The history of youth work in Italy is mainly the history of association-based youth education outside the school. Leisure activities (e.g., sports, games, outdoor education etc.) began to be adopted at the beginning of the 20th century mainly by the upper classes as either a means of educating young people about the values of Nationalism or as a form of religious education.
Founded in 1912 as a secular paramilitary organization inspired by the Baden-Powell model, the National Corp of Young Scouts (“CNGEI - Corpo Nazionale dei Giovani Esploratori”) became a leading national scout organization supported by the State.
After the short life of the secular pacifist association Italian Boy Scouts (“Ragazzi Esploratori Italiani”), the scout movement in Italy divided into the nationalistic CNGEI and the Italian Catholic Scout Association (“ASCI-Associazione Scoutistica Cattolica Italiana”), later called AGESCI. Established in 1916, ASCI would take on the educational aims and methods as proposed by Baden-Powell and place them in an explicitly Christian vision of life and society. Scouting methods seemed consistent with the mass religious pedagogy promoted since the end of 1800s by the priest Giovanni Bosco through the parish oratories of the Salesian Society. Parish oratories would develop in Italy until they became one of the most popular non-formal education facilities for children, adolescents and young people.
Youth associations and educational activities outside schools were also promoted by socialist and communist political movements to involve young people in the new mass parties. For example, the Socialist Youth Federation (“FGS-Federazione Giovanile Socialista”) was founded in 1907, adhering to the International Socialist Youth, and shared the objectives of pacifist education alongside those of union protection for a growing class of young workers. Furthermore, between the two World Wars, sport associations among young people in Italy would be promoted by international initiatives such as the International Union for Physical Education and Workers’ Sport (UISES).
Youth associations of the new working-class mass parties found their natural home in the People’s Houses (“Case del Popolo”) which began to spread across Italy towards the end of the 1800s, based on the example of the “Maison du Peuple” in Belgium (the first People’s Houses in Italy were founded in Emilia Romagna in 1893 and then spread particularly throughout Northern Italy). The People’s Houses became a place where political education was integrated with leisure activities, according to the tradition of the mutual aid associations and worker cooperatives which date back to the second half of the 1800s.
The Fascist movement (1922-1943) would later place youth at the heart of its political programme, mainly with the goal of exploiting young people’s vitality for an expansionist and militarist national strategy. To this end, Fascism established a mass youth education in the leisure time, alongside a gradual suppression or marginalization of the traditional associations in the youth sector.
After the Second World War, the State began considering the Third Sector as the main provider of youth work. After the totalitarian State intervention established by the Fascist regime, a pluralistic youth work provided by non-profit associations developed thanks to limited direct public interventions.
During the 1950s, the Italian Recreational and Cultural Association (“ARCI - Associazione Ricreativa Culturale Italiana” was established. The organization would involve an increasing number of young people, particularly from the late 1960s, until becoming nowadays the largest national secular networks of cultural spaces engaged on a political and social level. ARCI defines itself as the “heir to a tradition and a long history of mutual association of the grass-root and anti-Fascist movements which helped to build and consolidate democracy founded on the Italian Constitution”.
The climate of violence that would follow during the 1970s, as well as the sense of failure of the ideals pursued by the youth movement of 1968, also pushed youth work associations towards a cultural shift from a “transcendent” (political or religious) to a “secular” vision of associative life and social engagement. At least in principle, ideological or religious pluralism is a value that seems to have been widely accepted since the 1990s. However, out-of-school education spaces not conditioned by a specific ideological or faith adhesion would seem to be particularly lacking in the varied archipelago of youth education in Italy. The launch of a public youth policy in the 1980s was an attempt to respond to such a deficiency.
National understanding of Youth Work
In Italy, there is no formal definition of Youth work as a specific form of professional or voluntary work. A national framework law for the recognition of youth work is under discussion. In this draft law, youth worker is translated in Italian as “Animatore socio-educativo per i giovani (AISEG)”. However, in legislative documents it is already possible to find some formal definitions of youth work practices and operators working with young people in an educational setting outside school.
At a regional level, for example, educational work with adolescents is expected to support them to assume responsibility as well as develop cooperation skills and solidarity values, as stated by the regional law of Emilia Romagna (R.L. 14/2008). Moreover, the same regional law defines street socio-educational work as a specific method aimed at "strengthening protective factors and reducing risk factors" (art. 14, c. 7, R.L. Emilia Romagna 14/2008). Most of the regional laws on youth policy also recognize youth work in Youth Information Centres, mainly for their ability to expand opportunities to young people in different areas (e.g. vocational training, employment, volunteering, enterprise creation, access to housing, health, sport and leisure).
