Helping young people help themselves

© Post Publishing PCL

Young people across Thailand joined Generation Unlimited Youth Challenge, a Unicef initiative. Photos courtesy of UNICEF

As a youth leader for pre-teens and young adults from dysfunctional lower-middle-class families, *Phorn often goes to great lengths to bring a sense of normalcy into the young lives under her care to help them reach their potential in life.

A youth work seminar. UNICEF

Together with her small team, she invites youngsters, many of whom reside in low-budget apartments, to their Christian youth centre four times a week for free tutoring, dinner, and a time of fun and games.

Phorn’s enthusiasm and passion for her work led to setting up free English classes on Saturdays. While at first, the youth seemed interested to pick up a new skill to help bolster their future careers, it didn’t take long before their passion died down.

With no adult supervision at home to encourage them to maximise this opportunity, they quickly lost interest and the classes terminated.

Phorn felt disheartened by the failure of the English learning project, but continues to find ways to infuse new knowledge into youth activities.

“I just hope we could do more but I feel helpless as we have limited resources to improve their lives,” she said.

youth work seminar. UNICEF

youth work seminar. UNICEF

While social work and youth work are largely intertwined in society, what is clear is that the county urgently needs to support the development of its youth as they steer the intricate passage from childhood to adulthood, where they can build resilience, navigate personal and social challenges, participate in decision-making, become agents of change, and subscribe to the development of the nation.

Prior to embarking on this endeavour, it is imperative to understand the broader sense of the phrase “youth work”, which entails creating space for young people’s voices to be heard. The focus needs to be put on physical spaces where youth can meet, connect, learn from each other, and set up competencies and bridges to reach the next step of their life.

Young Thais aged 10–24 comprise 18.7%, or 12.4 million, of the population. By far the largest group, they form the human capital needed for the future development of the country.

Youth work is an integral segment of the growth of young people which contributes to the human capital development aims set out in the National 20-year Strategy, Asean Vision 2025, and to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, including its commitment to tackle inequalities and leaving no one behind.

Nonetheless, there is no one-size-fits-all application of youth work, and thus spaces and bridges can be defined in various ways.

At the recent webinar co-organised by Unicef Thailand and the Thailand Professional Qualification Institute (TPQI) “Catalysing Youth Engagement In Thailand”, the audience was introduced to the concept of youth work from diverse international perspectives where youth work has had a long intellectual, political and occupational history.

Information shared by experts and practitioners was aimed at starting a conversation among stakeholders in Thailand, encouraging discussion on the following questions:

■ How can youth work be defined and applied in the Thai context?

■ What structural arrangements [e.g. governmental, civil society, political and more] should be responsible for youth work in Thailand?

■ What education and training should youth workers in Thailand receive, and what quality standards should be applied to the practice?

■ How can and should youth work be recognised in youth policy and the broader policy agendas and national strategies of Thailand?

The common theme shared by speakers at the forum highlighted the fact that youth work is instrumental in addressing the needs and aspirations of youngsters because it supports them effectively in their transition to adulthood.

Howard Williamson, professor of European youth policy, University of South Wales, spoke on how one of the main strengths of the youth work approach is the focus on partnerships and its role as a broker between young people and various sectors and services, such as local communities, schools and social services.

Speakers also enlightened the audience about how such work has a divergent set of goals, forms, traditions and institutional support in various parts of the world.

Tim Corney, associate professor of youth work, Institute for Sustainable Industries and Liveable Cities at Victoria University in Melbourne, said the youth work sector is required to be able to speak with a clear and united voice if it is to be accorded the status of a professional group.

As Thailand embarks on its journey to create common approaches and its own identity of youth work, clear structures for co-operation within and between all levels and stakeholder groups within the youth work community will be essential to its success.

Speaking on how Thailand can best adapt the information gathered from this forum to its youth work, Williamson said: “Transferring of know-how is never easy, while interpretation and adaptation are essential.”

The quality of youth work will eventually determine how young adults can benefit from its practices, thus Unicef’s partnership with TPQI and their common goal is to develop an understanding of youth work and professional standards for youth workers.

youth work seminar. UNICEF

Following this conference, a national working group led by TPQI and Unicef will be established with governmental and non-governmental partners, including Thai youth, to ensure that the development of youth work uses a co-creation approach and takes into consideration the views and needs of the different groups involved.

Reflecting on what was shared at the forum, migrant youth leader Oh, 22, a second-year social sciences student at Thammasat University, said the suggestions shared by each speaker gave hope for a better tomorrow. However, every concerned party had to work as a team for it to succeed. While this will be a time-consuming task, she said it was worth giving it a shot.

An advocate for children and youth’s equal and fair rights and liberties, Oh remarked: “Today’s youth will one day be the adults of tomorrow, so offering them the opportunity to have a voice in helping navigate our nation’s policies I believe is a step in the right direction because they will eventually reap the benefits or lack thereof in the years to come.

“In the next decade, I would like to see youth work develop in a way that no one will be left behind. For this to happen, I believe we have to first address the need for youth work to become an occupation that is not just accepted but also allows us to be equipped with the tools to reach every youth. This will also help to improve efficiency in youth work and establish a code of ethics.

“I believe one of the most important areas of working with the youth today is to make them more aware of their rights. Youth need to be encouraged to find their voice. Adults need to realise that youth are not being disrespectful when they voice their opinion on issues pertaining to their future. Voicing their opinions is exercising their rights.”

Chonlachat Panthong, a 27-year-old youth leader promoting the employability of young people involved in the Juvenile Justice System, said the suggestions shared at the seminar opened a new dimension to what is possible if we can work together for the benefit of Thai youth.

He explained: “It is difficult to work together as a team if adults continue to put their welfare before that of today’s youth. The world is opening up and so it is important for grown-ups to change their mindset of disregarding the point of view of the youth.

“The youth today need a project that can truly represent what they stand for and respect their ideas and what they deem as necessary and important for their future.

“If adults don’t listen to our youth they will end up being counselled by their peers, which of course is not always the best course of action. We need to cultivate a space for the youth of today to feel they are trusted and valued.”