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’Developing a common path.’ Howard Williamson on the project History of Youth Work

JfE: How did it come to the project, who had the idea?

Prof. Williamson: The real starting point was Filip Coussée, who did his PhD on the history of youth work in Flanders at the University of Ghent. As part of his thesis, he looked at British youth work history and youth work traditions, as well as other countries. Filip took part in the History Conference in Durham in the North of England where some of the key people from the UK in youth work training and teaching took part.

Then Jan Vanhee appeared. He was assistant to the Director in the Division of Youth within the Agency for Socio-Cultural Work for Youth and Adults in the Ministry of the Flemish Community in Belgium at that time. He felt inspired by Filip's defense of his thesis. They had the idea of a seminar on the history of youth work in Europe. They contacted Hanjo Schild from the EU-Council of Europe Youth Partnership who was interested, too.

Meanwhile, in a bar in Strasbourg, Filip, who had been a student of mine, told me about this history project and I offered to help. As a result, with others, Jan Vanhee, Hanjo Schild, Filip Coussée and me organised the seminar on ’The history of youth work in Europe and its relevance for today’s youth work policy’ in May 2008. It was about 28 people, but it was a start.

JfE: What happened next?

Prof. Williamson: The first seminar was focused on youth work and youth policy in Belgium and a few European countries. Since it seemed rather good to have done that, we thought, let us hear from other countries. Through the Partnership and other networks, more contributors were identified, who helped build the history of youth work map of Europe.

So, there was a second seminar. And in 2010, Belgium had the EU presidency, Jan thought it would be quite a clever idea to have the third seminar just before the 1st European Youth Work Convention. In the following years, more people contributed to the project: Edgar Schlümmer from the Estonian Youth Work Center persuaded the Estonian authorities to host a fourth seminar. Lasse Siurala and Juha Nieminen felt that Finland ought to host a seminar, too. And the Director general for youth in Malta, Miriam Teuma, hosted the sixth workshop. That was when the baton was handed to Tanya Basarab, from the Youth Partnership, as Hanjo was retiring, though he still played an advisory role. Tanya led the planning and execution of the final two seminars. That means there were seven in all, over ten years.

JfE: How did you manage editing the books?

Prof. Williamson: The books mainly included the contributions to the seminars. Filip and I, and other co-editors, always tried to bring together the key themes: gathering knowledge, bringing forth conceptual ideas and policy messages. There was, however, always space for the histories of other countries. If we suddenly discovered somebody who might be able to write the history of youth work in a country not yet covered in the series, then we asked them to write a chapter. It has been a huge project in terms of the work. Each book took at least a year to produce. At one point, we thought Volume 5 was the last.

JfE: You edited two more volumes, though.

Prof. Williamson: The focus of Volume 5 was on the connection of youth work to other areas of policy, like housing or health or crime or employment. And it was whether youth work achieves more recognition and more strength and more status when it is attached to other policy priorities rather than just being a separate kind of activity. However, throughout all of that, there was the recurring statement by those involved that youth work is non-formal education. Youth work is an educational practice. Youth work is out of school learning. However, Filip, Hanjo, Jan and I agreed that a lot of youth work comes out of social work. Therefore, seminar and Volume 6 was about youth work’s relation to social work. And throughout the project, I had often said to Filip, Hanjo and Jan that we ought to do work on the histories of transnational/European youth organisations. So that was a focus of Volume 7.

JfE: In which way did the project contribute to the growing relevance of youth work in European policy, especially to the Conventions?

Prof. Williamson: The history project and the Conventions are absolutely tied together. The history project put in writing where youth work has come from and how it has related with other fields. The Conventions, both in terms of the first one celebrating diversity and the second one of finding common ground, were about bringing together professional activists around youth work in policy, research, and practice. They tried to develop a professional understanding of the contemporary position of youth work – each of those in their different ways, but significantly directed towards the politics. The first Convention during the Belgian EU Council Presidency led to the EU Resolution on Youth Work, which was adopted by the European Council in November 2010. And the second Convention was held during the Belgian Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in 2015. With some steppingstones, this led to the Council of Europe Recommendation on Youth Work 2017. Jan and Hanjo influenced that political momentum. I was the rapporteur for both Conventions. And the German authorities have asked me to take on that role for the third Convention, and I said I would be honoured to do so. Also, Jan Vanhee is an adviser for the third Convention. You see, individuals with complementary knowledge and experience and drive and commitment, established the necessary connections to make all this happen.

JfE: What do you expect from the third Convention?

Prof. Williamson: I do hope that there will be some kind of declaration supported by political representatives at the Convention to take forward a common road – not finding common ground, but developing a common path for the development of youth work across Europe. Fortunately, already, a European Youth Work Agenda is framed by the EU youth strategy and the Council of Europe youth sector strategy, both of which are saying much more about youth work than they ever did in previous strategies. I still hope that the Commission and the Council will find enough common ground themselves to build an action plan that will go forward from 2020. What we need is a stronger partnership and less institutional separation. And I hope that there will be a proper representation of the youth work sector across the whole of Europe, which Jan Vanhee fought for in 2010.

JfE: Finally, what do you think is youth work all about?

Prof. Williamson: It does not really matter what kind of youth worker you are, wherever you are doing it. What you are trying to do is win and defend space for young people to have autonomy and be themselves and express their views and voices about things. And we are also about helping young people to move on in their lives positively, productively, with a sense of purpose.

JfE: Prof. Williamson, thank you very much for this interview!