Asset-based approaches to working with young people
By Tim Evans - 12 March 2020
If we believe that young people are "worth their weight in gold", then we have to live and breathe it in our practice and the way we think about them as a society. That starts with what we believe about young people and their communities. Do we see them as dependent on us to be able to flourish? Are we are working with them because they are disadvantaged, involved in crime, excluded, unemployed, carrying knives ... because they have problems?
If we adopt an asset-based approach to our work, our practice starts with asking different questions. Instead of asking 'deficit questions' about what's 'wrong', who needs 'fixing', what professional intervention young people 'need', we ask
'asset questions' around what's strong that can fix what's wrong. So instead of describing young people and communities in terms of being 'at risk', an asset-based approach thinks of young people as being 'at promise.'
'I knew from being a neighbourhood organiser that you could never change people or neighbourhoods with the basic proposition that what we need to do is fix them. What made for change was communities that believed they had capacities, skills, abilities and could create power when they came together as a community.'John McKnight
So what goes with this asset-based approach to youth work?
1. Find the connectors
These are young people who can provide connections to other young people, who know the people in their community, who get other people involved, who don't have their own agenda but want the best for others and their neighbourhood. These are more than just volunteers, their passion is to invest in the (other) young people of their neighbourhood. Our job as youth workers is to find them and invest in them as peer neighbours to young people.
2. Creating places of safety, hospitality and welcome
W all need places where we feel valued, heard and known as an individual, where positive relationships get built both with peers and adults. Asset-based youth work creates places where young people can talk about issues and problems, build confidence, get support to overcome the barriers and challenges they face, a place where they can laugh and be young.
3. Helping young people discover and harness their passions and abilities
Asset-based youth work helps young people to find out what they care about and value, what they are passionate about, what they are good at, how their personality works, and helps them participate and where possible lead. That might be hobbies or interests, a cause, change they want to see in their community, something they'd like to try. Sometimes young people discover this in the doing rather than thinking, so doing 'life as it is lived' together can be a really important part of this discovery, sometimes aided by naming things for young people that you have observed in them which they haven't yet seen themselves.
4. Sharing and connecting with others
A powerful agent of change is to do this intergenerationally, where young people find common interest with others in their community and participate together. Youth Social Action has been a powerful agent for us in enabling young people not just to do things with and for others, but to build relationships, share stories, wisdom, perspective and understanding between generations. This begins to create a different story about young people in communities where others get to see that young people are worth their weight in gold. In turn this gives young people self confidence enabling them to believe in their own value.
Celebrate what young people are good at, what they have achieved. Find ways to bring people together to see the treasure in neighbourliness, to see each other as assets, to see all that is good. This creates and inspires hope and living hopeful lives is crucial to well-being.
'Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.'Arundhati Roy
The Worth their weight in Gold campaign is about rallying people to view young people differently and to invest in them. True investment requires youth workers to see young people as being 'at promise', to provide safe spaces and support, to get to know young people and what makes them unique, having good life conversations with them, helping them to find things they like, enjoy, care about and are good at, and to build community connections so that the circle of resources, support, interests, activities and relationships are widened for young people not just for their benefit but that of the wider neighbourhood. This call to action is not just for youth workers, but for policy-makers, funders, churches, communities, agencies to ask a different question. If young people are 'at promise', are worth their weight in gold, then let's support and invest in them - not because they are a 'problem' but because of what they can become.