Reclaiming Community
Race and the Uncertain Future of Youth Work
Bianca J. Baldridge



Community-Based Youth Work in Uncertain Times

The quality of what has been created over the last 12 years. I’m worried about that just being destroyed . . . ​by someone who has no clue about their experience. I was thinking about this very thing the other day, and really the word “co-opting” just kept coming back to me. The work that we’ve done is going to be co-opted.

—Walidah Thomas, Director of High Achievers, Middle School Program, 2007–2015

ON A COLD RAINY Saturday morning in February 2008, I walked several blocks to the neighborhood of Dunbar, a historic area located in a busy, rapidly gentrifying region of a large city in the Northeast. I was on my way to Educational Excellence (EE), a community-based after-school program.1 I had been invited by a friend to participate on a panel about college for a group of middle school students as part of the program’s Career and College Day event. After walking the few blocks from the bus stop, I approached the large high-rise building where the program was located. The building sat on a large city block nestled between a fast food restaurant and a hair braiding salon, with a popular corner store located at the end of the block. I took the elevator to the seventh floor. Once the elevator doors opened, I was immediately struck by the loud, gleeful voices of young people talking and laughing throughout the halls. As I entered the room where my panel was to take place, I noticed the room was filled with mostly young, Black faces—some with enthusiastic expressions and others looking annoyed, likely due to the fact it was so early on a Saturday morning. In the room that day, I also noticed that the staff members and other adults present were mostly Black and therefore reflected the population of students in the program. As a former youth worker, I have spent most of my life working with and alongside youth in community-based after-school settings and cherished these opportunities.

During the session, my fellow panelists and I fielded questions about college majors and job opportunities, college life, and financial aid. A few students boldly asked us about our social lives in college. We assured them that life in college had many social opportunities. Some students were assertive and very clear about what they wanted to pursue in college or for their careers while others were a bit more uncertain. After the panel ended, I joined students for lunch and observed other panels. Throughout the day there was a strong, vibrant energy from youth workers and students in the program that spoke volumes about the culture created within the program.

A few months before my visit to EE, I had met two staff members/youth workers from the organization at a regional conference in the Northeast where they discussed their robust programming with youth unpacking race, gender, sexuality, class, power, and privilege. These themes were evident during my first visit to the program for the panel. Although I had volunteered in the past with other programs on occasion, the tone and culture of EE was different—more specific to affirming the identities of Black youth across diverse ethnic backgrounds. Youth workers there understood how political forces like racism and poverty affected college attainment, something which was a part of the conversation on panels that day. Staff members engaged students in highly effective ways that were fun, loving, and humanizing. Students appeared comfortable, engaged, and genuinely happy as some were gently nudged to ask questions of panelists. I was moved by my experience at Educational Excellence that day, and soon after I started volunteering. I was impressed with the robust after-school, weekend, and summer programming the organization offered, which included a number of academic, elective, and youth development courses—as well as emotional support through counseling—for middle school, high school, and college students. Over the next three years, I went from volunteer to after-school course instructor, to part-time youth worker teaching youth development courses to middle and high school students, to ultimately being a researcher studying the experiences of staff members. Each of these roles and experiences provided an in-depth exploration into a unique after-school community-based program and revealed youth workers’ experiences as cultural workers, institutional advocates, and pedagogues.

In 2011, as part of my research on how youth workers’ imagining of Black youth shaped their organization, I spoke with all youth workers and every support staff member, rummaged through program literature, and sat in on staff meetings. Based on this research, I learned that staff members went to great lengths to avoid deficit-oriented language, like “at risk,” and shied away from media attention that positioned the organization or its youth workers as “saviors” or “heroes” to students, which is all too common in community-based youth work and in the non-profit sector. EE fiercely fought to maintain its affirming and asset-rich language, which describes youth by the skills and talents they possess. Youth workers called EE students “scholars” and framed students as “high potential” and “intelligent” on program literature and in media engagement. I found that youth workers at EE, who were predominantly Black, had a firm grasp of the complex political problems that informed the lives of the youth and families they engaged. Youth workers saw sociocultural, political, and emotional development as critical to students’ academic success an intentionally took a comprehensive approach to youth development exhibiting radical care. Although there were differing approaches and attitudes among youth workers, they shared a belief in the humanity of Black and other minoritized youth. As has been found in research elsewhere among youth participants in community-based organizations, youth workers at EE demonstrated a belief that young people always had a critique of the world in which they lived and needed opportunities and spaces to share that critique.2 Staff and students alike celebrated EE as a “family” dedicated to youth achievement and personal well-being. Former students describe the program as confidence boosting—a space that helped them sort out their multiple complex racial and ethnic identities and made them want to excel in all areas of their lives. “EE’s youth development class on gender, culture, and stereotypes changed my perspective on the world, but more importantly, it changed my perspective [of] myself,” shared a student alum on a questionnaire. Alumni of the program expressed the importance of being treated as someone with a “valuable opinion and voice.”

