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Good things come in sevens: The last volume of 'The history of youth work in Europe'

This 'history project' was ambitious from the beginning. Not only did the editors plan to explore the origins, traditions and trends of youth work in Europe, they also wanted to help create a stable foundation for European youth policy. It was also ambitious in that it assumed that youth work could be sufficiently distinguished from other educational fields of action. For youth work was and is a highly versatile practice in the various European countries, given that it reaches a diverse array of young people, uses a broad variety of concepts, touches upon many different themes and cuts across several other disciplines and practices. That is why, as the editors stated upon publication of the first volume in the series, they hoped the series would 'initiate a fundamental discussion on modern-day youth work identity'.

A ten-year story…

…that began in May 2008 with a workshop organised by the international youth policy team of the Agency for Sociocultural Youth and Adult Work of the Flemish community in Belgium and the Partnership between the European Commission and the Council of Europe in the field of youth. A number of interested experts had come together to explore the connections between what was known about young people, youth work and youth policy in Europe. In this regard, the historical dimension was important. The experts were confident that it would help to understand current youth work practices if there was greater awareness of practices’ origins and of how they had developed in Europe over time. And so the idea was born: a collection of studies, documents and insights into the 'history of youth work in Europe'. Over the decade that followed, the authors and editors explored issues such as the educational and social dimensions of youth work, conflicts, co-operation and innovation, youth information, professionalism, work with girls, youth cultures and youth research.

Awareness of youth policy and youth work

The overarching objective of the project was to create a comprehensive knowledge base in order to raise awareness of youth policy and youth work across Europe and promote a debate on these issues. This goal was reached. The research project and resulting series of publications and activities produced highly valuable input for two European Youth Work Conventions, also within the framework of EU Council presidencies and Committee of Ministers chairmanships. "Among the merits of this history project is that it has brought together youth work experts, researchers, academics and policymakers to discuss the critical issues that influence and shape youth work,” explains Tanya Basarab, the Partnership team’s Research und Youth Policy Officer and co-editor of the series. This was a success, she continues, despite the fact that there is no universal definition of youth work. The history workshops and the books have been instrumental in collecting vital knowledge about European youth policy, contributing towards the Council of Europe’s recommendations on youth work and raising the quality of youth work across the European Union. As Tanya says, “We hope that this knowledge base can make a similarly strong contribution towards the 3rd European Youth Work Convention.”

12 'trilemmas'

All of this naturally also applies to the seventh and last volume in the series, which explores the evolution of transnational youth organisations and movements over the past century. Why have political, social or environmental causes often been behind the origin and evolution of youth organisations? Why have some organisations expanded well beyond their countries of origin? To what extent have they held firm to their original values and purpose, and to what extent have they adapted and evolved in changing circumstances? How vulnerable have they been to ideology, context or political influences?

The second section adds two more country histories of youth work to the existing body of knowledge. The third and final part focuses on 12 'trilemmas' and reflections that have emerged from the ten-year History of Youth Work in Europe project. The youth work community is invited to consider and debate each trilemma, independently and in relation to each other, in the context of both the local environments of youth work delivery and across the wider European youth policy context, in anticipation of the third European Youth Work Convention in December 2020.

We will follow up this article with an interview of Howard Williamson on the 'history project'. Howard is Professor of European Youth Policy at the University of South Wales, UK, co-editor of the series and academic advisor for the 3rd European Youth Work Convention.

Further reading:

Howard Williamson and Tanya Basarab (eds.): The history of youth work volume 7, Council of Europe, 2019.