Chapter 2 – On Youth Work, Youth Workers and Youth Settings

Youth work in its most basic definition is working with young people, through non-formal education.

In some countries, youth work is a recognised professional sector with a specific certification (for example UK, Ireland and Finland). While other countries may not have a professional route to become a youth worker, there are a range of educational routes to becoming a youth worker in all our national contexts and a tradition of youth work in all our countries. These include training within existing youth organisations in volunteer and youth leadership programmes, upskilling through international opportunities such as SALTO Youth, Erasmus+ projects, Council of Europe Youth Department etc.

In every European country the practice of empowering young people through non-formal education and leadership exists, whatever the roots, traditions, structures and educational frameworks for it have been. In all places, there are skilled professionals and volunteers working with young people in non- formal educational structures to support young people’s empowerment and facilitate their meaningful engagement in society.

In this Manual we define youth work as a social practice where paid or volunteer youth workers work with young people in their social context. We view youth work as an empowering practice that can advocate for and facilitate a young person’s participation in society, their independence, connectedness and consciousness of their rights and engagement with the social-political world. As a practice that is about a young person’s emotional and personal development, it supports young people to expand their horizons and to develop critical social awareness.


How does youth work happen?

Relationship building is at the core of youth work practice, it begins by meeting the young person where they are at and being there consistently during their journey.

The range of different ways in which youth work happens:

  • Targeted group work – working with a group of young people that you have identified as a group with specific needs.
  • Detached work– bringing your skills to another service such as a school setting.
  • Outreach / street work: meeting the young people in their own spaces.
  • Working with families.
  • Drop-in youth settings.
  • Universal programmes (summer projects/ youth clubs/ digital/ arts …)
  • Themed programmes (back to education/ employment support/ global justice/ health …).
  • Youth activism – young people self-organising and acting on behalf of their needs and interests.
  • Youth-led organisations – youth associations and other forms of organisations where young people organise democratically around a common cause.
  • Peer-to-peer work – young people working directly with their peers to support them.
  • Autonomous spaces – can be youth only or intergenerational, where youth work is self-organised and structures such as non-hierarchical decision making are key.
  • Residential trips and international projects.

Values: the following are central to youth work:

  • The active, voluntary participation of young people – young people choose to engage.
  • Working from a needs basis – assessing and responding to needs.
  • Creating a safer and more secure space for young people to be able to learn, express themselves and be challenged.
  • Working ethically with young people by:
  • Respecting young people’s rights to privacy and confidentiality.
  • Being open and honest with young people.
  • Enabling young people to explore personal choices and decisions in their lives and helping them to gain an understanding of the impact of those choices.
  • Supporting young people to develop critical thinking through non-formal education
  • To understand power structures in their lives.
  • To uphold the rights of young people from minority and marginalised backgrounds.
  • Being honest when exploring with them the truth about inequality, oppression and discrimination.
  • Supporting the personal and social development of young people.
  • Promoting life skills, including leadership, teamwork, planning and decision making, communication, problem solving, initiative and responsibility.
  • Presenting different approaches and possibilities of working together – such as non-hierarchical collective work.
  • Critical to all youth work is the importance of process – taking the required time to engage with young people to support them to attain their goals.

Transformative youth work happens in social contexts

Youth work has a powerful role to play in all social contexts, especially within communities which are socially and economically oppressed and where discrimination is stacked against the most marginalised. While we see evidence of hateful speech and/or behaviour in these settings, it is often instigated by young people who are themselves marginalised socially and economically. This calls for a youth work approach that must be supportive of all the young people involved. While creating safer and supportive spaces – especially for those that experience hateful speech and behaviour – transformative practice offers methodologies that focus on working with those that have caused the hurt in order to bring about real change.

Hate and discrimination are present within wider society and will be a reality in all of the social contexts in which we engage with young people. Transformative practice involves engaging with all those that cause hurt. It recognises that the power of systems of oppression impact everyone and are so deeply embedded that we are often unaware of how we all participate in these systems.


