nations to meet the challenges they face, an organisation keen to engage critically with the issues facing countries with a British imperial legacy. An organisation made up of principled and visionary people who believe that young people and by extension youth work can and should transform the world.

CCYW2016:  Youth development is shaped by the big picture    

CCYW2016 took place in a new South Africa where apartheid fell because of young people. Young people are still fighting for their voice, for their rights, for self determination in every sense. Across South Africa currently, there are massive protests happening at universities. These protests are calling out institutionalised racism in academia (#rhodesmustfall) and the outsourcing of university services (which is paralleled by the same process in Aotearoa). Each morning we drove through walls of police armed with batons, rifles and semi-automatics, and rocks on the road to UNISA, though there was not much engagement at the conference itself about this ‘big picture’ stuff going on outside.

The big picture which Commonwealth youth work practice takes place within is the common experience of British colonisation- and this shared context emerged at different speeds out of the flow of presentations and conversation at CCYW2016. The differences between the global South and the global North were pointed out by Sharlene Swartz on day 1 who presented a challenge to the conference to find space for young people from the developing world/global South. She argued from the outset that no one should presume to speak for young people in the #GlobalSouth- especially not adults from the developed world.

Our work in New Zealand is connected to the stories of the global South and the global North- (though on the surface we’re considered Northern) and our work is looked to by both particularly in terms of the way that the treaty is held and honoured in our best youth work practice. It was amazing to talk to Jamaican youthworker Miguel Steppa Williams about the experience of coming to South Africa as a West Indian whose whakapapa stretches back to India and Africa- a story founded on indentured labour. He works to “make space for the unredeemable”- young people in Jamaica who are in jail, and who carve wooden taonga in the shape of Africa. He held one up at the opening of the conference and I thought about how complicated the conference actually was- what long and violent histories connect us together. My own dad’s side of the family travelled to Fiji as indentured labourers from India and eventually on to New Zealand- I remember travelling to India as a 17 year old and having my developed world explode as I struggled to make sense of the chain of strange events, acts of hope and faith and fabulous serendipities that led to my birth in New Zealand. Put under Steppa’s lens, cultural relations in the Commonwealth get kaleidoscopic from our bicultural model of tauiwi/tangata whenua- coloniser/colonised.

The experience of black South Africans in the current shape of South Africa hasn't been transformed in all the ways that Mandela and the people re-imagining the country had hoped and planned when apartheid fell in 1994. Black South Africans have the right to vote, but don’t own much of their country. It's a young country- 70% of the country is under 30 but a similar number are unemployed. Governmental employment initiatives have been ripped off by corporations and individuals who are out to make money and their actions are left unquestioned and unhindered by a state whose record of transparency and ethics are deeply stained. Gun crime and corruption are rife, and the people I met live in a constant state of vigilance. I hugely admire the people who I met who live there trying to make change- their commitment to principles and resilience in the face of systemic corruption and violence is inspiring.

CCYW2016: Youth development is about young people (and by extension, youth workers) being connected.

Around the world, effective youth work practice builds genuine connections between youth worker and young people, and empowers young people to connect with each other in powerful and positive ways. The amazing Malavika Pavamani from India (pictured here with Shilpa from Commutiny and Muhammad who is a community activist (aka youth worker) from Pakistan) presented at the Professional Association session about the coalition that has been formed by scores of organisations across India which connects 1.5 million young people. I realised as I watched all of our colleagues from overseas present that the view over young people’s shoulders is the only thing that changes- youth development is shaped by the big picture but around the world is underpinned by the basic belief that “young people should be seen not as assets, risks or resources but as holders of rights and agents of change.” (Kavita Ratna, The Concerned for Working Children).

