How to build community as a youth worker
RACHEL DOHERTY
Social worker, teacher and the founder of Tweens2teen
Building community helps youth workers spread the load and leave a legacy. But you need to understand three bits of theory to make it work.

Youth work by nature is short term. Young people don’t stay young all that long. Part of being a good youth worker involves equipping them to deal with issues themselves. Building links within the community to support young people looking for solutions.

Good youth work, like other fields in the human services, is about building capacity so your role becomes redundant.

If you’re going to be this sort of youth worker, then a chunk of your work time needs to be set aside to build community. Building relationships, identifying issues that impact the broader community and looking for solutions. And to do that, it helps to know some theory of community work.

“Without a sense of caring there can be no sense of community.”
ANTHONY J D’ANGELO

Understanding the theory of building community

There are three bits of community work theory every youth worker should understand. They’re not tricky, but they can be easy to forget in the day-to-day drill of supporting kids, paperwork and emails.

Seeing the difference between private issues and public ones

Our society tends to see problems as something a person has, not society itself.

If a young person is unable to get work after they finish school, there must be something lacking in them. If a child is experiencing anxiety or depression, the cause is factors in their life. But some of these issues are actually public problems not personal ones.

If there are no jobs for unemployed young people, then that’s a public issue, not only a private one. And if the pressure at school causes anxiety or depression in kids, that could be a public issue too.

Being open to spotting private issues with public roots is the first step to building community. It means you can link people together who have common challenges. You can help them find ways to advocate for change at a community level, instead of a personal one. But spotting these potentially public issues takes some practice.

“The community which has neither poverty nor riches will always have the noblest principles.” – Plato

Building the right relationships

Good community work, and youth work for that matter, is all about relationships. Relationships across the community, and relationships up and down it as well.

You might not realise it, but we all have horizontal and vertical relationships. The more we have of both, the more leverage we have to spot those public issues and do something about them.

Horizontal relationships are equal ones. We have similar standings and expectations of each other. Think of your friendships with people the same age, or those you work alongside. You have a lot in common with these people and share knowledge and experiences.

Vertical relationships are about power. The people at the top have more power and influence than the people at the bottom. With more people being at the bottom than the top. If you build relationships with people lower in the community, you can pick up on public issues. But relationships with people at the top helps to unlock ways of fixing those issues.

Building both horizontal and vertical relationships takes time and lots of networking. If networking is new to you, or something you need to work on, have a look at a couple of my other articles. There’s one on how to network and another on 21 key relationships to build in your community.

Seeing the strengths in your community

The last piece of theory isn’t only for building community. It’s called the strengths approach, and I’ve written an article explaining this one too.

In a nutshell, it’s a glass-half-full approach to seeing people and places. It’s about spotting the resources and energy people have that can make change. They might not be well polished or all that organised, but they’re there.

Building community is about enhancing what already exists. If young people already gather, whether for a good purpose or not, you’ve got a group that can work together. Particularly if they share a public issue.

The same goes for adults. If you see the potential in your community and connect that energy to addressing public issues, real change can take place.

Building community isn’t a quick process. It takes time to build those relationships and networks. You have to get to the point where people will talk about more than the weather and football, and share their challenges in life. Where you can spot the public issues amongst the private ones. And building community is all about seeing the strengths around you. What a community has going for it, and can draw on to solve the issues that hold young people back.

If you’re looking to read more on this topic, a great book to work through is Community Development Practice by Ann Ingamells and her team. It not only looks at the theory of building community but also has plenty of stories to bring it to life.

Have you been building community in your youth work? How do these theories work in real life for you? I’d love you to share your thoughts below.

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