Working With The Youth — A Rumination

As a social work practitioner, I am constantly asked “what do you like the most about working with young people?

My answers usually vary depending on the kind of day I have had. On some days, I say it’s the passional conversations with them. Other times, it’s the energy I experience when I am surrounded by them. Then there are times where it’s the gusto to be creative while dealing with young people that drives me because they still possess a child’s honesty. And vulnerability.

Now, I have always loved working with children and would pick up any opportunity that came my way. I would opt for volunteering and campaigns throughout college and slowly, I kind of fell into it. I also loved working with women because there was always a sense of solidarity there. These women, their stories, it all just made sense to me.I didn’t always have a huge philosophy behind what I was doing though. Not at 16, when I used to rush to volunteer after my lectures. Not at 18, when I decided to set up a reading and play room at a local hostel during summer break. And not at 22, when I fought at home and travelled to Bihar for a rural project. In due time, I realised that this was something I could do for the rest of my life and that it brought me joy. And so, I continued.

My social start-up after many years, gave me an opportunity of engaging with a different kind of tribe - the youth. I had never really worked with the youth as closely as I did here. I sure did a few short campaigns here and there but I could never be around long enough to see the aftermath of my work. It was more of pay it forward and move on to the next adventure.

This was different though. Here, I could see the trajectory that followed. The people became more than just their names and their stories. They weren’t just case studies that I could work on and feel rewarded and move on. I saw them again and again and as the time passed, so did the reasons for us to work together.

$At Varitra’s field-team meeting with young fellows

Every young person I met here was on their own individual journey. They were people with ideas, experiences, ignorance and flaws. And since the association here was longer, they eventually opened up about their expectations and needs. And that’s how you know that you have formed a relationship. This however came with a fair share of its own struggles. You see, I too had my own expectations for them. I held this stubborn passion that that their experience of volunteering with us would change their lives.

I wasn’t entirely wrong. But I was definitely misled.

Often, our youth volunteers would return after we completed a training with them and there would be no “change”. Most of them were still unmoved on a few things. It could be something technical or even a personal stance. And that right there, was my first lesson. I was dealing with people. And if I had to work with people, I had to be okay with them doing what they always do and respond to change in their own ways. Even if it would not always fit into my box of thought. Honestly, it was demotivating and frustrating at times. But rewarding too.

Soon, my co-founder and I began holding youth meetings in quest to take this relationship beyond work. Every meeting, we would pick a social issue and open a platform for our volunteers to talk on it. We discussed aspirations, gender politics, violence, unemployment and more. In the beginning, we couldn’t refrain from giving our piece of mind or even hijacking the stage when we didn’t agree with what our participants had to say. But eventually, I knew I had to stop.

At a community meeting with rural youth volunteers and children

This one time I remember, I gave a topic to the volunteers to debate on. I asked them who they thought made better leaders — men or women? We were in the heart of Haryana — a state which was once considered the flag-bearer of patriarchy. Perhaps, it still is. And so, the responses that we got were horrifying, disappointing and even numbing — to say the least. The team which picked men wouldn’t stop talking and the team which picked up women didn’t have enough to say.

I could see the restlessness and anger bubble up within my core team members. They walked up to me in the break and demanded why I didn’t react throughout the whole debate. How was I okay with it? Was I really okay, I asked myself. Each time, someone gave a reason why a woman lacked what a man did, it felt like a personal attack. However, as I observed these young people struggle and fight during the debate, I remembered this was the exact purpose of working with them.

For most of them, this was possibly the first space where they were asked for their opinion. And so, what if that opinion wasn’t the best on the moral compass? It was still an opinion born out of whatever life had thrown at them. And they were yet to experience a different perspective or listen to alternative stories and narratives. And rethink. This right here, was a beginning of it. I decided to conclude the meeting by sharing my own personal journey of growing up in a semi-urban joint family in Haryana, moving to Mumbai for higher education, working for a few years across organisations and returning to Haryana to work with youth and children at the grassroots. A simple story. And yet, I sensed a discomfort and silence throughout the time I spoke. They had finally heard something different. While we were closing a meeting, we checked in with our volunteers about how they were feeling. One young man looked at us and said “I feel respected. And I feel strange. Even though you did not agree with my thinking, you did not shut me down or called me wrong.” That stayed with me.

This brings me back to my core team. The girls who walked up to me were not very different from these volunteers. We found them during a placement drive at a local government college in Karnal. They had more or less led the same life and if you would have had this debate with them two years back, I am not sure if their responses would have been any different. What changed them? Maybe it was their own journey of stepping outside their houses and villages and coming to work. Perhaps, it was listening to new stories or meeting more female role models on the way. Or perhaps, it was the trajectory of they themselves turning into role models for people around them. I wouldn’t really know, I guess.

But I will always remember this. The people we work with may not always show results when we want them to. No matter what a person goes on to do in their lives after they meet us, they will always take a little something of this experience with them. And we cannot possibly imagine the ways that it will benefit them.

So I have decided to take my own advice and not let my idea of “change” stop me from giving people a chance to experience their own version of it.

I am learning to let go. Here’s hoping!


Social-entrepreneur | raconteuse | she ; her | always planning her next meal