Youth work veteran Michaël Fandi: Too many youth instructors forget to ask young people a very important question

Original article written in Finnish by Samuli Launonen Pictures: Hanna-Kaisa Hämäläinen Reading time: 6 mins

Michaël Fandi has seen all sides of youth work. The sector is now changing, and Fandi says that many professionals have amidst this change forgotten the most essential aspect: young people themselves. He has a suggestion for fixing the situation.

What on earth are these youth centres, Michaël Fandi wondered around mid-2000s. He had recently moved to Finland from France and started further training that would prepare him to become a youth worker.

In France, there wasn’t a corresponding system where young people enter a space to do whatever they feel like doing. Fandi wondered why the youth workers on site weren’t always all that active in taking contact to young people.

– I couldn’t get a grasp of the concept. That there’s this big living room where young people can behave pretty much however they want, as long as nobody gets hurt or speaks rudely, Fandi, 47, describes.

Community educator Michaël Fandi (on the left) and instructor Elena Uusimäki are work partners at Multicultural Centre Gloria. Back in the day, Fandi worked as a volunteer there.

Slowly he understood that it’s important for many young people to have a space where they can simply, say, watch a film with friends. Not everyone needs clear guidance. However, according to Fandi, the starting point for youth work shouldn’t be that there’s no need.

There could be a reason that hasn’t been voiced out loud. It will remain hidden unless someone asks: What made you come here?

During Fandi’s career, the situation and needs of young people have changed. He thinks that youth work is trying in some situations to react to new challenges with old methods. Some professionals want to make themselves invisible. That’s when they forget what’s most important – what the young person gets out of this.

– Has anyone talked with the young person about what they get out of being here with us? Is the instructor a part of the group, or are they sitting as an outsider behind a counter making coffee?

Fandi thinks it’s important that instructors are active. He now has a suggestion. After getting acquainted with a young person, each youth worker could ask what has made the person come there.

Reminder to youth workers: A young person is not only a young person

Michaël Fandi is sitting in the Persia room of Multicultural Centre Gloria in Jyväskylä. He started to work there at the beginning of autumn as a community instructor. Gloria functions for instance as a multicultural youth centre where visitors actively participate in, say, conversation and game evenings as well as in handicrafts and language groups.

JHL member Fandi is a youth instructor and community educator by training. He’s done youth work for almost 30 years, first in France and then in Finland, for instance within child protection, the settlement movement, in schools, and most recently at Laukaa family centre.

He’s worked with small children, young fathers as well as underage asylum seekers who have arrived in Finland alone.

Is the instructor a part of the group, or are they sitting as an outsider behind a counter making coffee?

Fandi’s occupational title alone is a testament to the sector’s revolution – it lacks the word youth. Gloria visitors are treated as community members and individuals more than representatives of their age group.

– Youth work is not out of the picture here, but we’re now coming to the conclusion that youth is a part of a larger whole. Age is one thing, and there are bigger circles around it: family, society, language group.

Michaël Fandi hopes that youth instructors would have a more active touch. Raneem Alhagdiab found Gloria a few months ago and is now a voluntary escape room game leader.

The task of youth work is to prevent problems beforehand and give a young person room to grow to a balanced adult. In Fandi’s opinion, outreach youth work and social services mainly reach those who are already in trouble.

The assumption is that everything is fine or it’s already time to take intervention measures. There aren’t enough many options in between.

– To me, the current method of encountering young people is not very often preventative.

Youth work requires being sensitive to a young person’s identity

Michaël Fandi is of the opinion that youth work lacks shared modes of operation. Working in a school is different to, say, parish work, and it’s a good thing that there are diverse activities and various types of professionals.

Nevertheless, young people should be able to rely on getting respectful treatment from everyone.

Fandi emphasises that many pedagogy sector professionals do fine work, both indoors and in the field. However, the modes of operation depend too much on individuals. If a professional themself is not open to, say, diversity, they can at worst have a passive attitude to the discrimination faced by many young people belonging to the rainbow community or ethnic minorities.

