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Empathy and Social Activism in Youth Work


Empathy is a key component of all social activism. After all, you have to be able to relate in some manner to the cause or people you are championing. The passion and commitment that empathy provides can drive you to demand that things improve for our young people.

The most successful social activism includes people who care deeply and work diligently for change. Partnering alongside those that benefit most from change multiplies the power. As a youth worker, you likely have empathy for young people and you can use it as an advantage for social justice.

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    There are three basic types of empathy

    1. Cognitive empathy is empathy by thought. It’s the ability to think about how someone might actually be experiencing the world or a particular situation.
    2. Emotional empathy is being able to feel what a young person may be feeling. In your work, you relate to what they are feeling in your heart or gut.
    3. Compassionate empathy is a combination of both cognitive and emotional empathy. It’s thinking and feeling with young people and taking action such as social activism to better serve them.

    Beware. Empathy is mostly a good thing, but too much can create problems. Emotionally charged situations can lead to burnout and a feeling of exhaustion and being overwhelmed. And, secondary trauma can develop if you are relating too much with the young people you serve.

    A balance of compassionate empathy is needed in your social activism in youth work. It’s important you get it right because you are the best resource you can bring to your work. Personal care and emotional boundaries are needed. Done right, your empathy and social activism will change so much.

    Three pillars of your social activism in youth work

    1. Essential Service: It’s not enough to simply support our young people. You are needed to help others understand the social and economic benefits of your work. It’s essential to strong and healthy communities.
    2. Adequate Funding: Your work provides a large return and it’s fiscally responsible to support youth programs. We need everyone to fully grasp that it makes no sense to have young people go without support. No one wins in this scenario.
    3. Respected Profession: Your work is difficult and we need people that have the passion to be youth workers and the determination to develop their craft. Everyone needs to know that youth work is a respected profession. It’s a calling and it needs to be supported.

    You can learn more and watch a talk about the importance of Youth Intervention by visiting YIPA’s Relentless Advocacy web page.

    With persistence and a strong desire, your empathy for the young people you serve will accomplish much. If you want to be inspired and expand your view of social activism, the virtual Youth Intervention Summit is a great place to start.

    Take the empathy you have for young people and use it to create systemic change. Be the person you would like to see in your community.

    About the author

    Paul Meunier is the executive director of the Youth Intervention Programs Association (YIPA), a non-profit association of youth-serving organizations. We're your source for exceptional, affordable, personal and professional online learning via The Professional Youth Worker.  Join us!

    To ask Paul a question or share your feedback about this blog, email

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