Schools are not, have never been, and will never be the only site for learning.3 For Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities, schools have often been sites of suffering, terror, and cultural violence.4 But these communities have a long history of “youth work” that not only tries to uplift youth but also strives to counteract the pernicious experiences minoritized youth have in schools and broader society. Within Black communities, youth work exists in a fugitive space—always fighting for a right to exist within the oppressive structures of anti-Blackness,5 it is nevertheless an effort to create a space where students can escape those very oppressive structures. Over time, youth work in Black spaces has been focused on literacy and learning in ways that will help students to unlearn false histories taught in schools, to foster political education, and to serve as a buffer against anti-Blackness and violence, among other things. From the creation of Freedom Schools to the spaces of learning and cultivation of resistance that occurred through the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast Program and within the Black Church during the Black Freedom Struggle, for example, community-based youth work has always been crucial to Black communities. As locations of protection, nurture, and resistance, these spaces were central for the edification of Black youth.6 Yet throughout history these spaces have endured government infiltration and destruction, and tensions as a result of external political constraints and policies, as well as internal turmoil stemming from conflicting ideologies and strategies for maintaining self and community determination.

This book tells the story of both the power of community-based afterschool spaces like EE and the problems these spaces confront as they strive to determine how youth should be engaged. For ten years, under the leadership of Dr. Leah Davis, Educational Excellence was able to determine its culture and pedagogical approaches and define youth in humanizing ways. However, between 2012 and 2013, at the same time as shifts in the city’s education system and neighborhood demographics occurred, EE underwent major changes in its leadership, which included the departure of Leah, and the organization’s founder retained more control. These changes resulted in a series of organizational and personnel shifts that influenced the work experiences and morale of youth workers who remained. I returned multiple times between 2013 and 2015 to conduct follow-up interviews with participants, and learned that Walidah Thomas’s fears noted at the beginning of this chapter came true. After major organizational shifts, EE was now “different,” “noticeably whiter,” and “just not the same.” EE began to focus solely on “expansion,” “serving more students,” and “serving the underprivileged”—language that was not supported just two years prior. Stemming from these internal changes, the organization began taking up language reflected in broader educational reform efforts aligned with privatization and competition and displayed a singular focus on measurable and quantifiable outcomes. During my follow-up interviews, it became apparent rather quickly that the culture I had been so impressed by when I first visited in 2008, and then experienced myself during my subsequent research with the organization, was nearing extinction. The space lacked vibrancy, and the tension was palpable among staff members—the familial rapport that once characterized youth workers at EE was struggling to survive. There was minimal engagement between staff members, little joy, and a lack of expressed excitement about the organization and its future.

For the most part, during Leah’s tenure between 2002 and 2012, EE successfully resisted widespread tropes of color blindness and deficit discourses about youth participants (discourses that the organization’s founder embraced) through a variety of subversive tactics on the part of its leadership and youth workers. Leah’s presence had compensated for years of suffocating paternalism by EE’s founder, Richard Dunn. It came as no surprise, then, that Leah Davis’s departure after ten years as EE’s leader resulted in extraordinary staff turnover. Although EE sometimes succumbed to expressed contradictions in their work with youth prior to the turnover, after Leah’s departure there was an unmistakable rise in organizational practices that aligned with broader education privatization discourse. This more business-like and corporatizing approach to youth work shifted the culture of the program, eroding its family-like atmosphere and causing a breakdown in staff relationships. Ultimately, the students’ perception of the program shifted as the organization began expansion and as youth workers came and went.

