August 17, 2021

Relationship Building in Career Equity Youth Work

Categories: Equity, Research
San Francisco Women's Building

For youth serving professionals in community based organizations–also known as youth workers–building relationships with young people is an unremarkable, yet foundational element of the trade. This blog entry is based upon our ongoing partnerships with the Equitable Futures Innovation Network, Digital Nest, New Door Ventures and the Bresee Foundation–a youth participatory action research collaboration focused on building career equity networks. These partnerships have reminded us of the critical role relationship work plays in building sustainable and effective career equity programming. This essay is the result of a collaborative conversation between researchers (Miguel N. Abad and Phebe Chew) and youth workers (Xitlali Cabadas, Maddie Deegan Davernport, Fatima Gutierrez and Valentina Velasquez) to surface the often overlooked labor of relationship building for youth workers in the career equity field.

Out of school time career equity programs are a subset of youth work. Youth work describes the diverse youth-serving professions contained within non profit, social work and juvenile justice institutions. While it has much overlap and alignment with conventional classroom teaching, youth work is distinct from schooling. The goals of youth work tend to be less targeted on academic instruction and outcomes, and more focused on promoting positive youth development, leadership development, career development, political engagement, community service, and artistic expression. In terms of practice, youth work often relies more heavily on informal interactions between adults and youth in order to build trust and caring relationships. As such, youth workers tend to wear many hats simultaneously: as counselors, coaches, mentors, teachers, social workers and community organizers.

At the same time, youth work tends to be unstandardized, and the profession enjoys little institutional legitimacy or recognition compared to more formal modes of education such as classroom teaching. In comparison, youth work has cultivated much higher levels of institutional support outside of the United States, such as in England and New Zealand where youth work as a profession holds more parity with classroom teaching in terms of pay, career stability, and status.

For career equity focused youth workers, their practice tends to be acutely focused on addressing professional and career opportunity gaps. While there is much focus on how opportunity gaps are manifested within the classroom, these opportunity gaps are also the everyday reality of young adults and transitional aged youth who are attempting to access careers and industries that offer the potential of a living wage. As opportunity brokers, career equity youth workers play important roles in constructing career pathways for young people from structurally vulnerable communities. By directly connecting young people to professional employment opportunities, career equity youth workers intervene on some of the structural constraints that lead to the exclusion of the most marginalized young people within many professional industries.

For front line youth workers at our organizations, distanced programming introduced acute challenges for relationship building. While the importance of relationship building is not a new topic within community based youth programming, the pandemic has served as a powerful reminder of not only its centrality, but also the overlooked labor that relationship building requires. This brief blog entry highlights how relationship building among career equity youth workers represents more than a mere truism or platitude, but rather a specific kind of labor. The labor of relationship building is characterized by a collection of sophisticated pedagogical techniques, interpersonal competencies, emotional capacities, and commitments to social justice. As such, effective and successful career equity youth workers demonstrate how relational competencies are essential for supporting young people in their professional journeys. Here we illustrate how this labor surfaces three important elements of relationship building in career equity youth work: the centrality of care, the need for responsiveness, and its mundane quality.

Relationship Building is About Care

Indigenous scholars have taught us how we are already in relation with one another whether we choose to recognize them or not. In the past year, our partners at Digital Nest, New Door Ventures and the Bresee Foundation all point to the importance of engaging in what Kim TallBear has described as “caretaking relations”, and the need to “pay attention to our relations and obligations in the here and now” and our “obligations across the generations.” Said differently, TallBear asks us to rethink our relationships with one another as ethical and political stances focused on making kin.

Xitlali Cabadas, a program manager at Digital Nest based in Watsonville, California feels career equity educators sometimes need to set aside the official programmatic script in order to participate in caretaking relations with our youth interlocutors. As an educator, as well as a local organizer, Xitlali underlines how care requires that our organizations and our youth workers engage in materially and affectively responsive ways to fully understand and address the needs of youth participants. We can’t expect to build relationships solely based on what we want or what we would like for members to do. We can talk to them about careers and gaining these skills all we want, but at the end of the day, they’ve got a lot more going on. That’s how you really build genuine relationships–by going beyond what is expected programmatically.

Maddie Deegan Davenport, a program manager at New Door Ventures in the Bay Area, echoes the ways in which the pandemic has provided an important reminder of the centrality of care in building meaningful relationships with young people. She notes how the virtual setting reminds us to take seriously the basic needs of young people. For example, the pandemic has amplified many of the structural vulnerabilities that the young people we work with are exposed to because of lack of access to food, PPE, housing, and physical and mental health care.

While programmatic deliverables are undoubtedly important for the long-term sustainability of non-profit organizations focused on supporting the career aspirations of young people, how might we ensure that our obligations and commitments are in alignment with the material needs and concerns of structurally vulnerable communities? Answering such a question might move us to consider “caretaking” as a key programmatic deliverable and an indicator for building and sustaining the relationships that our organizations’ success rely upon.

