On Educational Advocacy and Cultural Work: Situating Community-Based Youth Work[ers] in Broader Educational Discourse
by Bianca J. Baldridge - 2018
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.
As a former youth worker and ethnographic researcher at Educational Excellence (EE), an afterschool comprehensive community-based youth organization, I learned that legal guardian was added to the long list of roles youth workers occupied. When I first began working for EE as an afterschool course instructor, Walidah, the director of the middle school program joked about Leah, the organizations executive director, being the guardian of a student named Bekele. At the time Bekele was a seventh grader who had been in the program since the sixth grade. I knew that Bekele was a kind, smart, and sometimes shy and occasionally funny boy, but the comment confused me. Two years later, when Bekele was in ninth grade, I decided to ask about his relationship with Leah in an interview with Walidah. She explained that as a seventh grader, Bekele had a difficult relationship with his school principal. She went on to say, The principal of his school was not particularly fond of him and did everything within his power to get him removed from the school. In a later conversation with Dr. Davenport, the director of youth development programming, I learned that it was common knowledge in the neighborhood that Bekeles principal, [tried] to railroad many of the Black boys in the school. Walidah explained that when the situation became dire as Bekeles principal was trying to expel him, Leah informally became a guardian of sorts in order to advocate for Bekele when his single father had to work. Leah was a former classroom teacher and school administrator, and Bekeles father relied on Leahs knowledge. She made herself available to Bekeles father, accompanied him to parent teacher meetings, and spoke with his principal and teachers extensively to ensure that he was being treated fairly. Bekeles father formed a special relationship with Leah and sought her support when trying to advocate for his son.
I was moved by the advocacy employed on behalf of Bekele and his father. Leah and other youth workers at EE were positioned in the lives of their students in ways that allowed them to understand the intersections between their lives in and outside of schools. Youth workers and community-based educational spaces (CBES) are often on the periphery of educational discourse and are typically excluded from reform efforts. Youth workers operating within community-based educational spaces provide comprehensive educational experiences to young people and are situated within a precarious relationship to the state that presents both challenges and immense possibilities. Community-based spaces serving youth are implicated and impacted by the state and the current educational market nestled in privatization and neoliberal logics of education, race, class, and academic success (Dumas, 2016; Gilmore, 2007; Kwon, 2013; Marwell, 2004). 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. Thus, 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.
Through my involvement with EE, I began conceptualizing community-based youth programs as spaces of broad educational opportunity and immense pedagogical possibility. At EE, I learned that youth workers fulfill a variety of rolesthey are educators, counselors, cultural workers, mediators, and negotiators who assist youth of color as they construct their identities in a racially hostile society. Throughout my research, I observed youth workers wear many hats: teacher, counselor, curriculum developer, janitor, disciplinarian, mentor, party planner, trainer, tutor, grant writer, or marketing strategist. Although previous scholarship captures the significance of community-based youth workers in the lives of minoritized youth (Fusco, 2012; Ginwright, 2007), 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.
Youth workers located within community-based educational spaces hold a critical place in the lives of young people. Many scholars before me have attempted to center the work of community-based youth spaces as sites of possibility, healing, and places for youth to reflect and act upon the world in which they live (Eccles & Appleton-Gootman, 2001; Ginwright, 2007, 2009; Heath & McLaughlin, 1994; Kwon, 2013; Lakin & Mahoney, 2006; McLaughlin, 2000; Woodland, 2014). Findings from research on community-based educational spaces have shown that cultivating meaningful relationship building between youth and adult youth workers is significant. Scholars have also shown that this relationship fosters social capital, mentorship, political and social awareness, and nurtures identity building among young people (Fusco, 2012; Ginwright, 2007, 2009; Hirsch, Deutsch, & DuBois, 2011; McLaughlin, Irby, & Langman, 1994). Because many youth workers engage students outside of traditional school contexts, they are uniquely privy to the daily challenges youth encounter within their schools, neighborhoods, and in their homes (Ginwright, 2009). Yet, youth workers voices, pedagogical expertise, advocacy, and relationship to schools, families, and the broader context of educational policy are often neglected. Thus, 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. Through a lens of critical pedagogy, I explore the cultural work, pedagogical practices, and educational advocacy of youth workers who guide Black youth (ages 1218) in fostering strong academic and cultural identities within the context of community-based educational spaces amidst neoliberal restructuring within public education.