This book examines the external and internal political forces that contributed to the changes within this community-based after-school program. Although this book closely explores one organization, the story of EE reflects a larger, cautionary tale of what can happen to community-based youth work in an era marked by market-based approaches to public education, education restructuring aligned with deep privatization, and racialized paternalism. Important scholarship has shown how public education and schools have been shaped by the effects of privatization discourses and reform efforts resulting in school closures, the proliferation of charter schools, a rise in alternative fast-paced teacher education programs, accountability solely measured by test scores, and restructuring in major cities throughout the country.7 Yet there is little work exploring how these approaches inform community-based after-school programs. But these programs have been especially impacted, and the consequences of these broader changes include measuring the impact of the program solely by “numbers”—how many youths are served—and measurable “success” indicators, such as test scores, which breed competition and meritocratic ideals through racialized framing that positions Black youth as objects to be commodified, fixed, and rescued. An abundance of scholarship has shown how these programs are important for youths’ academic, political, cultural, and identity development. Through a deep investigation of youth workers’ experiences at one organization, this book shows how current reforms to public education are shaping community-based programs and what we stand to lose as a result.

Community-Based Youth Work: Possibility and Paradox

As the quote from Walidah Thomas at the beginning of this chapter suggests, EE was a space of great value and yet was filled with paradox. In this way it was emblematic of community-based youth work and the wider challenges of educational institutions shaped by broader political and social forces. Sociologists of education have spent considerable time examining how inequality is reproduced within schools and the ways in which students are stratified by race, class, and gender. Even more, the links between educational attainment and social mobility have been widely studied. However, sociologists of education have overlooked community-based educational spaces and the pedagogical strategies that youth workers employ. With few exceptions, scholars have paid little attention to the ways these spaces and the youth workers in them both challenge and reproduce racial disparities and their relationship to the academic success of students in schools. But, there is much that sociologists of education can learn from these spaces and from youth workers. As this book will show, community-based spaces are important out-of-school sites of education. Indeed, they are often beloved by youth and families, and have been celebrated for being structurally unlike schools. Yet these spaces are also sites of contestation over race, power, and ideology.

“Youth work” is often used interchangeably with youth development, out-of-school time learning, or community-based after-school/youth organizations.8 As a field, youth work includes theory and practice of supporting children and adolescence, and encompasses the education, guidance, and mentorship of young people through a variety of settings, including after-school programs, community-based spaces including non-profit organizations, faith-based spaces, as well as youth detention centers, parks, and recreation centers.9 Sometimes theorized as a third space—distinct from schools and families—after-school spaces are viewed as a site of development with opportunities for learning, play, socialization, protection, or care. Toward the end of the 19th century, the decline of child labor and implementation of compulsory education laws created the context for the emergence of after-school. Early spaces, like Hull House in Chicago, for example, engaged children in workforce development, English language development for European immigrants, informal education, civic education, physical education, and gendered work. As more women began working outside of the home, children would come home from school with hours of freedom before parents arrived.10 For children living in poverty, this free time, and youth themselves, were considered a “problem.”11 And, so, even today, after-school time is widely regarded as a space prime for “opportunity” and “risk.”12

At the beginning of the 20th century, churches and other faith-based organizations began setting up after-school programs in urban cities in the north.13 Following the development of after-school programs offered in settlement houses like Hull House, Boy’s Clubs and faith-based afterschool sites were established. Due to migration patterns, the structure of neighborhoods shifted and placed Black residents in contact with European children. Settlements and other after-school spaces were segregated as European families pulled their children from programs with Black children.14 Black churches and Black settlement spaces in neighborhoods offered their own programming since they were excluded from other spaces. As previously mentioned, in addition to providing opportunities for play and leisure activities, political and cultural education were strong features of these spaces. The common history and dominant practice of American youth work has typically excluded Black youth and ignored the dimensions of youth work that have been highly valued in Black communities, historically and in the present.15