Relationship Building Is Responsive

While much has been written about how distanced learning setups have transformed classroom dynamics in the past year, they have also had heavy implications for community based and out of school time youth programs. Zoom-centered interactions have produced a contradictory set of circumstances for youth workers, especially amongst our collaborators. On the one hand, our partners have noted how distanced models have enabled some young people to participate in programs who would otherwise not have been able to due to factors such as lengthy afterschool commutes. At the same time, our educator-collaborators also point out the toll of our virtually mediated relationships.

Fatima Gutierrez, the Workforce Development Coordinator at the Bresee Foundation based in Los Angeles, California, describes the limitations of building relationships over Zoom–especially with youth who are “zoomed out” by the virtual space–and highlights the importance of space and geography in relationships. Fatima recounted an instance when youth lingered after 1:1 meetings with her, seeking opportunities to interact with other youth in person after a year in the virtual setting. Fatima’s reflections offer insight for future programming regarding building in-person opportunities for youth who had otherwise only met over Zoom to meet one another in physical spaces.

Being “zoomed out” is not only a euphemism for lack of engagement, but also how the pandemic has presented immense challenges for youth workers to orchestrate meaningful opportunities for building caring and significant relationships between all young people and adults. Fatima reminds us of how facilitating programs is not only a challenge for relationship building between adults and youth, but just as importantly among young people. If and when programs are able to resume in person meetings, she highlights the need for youth workers to prioritize all forms of relationship building within our lesson plans and program structures.

Furthermore, Maddie notes how she’s learned to adapt to the fatigue and formality of Zoom mediated interactions and how these circumstances have led to alternative ways to connect with youth participants. One of the silver linings of the pandemic, Maddie notes, has been the desire among some young people to seek out genuine social connections through different avenues. While Maddie would often communicate with youth participants through text messages, the pandemic seems to have made her youth interlocutors more willing to engage in unplanned phone calls and check-ins. Because youth work is so intertwined with relationship building, our partners remind us of the need to respond dynamically as educators by recognizing opportunities even under constraining circumstances.

Relationship Building Is Mundane

Much of relationship building with young people occurs in moments of passing before, after, and in between formal program activities. Distanced programming has significantly curtailed the opportunities for youth workers and youth participants to interact and build deeper relationships in those informal and serendipitous contact zones that are less constrained by program specifics.

Xitlali highlights the challenges of many other youth workers who have had to make do without the informal and unstructured relationship building moments. While mundane is often a synonym for dullness, mundanity can also be closely associated with spontaneity. Xitlali observes how spontaneity, excitement and improvisation are intimately connected to the slow, mundane and unremarkable movement of relationship building. Over time, it is the collection of consistent, mundane activities and unplanned breakthroughs that characterize the long term and sustainable forms of relationship building that youth work at its best strives for.

As such, our educator-collaborators have had to build in more structured opportunities to foster moments of informality in the form of extended icebreakers or more consistent and frequent personal check-ins. At the same time, structure and scaffolding cannot entirely reproduce the serendipitous and mundane moments where our relationships live and breathe. These methods of relationship building too often are afterthoughts in our job descriptions and difficult to translate within annual reports to our supporters and funders. In the context of Fatima, Xitlali, and Maddie’s work, relationships are fostered in those unremarkable, quotidian moments before and after programs, during unplanned office visits, and the myriad of fleeting, humanizing moments we share and produce together.

Relationship Building is Labor that Needs to be Recognized

Our partnership work across organizations has underlined how relationship building is an intentional practice and skillful work that deserves to be understood on its own terms as an important indicator in itself–not merely as an end to more conventional program outcomes. From these insights with Xitlali, Fatima, and Maddie, we get a picture of how the realities of their work during the pandemic reveal the often invisible labor of relationship building in youth work. It is clear that relationships make possible the difficult work of supporting the career development needs of young people across organizations. Successful relationship building is a function of a unique collection of competencies, commitment and emotional sophistication. While our services and program offerings are often what initially attract young people into our spaces, it is the relationships that we build over time that enable us to sustain meaningful work with our respective communities.

Guest post by: Miguel N. Abad, Xitlali Cabadas, Phebe Chew, Maddie Deegan Davenport, Fatima Gutierrez and Valentina Velasquez

Miguel N. Abad is a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Equitable Futures Innovation Network (Twitter handle: @abadpraxis)

Xitlali Cabadas is a Program Manager at the Digital Nest

Phebe Chew is a Graduate Student Researcher with the Equitable Futures Innovation Network

Maddie Deegan Davenport is a Program Manager with New Door Ventures

Fatima Gutierrez a Workforce Development Coordinator with the Bresee Foundation

Valentina Velasquez is a CalSERVES Americorps VIP Fellow with the Digital Nest

“San Francisco San Francisco Women’s Building” by waltarrrrr is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0