The need to integrate evaluation with the values of youth work

Dave Close, Director of youth work charity, Hot Chocolate Trust, blogs on YouthLink Scotland’s upcoming Policy Convention and the need to integrate evaluation with the values of youth work.

Hot Chocolate Trust is a youth work charity in Dundee city centre, working with teenagers and young adults from all over the city – usually, the ones who don’t fit anywhere else. In a performance poem, you can watch here, the young people once said of themselves “we are mess and strange; we are goths and emos, rats, sloths, and raccoons; we are change”.

Most approaches to measuring the change in people and in communities treat it as an observable, demonstrable entity, something extracted or separate from the people themselves. But not so in youth work, where we try to measure human changes without being dehumanizing. However, how do we do that without diminishing the person or their meanings? Because, if we’re honest, most of the processes offered and authorised by our systems of funding are dehumanising. Yet it remains important that such systems make sure the “right” changes will be made or else how can the large amounts of money which are needed be invested in a confident and considered way to the benefit of the young people youth work supports?

Too often youth workers and youth work organisations have resigned themselves to bending out of shape when it comes to monitoring and evaluation, “you have to play the game” etc. This minimises the issue and makes it easier to live with the tensions - but is it acceptable?

Tania de St Croix, of Kings College London, (amongst others) has persuasively argued that “Evaluation does not simply reflect what we do – it shapes and influences our work”. If “youth work is human rights work” then this needs to be embodied in our everyday systems and actions of monitoring and evaluation, not just our value statements. This is not a peripheral issue because we are talking about what is valued in our work.

If we compromise with approaches to evaluation which do not have room for the complex humanity of the young people we serve… we might do so for the best of reasons; we might do so believing that we can see and understand and hold the value of our work through different eyes, through a different mindset from that held by our funders. But we will have to work hard, vigilantly and ceaselessly if we are to guard that boundary – sooner or later, if the “value” of our work is primarily expressed in ways that compromise our “values”, the price will paid somewhere.

At Hot Chocolate Trust we have committed to integrating evaluation with our everyday youth work practice and values. Our experience is that approaches and tools which are designed to benefit young people and youth workers first can, in fact, provide richer and more valuable learning and evidence for managers and for funders.

We want to encourage and support others to reclaim monitoring and evaluation with us. This is why we are asking you to join us and hundreds more at YouthLink Scotland’s Online Policy Convention “Youth Work is Human Rights Work” on 8 December. Together we can redefine what is considered rigorous and robust and we can assert young people’s rights and youth work’s values in this crucial but under-scrutinised area of interpreting what changes matter.

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