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, community-based programs emerged in urban centers in response to decreases in federal safety nets, underemployment, and underfunded schools as well as racialized and class-based legislation like the War on Drugs and the resulting mass incarceration and its impact on these communities.16 The early deficit-framing of low-income youths as “problems” to be contained within after-school spaces became even more prominent as more programs developed with Black and Latinx youth in mind during this time. While many of these spaces developed by members of the communities engaged recognized the structural constraints to employment and the need for adequate and affirming educational experiences for Black and Latinx youth, the framing of after-school spaces as sites to control “male criminality and female sexuality” soared in the public’s imagination.17 Then, in 1994 (on the heels of national reports about the opportunities for youth development during non-school hours18), under the Clinton administration, the U.S. Department of Education granted millions of dollars to school-based after-school programs in rural and urban contexts through the development of 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21CCLC). Through 21CCLCs, the federal government allocates funding for states to distribute to schools and community-based organizations (some in partnership with schools) to provide after-school programming to increase academic achievement and access to higher education.19 This marked an important moment in the history of community-based youth work as there was an explicit charge toward reducing “achievement gaps” and increased competition for funding. This competition for funding continued and was amplified under the Obama administration through initiatives like Race to the Top.

Community-based after-school programs—which traditionally have been designed to meet the specific needs of the community in which they exist—have been stable fixtures in many communities for generations and are an essential resource for many families as they provide working parents peace of mind that their child is safe during non-school hours, while also offering access to food, opportunities for learning, creative expression, identity exploration, and opportunities to hone various talents and skill sets.20

The adults who engage in youth work are referred to as youth workers, community-based educators, youth specialists, or some variation. Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these workers might have been local activists, educators, or members of faith-based institutions who usually worked on a volunteer basis or as part-time staff members.21 Today, youth workers are still volunteers, part-time or full-time employees at a wide range of organizations. During the early 1990s, scholars of youth work wrote extensively about the heterogeneity of these spaces and lack of professionalization in the occupation.22 In national surveys for youth workers, findings showed that training, specializations, credentials or lack thereof, changes from organization to organization, making it difficult to determine quality services.23 Although some receive training, many youth workers have little to no training and there is a lack of infrastructure and understanding about the profession. Most concerning, many youth workers receive low wages for their work without unionization or uniform ways to carry out this work. However, the lack of uniformity also allows communities to define the work they do according to the needs of the youth they engage.

In many ways, these spaces have been important in the lives of youth and families. Research has shown that youth participants appreciate community organizations for their supportive environment and investment in them as “whole” beings, particularly for youth who feel rejected and are pushed out of schools.24 After-school programs can be restorative spaces for students who are disconnected from schools25 and can facilitate the development of social capital for young people and a deeper understanding of the social context in which they live and learn.26 These spaces are recognized for their ability to design flexible youth-centered curricula and opportunities to meet the needs of youth who are over-disciplined and disregarded in schools.27 The programmatic flexibility associated with community-based after-school programs is also linked to improved academic performance and psychosocial growth, reinforcing the value of imagining education beyond test scores.28

Youth workers play a significant role in the experiences young people have in community-based programs.29 The relationships cultivated between adults and youths within these spaces are a critical feature of these programs. Opportunities for mentorship, positive relationships with adults (beyond teachers in schools and family members), and the social capital or connections adults can make on behalf of youth are celebrated features of these spaces. As the nature of youth work varies from after-school programs to detention centers to group homes to the streets, the day-to-day experiences of youth workers differs from one program to another. Turnover in the profession is high due to low wages, lack of opportunity for advancement, and the part-time nature of the work during non-school hours.30 While some youth workers volunteer a few hours a week, some literally work twenty-four hours a day as they can be on call and needed by youth at any given moment.

