Thinking About Borders and Tangled Meshes

September 7, 2015

by — Posted in Editorials

…there is a paucity of critical analysis. We are too often mired in the micro and caught in an existential aesthetic, which finds us more “being there” and enjoying the poetry of relational moves. Rick Kelly, CYC-NET, September 1, 2015.

The post-anthropocentric ethics of expanded obligations becomes a way of taking responsibility, by the human, for various sorts of thickenings of the universe, across different scales, and of responding to the tangled mesh of everyday connections and relations. Joanne Zylinska (2014).

At this time of year, as those of us in higher education contexts get ourselves ready to welcome a new group of students to our classrooms, I am thinking about borders. [1]  Specifically, the borders we place around our academic disciplines, pedagogies, academic journals, areas of specialization, and professional identities. In the field of child and youth care (CYC), the quest to define ourselves once and for all – through the creation of a distinct and bounded field – seems to generate a lot of energy and anxiety, with some of the discussion taking on a tone of professional exceptionalism (i.e. we are the only ones who really ‘get kids’ and the only ones doing it this way). Meanwhile, preoccupations of a different sort are calling out for our attention. Here in Canada Justice Murray Sinclair recently released the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015). The TRC report documents how Canada’s assimilationist policies, which included forcibly removing Indigenous children from their homes and placing them in church- and state-sponsored residential schools, and the theft of Indigenous lands, amounted to nothing short of cultural genocide. Ninety-four distinct recommendations and calls to action are proposed by the TRC. Several of the recommendations are directed towards the provision of culturally responsible care, protection, and education of Indigenous children. Other recommendations pertain to the training and professional development of human service providers, with emphases placed on inter-cultural competency, conflict resolution, anti-racism, and human rights.  Meanwhile, in other parts of the world, the body of drowned toddler, 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, has drawn the world’s attention to the devastating crisis unfolding in Europe as thousands of Syrian refugees desperately try to flee their war torn country in search of a better life for themselves and their families.

As educators, practitioners, and scholars who are centrally concerned with the well-being of children, youth and families, how do we bring more balance to our intellectual, political, ethical, professional and pedagogical interests and commitments in a way that recognizes our interconnectedness and responsibilities to each other, to the land, and to the planet?  How do we recognize that we are often implicated in the very problems we are setting out to solve? What does it mean to be a ‘global citizen’ or to make a commitment to de-colonization? What does it mean to live a worthwhile life, when life as we know it is under threat (Zylinska, 2014)?What interdisciplinary fields and emerging bodies of scholarship can help us think and respond to the complex challenges we face in the 21st century (including for example Girlhood Studies, Children’s Geographies ,Youth Studies, and Settler Colonial Studies)?

In a recently published article, An ethos for the times: Difference, imagination and the unknown future in child and youth care, I argued that If we want to “respond to our times” one place to start might be to move towards a more complicated reading of child and youth care. I suggested that this would require an engagement that takes us beyond the familiar formulation of CYC as a set of neutral approaches, professional competencies, ethical codes, or ahistorical relational interventions towards a more nuanced, uncertain, politicized, and dynamic rendering.

If we accept the idea that all of our current understandings about CYC practice are historically and culturally specific, we might then ask: What were the conditions and contexts that set the stage for CYC’s arrival? What is the history of some of our most cherished CYC ideas and preferred practices (e.g. use of Self; life space interventions)?  What did these preferred practices emerge in response to? How did these particular ways of seeing and doing things gain such traction in our field? What were these ideas taking a stand against at the time of their emergence? What are the effects of these ways of thinking and working on the children, youth and families who seek our help today? What identities do they make available for practitioners? Each of these questions reminds us that we are always entangled with, and responding to, that which has come before. We need to continuously ask how our earlier conceptualizations of CYC practice and understandings of children, youth and families, fit the current times.