CRITICAL PERSPECTIVES ON COMMUNITY-BASED EDUCATIONAL SPACES AND YOUTH WORK[ERS]
Community-based spaces serving racially and economically marginalized youth have been instrumental in fostering academic achievement, building social capital, fostering social awareness, and facilitating organizing for social change in schools and neighborhoods (Akom, 2006; Ginwright, 2007; Ginwright & James, 2002; Kirshner, 2006; Kwon, 2013). Often referred to as afterschool programs or community-based youth organizations, I argue that the term community-based educational spaces provides a broader understanding of the full range of pedagogical practices employed within such settings. While labels may not fully capture all, as a term, community-based educational spaces elucidate the strength and agency of community. By decentering schools, community-based educational spaces (operated by non-school entities) exemplify the capacity of these programs to complement and supplement student learning and development. Although youth workers may wear many hats depending on the nature of their organization, I conceptualize youth workers as community-based educators that are responsible for carrying out the full range of pedagogical possibilities within community-based spaces. Broadening education and learning to include the social, emotional, cultural, and political dimensions of a young persons life, youth workers have the capacity to meet a wide range of needs in addition to academic achievement. As I illustrate in this article, youth workers at EE hold a special position in the lives of students as they are centered in the middle of young peoples educational, social, and political experiences in the world.
Young people residing in precarious urban communities attend schools that are marked by competing forms of economic, social, cultural, and academic inequality (Ginwright, Noguera, & Cammarota, 2004; Giroux, 2008; Ladson-Billings, 2006). Further, neoliberal restructuring of schooling in this country has created an environment where the privatization of public education shapes where students attend school and has created an intense climate of competition where achievement and accountability is solely measured by standardization and test scores (Apple, 2004; Buras, 2011; Lipman, 2011) Even more, neoliberalism in education reform has applied market based principles to public education (Harvey, 2005) resulting in the closing of public schools and takeover by corporate charter school networks (Henry & Dixson, 2015). Neoliberalism in education is rife with notions of individualism and meritocracy as it touts equal opportunity while ignoring the impacts of structural inequality caused by racism and class disenfranchisement (Spence, 2012). The practices of youth workers in community-based settings are also compromised by the impact of neoliberalism on education reform and continue to threatened the wide range of opportunities often located within community-based programming (Baldridge, 2014). Youth workers located in community-based contexts within politically and economically disenfranchised communities have been essential in guiding young people through various methods of resistance and organizing (Cannella & Noguera, 2006; Christens & Kirshner, 2011; Ginwright, 2007; HoSang, 2006; Kwon, 2013). The role of youth workers in community-based spaces as resistors and educators is essential to disrupting hegemonic narratives about Black communities and education.
RESEARCH CONTEXT AND METHODOLOGY
Founded in the late 1980s by a white male philanthropist, Educational Excellences (EE) original purpose was to help low-income students of color enter four-year universities. In 2002, under the leadership of the current executive director, Dr. Leah Davis, the organization expanded its purpose and describes itself as a college completion and youth development organization. There is a deliberate emphasis on academic excellence and youth development focusing on the social, emotional, and cultural lives of young people. Operating as a pipeline program, and located in a high-rise community building steps away from a popular busy street, students enter the organization in the sixth grade and are considered members until their graduation from college. EE serves Black youth from American, Caribbean, Latin, East African, and West African backgrounds. A little more than half of the youth populate are female. Divided into three specific divisionsMiddle School (MS), High School (HS), and Youth Leadership Development (YLD)EE provides afterschool programming for students through culturally relevant and youth-centered academic courses, as well as youth development courses, retreats, and individual counseling that assist youth socially, culturally, and emotionally. More specifically, EE provides youth with academic assistance, college preparation, state test preparation, psychological counseling, domestic and international service-learning opportunities, and youth development, which include courses on social identity, media literacy, and sexual health. During the weekday, middle and high school students come to EE during afterschool hours two to three times a week. One day is devoted to an academic course, while the other day is focused on youth development, college preparation, or leadership and community engagement.
As an insider, I chose a critical ethnographic approach for this study, as it was the most appropriate to learn, and in my case, relearn the cultural practices of participants by being immersed in the organization. A critical ethnographic approach seeks to gain insight and understanding by considering the totality of the entire social context in which participants operate (Dimitriadis & Weis, 2001). Critical ethnography attempts to create social change through research by uncovering inequalities and problematizing them (Kincheloe & McLaren, 2000; Madison, 2005). This epistemological frame was imperative for this study in order to understand how youth workers framing and practices with Black youth were shaped by these realities. Further, considering the current landscape of education privatization and its impact on community-based after school spaces, critical ethnography and its connection to critical pedagogy is necessary to fully understand the unique position youth workers occupy in the lives of young people.
DATA COLLECTION PROCEDURES AND ANALYSIS
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). I wrote field notes after each workday and during the workday when possible. 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. All individual interviews were semi-structured in-depth, open-ended, and lasted between 60 minutes and 150 minutes. A total of three focus groups, lasting between 60 minutes and 90 minutes were held with participants. Each focus group was formed based on the similarity of participants work in the program (e.g., all division directors, program coordinators, and volunteer coordinators).
