Youth Work Works Congress in Flanders: value, effect & a common language of youth work

The second Youth Work Works Congress led by De Ambrassade, took place in Brussels in June of 2023. Over 500 youth workers, policy makers and people from neighbouring sectors gathered and immersed themselves in exploring the mission of youth work, the DNA of the youth worker, and the positive effect of youth work.

Rilke Mahieu and Timmy Boutsen

Shortly after the Congress, we met with Rilke Mahieu and Timmy Boutsen to talk about the Youth Work Works.

Where did the idea for the Congress come from?

Timmy: Well, the first Congress started in the minds of a team of youth workers from De Ambrassade. We had a number of questions we were exploring amongst ourselves; how can we increase the value of youth work, how can we make it more visible, we need more language to talk about youth work, what is the value of youth work?

From these and many other questions we thought of the idea to have a Congress where we could gather a lot of youth workers to explore and discuss these questions. So over two years later we made it happen in 2018.

When was it decided to make a second Congress?

Timmy: Immediately after the first Congress, there was a feeling that there was a need for more. There was a feeling that things were not finished and we felt we wanted to continue to work on all these issues and questions.

We wanted to keep the dialogue going in the youth work community in Flanders, we wanted to talk more about the value of youth work, and how we can enrich the language to talk about the value of youth. I hope it will be a tradition to keep doing it every five years and so keep the dialogue going.

Rilke: Yes, there were lots of discussions between the first Congress and this one, this is not something that stops. Interestingly most of the questions were already hanging in the air before the first Congress, so it is not that these discussions were not taking place at all, it is just that the Congress creates space and momentum to push things forward, to dig deeper into the topics and to really get things moving forward.

Can you tell us more about the Congress?

Timmy: The Congress brings 500 plus youth workers, and people from other sectors, together in one place for a day. It's about celebrating to be together. It's also very much about having dialogue, in essence we are exploring the value of youth work, the impact of youth work, and what we think are going to be the most important topics in the coming years. Each Congress also has a number of priority areas that are used to guide discussions and workshops.

Rilke: Yes, at this Congress we used the priority areas to set the agenda for future actions. The priority areas are not just for the Congress, the idea is to develop future actions on those priorities to see development in these areas in the next five years. This is not something that De Ambrassade is doing alone, we, the National Agency and De Ambrassade are working with various partners and other youth work organisations who want to work on one or more of these areas to stimulate change.

Timmy: Another aspect of the Congress was that in 2018, we created the concept of the ‘youth worker DNA’ and the ‘mission of youth work’, and this year we added the ‘youth work effect’. These areas are being worked on as part of the development of a common language about youth work to help people to talk about the value of youth work.

You talk about three terminologies, youth work’s mission, youth worker DNA and the youth work effect, what do these things mean?

Timmy: So, youth work’s mission is to actively promote and implement four fundamental rights that children and young people should have. These are: to experiment and to learn by trial and error, to participate fully in society, to leisure, relaxation and cultural and artistic activities, and to develop and grow up together. We created the DNA term because we feel that there is a specific DNA that every youth worker has.

This DNA is mainly an attitude that can only be lived, learned and experienced in youth work. If we think about youth work, it is playful, fun, creative, dirty, rebellious, vibrant, passionate, wacky... the DNA is how the youth worker reacts to all of this and how they relate to the world around them, especially in the context of putting young people first.

If the youth work’s mission is to create space for the rights of young people and the youth workers do this work based on their common youth worker DNA, what are the effects on the young people and their communities, what is the youth work effect?

The youth work effect is seen through the promotion of the value of youth work and showing the impact of youth work. One of the ways this is done is by asking people if they participated in youth work, what impact did it have on them?

What is the relationship between youth work works and the Bonn Process?

Rilke: The added value of the Bonn Process and the European Youth Work Agenda is that they give us food for thought, an impulse to start doing things. We are questioning ourselves, for example, we are asking; what is missing in our youth work in Flanders? What things we are overlooking?

I think something that the Bonn Process also added was that in the framework of this process, there have been more opportunities to meet like-minded people. Events where people who wanted to, could really connect on particular topics. We had a research project on measuring the impact of youth work, through linking with the Bonn Process we discovered all these people from many different countries who were interested in the same question. The Bonn Process supports people to connect more easily, it sparks new cooperation.

Timmy: I like the quote from the Convention, don't ask what the Agenda can do for you but what can you do for the Agenda. You have to ask what you can do, for me I would like to see every country organising its own Congress every five years and always attach an international link to it, and at the European level the Youth Work Convention continues to happen every five years, then we will have many more connections with each other to explore more, define more, create a stronger common language about youth work and provide direction for the future of youth work.

Rilke Mahieu

“My name is Rilke Mahieu, I am a staff officer at JINT, the Erasmus+ National Agency for the Flemish speaking part of Belgium. I am involved in several strategic cooperation projects and coordinate the National Agencies involvement in the European Academy on Youth Work. Through my position at JINT, I have been involved in the Congress for some time now. I was part of the steering group for the content and direction of this Congress”.

Timmy Boutsen

“I am Timmy Boutsen, I work for De Ambrassade. We are a support organisation in Flanders for youth organisations. We host the Flemish Youth Council in our building, we produce youth information, and we support youth work organisations in Flanders. I was one of the organisers for the 1st Congress in 2018 and of course for this 2023 Congress also”.