Reflections on 2020: Four Key Practiceable Takeaways from Reimagining Youth Work in a COVID-19 Era
We can all agree that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought on unprecedented challenges in our day-to-day lives. For youth workers, this includes pivoting many aspects of their work, specifically their approach to programming for youth. The Relentless Pursuit of Better Youth Outcomes – Reimagining Youth Work in a COVID-19 Era, hosted by YouthREX from July to September, was a series of online conversations featuring different youth programs and advocates from across Ontario. Here are four key practiceable takeaways from the series, including challenges and opportunities for the youth sector.
1. Be creative and flexible.
Youth work during this time requires more collaboration, more care, more creativity and flexibility, and utmost compassion towards one another. The art of pivoting is not necessarily to simply move all programs online and hope for the best, but, rather, to adapt in real time.
Some youth programs moved their programming online but then noticed a decrease in numbers, participation, and engagement; most noticed a decrease in connection between staff and youth, youth and youth, or both. Programs that already fostered connections with youth are working on maintaining those connections in different ways:
“For many staff, a key to their success was to be even more enthusiastic on the screen than they would be in real life; you really have to show more or act more, and in that way, they helped to enhance their engagement.” – Maji Shaikh, Boys & Girls Clubs of Ottawa
Youth workers have had to take on roles they might not have under ‘normal’ circumstances. This includes being resource navigators in terms of supporting youth in finding resources that meet their needs from other community agencies. For example, the staff at Regent Park School of Music find themselves sending out more email blasts to families with updates, reaching out for support from other community agencies, and calling family members that they know need more support during this time.
“[W]e have to intervene, and again, we don’t have any money, no one is getting paid to do this work, no one gets a salary or benefits to do this work, but yet we are having to intervene in suicide crisis, in homeless crisis, we’re having to intervene when a young person might be pregnant, we are having to intervene in all these roles.” – Gabrielle Fayant, Assembly of Seven Generations (A7G)
2. #JustListen: Meet youth where they’re at.
Youth have multiple and compounding needs; chances are, they may tell you what they need if you make it a point to listen. Adapting programs to meet youth where they’re at during this time is especially important.
“#JustListen. Listen to stories with empathy. Listen to the experiences with mindfulness. Try and feel what the person is going through. You’ll hear more.” – Dr. Oyedeji Ayonrinde, Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Psychology, Queen’s University
Josie Fung at I-Think echoes the same sentiments when sharing her approach: “listening to understand and not to respond immediately … listening to the voices that aren’t heard, and bringing in youth because they tend to have the most interesting problem-solving solutions.”
Keep in mind that not everyone has the skills or the capacity to learn online. Things like effective time management, technical skills or proficiency in computers, self-discipline and motivation, and the appropriate environment (for example, a workstation without distractions) can really encourage or discourage someone from fully participating in an online setting. For younger kids with shorter attention spans, a few programs reported improved participation when they were able to send tools/resources to participants. Having access to these tools encouraged youth to come back each week and participate:
“[W]e were able to provide some coding kits … to young people, they were able to use them at home and follow along with the instructor, and one of the things that helped remove some of the barriers was the ability for young people to have something tangible in front of them, outside of a computer screen.” – Adam Joiner, Boys & Girls Clubs of Ottawa
There’s no one size fits all formula, but doing work in a way that matches the needs of the young people you are working with will ensure engagement and participation.
3. Ensure accessibility.
There is an opportunity now – and a greater need – to operationalize youth programs in a way that allows everyone who needs a service to have access. In a lot of ways, being online has both improved and worsened some access issues in the community. Dr. Ayonrinde described a program to make cell phones available to clients who didn’t have one, and shared that a majority of the young people who received phones actually did not have access to a strong enough bandwidth to support video calls for remote consultations.
Some of the clients that Youth Opportunities Unlimited (YOU) supports are dealing with housing insecurity and homelessness, and may not have devices or access to a reliable internet connection; no matter how many email blasts are sent out or Zoom calls are organized, these groups are not being reached. They kept this in mind when making the decision to implement longer drop-in hours and keep their Meals on Wheels program going.
For a sports program like Lay-Up, not everyone has the physical space to run around and perform basketball drills. Some have limited access to Wi-Fi, some use a shared device, and some simply have too much going on with school, Zoom meetings, and the general anxiety that comes with the uncertainty of living through a global pandemic, making participating in community programs no longer a top priority. Lay-Up responded by sending youth what they would need to participate more fully in remote programming:
“[W]e have provided the kids with Lay-Up kits, they each have their own gym bag… their own basketball … they have a mini-rim for physical literacy skills indoors, throwing, catching, aiming, they have some of these off-court items so the curriculum itself for the live Zoom sessions has been modified for kids to be able to do everything in their home.” – Micaëlla Riché, Lay-Up
4. Engage in evaluation.
This is a unique moment when youth programs that pivoted online can implement new strategies/ideas, document outcomes, and then share lessons learned in real time.
Chris Penrose from Lay-Up elaborated on why it has been important to their team to capture what staff are currently learning: “[W]e are taking a developmental evaluation lens to this so that we are constantly documenting, constantly learning, and constantly applying that feedback.” Chris believes in sharing knowledge and lessons learned as they go. This technique is not only great in terms of having content to share with stakeholders, but allows them to curate data that they can reflect on and learn from in the future.
“…if we don’t capture it, how are we going to learn from it and how are we going to use it to improve when we return to programs?” – Laura Jones, Boys & Girls Clubs of Ottawa
Don’t forget to engage youth in research and evaluation! This is acknowledging that the youth you work with have knowledge and insights to share. Ask youth what they need at this time, ask what’s going well and what can be improved, and then measure your program outcomes based on their perspectives.