My role as a youth worker at EE at the time of data collection was critical to this study and helped bolster my analysis. Considering my relationship to the site as a former youth worker, I was aware of my subjectivities and their potential impact on how I approached analysis of the data. To keep my biases at bay and increase reliability, I employed member-checking strategies by allowing youth workers to review their transcripts and shared my preliminary findings (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). After obtaining all data, using discourse analysis (Brown & Yule, 1983), I read and reread interview transcripts, observational notes, field notes, and data retrieved from organizational literature. Central to my analysis was an ongoing transcribing and coding process. First, I applied a descriptive coding process, in which I summarized attributes of a particular case with an easily identifiable label (Richards, 2005). Secondly, I used topic coding to label text as categories, followed by an analytical coding process in which I created new categories based on the concepts and ideas that emerged as I reflected on the data collected (Richards, 2005). In analyzing interviews, I took each transcript (individual and group interviews), reviewed statements that adequately described participants experiences, recorded relevant statements and eliminated repetitive ones; organized the meaning of these experiences into relevant themes; and used these themes to generate concepts in order to describe the experiences of participants. In addition to collecting narratives from youth workers in individual and group settings, in order to understand youth workers pedagogical practices, advocacy, and cultural work in greater depth, I observed programming and youth workers pedagogical practices. I paid close attention to their description of pedagogical approaches and strategies while observing professional development sessions, staff meetings, and afterschool classes as a participant observer. Additionally, I reviewed afterschool instructor and staff training handbooks and observed engagement between students and staff. I also paid close attention to the ways that youth workers discussed youth participants amongst themselves. The findings below illustrate EE youth workers understanding of their pedagogical practices situated within the broader climate of education, the processes they cultivate in order to guide youth in meaning making and action about social and political problems, and how youth workers advocate for students in their schools.
The pedagogical and cultural practices of youth workers at EE are pertinent to the academic and social success of its student participants. In the sections that follow, I highlight the pedagogical strategies of youth workers by capturing the ways in which they developed and executed pedagogical practices rooted in academic rigor, a philosophical imagining of Black youth as assets and agents (Ginwright & James, 2002) and culturally relevant and sustaining practices (Ladson-Billings, 1995; Paris, 2012). I begin by showing how youth workers were able to carry out these pedagogical practices despite the shifting political landscape undergirded by neoliberal ideology changing educational opportunity for youth. Next, I illuminate the ways in which youth workers at EE serve as cultural workers, assisting youth to identify who they are, in addition to structural and political problems in order to help them make sense and act upon the world in which they live. And, lastly, I discuss how youth workers operated as institutional agents (Stanton-Salazar, 2011) and advocates on behalf of students within their high schools and while navigating the college going process. Through the important and often unheard voices of youth workers, I illustrate how their pedagogical practices and process of engaging youth warrants closer attention in broader education discourse and approaches to teaching and learning.
THERE IS A POLITIC AT PLAY: COMBATING LOW EXPECTATIONS AND IMAGINING PEDAGOGICAL POSSIBILITIES
As former classroom teachers, school administrators, and lifelong community-based educators, EE staff members held strong and nuanced critiques of schools and the educational system. Low expectations, few resources, and the current culture and standardization concerned youth workers. Dr. Leah Davis, EEs executive director at the time of study and former school teacher and administrator, often expressed to staff that our kids do not have the luxury not to have high academic standards and expectations set for them. As a Black woman familiar with the system of public education and nonprofit youth development, Leah understood how setting low standards and expectations is rooted in deficit ideology and reflected in how the American public and school system imagines Black youth, their capabilities, and what is possible for their lives.
Walidah Thomas, the director of middle school programs and former classroom teacher, held extensive knowledge about educational processes and school choice in the city. While talking about the most pressing issues facing Black youth, Walidah, candidly spoke about many of the institutional and political obstacles in the city that make the schooling process for low-income Black youth more difficult than it should be. Below, Walidah describes her understanding of public education and how it shapes the lives of youth of color,
I said that there is the kind of institutional issue with public education and I think education as a system in general that kinda put our childrenchildren of colorat a disadvantage. Whether its the quality of teachers in the classroom or resource allocation or just the light in which young people are presented and dealt with in the schools.
