Direct Service or Something Else?

About 6 times a year, I have an existential crisis: Youth work is my vocation. When I imagine my dream job, it’s one where I can build strong, authentic relationships with youth–supporting youth as they solve problems, think about their futures, and reimagine their communities. I have another dream, too: One in which my community directs resources to youth and their needs, and respects their skills and opinions.

Trying to balance these two dreams leads to the repeated crisis. Do I spend my life in the trenches, or do I spend it with adults, changing how they interact with the youth in my community? I struggle. I flip flop. Is my work making business leaders, politicians, and bureaucrats better youth workers? Or is it being a youth worker myself?

If I’m being honest, I have to admit that this is not a question of “if” I retire from direct service, but “when.” Youth workers have a shelf life, and sometime between age 27 and 33 they pass their expiration date. Some of them transition into policy and management and do wonderful work. Some of them leave youth development for more lucrative career paths. When I leave direct service, it will be for some combination of these reasons.

I want to make a bigger impact.

It’s a classic feminist question: daily needs or systemic change? Someone needs to be working with youth today, right NOW. But someone also needs to change adults.

Once, in an interview for a direct service job, I was asked to describe, in one word, the biggest challenge facing girls. I said, without hesitating, “adults.” Adults underestimate what youth are capable of, adults fail to allocate resources to girls’ issues, adults run the systems that harm youth. I remember laughing and saying “adults might need youth development more than girls do.”

I want to live in Seattle. 

The second reason is not noble. I live in Seattle, one of the 10 most expensive cities in the country. When my mom bought a house in the late 70s in the neighborhood where I live today, the down payment was a little less than annual her teaching salary. If I wanted to buy a house in this neighborhood now, the down payment alone would be four times what I can make in a year as a youth worker.

I wish money didn’t play into my decision making, but it does. If I stay in direct service, I will struggle to live in Seattle, and, if prices continue to rise, I will have to leave. If I let others battle it out in the trenches, I might be able to scrape together a living. Managers, policy wonks, fundraisers… some of them do okay. But youth workers, well, they leave the field, get promoted to management, or leave the city.

 

When I griped about my crisis to a non-youth worker friend, he gave me the silliest and best answer I’ve heard: Start your own organization, and make both part of your job. I laughed it off, but he had a point. I will leave direct service at some point. I’ll want to make a bigger impact, or make more money, or both. I might not be calling the shots at my first big gig, but someday, I hope I will be.

So here’s what I’m thinking: Youth worker friends, we have a job to do. We’ll probably follow in the footsteps of the youth workers who went before. But when we climb up the food chain or shift into policy–or go corporate–we can change the job descriptions. We can re-arrange the budgets. We can create a different landscape for the next generation of youth workers. I know that’s naive and ridiculous, but so are most of the causes our youth take on. We don’t tell them they are naive and ridiculous. We ask “What’s your first step?”

So, youth workers: Let’s change how we value direct service. What’s our first step?

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