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On Words and Meaning

In this week’s blog, Charlee Bewsher from Youth Work Unit – Yorkshire & Humber looks at the language of youth work and whether we need to be clearer on the translation of work with young people.

Fans of the Oxford English Dictionary will be aware that new words enter our vocabulary almost every day. Those who listen to Radio 4’s I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue, will know that old words are given new meanings. And those who have worked in multi-disciplinary teams know that the same words will have a different meaning for each related profession. Don’t believe me, ask a social worker, teacher and youth worker to define outreach and you will get three different answers. Or participation. For Sports England it means taking part in a sporting activity.  Under article 12 of the UN Rights of the Child, it would be defined as actively engaging in decision making processes on issues that impact on your life.

So it is not surprising that words and phrases used for years in a youth work setting have developed new meanings when used in different contexts. Take positive activities. For years positive activities was one of many tools in the armoury of youth workers, along with outdoor education, art, trips, pool, the tuck shop, quizzes, football, painting nails, cooking, etc (the list is endless). These tools were used to engage young people, giving a platform for the real work – informal education – to take place. Now it appears that positive activity is an end in itself and educating is no longer a requirement. Social action has experienced a similar re-branding; it no longer seems to mean having identified something you feel needs to change in society, developing new ideas and/or processes either individually or with others, to improve things and reform society. It now seems to mean volunteering in any project that may or may not be on an issue you feel needs reforming and that may or may not bring social reform.

We have mentioned before that Informal Education has been rebranded as non-formal or character education. On close inspection, character building has quite a narrow focus, developing soft skills for employment and citizenship, whereas informal education tries to provide young people with enough information to make informed choices as they transition into adulthood covering a range of topics or issues that impact upon their lives. These topics include positive relationships, risky behaviours, emotional well-being, health, life styles – again an almost endless list (and those old enough will shout ‘YOUTH WORK CURRICULUM’).

If words have power based on what they mean and how others interpret and respond to them, is it time for youth work to reclaim our professional language? Do we need to be clear on the meanings and what we can achieve through their application? Tools are great, but that is all they are – a tool; and a tool is only as effective as the individual who wields it.

Charlee Bewsher, Youth Work Unit – Yorkshire & Humber

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