Institutional issues with[in] public education was a common concern among all youth workers who oversaw EEs programming divisions or among those who had been a part of EE for several years. EE youth workers were extremely critical of the current moment of education privatization, standardization, and measuring academic achievement by test score data in the neoliberal context. Youth workers recognized that community-based educational spaces presented an opportunity for educators to foster learning and development in ways that were distinct from traditional school settings. Omari, who served as a program coordinator for the High School Division spent a great deal of time in an interview discussing the impact he sees on students as a result of having schools that focused solely on testing. He states, so what that creates is a malaise where kids dont have inquiry, they dont have the ability to think critically. They dont have the ability to ask a lot of questions because youre teaching them for this test because its critical to their success. Omari continues and makes a connection between the climate of hyper-testing and student and teacher morale:
And I think it goes to one of the roots of the issue is that many of these kids arent being given the proper education or the proper support at schools because of the nature of what the public education system or the education system in America in general has become. Its become you know can you pass this test? Theres no room for creativity. No room for an outlet, barely any room for arts or PE. I think that kids need to juxtapose their academic development, so you get these kids in class and A) theyre bored B) theres no motivation from the teachers because the teachers are teaching to a curriculum and C) everyone around them is feeling the same way I mean the anti-intellectualism that is becoming so increasingly obvious in America is filtering down to a really really young age.
The lack of critical questioning that occurs in schools as a result of the high-stakestesting climate stifles inquiry and thus true educational possibilities and freedom (Apple, 2002). As Freire (1970) describes, any situation in which some individuals prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence (p. 85). This act of violence not only stifles inquiry, but also creativity; it strips away curiosity and a desire to learn. Leah once shared, Its just like, your senseyour internal sense, your innate sense of curiosity has no bearing on the education you get from K through 12th [grade]. Thats crazy! So after while you dont give a damn!
Given the state of public education as a growing privatized system entrenched in neoliberal discourse and reform, there is a particular relationship to and reliance on racism, capitalism, and patriarchy which shapes educational policy, opportunity, and narratives about race, gender, and academic achievement, thus creating tangible effects on how education is delivered to youth of color (Dumas, 2016; Rhee, 2013). Considering this current context, youth workers at EE were committed to providing a vastly different environment and educational experience from what students received in school. While the overreliance on testing as markers of success and the constraints on classroom teachers stifled critical thinking according to youth workers, as pedagogues, they intentionally designed sustaining pedagogical practices rooted in social, cultural, and political experiences that were relevant to students lives and lived realities.
At Educational Excellence, the framing of Black youth is important to how the organization presents itself in media appearances, to potential funders, and to youth participants and their families. The imagining of youth within EE reflects asset rich language, e.g., scholars, college bound, etc., that can be heard throughout the space when talking to or about students. This language is also physically represented in the space on the walls of classrooms, in youth workers offices, and featured in organizational literature. According to youth workers, this type of language acknowledges and honors the talents, gifts, and strengths that young people already possess. From EEs perspective, these attributes are only enhanced by the organization. All potential staff, instructors, and volunteers of EE are expected to share this same imagining of young people. Imagining students from an asset rich framework and setting high expectations is an intentional facet of the programs philosophy. Youth workers at EE are also intentional about the adult staff they hire. While youth workers search for instructors and staff members that share their positive imagining of Black youth, they also seek adults who are able to counter the mundane rigidity of test-taking culture occurring within schools. And, most importantly, EE refuses to hire those who hold low expectations for Black youth or who are surprised by their intellect.
For example, when hiring part-time afterschool instructors, the last round of interviews includes a mock lesson and interview with several high school students. One evening, I ran into Monica, the Vice President of Programming, exiting a classroom where students were interviewing a teacher candidate for a high school course for an upcoming service-learning trip. As I approached Monica, she was shaking her head in disgust. She said, Whelp, shes not going to cut it! She went on to share that the teacher candidate was in such awe of how vocal and articulate students were. Monica and other staff members wanted instructors who were not surprised by the intelligence of Black youth. The following week, Monica and the students were thrilled to finally find an instructor who held high expectations for Black youth that were clearly reflected in her teaching practices, demeanor, and engagement with youth.
Youth workers at EE attempt to counter the low expectations set for Black youth within schools by creating a caring and supportive environment for students and making afterschool classes engaging and applicable to students lives. Even academic courses offered to help students with math and English are designed to be engaging, fun, and culturally relevant to students. According to Walidah Thomas, the director of all middle school programming and a former classroom teacher, the strength of EEs afterschool courses is rooted in the role that students play in their development. Walidah explains, Im asking them you know we're going to do a math class, you know were going to do an English class, is there anything you might want to learn about? EE strives to provide students with additional support in core academic subjects with engaging twists, such as English courses on Music & the Black Freedom Struggle and Womens Studies, or math courses in architecture or rollercoaster construction.