For instance, a young person can’t participate in a school dance because they say they’re not a boy or girl.

– One must have a capacity to absorb new competences. Young people who don’t define themselves as a girl or boy are being called girls or boys in schools and youth centres. A young person must get to be who they are.

You don’t have to know everything. The most important thing is knowing how to further develop yourself. According to Fandi, young people belonging to minorities have taught him.

– It’s really healthy to be confused sometimes. And to stay quiet and listen. A young person, too, can educate a grown-up professional.

Fandi has made Pride-themed handicrafts that now adorn his office desk.

Read more: New JHL member Milla Heino got help when she was a teenager, and now she herself is helping young people – These are the words that every young rainbow person deserves to hear

Youth work professionals have power and responsibility

At Gloria, Fandi mostly has to do with first- and second-generation immigrant youth that have reached adulthood. His own background offers something to identify with. He moved to Finland from France 19 years ago, and the path he has travelled is partly the same as that of many of today’s young immigrants.

He now visits schools as an expert on equality and multiculturalism. His message to professionals is that their actions can determine what kinds of chances a young person gets.

– During the previous week, I told physical-education teacher students at the university that they can with their own actions ruin a young person’s plans, motivation and belief in themself, but they can also encourage a young person who’s unsure of themself. You have a great deal of power, which means you also have responsibility.

A young person should be given a sign: I’m here for you, bring it on.

Many young people with an immigrant background have told him how a study counsellor hasn’t let them apply for the study places of their dreams. Instead, they’ve been told they wouldn’t do well there anyway. They’re being pushed to opt for, say, care sectors – regardless of what it is they dream of.

Even one such case is one case too many, Fandi points out.

– These are really smart young people whose path ahead is made more difficult or blocked by teachers or study counsellors.

Fandi suggests finding something to do together. For him, becoming a DJ in his early years was a major turning point. He can thus offer something to relate to for a young person interested in music.

Don’t hesitate to show your persona

Michaël Fandi has one more request. He thinks that youth workers should have a new kind of attitude to how much of themselves they give to young people. When you keep too much distance, you may not find the real reason to a young person’s need for help.

Fandi became a teenager in Lyon, a big city. He describes his starting points as challenging. That gave him the necessary capabilities for youth work, and he’s not afraid to give it his all.

According to him, if a grown-up professional is as distant as possible for their own safety, that also takes to extremes.

– At the end of the day, you don’t give anything that a young person could grab a hold of.

Taro the Dog is often at Gloria for the purpose of creating a good atmosphere.

A youth instructor can’t invite a young person to their home or cottage, but Fandi thinks that many people are unnecessarily afraid of telling basic facts like where they live or what their family situation is like. Fandi lives in Jyväskylä and is a father of three children aged 9, 16 and 18. Sharing that information doesn’t endanger anything.

For instance, youth in child protection nowadays have their personal instructors. Fandi would want everyone working with a young person to be the personal instructor of that person.

– A young person should be given a sign: I’m here for you, bring it on.

Photographer Hanna-Kaisa Hämäläinen b. 1975 – d. 2023. With deepest sympathy, the Motiivi editorial team

Four new challenges for youth work

1 Climate crisis

Climate change causes sadness in 76% of young people. Youth workers must be able to react to young people’s eco-anxiety, and youth centres have to set a good example when it comes to, say, recycling.

2 Rainbow minorities

There is an increasing amount of understanding for human diversity, and many young people feel that rigid gender roles and the heterosexual norm cause them distress. Youth workers need information and openness.

3 Immigration

Young people have increasingly diverse cultural backgrounds. Youth workers must be sensitive to different starting points.

4 Digitalisation

Mobile phones with access to social media and games give young people a sense of community but also isolate them from the real world. Digitality provides new platforms for youth work. Youth workers have power over whether digitalisation is a threat or an opportunity.