We engage with young people in a range of different roles, depending on our national context. You may have any one of these roles, in either a paid or volunteer capacity:

  • Educator, trainer, facilitator.
  • Youth Leader.
  • Youth Worker.
  • Activity and Sports Leader or Coach.
  • Peer Educator.
  • Youth Arts Facilitator.
  • Social Care Worker.
  • Youth activist.

NB: In this Manual we speak about Youth Work and Youth Workers. We include all of the roles above in this working title.

What kind of culture are we creating?

Youth work does not exist in a vacuum. To respond to the needs of young people who experience hate it is important for youth workers to be aware of, and acknowledge, any existing privileges and power structures within their setting. Acknowledgement helps us examine how these factors influence communication with, and the participation of, different individuals and groups of young people. Once aware, it is then easier to seek ways to challenge cultural and institutional privileges and discriminatory power structures in our organisations, communities and wider societies. This is a key aspect of youth work. As youth workers we:

  • Have the power to shape the culture of the youth setting.
  • Know the impact of social and structural forces on young people, and ensure our practice is responsive to young people’s experiences and needs.
  • Build the self-esteem and sense of identity of young people, especially those from minority and marginalised groups.
  • Be self-aware of what we bring in to our practice each day.
    • Work through a reflective practice process that includes critical reflection and evaluation.
  • Embrace the radical intention of youth work (building critical social awareness).
    • Ensure young people are empowered and encouraged to respect and celebrate their own and others’ cultural backgrounds, identities and choices.
    • Make sure we are an advocate for young people – representing, fighting for, and with, young people on issues that affect them (either individually or as a group).
  • Stay informed – our organisations are learning environments for all.
  • Act in the best interests of young people, avoid exposing them to physical, psychological or emotional harm or injury, and always uphold the principle of ‘do no harm’.

Self-awareness for youth workers

When working using transformative practices, self-awareness is key.

Working on recognising, tackling and transforming hateful behaviour involves a lot of personal emotions. Youth workers – and trainers – cannot stand apart from their own identity, and as such have to develop competencies around tackling their own emotions when faced with instances of hateful speech and behaviour. When emotions are not acknowledged, they can cause resistance so it is important to address them.

Emotional intelligence[i], or emotional competences, is how a person navigates their emotions – using internal knowledge, skills and attitudes. This happens both in day-to-day life and when facing major struggles in life; and includes pleasant emotions and unpleasant emotions.

Emotions tell us how we are doing in a situation. They are part of checking in with ourselves:

  • Are we safe or not?
  • Are we connected to others or not?
  • Do we have access to needed resources or not?
  • Can we meet our needs or not?
  • Is the outcome of events as expected or hoped for or not?

If we feel pleasant emotions, we know we are doing well. Experiencing unpleasant emotions informs us there is something missing or going wrong; such as fear, anger, disgust, sadness, grief, shame, embarrassment, guilt, etc. Emotions are not good or bad, except when behaviours result that can sometimes be problematic (e.g. when fear turns to chronic avoidance; anger to violence or interpersonal conflict; shame to social anxiety, etc.).

When we lack emotional competences we can try to suppress or inhibit what we see as `unwanted’ emotions, leading to our inability to process experience and to having an incoherent sense of self which leaves us unable to use compassionate communication with those that trigger negative emotions in us.

[i] See Goleman, 1995 Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. New York: Bantam Books.


A safer space is a supportive, non-threatening environment that encourages open-mindedness, respect, a willingness to learn from others, as well as physical and mental safety. It is a space that is critical of the power structures that affect our everyday lives, and where power dynamics, backgrounds, and the effects of our behaviour on others are prioritised. It’s a space that strives to respect and understand the specific needs of a person targeted by hate. Everyone who enters a safer space has a responsibility to uphold the values of the space.[i]

The term ‘safer space’ suggests that a space cannot be safe in absolute terms; rather it’s a relative state and making it safer than the status quo is a collective responsibility and a work in progress. We say ‘safer’ realising that not everyone experiences spaces in the same way, so any one set of guidelines established to create safety may not meet the requirements of everyone and there may be complications or lapses in fulfilling those guidelines in practice.