Division directors, Terry (high school) and Walidah (middle school), advise instructors to include hands-on activities, student centered discussions, and engage with the surrounding community as much as possible. In these ways, the division directors seek to provide pedagogical practices that are creative that will make their experience at EE drastically different from their experiences in school. For example, Walidah explains how she attempts to have students gain exposure to things they may not have access to and to experience traditional courses in more relevant ways that apply to their lives. In addition to their effort to create a more dynamic and engaging learning environment, EE youth workers set high expectations for their students. Walidah said that EE gives students an opportunity to be challenged in ways that many schools fail to do:
You know its about giving them the opportunity to be challenged in the space, so that its okay to challenge themselves as opposed to maybe setting low expectations. We set high expectations here and we expect them to meet those expectations. And everything that we do is built up behind that. One of the biggest social pressures that our students have to deal with is the fact that they are up against these very low expectations by their teachers individually [and] often, their schools . . . and then the system at large.
The prevailing narrative about Black youth is often deficit oriented, primarily focusing on what they are perceived to be lacking (Beatty, 2012). Thus, these racist and deficit narratives are reflected in the ways in which they are framed throughout educational and political discourse (Span & Rivers, 2012). These narratives largely shape the public imagining of who Black youth are and who they can become. Knowing this, a fundamental philosophy and expectation of EE staff, instructors, and volunteers is an imagining of Black youth that contrasts these larger deficit narratives. Further, making students aware of political and social problems, and positioning them as agents of change with the support of staff members is an integral component to the pedagogical work of youth workers at EE.
DEMYSTIFY WHATS REALLY HAPPENING OUT THERE: HELPING STUDENTS READ THE WORLD AS CULTURAL WORKERS
There is a critical lens undergirding most of EEs curriculum throughout academic and youth development classes. In my reading and understanding of critical pedagogy as a researcher and educator, I present youth workers at EE as cultural workers who guide youth to read the world around them and make sense of injustices in society and act upon them (Freire, 1970; Camangian, 2015). Through these courses and everyday interaction between youth workers and students, meaningful relationships are established and nurtured throughout students time in the program. Youth development courses on critical media literacy and social identity addresses social and political concerns in students schools and communities. The content of these courses are also determined by the experiences students have within their schools and communities. During youth retreats and afterschool courses, I observed youth workers imploring students to be engaged critical thinkers about the world around them. Monica Matthews, the director of all programming at EE who works directly under Leah, the executive director, expounds:
I think the biggest thing that we do here is demystify what's really happening out there, you know The experience of young people either being exposed to something that they've never been exposed to or having a dialogue about something that they've never talked about before and creates the opportunity for young people to question I feel like that is probably the most profound thing that happens here is that there's this demystification and unpacking of everything, everything.
This unpacking that Monica describes occurs in all afterschool classes when appropriate, but is most evident in the ninth-grade Youth Development and Leadership (YLD) social identity curriculum. As ninth graders, students take a social identity course where they are expos[ed] to the constructs of race, social class, religion, ethnicity, sexuality and gender according to Dr. Davenport, the creator of this curriculum. Dr. Davenport, a trained psychologist with research expertise in race, culture and mental health, discusses her reaction to the students responses after the course was piloted:
I said, are we actually doing the students a disservice by not talking about these constructs and then sending them off to these predominantly White colleges we need to be able to send them off with a firm grounding and understanding of who they are and where they come from so that once they go into these settings, they can thrive.
In this course, students examine how race and gender are socially constructed and contingent categories, and where issues of intersectionality (Collins, 1998) are emphasized. Youth workers help students unpack media images in order to become more engaged critical thinkers with the media sources they interact with on a daily basis.
In addition to weekly afterschool classes, youth engage in a rigorous research project on issues marginalized communities and youth face in other parts of the country and the world through EEs service learning program. Students have the opportunity to breakdown what they previously thought they knew about others, their communities, and social and political issues. Solomon, a youth development instructor working with boys in the program, calls Monica, the brain behind the service-learning component of EE, another critical piece to EEs curriculum. Solomon expressed that Monica is steadily deliberate about [the service learning program] and going to places in the Diaspora. Here, Solomon is pointing to Monicas effort to ensure that EE students, who are majority racially Black of various ethnic backgrounds, visit places throughout the world where Black people reside in order to understand their stories of resistance. Monica and EE leadership recognize that sending Black teenagers to Southern Africa, West Africa, South America, and Central America are once in a lifetime opportunities that will build appreciation for Black cultural traditions throughout the world. Students return from these trips questioning what they have learned about history and the world in their schools.
Monica and Dr. Davenport, along with every youth worker, discussed the importance of unpacking and questioning everything. Terry, the director of the high school program and has worked with EE for nearly 10 years, recalled talking to a student who asked him, Really, Mr. Terry? Do you have to analyze everything? His response to the student was, Yes, yes, you do. He laughed as he recalled this exchange in our interview, but it suggests that EE youth workers hold a deep understanding of the structural roadblocks set up for Black students in many social contexts and guiding them to see and subvert these structures. Participants often shared that part of the programs mission is to challenge students to think beyond what they previously thought was possible for themselves, their education, and futures.
