How youth workers can create space for difficult conversations with young people

by Sarah Robinson Galloway, Senior Development Officer – Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at YouthLink Scotland.

Two women are central to the image, they are having a discussion and the one on the right seems quite passionate about what she is saying. On the edges we see the partial back of two men facing the women.

We live in a world where everyone has different perspectives, opinions, and thoughts on world events and where we can express these if we wish to. But how do we create a space where young people can express their opposing views without causing harm to others, and where they can have constructive debate? 

Sometimes the views young people want to express can be polarizing, and as a youth worker it can be difficult to know how we approach this to continue having an inclusive space where every young person feels safe. 

Racial Literacy 

There are several things we can do as youth workers to ensure that young people are able to express their views and engage in debate on many different issues. In our Introduction to Racial Literacy training, we use a pyramid to understand the different levels we need to address on our journey to racial literacy. I believe that this racial literacy development model, theorized by Dr Yolanda Sealey Ruiz (2021), can be used across different issues as well.  

The racial literacy development model theorized by Dr Yolanda Selaey Ruiz

Working from the bottom up the first thing is critical love and this is something every youth worker I believe has already done by just starting to work with young people. Youth workers are committed to caring for the young people they work with and will always do all they can to support them. 

The importance of self-reflection 

As we move up the pyramid, we get into increasing self-reflection, starting with a willingness to be open about the limits of our own views and ideologies. If we can start to understand our own views and through critical reflection, we can look at how the layers of our identities and the privileges we may or may not have affect the work we do. Whatever the issue is that young people feel passionate about, understanding our own views and how we have come to them will help us to allow young people to express their views without judgement.  

By demonstrating an understanding of our own position and why we have come to that allows us to support young people to do the same. This goes together with the next stage of historical literacy. To build an argument for or against something means we need a full understanding of the context. This is true for any issue and needs to come from multiple reliable sources. There can be debate as to what is and isn’t a reliable source but hearing from opposing views can help to build an understanding of an issue. 

Helping young people navigate misinformation 

We need to be keenly aware of the amount of misinformation available and be aware of what content we and the young people we work with are engaging in. In 2021, research by theUK Safer Internet Centreexplored how “half of young people encounter misleading content online on a daily basis” and that “48% of young people are seeing misleading content every day, with more than one in 10 seeing it more than six times a day – often leaving them feeling annoyed, upset, sad, angry, attacked or scared.” 

SWGfL has an article that talks through what misinformation is and talks through the impact it has along with what guidance and support is available. As youth workers, we have a responsibility to support young people to develop their critical thinking skills, especially around emotive topics where the debates are already charged.  

Exploring and understanding the issue is important, but we also need to understand the context young people are in at the time. The historical literacy we need includes more recent history in relation to the community a young person belongs to as well as any past or recent events that may be impacting them through that.  

Archeology of the self: keeping your preconceptions at bay 

For some of the harder and passion-inducing topics, it can be hard to keep a neutral stance when two or more young people are engaged in heated debate. This is where an archeology of self can help. Doing a deep self-exploration of your own beliefs, biases and ideas can help you understand how you are feeling but also allows you to understand how a young person with a different view to you is feeling and support them in that understanding.  

Just because our views differ to those of the young people we work with, it doesn’t mean we are right and they are wrong, we all have different life experiences, influences and belief systems which means we will inevitably have opposing views. But understanding where our views come from and taking responsibility for building our literacy of an issue helps to build our own confidence in discussing it with young people and supporting them to do their own reflection and literacy development.  

Creating a safe space for young people 

Creating a safe and brave space for young people to engage in these difficult topics is crucial. Going through the steps of the pyramid can help build this safe and brave space, but it is being open and respectful of the choices or opinions of someone else that creates more unity than division. Glasgow Interfaith Association undertook some work around creating brave spaces and completed a report talking through the outcomes of a group with differing views coming together through dialogue.  

The final stage of the pyramid is interruption and once we have worked through the other steps with young people, we can then support them to interrupt safely to make the changes they want to see in the world. But without going through the other stages ourselves, and then supporting young people to do the same, we risk less effective interruption and young people putting themselves at unnecessary risk.  

It is important to note that young people will not always agree with each other, and we will not always agree with the young people we work with, but it does come down to the first step again. Critical love and the ethical commitment youth workers make to caring for young people and giving them a voice that is heard and taken seriously.