The roots of the concept of safer space go back to the late 1940s when psychologist Kurt Lewin[ii] designed workshops on sensitivity training. These workshops were a form of group discussion where members could give honest feedback to each other to allow people to become aware of their unhelpful assumptions, implicit biases, and behaviours. The principles were later adopted by the feminist movement and by lesbian and gay liberation groups in the USA in the 1960s. For the LGBTIQ+ community a safer place was where people could find practical resistance to political and social repression. Activist and scholar Moira Kenney said “Safe space, in the women’s movement, was a means rather than an end and not only a physical space but a space created by the coming together of women searching for community.”[iii] The safer space movement extended further with calls for intersectionality to be included. In recent years, safer spaces are essentially conceptualised as a set of respectful practices to be implemented in an attempt to equalise existing power relations, and to empower the marginalised.

A safer space is confidential and free of judgement and created precisely to allow people to mention concerns without fear of being condemned for them.

Establishing guidelines for conditions that are not acceptable in a space, and action plan(s) for what one will do if those conditions arise, is part of being proactive in creating a safer space. Issues like hurtful language and behaviour (both within the space itself, and in patterns extending beyond activities of the space), violence, touching people without their consent, intolerance of someone’s religious beliefs or lack thereof, being racist, ageist, sexist, homo-/bi-/transphobic, ableist, classist or exhibiting any other behaviour or language that may perpetuate oppression, may be addressed with a safer space policy.

Social spaces abound with inequalities based on various socio-economic and cultural factors including class, genders (this includes transgender and non-binary people), ‘race’*, ability and language, giving rise to power differentials among the people involved. These power relations are reproduced at macro-and micro-levels, i.e., at institutional as well as individual levels. They can be visible in forms such as homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, sexism, misogyny, racism, classism, ableism, faith based hate etc. The notion of safe spaces is often used as a way to alleviate and address the harm created by such oppressions, particularly through dialogue and the verbal exchange of ideas. Safer spaces allow for the voices of those at the margins to be articulated, heard and hopefully understood.

* We use the term ‘race’ in parentheses to demonstrate that the term ‘race’ is a socially constructed one that has no basis in scientific fact but it has been used historically to oppress people by placing some groups as more superior than others based entirely on skin colour and physical features. There is no such thing as different ‘races’, there is just one human race.



[iii] Further reading available:


To create a safer space does not necessarily mean guaranteeing a safe space; however, there are various things we can put in place, and actions we can take, to respond to each young person’s need for safety. It is only once you establish, with the young people, what makes a space safe that you can work towards setting it up.

It is important to differentiate between what we understand by ‘safer spaces’ for young people and ‘safer learning spaces’. Minority and marginalised young people will often ask for and be provided with a ‘safer space’ within a youth work setting where they can have time with their identity group and their allies. Examples include minority ethnic only spaces, LGBTIQ+ groups, groups for people with different abilities, single identity groups such as faith based groups, single gender groups etc. In these settings stricter criteria might apply on who can be in the space to ensure the psychological and emotional support that is needed by the majority is not compromised by someone upsetting that space.

Safer learning spaces on the other hand have containers[i] put in place that allow for difficult conversations and challenges to take place.

[i] Container is a term used in reference to creating a psychologically safe context for learning, a so-called safe container. It establishes a psychologically safe context and includes (1) clarifying expectations, (2) establishing a “contract” with participants, (3) attending to logistic details, and (4) declaring and enacting a commitment to respecting learners and concern for their psychological safety. As instructors collaborate with learners to perform these practices, consistency between what instructors say and do may also impact learners’ engagement.


