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In Poland, youth work has been usually associated with activities directed at youth of educational and upbringing character. At different times of the history, different elements of youth work were accentuated. There were periods in the Poland’s history were youth work was used instrumentally, in order to impact on young people’s value systems and shape their attitudes. After the Second World War, the Communist regime had a very clear agenda for the youth work as an efficient way to propagating socialist upbringing. Youth work become associated with centrally-operated programmes within an extensive infrastructure, in the shape of youth palaces or cultural centers, or the creation of the Union of Polish Youth (ZMP). Nonetheless, in that period a large infrastructure was set up, some used until today.
Interestingly, also during the Communist regime, in 1960s and 70s the school become a space for youth work practice conducted by teachers linked to social support and occupation training (Sińczuch 2009). In the 1970s, as well the church and/or church related organisations become active in supporting youth groups (ibidem). Still today both of these institutions remain active providers of activities of non-formal character (e.g. religious organisations managing day care centers).
Since 1990, there appears a strand of activities which we could consider bottom-up activities, or youth initiative-based youth work. As Sińczuch (2009) notes this strand of activities was borne already in the 1980s, with a rise of Solidarity movement which activated the whole society: youth organizations independent from the Communist government were created, and there emerged multiplicity of youth subcultures. Also, during this period, some alternative ways of doing youth work appeared, performances, concerts, outreach work or street work. Some activities initiated in that period still continue to exist (e.g. WOSP - “the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity Foundation”, initiative aiming at engaging young people into the collection of money for charity). As Sińczuch suggests, this is in this period, that “young people had won their right to talk about important issues, sense of life, engagement and their world views.” (2009).
From 1990, we witnessed the growing activity of civic organizations, including youth organizations and further growing professionalization of the sector. At the same time the state initiative in youth policy was diminishing with time. The last Youth Strategy of Poland closed formally in 2012, but in practice much earlier, and the draft strategy Active Youth from 2014 was never enacted.
Additional turning point in youth work development was Poland’s accession to the European Union in 2004, and access to the European funding for youth projects. This promoted further within youth organizations and – to limited extent also within policy attempts - the perspective of youth-centered pedagogy: treating young people as partners, agents, and co-authors, not recipients of services (Rodziewicz 2016). Still, it remains a marginal approach (Sinczuch 2009, Matyjaszyk 2014). It as well allowed Polish youth workers to cooperate internationally and become mobile, what results in transfer of knowledge from abroad.
Nowadays, in Poland there exist a very diversified scene of youth work providers (from state institutions to youth initiatives, mass-youth organizations, school-based youth work, non-governmental organisations). There are no national policy initiatives that would be directed strategically at youth work sector as a whole, and youth policy is fragmented and scattered in between different ministries with little policy debate on concept and value of different ways of doing youth work
One common definition or common understanding of youth work in the country’s official documents does not exist in Poland (Krzaklewska 2017). Youth work is translated in Polish as ‘Praca z młodzieżą’, which is used in youth policy documents as a direct translation of the term used at the EU level, but nevertheless it can be understood differently in different contexts. Similarly, there is no common empirical understanding of youth work other than a pull of diverse practices. One would list youth centres or youth clubs, and street work as an obvious examples, then also followed by youth organisations and movements. The diversity of forms of youth work is recognized in Poland similarly to the European level and there is no movement to integrate the work towards young people under one umbrella. Nevertheless, there is quite a strong connotation on the policy level of youth work concept with the social work with disadvantaged youth. Youth-directed institutions are supposed to compensate for the family or community dysfunctions and support them in care and education. Additionally, the vast youth organisations sector through their engagement in EU-funded projects identifies more and more strongly with a more general youth work concept which links the youth work agenda with a social development of youth people who participate in non-formal learning activities on the voluntary basis.
Summing up, this twofold aim of youth work in Poland was explicated in the report for the European Commission (Duda 2012) “ Working with young people: The value of youth work in the EU. Country report: Poland”, which concluded on the basis of interviews and desk-research that stakeholders in Poland define youth work as:
- “educational and upbringing activities, both formal and non-formal, based on voluntary participation of young people, covering areas such as education, upbringing, welfare, prevention, culture, rehabilitation, sports etc.
- Compensatory measures, carried out on a regular basis, which aim to level the social deficiencies of young people and address certain problems they face (e.g. pathologies, addictions, unemployment)” (Duda 2012, p.1)
The first part of the definition would include the work of non-governmental organisations that are directed to young people and/or which are managed by young people, youth movements (e.g. scouting), next to activities run by sport clubs, cultural centres, schools or religious/church organisations. The second part of the definition would relate to public social services operating Day Care Centers (Placówki Wsparcia Dziennego), also of street work or socio-therapeutic character. There are about 1900 Centers around Poland. Day Care Centers are run on the basis of public funding, they are mostly organised by social services, or non-governmental organisations/foundations, including Church organisations. There is a tendency not to use the formal name of Day Care Centers when approaching young people, as it is strongly connected to social services, but more inviting names such as: Youth Club, Center forwar development and activisation of young people, Spot, Youth Academy and many others. Nonetheless, the centers activities are directed mostly at marginalised youth/youth at risk of social exclusion.