Diversity & Inclusion Education

The Critical Nature of Youth Work

Credit: Jeff Miller – UW-Madison

In a place like Madison, it’s easy to be fixated on the campus. However, there is a city filled with people, specifically youth, that college students can be a part of serving. 

Almost a year after the release of Dr. Bianca Baldridge’s book, Reclaiming Community: Race and the Uncertain Future of Youth Work, the conversation rose around how and why college students get involved in what she describes as youth work. Youth work entails the engagement with youth inside and outside of traditional educational spaces, often in community-based programs.

“College students tend to be the primary workforce in youth work,” Baldridge said. “It’s a prime time to get into youth work, and many people stay.”

According to Baldridge, the relatability to high school and middle school-aged students is what makes college students especially primed for this work. The way that students of color evolve at UW-Madison prepares them to work with youth. 

“Your opinion about the world is growing (in college) and they are as well for high school, middle school, and elementary school students. College students are closer to the age range of high school students and I think college students have a lot to teach,” Dr. Baldridge said. 

Community-based programs in Madison encourage this work, like Simpson Street Free Press, Freedom Inc., Mentoring Positives, and many others.  

In community-based programs, workers are “encouraged to connect in ways that there is not always time for in traditional school settings,” Baldridge said. 

Dr. Baldridge is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at UW-Madison and studies youth work because of her personal experiences in youth work. 

“Working with youth was my first love,” Baldridge said. 

In her research, Baldrige knew she could not study places of youth work without considering race and class. She believes that before working with youth, there should be a critical reflection, awareness of privilege and racism so that harmful assumptions are not made.

“I also think not everyone needs to do the work,” Baldridge said. “If you have harmful ideas about young people and you think that you are better than them and trying to fix them, I think that’s a problem and you shouldn’t be working with young people.” 

The Morgridge Center of Public Service creates avenues for college students to work with youth in the Madison community. Badger Volunteers and community-engaged courses with faculty members facilitate this work. 

CC Vang, the Achievement Connection Campus Coordinator at the Morgridge Center, has seen

the center continually make efforts to prepare students better for working with youth through orientations and training.

“The hope is that students are aware of who they are, the power and privileges they bring into community, especially as we work with marginalized youth,” Vang said.

The center also looks at how other universities are engaging with their communities and how to make their work specific to Madison. 

“We continually want to reemphasize the importance of understanding what equity, diversity, and inclusion look like,” Vang said. 

Shiheina Muye, UW-Madison junior, carries similar sentiments to Baldridge and Vang as a lead tutor for AVID, a pre-college program offered at the Madison Metropolitan School District. 

“I don’t go in there thinking I’m there to fix them. I am just there to support them,” Muye said. 

Muye is an AVID alum from Minnesota and believes if it was not for AVID, she would not be in college. She has a deep dedication to the program. When there was a call for AVID alum to work in Madison, she jumped on the chance to be a youth worker.

“Once I started my position with AVID, I saw a lot of different ways that students of color were being treated in classes and I knew this is where I needed to be,” Muye said. “I think when they see college students that look like them they realize it’s not just this classroom, it does not end here.”

Representation is a critical part of youth development, especially representation in educational spaces. According to Johns’ Hopkins University, black students who have one black teacher by third grade are 13 percent more likely to enroll in college. 

“Youth workers are educators,” Dr. Baldridge said. 

Through youth work, students of color at the university level can be a part of the needed representation.

Alexandria is a journalism student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is pursuing a certificate in educational policy studies and criminal justice. Follow her on Twitter @alexjoywrites.

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