I remember before my trip, that a lot of my colleagues in the UK mentioned the UK youth work sector as a reference point for many in Europe, and so I wondered what it was that I could learn from European colleagues.
I was not quite sure what to expect but, looking back, I went with a certain dose of Anglocentrism, and the first activity at the event was the start of this being challenged. I was paired with someone from another country, and we were supposed to share details of our experience in youth work. To my surprise the other person, a balding man in his 30s, turned out to be representing a local youth council in his town. I was working with youth councils in the North West of England at the time and in my experience most youth council leaders there were hardly over 17. I couldn’t understand how a youth council member could be older than a youth worker.
It took me a while to understand that European youth work was not about saying what is better and what is worse, but seeing commonalities and learning from each other between different countries. I remember once working on a youth exchange with a German partner and insisted on each group bringing a youth worker as I saw this as a way of increasing safeguarding measures for all young people involved. The German group reluctantly obliged. Then when, one of the German participants fell ill during the exchange and I immediately called upon the youth worker to seek their help, but it turned out the young people on the exchange had already taken care of their friend and were fully in control of the situation. This made me reflect on the balance between caring for and protecting young people and allowing them to grow independent and resilient, a balance I feel we often tip the other way in UK youth work.
As one of my new SALTO colleagues and an experienced trainer later told me, after I explained the ‘bald man’s challenge’ to them – there are different ways of being young. These days I realise how much UK youth work can learn from other countries. To me this is what I enjoy most about working with the SALTOs. It’s not just finding out the differences that exist in youth work, but it’s also building on the commonalities, as part of building Europe together. I don’t know what that will look like after Brexit, but I know it’s something I’m still committed to.