In the last two blog posts in this short series, I’ve looked at the reasons why Western-raised young people might join groups like ISIS and extreme nationalist groups like the UPF (United Patriots Front), and what needs to happen to prevent this.

In the first post, I suggested that two of the reasons for joining extremist groups were ‘exclusion’ and ‘ennui’ (no doubt there are more). In the second post, I suggested that young people need ‘hardship’ and ‘encounter’ to shift from exclusion and ennui to a life of belonging and adventure. In this third blog post I want to propose a few ways that youth workers can assist in the process of ‘hardship’ and ‘encounter’. The end game? That young people throw themselves, with others, into a nonviolent adventure aimed at changing the world for the better. It’s not extremism that is destructive, but violence.

How can youth workers assist in the process of hardship and encounter?

1. Avoid the alleviation of hardship

Most youth workers are primed for compassion, and the suffering of young people elicits our sympathy. But our role is not to save young people from hardship, but to assist them to grow through it. We may even deliberately create experiences that create hardship. Youth work is an educative task, and hardship is a path to learning. Even hardship brought about by injustice and inequality can be a path to learning.

We would not wish oppression on young people, but we would wish hardship and the opportunity for overcoming challenge that it brings. For young people who have experienced hardship through injustice, we face the double task of helping them see their experience as a well from which to draw, while decrying oppression itself. For young people who have not experienced serious hardship, we face the task of inviting them to immerse themselves in situations of personal hardship. For ourselves, we either face our own hardships honestly or fail as youth workers. (This obviously has a limit. When someone’s life is in imminent danger or abuse is occurring, then obviously intervention is required.)

2. Engender belonging

To counter the sense of ‘exclusion’, youth workers must (1) promote a broader culture of welcome in Australia, so that all young people feel that they are valued and included as Australians and (2) create local, smaller, places of belonging in neighbourhoods, schools, workplaces and interests so that young people experience face-to-face community.

In order to promote a culture of welcome, we find ourselves working for justice, equity and compassion in policy and political conversation. This explicitly political task can seem removed from the average daily activities of a youth workers, but without changing the atmosphere, our daily efforts will struggle to breathe.

At a local level, we find ourselves creating experiences and places that engender belonging. I’m not talking about belonging as political conformity, but the experience of being known and accepted, of your gifts being discerned and celebrated, of freedom to experiment with identity without fear of rejection, of contributing to a common vision.

3. Engender adventure

We inculcate a sense of the adventure of being human, of windmills to charge and mountains to climb and impossible feats to attempt. Such adventure thrives on the margins of social respectability. Because of this, it pushes against the bonds of belonging and community. All the same, youth workers need to encourage young people to take the risks needed to pursue their dreams, and expose them to new horizons.