Außerschulische Bildung 2/2020

What’s politics got to do with it?

European youth work programmes and the development of critical youth citizenship

Das diesem Text zugrundeliegende Diskussionspapier von Yael Ohana, herausgegeben von JUGEND für Europa, versucht die Debatten rund um die politische Dimension der Jugendarbeit zu beschreiben und in Kontext zueinander zu stellen. Neben einer tiefgründigen Analyse und Bestandsaufnahme schlägt das Papier konkrete Handlungsfelder vor, um kritisches Denken, zivilgesellschaftliches Handeln, Autonomie und Demokratiebewusstsein junger Menschen zu fördern. Auch wenn das Papier bereits vor der Corona-Krise verfasst wurde, greift es aktuelle Problem- und Fragestellungen auf, die in der momentanen Situation verstärkt zum Vorschein kommen. Die aufgeführten Handlungsempfehlungen erhalten hierdurch eine zusätzliche Relevanz und Dringlichkeit. von Yael Ohana
The smartest way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum. Noam Chomsky (1998)

European youth work „European youth work“ should be understood in a broad sense, as the work with young people (mainly of an educational nature) which a) considers ‘Europe’ or ‘European issues’ as a key framework consideration or context, and/or b) uses funding from European youth work programmes or is organised centrally by one of the European youth work support institutions, and/or c) takes place between different countries in Europe (international) or in one country in Europe (national with a European dimension), and/or d) is conducted by organisations whose capacity has been built by European youth work programmes. In our understanding, any combination of at least two of these criteria would qualify a youth work project as European youth work. interpreted as political is under threat. It is becoming increasingly difficult to address sensitive and controversial issues of the day without negative consequences for individuals and organisations. In an increasing number of countries, including those in the EU, doing so could result in your organisation being excluded from funding, you yourself being accused of over-stepping your mandate as an educator and people in positions of authority withdrawing their trust. This is a political issue in and of itself. For many in the community of practice, „European youth work community of practice“ should be understood as being made up of all those actors and stakeholders who consider themselves part of the European youth work sector, including, among others, youth leaders, project carriers, youth organisations, ministries responsible for youth and civil servants responsible for youth policy, European institutions and their programmes of youth work support, National Agencies of the Erasmus+ and other youth-relevant education and mobility programmes, multipliers and youth activists associated with the institutional programmes, trainers and their representative associations or the pools they form and even young people themselves. an important element of their professional and vocational identities is engaging young people meaningfully as citizens, impacting not only their civic and political acumen but also their political agency.

In this context, it has become imperative for the European youth work community of practice to question what the political dimension of European youth work is, why it is necessary to think about it and work on it and how it is possible to do this in their day-to-day practice with young people in European projects.

Doing so raises six existential dilemmas for European youth work, as follows:

  1. Project Europe: as an aspirational project to advance human rights, the rule of law and democracy. Europe has come to be increasingly invisible in European youth work.
  2. Purpose: European youth work should contribute to the emergence of a sense of responsibility for what happens in, around and because of Europe. This is increasingly absent from the structural frameworks regulating, funding and providing capacity development support for youth workers and youth leaders conducting youth work from a local through to a European level.
  3. Political & social change: youth active engagement in socio-political causes and change. This is no longer considered a given good nor is it favoured, funded or extensively supported. It is the result of the closing space for civil society to act as a platform for consensus-building around politically sensitive issues.
  4. Participation: in other words, enabling the civic awareness and competence that initiates young people into active citizenship. This is no longer a priority topic in European youth work projects; many power asymmetries are even being replicated in the context of face-to-face youth work activities.
  5. Power and agency: namely, competences for civic engagement and the power of young people to address injustice. European youth work projects are strong on personal development but less strong on supporting the real world agency of young people; they focus insufficiently on how to put learning into practice. This is arguably due to a lack of competence and confidence on the part of youth workers and leaders in working on the political.
  6. Pedagogy: specifically, how the methodological practice is conceptualised. Evaluation and research show that youth work projects are most effective at engaging young people in motivating experiences and authentic communication with their peers, but there are limits in their capacity to deliver deeper processes of co-creation, participation and social transformation, particularly in short-term projects.

Unless European youth work reconsiders its own ‘politics’ and works towards the development of a broad, open and permanently re-evaluated consensus on what it seeks to promote and defend through its interventions – in other words, unless it develops a principled stance towards its own idea of itself – it will be relegated to nothing more than ‘lively debate within a politically predetermined spectrum of acceptable opinion’ (vgl. Chomsky 1998).

Workshop zum Thema „Blended Learning“ im AdB-Projekt „SemiFit on Citizenship Education” (Erasmus+) im Oktober 2019 in Trento, Italien Foto: Stefanie Mayrwörger

The time is ripe for radical renewal in the way European youth work conceptualises its role and purpose, as well as in the way it executes that mission. Radical renewal does not refer to revolution. It is a deliberate and reasoned paradigm change. It requires the idea of working within current systems to consolidate those aspects that already work well, rethinking and changing those that do not and introducing new aspects that can fill identified gaps.