Although community-based youth work is crucial to the educational and social experiences of young people, it should not be romanticized. Macro-level political structures, policies, and social forces inform all social institutions, and community-based youth spaces are not exempt. Youth work organizations are constructed and operate within a “field” that includes an array of political structures. Social forces such as racism, capitalism, and power function simultaneously and inform how community-based spaces are created, organized, and sustained.>31 For instance, organizational funding often informs how programs are constructed and are important to their survival. Historically, community-based organizations have operated as local and regional operations separate from schools and without federal funds; and, as a result, they were able to provide services and programs aligned with community interests and concerns, rather than being constrained by academic standards.32 Without public funding, non-profit community-based organizations typically rely on foundations, donors, and grants—funding from outside the communities they serve—to sustain their work. However, they run the risk of mission drift as they try to appease donors and align their work with schools as a result of funding demands like 21CCLCs. Youth workers and community-based leaders often experience tension and conflict with donors over program values and visions, including how the youth served are viewed and engaged.33

Aside from funding and how the organizations are led, public discourse about which children are in “need” of after-school programs often positions these spaces and those who work in them as saviors. Race, and deficit framing more specifically, positions youth of color as needing to be “fixed,” “saved,” and “rescued” and racializes after-school spaces as being the kind of support these students need.34 This need is often refracted through a deficit lens, framing these spaces as necessary because of an inherent lack among minoritized youth, rather than structural inequalities that create hardship for youth of color in schools and society. As such, after-school programs and community-based youth organizations are often positioned as places of containment and control for Black youth in urban contexts.35 Although important research on the experiences of Black and other minoritized youth in after-school programs documents how aspects of their lives have been improved by their time in the program, the public and political discourse around these spaces often exude pathological undertones that depict Black youth as inherent problems and ignores deep structural barriers shaping their lives.

Even as greater attention has focused on the promise of youth work for a number of individual, community, and public goals, and on all of the documented benefits of youth participation in programs, the success of youth work is tenuous and cannot be taken for granted. Funding patterns, leadership, programming, pedagogical approaches, as well as larger political forces inform how youth work occurs. 21CCLC program funding continues to be the only federal funding designated specifically for after-school education, and even that is not assured as cuts to federal spending on programs are a persistent threat. Especially under the weight of political and economic forces like neoliberal reforms dominating public education and white supremacy, the important work of youth programs—and the flexibility, funding, and purpose that sustain these programs—is in serious jeopardy.

In the past three decades or so, research has illuminated the importance of school and community-based organizations joining forces in order to provide optimal opportunities for positive development for youth.36 Schools and community-based organizations ultimately share the same set of students; however, there are philosophical and pedagogical differences that often and sometimes unfairly, pit these spaces against each other.37 Milbrey McLaughlin found, in her work with a community-based program operating on the south side of Chicago, that youth workers saw schools as not “respecting” or “valuing” their work with students, instead dismissing them as “mere fun and as having little contribution to the business of schools.”38 Conversely, youth workers respected the work of classroom teachers and, most importantly, understood learning as continuous across school and community organizations. Viewing these various spaces and roles as competitors is unfortunate because it dismisses the reality that youth have many teachers and mentors throughout their lives and throughout the many spaces they occupy. In a study of four community-based educators in California, Vajra Watson rightly argues that community-based educators “act as important alternative teachers and mentors in the lives of youth.”39

Building on this foundation, my work positions community-based youth workers as pedagogues in their own right—with goals that sometimes overlap those of teachers but also constitute their own unique aims, knowledge, and teaching strategies. Youth workers are critical to youth development and are essential actors in communities.40 This book closely examines youth workers—who they are, how they came to their work, their strategies for engagement, and the savvy ways they navigate complex economic, social, and political barriers in their work with young people. I also illuminate community spaces as dynamic institutions that stand on their own as distinct spaces from school. As noted in early history of after-school education in the United States, tensions with schools and wider views on education are not new.41 However, as I explore throughout this book, given the pernicious racialized market-based reforms to public education, community-based youth organizations are vulnerable as these reforms shape the organizational and pedagogical practices of youth workers. The stories of youth workers illustrate how they navigate and disrupt broader deficit narratives that follow Black youth throughout their educational, social, and political lives, as well as how they negotiate complex racial and cultural dynamics occurring internally in their programs. Undertaken during a time of massive turnover at the organization, this research documents how a hyperfocus on expansion, competition, and serving more students shifted priorities of the program. Coupled with competing ideologies about youth in the program between new leadership and longtime program staff, these shifts shaped the organization’s philosophical approach to race-conscious comprehensive youth work with predominantly Black youth in favor of neoliberal tactics of competition, individualism, and racialized control of youth workers and youth participants.


1. ​The neighborhood of Dunbar, Educational Excellence, and all participant names are pseudonyms.

