The University of Reading in the UK was adorned with flags from across the Commonwealth to welcome speakers, participants and representatives from youth organisations who gathered for the 4th Commonwealth Conference on Youth Work from July 10 to 12, 2023.
The conference, entitled: “The Power of Youth Work: Forging a Sustainable and peaceful common future”, attracted over 250 delegates in person, who were joined by more than 1,000 virtual attendees from across the 56 member states of the Commonwealth.
The conference was hosted by the UK’s National Youth Agency (NYA) in partnership with the Commonwealth Secretariat. The three-day event highlighted the power of youth work to make transformative changes by harnessing social, cultural, academic, legislative and political interventions to help young people to thrive.
The Commonwealth Secretary-General, Patricia Scotland, opened the conference by underscoring the power and potential of youth workers.
The Secretary-General said: “We all know that the energy, creativity, and passion of our young people are catalysts for positive change. And we all feel that, with dedication and hard work, we can enable young people to fulfil their potential and shape a better future.
“As youth workers, you are fundamental to this. Yours is not simply a profession; it is a calling – a vocation driven by a deep sense of purpose.”
At the opening ceremony, Leigh Middleton, Chief Executive Officer of the National Youth Agency, underscored that the work of helping young people achieve their full potential is challenging but necessary.
He noted: “Youth work is a really special and privileged profession. It is the only profession in which we support young people from their starting point, rather than someone else’s.
“Young people choose to engage with you as youth workers and because of that they want the best from you, and you give the best to them every time. And wherever you are in the world, young people are in need and have their challenges.”
Stuart Andrews, Minister for Sport, Gambling and Civil Society, and Minister for Equalities for the UK, also said: “Youth work in its various forms offers a transformative platform for our youth to explore their potential, acquire new skills and become active citizens in our societies. It is a catalyst for change driving economic growth, social cohesion and sustainable development across the Commonwealth.”
Youth voices were prioritised during the event. Youth leaders from across the Commonwealth not only highlighted challenges and opportunities but presented projects and other solutions that they are actively working on. It was noted that not only was 2023 being celebrated as the Commonwealth Year of the Youth, but it marks the 50th anniversary of the Commonwealth Youth Programme.
One participant, Sabiha Shaheen, Executive Director of Bargard, a youth development organisation operating in Pakistan, said being at the conference renewed her purpose.
She noted: “This conference is unique because it focusses on youth development practitioners and specialists, it’s not only the youth. It gave me a sense of the importance of my work with youth.”
Layne Robinson, Head of Social Policy Development at the Commonwealth Secretariat, was among those who paid tribute to Dr Henry Charles, a former Regional Director of the Youth Division at the Commonwealth Secretariat, who recently passed away. At the time of his passing, Dr Charles was the Co-Chair of the Year of Youth advisory committee, and he was described as a sterling colleague, visionary leader and an outstanding friend.
The conference partners also included the Commonwealth Alliance of Youth Workers Association (CAYWA) and the UK Government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). The NYA also collaborated with national youth work partners in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.