Aligned with Ginwrights (2007) theorizing of critical social capitalan intergenerational relationship in which adults within community-based youth organizations assist youth to name the problems within their schools and communities as political problems and enact social changeyouth workers at EE understood that schooling which is not only devoid of critical thinking as a result of neoliberal shifts, but also as a place that is unsafe both physically and emotionally for Black youth. Nevertheless, they are able to establish meaningful relationships with students to create afterschool courses and service-learning opportunities for young people to study and make sense of the world they live in. In addition to aiding in critical consciousness building with youth, through these relationships youth workers are also able to advocate for youth and their families in the public-school system.
THE POWER OF RELATIONSHIP: ADVOCACY AND SUPPORT FOR STUDENTS
EE youth workers who have the most interaction with students, especially the division directors and coordinators, discussed major obstacles Black youth face in schools. At the same time, because of the extensive knowledge youth workers hold about schools in the area, they are also able to guide families and youth to schools they see as affirming spaces, with rigorous and culturally relevant academic opportunities. EE requires division directors and coordinators to have intimate knowledge about students performance in schools in order to keep track of their challenges and intervene for support and advocacy if necessary. EE requires that students bring their report cards and test scores. In addition to sharing report cards and test scores with youth workers, high school students also share their college application progress with youth workers in the HS Division. At this level, students often encounter bureaucratic obstacles with guidance counselors in their schools. These conflicts can have devastating results on students college decision-making process. I learned that youth worker involvement is essential when students are beginning their college application process. For example, Alexandria, who assists high school seniors prepare for college and EE alum (high school graduates), describes her frustration with the lack of resources available in many of the schools students attend. Alexandria discussed the infuriating practice that some schools employ where students are limited in the number of colleges they can apply to:
this is another one that drives me crazy; some guidance counselors in some schools will limit the number of colleges students will apply to, I guess because they dont feel like doing the paperwork Im like completely livid of these situations. I remember [student], one of these examples. So um, that girl, she can apply to anything! You know and she should! You know shes worked hard, this is her education, and she should have all the choice in the world. No, they limited her to I think it was 6.
Alexandria went on to say that she had a similar situation with another student. In both of these instances, the guidance counselor refused to release more than five transcripts for students. EE requires that students apply to a minimum of 10 schools. Alexandria intervened and called the colleges students applied to and requested that they accept an unofficial copy of students transcripts because of the circumstances. Fortunately, both of these students ended up at reputable colleges of their choice. Alexandria recognized that these obstacles were linked to broader institutional constraints related to funding and the fact that so many guidance counselors are serving an overwhelming number of students with little support. Even still, the constraints students experience within their schools are often too challenging and complex to navigate without the support of adults who are both knowledgeable and able to become what Stanton-Salazar (2011) calls institutional agents in order to advocate on their behalf.
In another instance, I observed a conversation between Leah, the executive director, and high school senior, Sierra. Sierra shared that her college guidance counselor failed to submit transcripts or teachers recommendation letters to the colleges she applied to and was unresponsive to her requests. Sierra began receiving phone calls and emails from colleges asking for missing application materials. Appalled by what she was hearing, Leah told Sierra she needed to address the counselor with her parent and also make Belinda, the high school coordinator, aware of the problem so that she could intervene if necessary.
This is one example of many where students come to EE and complain about unfair policies in their schools that can potentially have life-altering effects on their education. Here, it is clear that the relationship fostered between students at EE and youth workers is valuable for students and their families as they navigate complicated and sometimes highly unfair school systems. Consistent with research literature about youth in community-based settings, meaningful and authentic relationship building between youth workers and youth is important social networks that fosters youth agency (Ginwright, 2007; Strobel, Kirshner, ODonoghue, & McLaughlin, 2008; Woodland, Martin, Hill, & Worrell, 2009).
