Critical youth work

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Historically, the primary focus of youth work has been on risk prevention and rehabilitation to keep young people off the streets, an approach known as a person-centered approach [3].

The person-centered approach has led to service providers regarding young people as problems requiring a solution or intervention. 

More recently, however, youth programs and initiatives have shifted their focus towards fostering positive youth development via empowerment strategies. The positive youth development approach views youth as active agents in changing their lives through active community participation.

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This shift in youth work has been supported by the recognition that a person-centered approach is only one part of the equation and we must not ignore the intersecting systems of power, privilege, and oppression that influence the daily lives of young people.

The psychosocial development of children and youth are directly linked to their social standings, such as class, race, and gender. As such, differences in youth development, academic achievement, and life changes can be attributed to income inequality, systemic oppression, and other forms of marginalization [2]. Social inequalities and marginalization cause psychological damage to young people’s self-worth undervaluing their sense of worth, dignity, and humanity [1].

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What is critical youth work?

Critical youth work focuses both on the individual’s positive psychosocial development and the promotion of collective critical consciousness for social change [1].

At the core of critical youth work is challenging social inequalities, such as social exclusion, oppression, and limited resources that undermine the healthy development of young people.

By employing critical youth work practice, the issues and challenges young people face are approached within the context of larger socioeconomic inequalities and oppression.

Beyond making resources, opportunities, and services available for young people, another key component of critical youth work is the ability for youth workers to apply critical consciousness to their work.

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Critical consciousness is the ability to perceive and critically challenge the processes of power, privilege, and oppression that shape young people’s lives.

In the absence of critical consciousness, youth workers may inadvertently assimilate into the status quo and avoid engagement in meaningful social change[2].

Additionally, youth workers play a key role in helping youth develop critical consciousness and situate their issues within a wider socio-economic context to transform themselves, their communities, and society as a whole.

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Critical youth work is essential to transform the lives of marginalized youth.

Interventions that support the well-being and positive growth of youth must combine the interpersonal with the collective and challenge the sociopolitical context in which young people’s lives are affected by oppression and marginalization.

Youth workers must be dedicated to providing the resources and support required for young people to not only transform their lives but also become active social agents devoted to changing the world by taking collective action for anti-oppressive future.


[1] Lavie-Ajayi, M., & Krumer-Nevo, M. (2013). In a different mindset: Critical youth work with marginalized youth. Children and Youth Services Review, 35 (10), 1698-1704.

[2] Stanton-Salazar, R. D. (2011). A social capital framework for the study of institutional agents and their role in the empowerment of low-status students and youth. Youth & Society, 43 (3), 1066-1109.

[3] Jennings, L.B., Parra-Medina, D.M., Hilfinger-Messias, D.K. and McLoughlin, K., (2006). Toward a critical social theory of youth empowerment. Journal of Community Practice, 14 (1-2), 31-55.


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