Photo by Jill Anderson
Being a youth worker isn’t easy, and we tend to know why people doing that work leave their jobs, or even leave the career altogether: stress, high caseloads, insufficient support, low pay. But what about the “persisters” — the youth workers who stay in their jobs, despite the barriers?
Deepa Vasudevan, one of three doctoral marshals for HGSE’s graduating cohort, decided to find answers to that question in her dissertation. As a former youth worker in a Philadelphia high school, she saw firsthand the inspiring work being done in community-based programs by experienced youth workers; she knew the field wasn’t just made up of people eager to leave. After doing her research, which included extensive life story interviews with 20 seasoned practitioners, Vasudevan found a common thread among persisters: they saw their work less as a job and more as a community calling.
Just before graduation, Vasudevan shared her thoughts on these findings, how she hopes her research will help others, and what her own next steps are.
Are you a “persister”?
No and yes. In a traditional sense, I don’t see myself as a persister. I exited from a direct-service youth work position after a one-year fellowship at Parkway Northwest High School for Peace and Social Justice. I really enjoyed supporting young people outside of the structures of the traditional classroom setting, but I didn’t know how to stay in the work. I then worked for four years at the Out-of-School Time Resource Center, supporting youth workers (many of whom I understood to be persisters) through creating program resources, facilitating professional trainings, and conducting evaluations and needs assessments.
But also, yes. My research participants complicated a traditional construction of occupational identity and persistence. And, in doing so, they pushed me to see my professional experiences in a different light. While I don’t work with youth in a program any more, my research, advocacy, and teaching about youth work is a form of persistence.
How do you hope your research will help the field?
Long-term, caring relationships with youth workers matter for youth program participants, but right now, it seems like youth programs are designed for staff exits. I hope my research will inspire collective conversations and action in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors about improving working conditions for youth workers — salaries and benefits in particular. While professionalization efforts are often focused on creating competencies and standards of accountability, my research shows that we must have immediate conversations around issues of equity and rights for youth workers. This means re-evaluating systems both within and beyond the field. Gentrification and crushing student loan debt make it nearly impossible for youth workers from low-income backgrounds or single working households to stay in this field. Within the field, I want to make sure organizational leaders nurture persisters’ callings and love for the work, rather than over-relying and exploiting these callings.
What’s one surprising thing you learned doing your research?
I thought I would learn from persisters about a variety of organizational supports that were nurturing their professional identities. There were some interesting examples of positive supports, but I found that many of the persisters I interviewed were relying on their personal callings as their primary fuel for continuity, and that a lot of them had experienced negligence, racism, and disrespect from managers.
In doing life history interviews, there were also really important stories of immigration and place that repeatedly came up in our conversations. Over half of my sample were first- or second-generation immigrants, and I think that their calling to youth work also related to creating spaces of belonging in the United States. I’m hoping to further my analysis about youth work and immigrant identities. This line of inquiry is of personal significance to me as the daughter of Indian immigrants who found a sense of belonging in afterschool clubs and activities.
What’s next for you?
I am excited to continue as visiting lecturer at Wellesley College next year, teaching a seminar titled Understanding and Improving Schools, as well as offering a new course, Centering Community: Critical Perspectives on Youth Work & Out-of-School Time Programs. This class builds on my Ed School module, A Place to Call Home: Developing and Advocating for Community Youth Programs.