In addition to youth workers serving as buffers and in some cases intervening on behalf of students, youth workers also shared stories about their relationships with schools and families. EE often contacted school athletic team coaches regarding student athletes, teachers, or administrators to discuss students grades, balancing time between EE and other extracurricular activities, or to gain clarity on students personal challenges. On one evening, Walidah explained that student athletes often found it difficult to balance EE requirements for afterschool courses while playing a sport and balancing academic course work. While many worked alongside EE to ensure that academics were a priority, obstacles did emerge on occasion. During separate interviews with Walidah and Michaela, a program coordinator for the MS Division, they both expressed a desire for schools to understand that they were not a competitor and wanted to work with schools to ensure that students were supported. Walidah and Michaela assisted middle school students and their families in choosing high schools. The high school choice process is quite complex and families require a lot of support to manage the process. Below, Walidah shares a conversation with a students principal,
I remember theres a student whos a sophomore now. And, super smart guy, super smart kid, right? he was in a very small school It was a middle school that was going to ramp up to a high school he had the academic record to go anywhere he wanted and so thats what we were pushing with the family to kind of stretch his window a little bit. And we offered him all of these other options that we thought would be good and he would do well at based on his interests the principal of the school he was in was pushing for him to stay The principal actually called me and said, I dont understand why youre advising my student to leave our school. I said, well actually, lets back up a second. Hi, how are you? Im Walidah Thomas, Im the director of this program, but you probably already knew that since you called me. Um so another thing we probably want to clear up is that clearly this student is not your student, as he is a member of this program as well, so lets go back to saying that hes our (emphasis) student. And I think we both have his best interest at heart at least I would presume so. And so from my perspective, my responsibility to our (emphasis) student is to advise his family that they have options based on his ability and his interests. And please be clear at the end of the day, that decision ultimately rests with the family. I can understand how you have your own perspective on thatlike I said before I know you have this childs best interest at heart, so you can present what you think from your perspective to the family, and I will present what I think is in this childs best interest from my perspective, and we will allow family to make that decision. So, Im more than happy to work with (emphasis) you and you can come visit the program.
Walidah shared that the conversation she relayed above was done in an appropriate and professional way, and they were able to work through their disagreement. What I find compelling about Walidahs remarks is her positioning of her role as equally important in the guidance of the student they shared. Highly trained and formally educated, youth workers at EE had an above average understanding of the school system which made them aware of not only the obstacles students faced but it also made them cognizant of how those challenges shaped their work with youth and the nature of their organization. Classroom teachers and youth workers are often pitted against each other. However, it is imperative that educational scholarship captures the nuances of the relationship between classroom and community-based educators (and between schools and community-based spaces as well). Education scholars must understand that both are situated within, compromised, and implicated by the same educational political context in which their practices are constrained by neoliberal education restructuring and are incentivized to frame minoritized youth of color from deficit-oriented perspectives (Baldridge, 2014).
When students undergo hardships in their schools or within their families, staff members mediate in whatever capacity they can. One day, during staff lunchtime, which occurs about an hour before youth begin arriving for afterschool courses, Destiny, a former EE youth participant in her first year of college, came to speak with Terry and Dr. Davenport. She had been attending a college in a rural town and experienced social hardships and culture shock. As I observed, it appeared that Destiny came to EE to seek youth workers opinion on leaving her college and transferring to one of the privately operated for-profit colleges advertised on television. Destiny desperately wanted to be back in a bigger city. Four youth workers immediately swarmed around her. Though they acknowledged her cultural struggle at her current institution, and they encouraged her to finish her last semester and then transfer to another institution more suitable for her needs. Monica, whom I had interviewed earlier that same day, found me as Destiny was talking to Terry and said, Now, this is the power of relationship. Monica explained that Destinys coming to EE was a testament to her relationship with youth workers and the program. Because Destiny did not seek guidance from a staff member at her college or from anyone in her family really struck Monica. Destinys and Bekeles experiences shared at the beginning of this article speak to the ways in which youth workers established meaningful relationships with families and students as they advocated for them within schools and helped to negotiate obstacles within a variety of institutional settings.
Youth workers at Educational Excellence strive to create a counter-space where youth analyze the world around them and participate in engaging student-centered classes nested in high expectations. This demonstrates the asset-rich imagining of Black youth by EE youth workers who set high expectations and rigorous academic opportunities for students to become well-rounded critical scholars. Coupled with youth workers vigilance of students academic and emotional state, they are indeed important resources and advocates for students. The pedagogical practices and cultural work of these educators is critical to the holistic development of students at EE. These educators invest in students personal, academic and social lives. Thus, youth workers are integral actors in the educational, cultural, and political development of Black youth at Educational Excellence.
DISCUSSION: REIMAGINING YOUTH WORK[ERS]
As youth workers in a community-based afterschool program, EE staff members hold an important place in the academic and social lives of youth participants. Based on findings discussed in this article, a combination of factors contributes to the important role that youth workers play in the lives of students. From their vantage point, EE 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. Youth workers at EE were deeply impacted by the ways in which their students morale was shaped by their schooling experiences. As such, youth workers were able to revive students through culturally responsive, sustaining, 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.
