By Susana Guardado
I came to be a youth worker by accident. In fact, when I started my studies in Child and Youth Care my goal was to work with young children because honestly youth scared me. They reminded me of the not-so-fun times in high school and I once again felt like the geeky awkward teenager. Then in one of my practicums I was give the task of starting up a youth program for immigrant and refugee youth. I had to go to schools and invite (convince) youth they should hang out at the drop-in program, that it would be fun. And one by one they started to come, and it was FUN! From then on, I was hooked. I sought out opportunities to facilitate youth programs and create spaces where youth took ownership over these programs.
So why do I like to work with youth? Because they keep me real! They stretch my facilitator muscles; they challenge the status quo and keep things interesting. As one of my mentors once said, “When you work with youth, you have to show up at your best every time, even on your worst day.”
During my 20 years working with young people I had the privilege of facilitating conversations around child abuse, relationship violence, bullying, sexualised violence, suicide and now housing. I can honestly say I learned so much from each of these conversations. I call them conversations because that is how I like to approach workshops, especially with youth. They do not need someone who will walk in and tell them everything, they want someone who will engage them in a learning conversation where they can discover new ideas and explore their own ideas and beliefs.
As facilitators we have the honour of walking into a group and creating a space to learn about a topic that can really impact a young person’s quality of life – housing. Which makes me think of the words of the amazing Dr. Martin Brokenleg, of Reclaiming Youth International. He says that when working with youth, you only have to shift their lives one or two degrees to potentially make a dramatic change in their life trajectory. I truly believe that the most important thing we can offer youth that attend RentSmart courses is a positive and impactful learning experience, one in which they walk away feeling capable and with the knowledge that resources exists as they make their way in life.
Sometimes I get calls from Community Educators who will be delivering RentSmart courses to youth and are feeling nervous or need some ideas on how to make the course as engaging as possible. With that in mind, here are some of my learnings, which I present with the caution that the key to engaging youth is to be genuine so you have to develop a style that is your own. What works for me might not work for you!
- Be genuine! Yes, I know I am repeating myself. Don’t pretend to be something you are not, youth can tell right away if a person is fake. Share some things about yourself, who you are, things you like.
- Use Open Ended Questions. These are your magic tools. I like to start building connection by asking them about stuff they are knowledgeable about – their community, their school, their program, movies, music, etc. This lets them know you are interested in them and that you are not the Expert of Everything, which is important because sometimes adults have an annoying way of thinking we are the Experts of Everything in front of youth.
- Yes, you have an agenda, but if the conversation and questions are flowing, and the information is naturally being shared – forget the agenda! Well, sort of – make sure to cover the important information they need to have stable housing.
- You can make time for anonymous questions. Hand out slips of paper ask that EVERYONE write something down even if it is “Hello, I have no questions” and then have a conversation using the questions they ask. I always have a few questions in mind, in case they don’t have many questions then I can throw these in.
- When a youth shares something they believe to be true, be curious – “tell me more about that…” or “Oh interesting, well how does that work?” and then you can offer the correct information and have a conversation about that.
- Remember that depending on the life experience of the group, tenancy might be a completely foreign topic, and perhaps one that they have not yet considered. So make it relevant. One educator uses the analogy of borrowing your X-box instead of a car when working with younger youth.
- Don’t be so serious. Laugh at yourself and any hiccups you may have during the session. Have FUN with the activities and they will have fun too.
I know that there are some incredibly passionate youth workers in the RentSmart Community Educator community. I am curious – what are some of your tips for how you facilitate youth courses? We would love to hear from you! Email us your ideas and we can share them in the next RentSmart newsletter.