Circle - give respect, get respect

  • Respect – respect people’s beliefs, opinions, viewpoints, and experiences, people’s identity, background, names, and pronouns; do not assume anyone’s gender identity. Commit to not reproducing syste mic oppressions, such as racism, sexism, patriarchy, classism, ableism, homo-/bi-/transphobia, and so on.
  • Critique ideas, not people – don’t make things personal, ensure that people feel comfortable contributing without feeling like they themselves will be attacked for their views.
  • Avoid judgement – diverse groups have lots to offer, including different opinions. When group members share their likes and dislikes, respect their personal opinions and preferences.
  • Intention vs. impact – good intentions are not enough. We all need to be responsible for our own speech and actions. Be aware that our actions have an effect on others, despite good intentions.
  • Contradicting ideas are OK – the aim is to create a space where contradicting ideas can coexist, without feeling challenged.
  • Active listening – try to hear people out, recognise their emotions and understand their perspectives.
  • Perspective and empathy – recognise that people’s perspective is their truth. Respect it and refrain from judging.
  • Do not interrupt people – only one person speaks at a time; give preference to those who haven’t spoken (much).
  • Avoid making generalisations – don’t make blanket statements about any group of people.
  • Amend and adjust gently – if someone says something that is offensive or inaccurate, bring it up politely.
  • Do not put pressure on the minority person to speak for their community – they are not in the group to educate us.
  • Do not apply an experience of one minority person in the group to the whole community.
  • Recognise your privilege and positionality – be aware of your prejudices and privileges. If you’re coming from a privileged background, recognise it along with your position, social standing and social capital, and consider how these may affect your way of thinking and being.
  • Be self-aware: Take space, Make space / Step up, Step back – Be aware of how much space you are taking/how much you are speaking. If you feel you are speaking a lot, you should step back and let others take that space; if someone hasn’t taken that space/hasn’t expressed much, they might consider stepping up to contribute.
  • Don’t make assumptions – people should not assume other people’s experiences or intentions. If you have questions, clarify. Don’t simply assume.
  • Lean into discomfort – be willing to experience some discomfort in discussions, particularly if you’re coming from a privileged position, and learn from it.
  • Careful and attentive space – as we share, we commit to being careful with each other, and to not say harmful/hurtful things. Be aware of how others are feeling.
  • Do not reduce a young person to our perception of their identity.
  • Confidentiality – people share matters that are personal and delicate, so it’s important to commit to maintaining confidentiality. Consider everything that’s said to be private, unless specified otherwise. If you would like to share someone’s story or comment, please ask them first.
  • No obligation to speak or share – allow for silence/reflection.
  • Commit to de-escalate together – a safer space is not a policing space. If issues do arise, we commit to addressing them together. Sometimes, in the end, we may want to settle on “agreeing to disagree”.
  • Accountable space – we are accountable for our speech and actions, our power, privilege. We strive to “call in” those who need to be held accountable for their oppressive behaviour.
  • Use inclusive language – and explain what that is.
  • Explain the importance of pronouns, understanding that the concept may be new to some people, and be ready to tackle any resistance. You will be working toward creating a space where people in your group/s are asked to share their preferred pronouns, and you will listen out that they are used correctly, and point out when they are misused.