With reference to Youth Centres, regional laws tend to entrust operators with the task of encouraging young people in autonomous learning experiences and initiatives within the centre. The regional law on youth policy of the Piemonte Region, for example, highlights that Youth Centres should "produce in a participatory way the project of a space that allows young people to interact with their peers through the free implementation of activities linked to their interests" (L. R. 6/2019, art. 12, c. 2, letter a). This same law is one of the first legislative documents in which operators are explicitly referred to as "youth workers", defining them as "figures who enable young people to develop their human capital, strengthen their social capital and change risky behavior" (art. 1, c. 2, R.L. Piemonte Region 6/2019). The specific task of youth workers is "to broaden youth participation, increase the autonomy and inclusion of young people in society and strengthen youth organizations" (art. 15, c. 2).
Similarly, the Puglia Region focuses on youth workers as operators specialized in "developing a close relationship with adolescents, in order to ensure personal improvement and consequently the building of a better society" (art. 6, R.L. 14/2020).
At a national level, L. 285/1997 ("Provisions for the promotion of rights and opportunities for children and adolescents"), offers some guidelines for the carrying out of youth work. Several priorities identified in art. 3 recall some key tasks expected from youth workers, in particular the support of the parent-child relationship, the fight against poverty and violence, the finding of alternative solutions to residential care centres.
Finally, the national law 206/2003 recognizes the socio-educational function of the oratories, specifically in "encouraging the development, individual fulfilment and socialization of adolescents and young people of any nationality […] [through] programs, actions and interventions based on sport, solidarity, social promotion and cultural initiatives in leisure time, and the prevention of marginalization, racial discrimination, discomfort and deviance" (art. 1, c.2).
Practices and spaces of youth work in Italy
In general, in Italy the term ‘youth work’ has a limited use in youth policy or non-formal education practices. However, there are a number of policies, practices, professionals and volunteers which can be compared favorably with what comes under the banner of youth work in Europe. In particular, the following spaces and actors created or supported by the State can be considered in Italy operating in the youth work sphere:
- Spaces and practices of youth work with adolescents, e.g., Centres for Youth Aggregation (“Centri di Aggregazione Giovanile”), after-school groups, street work, outdoor education, toy libraries, summer day care centres, day care centres for children at risk.
- Youth Information Centres where youth workers are specialized in the information and guidance in different areas (leisure time, vocational training, employment, youth mobility etc.).
- Youth Centres (or Youth Spaces) which mainly involve young people (18-25) and young-adults (26-35) and are particularly oriented to supporting youth initiative and projects.
- the National Civil Service, a program for youth volunteering in the unarmed and non-violent defence of the State, with young people involved in projects and services for the community; for each young volunteer, the program includes an operator that supports his/her educational and training experience during the service (the Local Project Operator, refer to paragraph 10.5.2 for further details).
- Europe-oriented youth work in projects supported by the European Union (EU) or the Council of Europe (Coe) programs and assisted in Italy by the National Youth Agency (youth exchanges, voluntary experiences, projects of participation in democratic life, youth initiative projects, pilot projects at local level, transnational mobility of youth workers, strategic partnerships for youth work recognition).
(please refer to paragraphs 10.2, 10.3 and 10.5 for further details)
In terms of the number of facilities and amount of young people reached, the main organizations that have inherited the historical traditions of out-of-school education in the youth sector are the following:
- The Catholic parish oratories, the catholic scout association (AGESCI) and other educational associations of the Catholic Church (e.g. Azione Cattolica Ragazzi, “Catholic Action Youth”).
- Non-denominational scout associations, among which the CNGEI is the biggest one in terms of number of members.
- The network of ARCI clubs, where young people and adults are engaged in cultural and social activities in different fields (e.g. access to culture, urban regeneration, lifelong learning, migrants' rights, education to legality); a specific Pedagogical Manifesto elaborated in 2010 recognizes and promotes the educational impact of ARCI on the younger generations, e.g., Arciragazzi is a consortium of about 80 educational spaces for adolescents affiliated to Arci).
Since the 1980s, EU youth programs have contributed to the growth of a new generation of youth workers that are more focused on the European debate and actions on youth work. The projects funded by these programs, in fact, have required partner organizations to take on an educational role in relationship with young participants. Moreover, the European programs have continuously funded projects aimed at the recognition and development of youth work skills, in which Italian organizations have also participated. Training opportunities have also been offered by strategic partnerships between different National Youth Agencies, some of which have been promoted by the Italian National Youth Agency.
In the last few years, informal networks and associations between operators are emerging, which are beginning to recognize themselves as "youth workers" in line with the European strategies and debate on youth work. For example, the Youth Worker Italia is an informal network of youth workers created during the pandemic emergency. Recently, an association named Ninfea (National Informal and Non-Formal Education Association) has been established with the specific aim of promoting "the profession of the Youth Worker, of the Youth Trainer and of the Socio-Educational Animator" (source: Facebook page of the association). Finally, youthworker.it. is among the first online think tanks on youth work. The purpose of this blog is to inform on the “state-of-the art on youth work in Italy, by starting from what is happening in relation to youth work in Europe and the rest of the World” (source: youthworker.it).