2. Ginwright and James, “From Assets to Agents of Change,” 27; Ginwright and Cammarota, “New Terrain in Youth Development,” 82.

3. ​Patel, “Pedagogies of Resistance and Survivance”

4. ​Dumas, “Losing an Arm,” 11; Ladson-Billings, “From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt,” 465; Tuck, “Suspending Damage.”

5. ​Patel, “Pedagogies of Resistance and Survivance.”

6. Baldridge, “Relocating the Deficit”; McKenzie, “Reconsidering the Effects.”

7. ​Apple, Educating the “Right” Way; Au, “Meritocracy 2.0”; Bartlett, Frederick, Gulbrandsen, and Murillo, “The Marketization of Education”; Buras, “Race, Charter Schools, and Conscious Capitalism”; Ewing, Ghosts in the Schoolyard; Lipman, The New Political Economy of Urban Education; White, “Teach for America’s Paradoxical Diversity Initiative”; Stovall, Born Out of Struggle.

8. ​There is considerable debate about the field of youth work as practice and also a discipline. As Dana Fusco notes in her chapter, “On Becoming an Academic Profession,” in Advancing Youth Work: Current Trends, Critical Questions (New York: Routledge, 2012), “Is this discipline called youth work, youth development, social education, after-school education, out-of-school time, informal education, youth studies, nonformal learning, community education, community development, or something else?,” 113.

9. Fusco, “On Becoming an Academic Profession.”

10. ​Halpern, “A Different Kind of Child Development Institution.”

11. ​Ibid.

12. ​See Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, Task Force on Youth Development and Community Programs, Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development. A Matter of Time: Risk and Opportunity in the Nonschool Hours (New York: Carnegie Corporation of New York, 1992).

13. ​Halpern, “A Different Kind of Child Development Institution.”

14. ​Ibid.

15. Ginwright and James, “From Assets to Agents of Change.”

16. Ginwright, Black Youth Rising.

17. Kwon, Uncivil Youth, 9.

18. ​Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, Task Force on Youth Development.

19. Fashola, Building Effective Afterschool Programs, 3–6; U.S Department of Education, National Study of Before-and After-School Programs.

20. ​Ibid.; Halpern, “A Different Kind of Child Development Institution.”

21. ​Halpern, “A Different Kind of Child Development Institution”; Vasudevan, “The Occupational Culture.”

22. Yohalem and Pittman, Putting Youth Work on the Map.

23. ​See: Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, Task Force on Youth Development.

24. Baldridge, Beck, Medina, and Reeves, “Toward a New Understanding of Community-Based Education”; Ginwright, Black Youth Rising; Watson, Learning to Liberate.

25. Baldridge, Beck, Medina, and Reeves, “Toward a New Understanding of Community-Based Education,” 381–402; Ginwright, Black Youth Rising; Watson, Learning to Liberate.

26. Ginwright, Black Youth Rising; Baldridge, Beck, Medina, and Reeves, “Toward a New Understanding of Community-Based Education.”

27. Baldridge, Hill, and Davis, “New Possibilities,” 124.

28. ​Hirsch, Deutsch, and DuBois, After-School Centers and Youth Development.

29. ​In some spaces youth workers may be referred to as program directors, youth specialists, or community-based educators. See Yohalem and Pittman, “Putting Youth Work on the Map.”

30. Fusco, “On Becoming an Academic Profession.”

31. Baldridge, “‘It’s Like This Myth of the Supernegro,’” 781–795.

32. ​Halpern, “A Different Kind of Child Development Institution”; Hirsch, “Learning and Development in After-School Programs.”

33. Baldridge, “Relocating the Deficit,” 440–472.

34. Kwon, Uncivil Youth.

35. ​Ibid.; Ray, The Making of a Teenage Service Class.

36. ​Heath and McLaughlin, “The Best of Both Worlds.”

37. Baldridge, “On Educational Advocacy and Cultural Work”; Watson, Learning to Liberate.

38. ​McLaughlin, Community Counts, 34–35.

39. ​Watson, Learning to Liberate, 8.

40. Zeldin, “Foreword,” Advancing Youth Work.

41. ​Halpern, “A Different Kind of Child Development Institution.”