Interview with Karin Peham-Strauß, president of the European network for Professional Open Youth Work (POYWE) and member of the board of the Federal Organisation of Open Youth Work in Austria (bOJA), head of a youth centre in Perg/Austria, Stephanie Deimel, responsible for quality development in the office of bOJA (bundesweites Netzwerk Offene Jugendarbeit) in Vienna and Marc Boes, managing director of POYWE
JfE: What does the European Youth Work Agenda mean for your work?
Marc Boes: I would call it a challenge. Because on the one hand, the Convention can be a big event and that's it. Or, on the other hand, we do something with it. We want to take the Bonn Process from the office to the youth centre and to the young people who come to a youth centre somewhere in Europe.
JfE: How do you do that?
Marc Boes: Youth work and youth policy in Europe are mostly based on "soft laws". There is no European law that we work by. So instead, we have to inspire and convince our colleagues in Europe. Otherwise, they will quickly say: this is not for me, or I don't understand it. Practitioners often don't see the connection between their daily work and Europe. So we have to think carefully about how we communicate: What is effective and productive for youth workers? I was a youth worker in the Netherlands for 30 years. We know that most of them have little time. Anything that is quick and practical is considered more than reading books.
But there are also those who are interested, mostly youth workers who have done something European once and realise: OK, I get more energy here, new ideas for my own work, knowledge and arguments that I can use towards politicians. Especially towards politicians, references to European debates help change or improve things on a local level. Such youth workers are also often multipliers who pass on their experiences to others.
Karin Peham-Strauß: As a practitioner, I can confirm this. If you integrate European work into local youth work, then it has an added value and it is also seen. Unfortunately, the problem is that there are few funding programmes that make this possible. There is Erasmus+ Youth, good. But the programme requires a relatively high level of knowledge, including language knowledge, in order to be able to use it. In order to strengthen youth workers and to network youth work at the local level, we at bOJA offer conferences. We can also imagine something like this on a European or international level. The next bOJA conference should also be international. There, youth workers can exchange ideas about local issues at the European level. Then you get to know: Aha, it's different, but it's very similar or even the same. And the problems are the same. This is also how local youth work finds links. This requires platforms and networks, not just books.
JfE: How will you use the Bonn Process in Austria?
Stephanie Deimel: As the representative of open youth work in Austria, the Youth Work Agenda simply plays into our hands. The paper strengthens the field of action, that is how we understood it and that is how we will use it. We can tie in well with the eight objectives with the individual aspects. We cannot wait for someone on the funding side to come up to us and roll out the red carpet. We will use it "bottom up" for us.
Karin Peham-Strauß: To do this, we work together with all players in the youth sector. The Austrian delegation at the Youth Work Convention in Bonn included representatives from youth associations, open youth work, youth information, the youth ministry and youth research. This is a lot of potential to strengthen the youth sector together. We are still in our "infancy", which we now want to fill with life.
JfE: How do you want to do that?
Karin Peham-Strauß: There have already been meetings this year of the management of our three networks, i.e. the Federal Youth Council, bOJA and BÖJI, the Federal Network of Austrian Youth Information. And they agreed to formulate a joint position paper: What is the use of the European Work Agenda and what are our priorities? It is important to focus on topics, so that something happens at all.
For this, indicators should also be identified, so that we can record what is changing and it does not remain just empty words. The paper is not finished yet, but I think we will argue for a new legal anchoring of youth work. There is an old Youth Promotion Act in Austria, but there is very little in it. A legal anchoring should lead to a strengthening, for example by saying that access to open youth work is a right of young people. This could be linked to a key, e.g. that in municipalities with a certain number of young people this and that has to be provided.
For our federal system, it is important to create as good a framework as possible at the federal level, in addition to the individual state laws. The work for this then happens on the meta-level, to be sure, where the individual youth worker in a village "X" is not involved. But it is also about his framework conditions and quality of work; in this respect he benefits from it.
Stephanie Deimel: The European Youth Work Agenda could show how important youth work is. So far in Austria it is often left to the decision of the mayor or mayoress whether this person considers it important to implement mobile youth work or youth centres, youth clubs. And of course this is always a big dilemma for the professionals. Relationship work, basic principles and methods are designed for long-term work. And yet you often don't have financial security. That is one of the biggest problems in this country, but also in neighbouring countries. We need better framework conditions and more security for the field of work.
JfE: What about training and further education?
Stephanie Deimel: Training and further education are core tasks that we have been pursuing for years. Open youth work is a very broad field, also because of the different forms it takes. For us, youth street work and mobile youth work are part of open youth work and are sometimes standardised differently in terms of law and training than work in a youth centre. For us it is always important that we take all professionals and youth workers with us and qualify them.
For this, existing training courses, in which different expertise is included, would have to be harmonised. We also want to bring the topic of open youth work into the existing training programmes, specifically at the universities of applied sciences, in the social work degree programmes. The handbook Open Youth Work in Austria also stipulates a new status quo. In our current handbook "Open Youth Work in Austria" we have reflected on the basics of the field of work. In an Erasmus+ partnership project "All Knowledge in Open Youth Work", which we as bOJA (Austria) are carrying out with the AGJF (Germany) and the DOJ (Switzerland), we have created a knowledge platform where we make good literature and resources very easily accessible. This is to serve the quality assurance of open youth work.
Karin Peham-Strauß: We have already filled the National Qualification Framework in Austria with our descriptions of Open Youth Work. For a better education and training in Austria, different people of the "Community of Practice" would have to sit down at one table. We can imagine that we will strengthen this exchange now that financial possibilities are available to fill the Bonn process with life. Maybe there will be a separate network event or conference.
Stephanie Deimel: As bOJA, we are planning a conference for November in Perg, Upper Austria, with 200 people, including representatives of POYWE and some international participants. We also want to present and discuss the Youth Work Agenda. On this basis, a working group will think through our own strategic directions.
Marc Boes: In Austria it's all pretty well organised. But it is not like that everywhere. When we think about the Bonn Process and the Youth Work Agenda, we also have to consider that there are still countries in Europe where certain forms of youth work have never been practised. There is a very uneven playing field. The countries that are already ahead want more. And other countries may think professional youth work is difficult or not possible here.
JfE: As a European network, do you have a kind of professional description?
Marc Boes: Two years ago, together with nine other partners in the network, we wrote a Declaration of Principles for professional open youth work. An agreement at the European level can be used as an argument to change or improve things at the local level.