Taking inspiration from the work of Sarah Ahmed (2012), who “followed diversity around” in higher education contexts, if we follow CYC around and ask what it is doing, what might we discover? Here are just a few possibilities:

  • CYC comes into being by saying ‘who we work with’
  • CYC explains itself by saying ‘where CYC practitioners can be found’
  • To do CYC is to reflect on a “capital S” Self
  • CYC talks in (concentric) circles
  • CYC is about setting clear boundaries
  • To do CYC is to be worried
  • CYC is not to be found ‘in offices.’

By paying close attention to the effects of our preferred practices in CYC, some new and creative spaces can be opened up (see also Kouri, 2014). The task ahead is one of not just coping with uncertainty and contingency, but thriving, prospering, and adding to the complexity (Barnett, 2012). We will maintain our spirit of aliveness and be most awakened to our collective potential by sustaining our creative differences, thriving in the midst of complexity, and by dwelling responsibly. Living in a world that is constantly changing demands a new form of agility, responsiveness, and accountability. It also requires “a willingness to live in contention” (Snelgrove, Dhamoon & Corntassel, 2014, p.3).

As I have suggested, we need an ethos for the times that is grounded in the knowledge of particular places and histories, governed by an awareness of global realities and settler-colonial relations, and which pursues an ongoing commitment to justice (deFinney et al., 2012; Newbury, 2009; Snelgrove et al., 2014). Recognizing our interconnectedness and making a point of dwelling responsibly are in keeping with Indigenous worldviews as well as early understandings of the word ethos.

As Henry Giroux (cited in Hargreaves, 1996) has said “it is on the borders of our work, where we can explore different cultures and assumptions, that the most interesting and innovative things can often be achieved” (p. 119). Recognizing that the field of CYC is itself a site of contested meanings, where ongoing debates about identities, roles, boundaries of practice, and professional status continue to animate the field, the goal is not to argue for more certainty, specificity or role clarity.  On the contrary, it is a call for increased plurality, greater imagination, and an ongoing openness to the unknown future.

[1] This blog is adapted from the paper An ethos for the times: Difference, imagination and the unknown future in child and youth care, published in the International Journal of Child, Youth & Family Studies.


Ahmed, S. (2012). On being included: Racism and diversity in institutional life. London: Duke University Press.

Barnett, R. (2012). Learning for an unknown future. Higher Education Research & Development, 31(1). 65-77.

deFinney, S., Little, J.N., Skott-Myhre, H. & Gharabaghi, K. (2012). Roundtable: Conversations on conversing in child and youth care. International Journal of Child, Youth & Family Studies, 2, 128-145.

Hargreaves, A. (1996). Transforming knowledge: Blurring the boundaries between research, policy and practice.  Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 18(2), 105-122.

Kouri, S. (2014). Child and youth care to come. In H. Skott-Myhre & J. N. Little (Eds.), Troubling multiculturalism (pp. 32-62). London: Routledge.

Newbury, J. (2009). Contextualizing child and youth care: Striving for socially just practice. Relational Child and Youth Care, 22(4), 20-29.

Snelgrove, C., Dhamoon, R., & Corntassel, J. (2014). Unsetlling settler colonialism:  The discourse and politics of settlers, and solidarity with Indigenous nations. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 3(2), 1-32.

Zylinska, J. (2014). Minimal ethics for the anthropocene. Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanities Press.

About Jennifer White

Jennifer White is Associate Professor and Director, School of Child and Youth Care at the University of Victoria. Jennifer has worked as a child and youth care practitioner, clinical counsellor, educator, policy consultant, researcher, and community developer. Jennifer is interested in studying everyday practice in youth suicide prevention and utilizes a range of critically informed, qualitative research methodologies. She is the lead editor of the forthcoming book, Critical Suicidology: Transforming Suicide Research and Prevention for the 21st Century, being published by UBC Press in 2015.

One thought on “Thinking About Borders and Tangled Meshes

  1. Brilliant, Jennifer. Your words give language and form to the ever-morphing, “play-doughesque” humbling challenge and struggle called CYC. We require vision and sight: fore, hind and “in-the-moment” and the subsequent compassionate action. “Living in a world that is constantly changing demands a new form of agility, responsiveness, and accountability. It also requires “a willingness to live in contention.” = ❤️

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