Providing structured opportunities for Black youth to analyze the conditions in which they live is an essential component to the culture that youth workers created for student participants. Aligned with previous research findings that suggest that having youth of color, particularly those residing in challenging urban contexts, identify and process political and social problems removes the blame often bestowed upon them for academic and social hardships (Ginwright, 2007). Further, it establishes a process that helps locate political and social problems to then act upon them to create social change (Anderson & Larson, 2009; Ginwright, 2007, 2009). The high expectations that were established for youth at EE were anchored in rigorous pedagogical practices that were situated in relevant content that tapped into the lived realities of youth in the program. As pedagogues, youth workers at EE were intentional in designing courses, building curricula, and counseling youth in ways that were rooted in high expectations and critical pedagogy, and also anchored within an asset affirming framework. While previous studies have highlighted the value of having positive adult mentors and role models for Black youth (Brooms, 2016; Jackson, Sealey-Ruiz, & Watson, 2014; Woodland, 2014), the potential depth of the youth-workeryouth relationship is often overlooked as a critical relationship that supports students as they navigate the changing nature of public education, racial hostility, and disenfranchised communities. Education scholars have discussed the social capital attained in this relationship as an essential outcome of the youth-workeryouth relationship (Akom, 2006; Ginwright, 2007; Stanton-Salazar, 2011). Yet, absent from this discussion are the intimate ways in which youth workers understand the relationship and interconnectedness between community, school, and family in the lives of youth. As many youth workers within community-based spaces greet youth during non-school hours, they are uniquely positioned in the lives of students with access to their lives at home, school, and within their neighborhoods. As shown through the story of Bekele shared at the beginning of this article, youth workers deep relationships with youth and their families allowed for a particular kind of care and advocacy that should be anchored and utilized in broader discussion of education innovation and policy.
In addition to the relationship building that occurs between youth workers and youth within community-based educational spaces, the pedagogical practices of youth workers are often unrecognized and underappreciated. As suggested earlier in this article, due to the narrow ways in which education is limited to traditional school settings, those deemed as educators are often limited to classroom teachers; therefore, youth workers are not often legitimized as educators. The high expectations and rigorous courses implemented by youth workers at EE capture the multiple approaches to teaching and learning that occurs within community-based spaces. In particular, for Black civil society organizations, a reverence for academic knowledge, cultural understanding, and knowledge of self and the world has always been an essential facet of youth work within Black communities (Akom, 2003; Ginwright & James, 2002; McKenzie, 2008). 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 complementary 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. In order to accomplish this, there first needs to be recognition of community-based spaces as vital sites of learning and growth for young people. Second, with regard to practice, traditional school spaces and community-based organizations can be in partnership and fully integrated into the lives of the young people they share. As youth workers in this study attempted, opening communication between administrators, classroom teachers, and community-based leaders and youth workers is an important step in this process.
For young people attending inadequate schools located in underserved marginalized communities, community-based spaces have not only become sites of academic achievement, critical social awareness, and organizing, but also places of resilience, healing, and redemption for Black youth (Ginwright, 2009; Woodland, 2014). As sites of whole child development and healing, community-based educational spaces are vital in the range of services they can provide to meet the needs of youth. Numerous education scholars have long argued that schools cannot be responsible for solving all social problems. For Black youth in particular, schools have never been the only institution or space to support their learning and development. As such, strengths located within the community, whether they are organizations, organic spaces, or adults outside of schools, are vital to young people. Yet more attention must be given to individuals who work tirelessly in these spaces in close relationship with schools, who are overlooked as educators. Considering that youth workers engaged in community-based nonprofit settings often have precarious relationships to and with the state (i.e., lack of control over funding patterns, beholden to boards and corporations, etc.) (Gilmore, 2007), it must be noted that the important work of youth workers and community-based spaces should not and does not absolve the state of its responsibility to provide structural support to disenfranchised youth and communities.
While scholars of youth work have discussed the challenges in legitimizing youth work as a profession (Fusco, 2012), more empirical scholarship on the experiences and practices of youth workers are a key component to their legitimization. The families and young people that are served daily within community-based programs can speak to the critical role youth workers play in their lives, academic achievement, and understanding of the world. Yet, broader education discourse ignores youth workers insight and strategies engaging youth. There must be a dislodging of schools as the only site of learning, and of the classroom teacher as the only educator. Moreover, as shown throughout this article, the pedagogical practices and curricula developed by youth workers engaged young people in ways that schools were unable due to a number of constraints induced by the ongoing privatization and marketization of public education.
Although the current model of education reform in this country does little to include teachers, families, or students, they at least are a part of the discourse. Youth workers and community-based educational spaces are often on the periphery or ignored all together. Acknowledging and engaging youth workers in broader discourse is essential as they are also stakeholders and education providers who hold a significant position in lives of students. Making this shift requires an ideological shift from recognizing classroom teachers as the only bearers of knowledge. It also requires a reimagining of youth workers as pedagogues and of community-based educational spaces as legitimate places of academic, cultural, and political support for minoritized youth.
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