Methods: Our methods included seven focus groups with 58 frontline youth workers in five cities across Ontario (Ottawa, London, Thunder Bay, Sudbury and Toronto). 81% identified as female, 17.2% as male, and 1.7% as transgender. 55.1% had over three years of experience in the youth sector. 62% identified as white, 12% as Indigenous, 10.3% as South Asian, and 8.6% as Black. 25.8% were ages 18 to 24, 63.8% were 25 to 34, and 10.3% were 34 to 44. The focus groups were transcribed verbatim and analyzed to develop themes.
Results: The findings centered around four themes:1) Youth worker identity and lived experience as a resource: Their professional identity is tied to their personal identities and was “not separated or detached” but part of who they are. 2) Numbers Work: The pressure to meet targets and numbers frequently means that critical skills and practices, such as relationship-building, mentorship, empowerment, and advocacy, that are difficult to report as numbers, are rendered invisible. 3)Rule-bending Work: The systems within which youth are embedded have significant gaps for young people. They discussed how they made these systems work for youth. In some instances, this work is unauthorized. 4) The marginality of youth work and invisibility of youth workers’ voices: Youth workers described how precarious and insecure their jobs were and how they had to piece together multiple contract-based jobs to survive. They also noted that the youth sector’s precarious and insecure labor market is stratified by race, gender, and sexuality. Through unfair and exploitative employment structures and practices, the youth sector is a site of harm and inequity for youth workers and this negatively impacts youth.
Conclusions: The findings provide a detailed account of how personal, professional, and political identities are constructed in relation to the work and the actual practices that community-based youth workers do including care, systems coordination, and numbers work. At the systems level, we learn about the effects of chronic precariousness and how factors beyond the scope of the youth sector impact and shape youth work on the ground which ultimately negatively impacts youth well-being.