  • First ask the young people what they need to feel safe to learn, participate and to feel respected; their answers will be a solid ground to agree on how to be together when sharing a space that is about growth, learning and discovery.
  • Name it: first we say it out loud that this space is a safer space.
    • Take time to talk about this in the beginning of the activity.
    • State that this is a space where we agree on certain behaviours (for example group agreement).
    • Specify that some behaviours are unwanted if they damage the safety of the space, decide what action will be taken if they occur – for example the young person may need to agree to one-on-one support to address the behaviour and see if they can continue in the space.
    • Communication must be respectful, people need to feel respected.
  • Check during the activity how people are.
  • Take care of the physical space (accessibility, enough light.. etc.).
  • Accessible and inclusive methods, energisers, (good planning, having B plan, planning in advance every step of the process).
  • No assumptions about the persons in the room or the whole process.
  • Be an example – follow the agreement/rules yourself.
  • Assure young people that it is not obligatory to participate in the activities.
  • Introduce the group agreement/rules to every new person that joins the group.
  • Keep in mind that creating a safer space is a process and not a one-time act.
  • Regularly check the emotional and physical state of the participants (for example, you can establish a morning routine where you all sit in a circle and ask your participants how they are feeling, if there is anything they would like to talk about or address in the group).
  • Give each person enough space to express themselves (people have different ways and speeds of expressing their emotions).
  • Take care of the group dynamics, (i.e. the behaviours and psychological processes occurring within the group) and do activities and interventions to build relationships and support group discussions.
  • Adapt the methods so that everyone can participate.
  • Use inclusive methods, games and activities (be mindful of physical, sensory and neuro diversity etc.).
  • Use different visual methods and techniques to take account of diverse learning styles (being mindful also of any visual impairment, learning difficulties etc.).
  • Use reflections, evaluations and constant checking how the group is feeling, working etc.
  • Pay attention to the people who are more or less quiet.
  • ALL are responsible for the safer space.
  • Be an example – follow the agreement/rules yourself.
  • Be able to adapt programme/methods, add new suggestions.
  • Try to understand the cause of it.
  • Admit that the space is not safe anymore or at least that something has happened.
  • Check what emotional state the participants are in.
  • Allow the group members to communicate this in their own way – do not force people to discuss their emotions if they are uncomfortable or expose them to the emotions of others if they are not ready for this. The needs of one should not infringe on the needs of others.
  • Check in to see if those affected most feel safe/willing to continue and give them the option to leave.
  • Try to make sure no one gets (even more) hurt.
  • Talk about the situation, address it and don’t ignore it.
  • Even if you feel like you don’t have the answer or you can’t deal with the situation alone, try to make some conclusion in that moment. You acknowledge that something has happened and don’t ignore it and let the group know that this will be dealt with.
  • If the safer space is not safe anymore because of one person, remove that person from the activity or room (if that is the only way).
  • One-on-one work should be done with this person to understand what happened and for them to understand their needs and the impacts of their behaviour. Support them to repair the harm and hopefully re-enter the space and re-build the trust.
  • Stop the activity (if needed) and focus on solving the conflict.
  • Search for different solutions.
  • If needed get support for yourself and find an appropriate person to address the event (a counsellor, parents, co-workers, supervisor, even police if necessary).

Language is critical in shaping and reflecting our thoughts, beliefs, feelings and concepts. Some words, although well meant, by their very nature can degrade, diminish and upset people who identify themselves in ways other than how they are frequently described by others. Language is also fluid and changing.

It is important therefore to ask anyone you are working with which terms they self-identify with and are most comfortable with you using.

Many words use negative beginnings i.e. ‘dis’ (as in disability), non (as in non-national) etc. which may be hurtful to those they are used toward.

Other words can exclude people depending how they are used. What do we mean when we use the word ‘normal’ for example, are we using it in a way that limits or includes difference?

Similarly, are we inadvertently excluding some people, for example, when we limit pro-nouns to him or her, he or she?

Moreover, words that are acceptable in one country are not acceptable in others. In some countries, a word that has been the norm in the past may take on a negative meaning due to stereotyping and discrimination that has been attached to it and the identity group will have lobbied for it to no longer to be used. In all countries, different identity groups consistently debate what terminology to use and what their understanding of different terms mean to them. New words and new understandings emerge all the time. For many, the words used to identify or to speak about their experience are deeply embroiled in asserting their rights, fighting the systems of oppression that discriminate against them and upholding their dignity.

In youth settings the terminology used should reflect the wishes of the people within the group.


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