Nine areas of intervention, understood as ‘starting points’, are relevant for jump-starting this process of renewal:

  1. A transparent and joined up debate: a more inclusive and open European debate on the political and civic mission of European youth work and how policy can support this mission is urgently needed. This debate must avoid previous pitfalls – being closed, inward-looking and self-referential and running parallel to actual policymaking without having an influence.
  2. Facilitated peer learning: youth work practitioners need their own peer learning and networking opportunities. At the the same time, they need opportunities for inter-disciplinary exchange (e.g. with other disciplines from the youth policy triangle, i.e. policy and research, and with other sectors, including formal education, private philanthropy, development cooperation, etc.). This will foster a focus on the political and civic mission of youth work, and result in the emergence of innovative practices for its implementation under today’s political, cultural, social and economic conditions.
  3. More and better competence development opportunities and offers: the ‘political’ needs to once again become a fundamental framework and content for European youth work. This would require, among other things, the operationalisation of existing competence models into training-specialised offers; the reintroduction of regular ‘standardised’ training courses for youth workers and youth leaders using the European programmes to learn the basics of critical emancipatory pedagogy and how to adapt it to the current socio-political conditions relevant to the European youth work projects receiving funding and training on the civic and political mission of European youth work for managers and project officers working in the European youth work programmes.
  4. Systematic evaluation and research: mapping key approaches as well as their effectiveness to the political and other themes being addressed in European youth work projects is essential. Explicit enquiries into whether and how those conducting European youth work construct it as political and also into the relationship between the impacts identified and the pedagogical approaches in use could be included in established youth work evaluation processes. Conducting such enquires as participatory action youth research involving the young people concerned would provide depth and meaning and avoid such research becoming sterile data collection.
  5. Fit-for-purpose funding: funding approaches need to take into account new and unprecedented challenges to efforts for progressive social change as initiated and implemented by young people. Structural change in the funding operations of key stakeholders is necessary, including efforts to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy, to develop more creative outreach strategies and to favour a culture of dialogue and communication with grantees.
  6. Educational innovation: pedagogy in European youth work needs to be politically explicit and to focus on critical engagement with themes and processes inherent to the health of democracy, rule of law and human rights, locally, nationally and at the European level. The power dynamics that are inherent in the positioning of young people in projects must be a key quality criterion for assessment when it comes to grant-making as well as a key question for the pedagogical approach.
  7. Youth work content: European youth work projects need to embrace political themes like ‘power’, Europe/European integration, politics and policy, democracy, rule of law and human rights, as well as contemporary domestic and European controversies and dilemmas of contemporary society and history in an open and non-judgemental way. European youth work project programmes must encourage potential users to present projects that take up controversial issues and explore alternative narratives about European identity and about visions for Europe and European integration, rather than turning them away.
  8. Co-creation of youth work with young people: young people need to be in the lead in European youth work projects, supported by others (professionals, adult volunteers, advisors), and not merely consumers of project activities offered to them by organisations that work on behalf of young people and perpetuate their own existence. This requires a ‘de-professionalisation’ of the project funding application process, but does not have to mean less quality in terms of the process, results and impact of such projects – rather, the opposite.
  9. Europeanisation of youth work: European youth work needs to continue to move with the times and Europeanise itself, focusing on supporting young people to work on and in European values – human rights, rule of law, democracy, and peace – and to take a position on the deficits and gaps in European integration and cooperation and the position and responsibility of Europe in the world. European youth work needs to engage in advocacy towards European institutions and towards national governments for a European approach to youth work policy development and implementation. It needs to walk its own talk.

The European youth sector has already begun with some work on all of these ‘starting points’. The challenge is how to make them more explicit, visible and accessible to the wider community of practice and how to bring them into the mainstream agenda, linking them to each other in a way that forms a viable agenda.

To make the qualitative leap in the direction of a more critical, democratic, emancipatory and empowering pedagogical practice, that can push the bar on the ‘participating’, ‘co-creating’ ‘changing/transforming, European youth work needs to renew its commitment to three fundamental framing principles for political education, as outlined by Otten (Ohana/Otten 2012). These describe the kind of political championship that is required now and in the years to come.

  • “The (…) ‘obligation to be intolerant’, in the sense of active intervention if human rights, as the ethical-political foundation of a European concept of justice, are violated.”
  • The “democratisation of European democracy as an ongoing process of ‘imagining the impossible’” and co-creating alternative European narratives together with other members of the “political” community (which implies that young people become aware of their position as members of a political community, i. e. as citizens).
  • The effort to “go beyond ‘personhood’ and become social actors”, which implies “the movement from being an ethical, but nevertheless passive and self-interested individual to being an interested and informed stakeholder in society that expresses solidarity through action in everyday life with others.”

The question remains: Who is going to stand up for the political in European youth work?

Das Diskussionspapier ist in Kurz- und Langfassung kostenlos verfügbar auf Druckexemplare sind in Kürze bei JUGEND für Europa erhältlich.

Zur Autorin

Yael Ohana ist Expertin im Bereich der non-formalen Bildung und der internationalen Jugendarbeit, arbeitet bei der Open Society Foundations in Berlin. Ihre jüngste Arbeit bezieht sich auf politische interkulturelle Bildung und die Förderung von aktivem, kritischem bürgerschaftlichem Engagement junger Menschen:


Chomsky, Noam (1998): The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion but allow very lively debate within that spectrum, The Common Good. London: Odonian Press
Ohana, Yael/Otten, Hendrik (Eds.) (2012): Where Do You Stand: Intercultural Learning and Political Education in Contemporary Europe. Wiesbaden: Springer VS