CCYW2016: Youth development is based on a consistent strengths based approach

I was completely blown away, challenged and inspired by Kavita Ratna and Nandana Reddy from Indian organisation “The Concerned for Working Children”. Their rights based model totally puts young people at the centre and seeks to empower them to take up active (as in activist) positions from which to imagine and create change. “In India young people are angry and their anger stems from reality, not an ailment of their own creation… they have the right to be protagonists in their own story.” Nandana Reddy.  You can check out their work here: http://www.concernedforworkingchildren.org/

CCYW2016: Youth development happens through quality relationships

Ara Taiohi are going to help form an international alliance of youth work associations! The purpose of this alliance is to connect the professional youth work associations which currently exist in order to

  1. create and implement standards for setting up youth work associations (and support countries who don’t have them to set them up)
  2. figure out what the common issues and messages that professional organisations are facing and work together to address and raise them at an international advocacy level
  3. share good practice and knowledge of youth work across the alliance, and
  4. get useful research done and add to the body of knowledge and evidence that sits beneath youth development across the world.

The other organisations on the steering group are from Sierra Leone, Australia, India, Pakistan, Jamaica, England and Malta (so there are going to be some fun times in the middle of the night for all of us as we meet by Skype). The plan is to work over the next 12 months to develop a charter, mission, values base and workplan. Our first meeting is in a week and I promise to keep you updated about progress. It’s awesome for us to be part of this kaupapa because the knowledge and passion around the international table will be fantastic to draw on as we consult widely with all of you and build toward launch of your professional body.

The Commonwealth think the professionalization of youth work is really important, and sees youth work associations as powerful agents working to empower young people and make youth development happen across the Commonwealth.

CCYW2016: Youth development is triggered when young people fully participate

Jan Owens and Dhakshy Sooriyakumara from the Foundation of Young Australians brought fresh thinking from their YLab programme: a design process that provides organisations with youth-led design services to meet social sector, public policy or business challenges. Jan threw down the challenge to the conference to reimagine young people as job-creators, not job-seekers. Employability is one of the key state driven priorities that was identified as common across the Commonwealth- it’s something that is being given real emphasis in New Zealand and we have to figure out how to talk about and measure youth work in New Zealand in terms of employability in order to get much needed traction with our current government. 

CCYW2016: Youth development needs good information

Francis Kapapa from Zambia spoke about the difficulty of professionalising youth work in a country where universities were shutting down in uncertain or difficult political climates. At the time he spoke, the two major universities were shut in preparation for the election in 4 months’ time. It reinforced to me how lucky we are to have two bachelors’ courses and a qualifications authority who have registered youth development and youth work courses on the national qualifications framework. I learned that we are the ONLY country to have done so internationally. If you’re studying youth work or youth development, the essays that you write, the texts that you read, the thinking that you are doing has a massive value to the profession of youth work. All round the world, countries are struggling to evidence the body of knowledge that exists beneath the profession and practice of youth work. We’re lucky- we have the YDSA, we have Fiona Beals, we have Rod Baxter and Manu Caddie. We have Small Stories, The Invisible Table, Real Work and the amazing presence of Lloyd Martin. We have Youthline and the Canterbury Youth Worker’s Collective- all of whom have contributed massively to the professional culture which exists in our space.

At an international level, we need good information too. I encourage you to check out the Commonwealth’s new Youth Development Index. We’re sitting near the top of this but I feel humbled by my experiences of learning about the work that’s happening in Africa, through Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, and across the Pacific that we have so much to learn from our siblings in near and distant places.

If Aotearoa New Zealand’s youth population was disaggregated on the YDI by rural/urban, by ethnicity, by gender etc, the picture would look very different. Our surface might be pretty and shiny, but lift the lid on our statistics about our young people’s health, education and wellbeing, and things quickly disintegrate, let alone the civic participation and political engagement statistics!

My friend Brian Belton, a gypsy youth worker who has practiced all over the world, convinced me that the new colonised are our young people- that in our current relations of oppression and power, across the developed and developing world, it’s young people who are losing out. At the end of a 6 day international explosion of thinking about youth development and youth work, I am left with singular clarity. In Aotearoa we hold the tools of youth development at hand and we have the people in our community who can work to change these relations in our country. We have the heart and the head for this work. I can’t wait to get on with it!