Background/Context: The current educational market nestled in neoliberal and market-based reform efforts has shifted the nature of public education. Community-based educational spaces are also shaped within this context. As such, given the political and educational climate youth workers are situated in, their role as advocates, cultural workers, and pedagogues warrants greater exploration within educational scholarship. Although previous scholarship captures the significance of community-based youth workers in the lives of marginalized youth, their voices and experiences are absent from broader educational discourse. Subsequently, community-based youth workers’ relationship with schools, engagement with youth, and their pedagogical practices remain underutilized and undervalued.
Purpose: The purpose of this article is to highlight the critical space youth workers occupy in the academic, social, and cultural lives of Black youth within community-based educational spaces. This article critically examines the intricate roles that youth workers play in the academic and social lives of youth and proposes deeper inquiry into the practices of youth workers and implications for broader education discourse.
Setting: The study takes place at Educational Excellence (EE), a community-based educational program operating after school in the Northeastern part of the United States.
Research Design: This study employed a critical qualitative design with ethnographic methods. Participant observations occurred at program events for youth and their families over 13 months, events during the holidays (2), middle and high school retreats (2), staff retreats (2), parent orientation meetings (4), curriculum planning meetings (13), and staff-development trainings (10). In order to triangulate participant observation data, every youth worker was interviewed individually (n = 20) and observed during (or in) staff meetings, organizational events, and interaction with coworkers and students in the program. A total of three focus groups, lasting between 60 minutes and 90 minutes were held with participants.
Findings/Results: Findings indicate that a combination of factors contributes to the important role that youth workers play in the lives of students. From their vantage point, youth workers are community members that have extensive knowledge of the current educational landscape and the ways in which it shapes the experiences, opportunities, and outcomes of youth in their program. As former school administrators, teachers, and life-long community-based educators, youth workers’ understanding and analysis of students’ experiences in schools is extremely significant to their understanding of educational problems and the needs of their students. As such, youth workers were able to revive students through culturally responsive and relevant curricula and engagement that gave students an opportunity to think critically about the world around them and to also think more deeply about their social, academic, and political identities.
Conclusions/Recommendations: Youth workers within community-based educational spaces serve as essential actors in the lives of young people. Recognizing and validating these educators and community-based spaces as distinct, equally important, and complimentary spaces to schools and classroom teachers is an essential step in the process of reimagining the possibilities of youth work in community-based settings and in broader conceptions of educational opportunity. Further research and practice should recognize community-based spaces as vital sites of learning and growth for young people. In addition, education research and policy should acknowledge the distinct value and pedagogical practices of community-based educational spaces from traditional school spaces.