Nonviolence as a Framework for Youth Work Practice

Two peace doves in a heart

(Image: Gerd Altmann)

A philosophy of nonviolence provides a potential framework for youth workers. I  discuss key principles of nonviolence, presents a model of nonviolent youth work practice and discusses implications for youth workers. The model is intended as a tool for youth workers to reflect on their own practice rather than being a prescriptive instruction manual.
This paper was originally published in Youth Studies Australia and drew on my PhD Nonviolence and youth work practice in Australia (completed in 2003)

Nonviolence as a philosophy has shaped many social change movements but there has been little consideration given to its implications for youth work practice. This paper discusses a potential model of youth work practice based on nonviolence. A philosophy of nonviolence stands in stark contrast to the coercion and violence that underpins many aspects of society. Threat, coercion and violence protect the interests of dominant groups within society. Agencies such as the police force, courts of law, “corrective” services and the military, have been sanctioned by society to enforce compliance. Some individuals, including teachers and parents, are seen as having the right to use socially accepted coercion or violence. Discrimination, exploitative economic structures, and the unequal distribution of resources also help protect the interests of dominant groups.

Youth work occurs within this social context of coercion and violence, and is facing a resurgence of a social control agenda. Sercombe et al. (2002) argue that “state responses to the youth problem in Australia have swung between welfare and justice, control and care, treatment and punishment” (p. 86) and, at present, the emphasis is returning to control and punishment. In particular, youth workers are being urged to accept more controlling or punitive roles, such as crime prevention, curfews and street clearing exercises, breaching young people who fail to meet the expectations of Centrelink, and controlling young people’s use of public space and shopping centres. Nonviolence offers youth workers a framework from which they can help create a more peaceful, just society, and develop work practices that challenge notions of coercion and control.

Principles of nonviolence

This papers briefly introduces principles of nonviolence and then proposes a model of nonviolent youth work practice. Drawing on literature on principled nonviolence, which is based on a belief that nonviolence is the morally right thing to do, regardless of whether or not it is more effective than violence, ten principles of nonviolence can be identified:

  1. Nonviolence is not just a tactic but, more importantly, it is a way of life. In order to create social change, individuals need to change and to live lives that create intentional ripples impacting on wider levels of society (Walz & Ritchie 2000).
  2. Violence is rejected as a means of control and resolving disputes. Violence here means not just physical violence, but violence “of the fist, tongue and heart” (White 1999b).
  3. There is an active commitment to peace and social justice. It is an action-oriented philosophy and, at its heart, the philosophy of nonviolence is about creating a more just and peaceful society.
  4. The means are consistent with the ends. If we want a more peaceful and just world, we need to use peaceful and just strategies to achieve our vision.
  5. Power is understood as arising out of relationships rather than being a characteristic owned by individuals. In order to avoid coercion and force, power-with rather than power-over is emphasised (Burgess & Burgess 1994; Starhawk 1990).
  6. There is a profound respect for humanity involving a powerful affirmation of “human beings as active agents with the potential to transform themselves and their communities on a local and global level” (Ritchie 2001, p. 11). Based on respect for humanity, nonviolence seeks to separate people and their actions. According to Martin Luther King (1958), nonviolent action “is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil. It is evil that the nonviolent resister seeks to defeat, not the persons victimized by evil” (p. 102).
  7. Actions are based on love. Again according to King (1963) nonviolence provided a means by which the civil rights movement could “oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system” (p. 15).
  8. There is a commitment to truth and openness. Truth was at the heart of Gandhi’s political, social, economic, and ethical thought and he sought to create a “movement based entirely on truth” (Gandhi 1951). While Gandhi’s commitment to truth was much stronger than that of more recent advocates of nonviolence, a commitment to truth and openness continues to underpin principled nonviolence.
  9. Spiritual beliefs and qualities are valued and many advocates of nonviolence have been motivated by spiritual beliefs.
  10. There is a willingness to accept suffering in order to create change. White (1999a), the founder of Soulforce, a nonviolence campaign challenging homophobia, differentiates between voluntary and involuntary suffering:

Accepting suffering without retaliation or complaint does not mean we accept the involuntary suffering that comes from discrimination and intolerance. Soulforce is a call to suffer voluntarily that involuntary suffering might end (para. 29).

A model of nonviolent youth work practice

The model of nonviolent youth work practice (Figure 1) was inspired by these principles of nonviolence and developed after a review of nonviolence literature and youth work literature, a telephone survey with 60 youth workers, in-depth interviews with 15 youth workers and 20 young people, and two focus groups with youth workers. The structure of the model was inspired by a mandala used by the Alternatives to Violence Project to represent key themes in its workshops on nonviolence. The inner two circles of the model are broad principles underpinning nonviolent youth work practice and the outer circle provides more specific suggestions. As a focus group participant identified, the model emanates outward and “each concentric circle builds on the rest.”

Figure 1: Model of nonviolent youth work practice

Be committed to nonviolence in all you do

Advocates of principled nonviolence argue that nonviolence is not just a tactic but a way of life, and so at the heart of the model, youth workers are encouraged to be committed to nonviolence in all they do. Rather than seeing nonviolence as something that can be practised in some areas of their lives and not others, nonviolence is seen as having implications for all aspects of their lives Implications of this feature of the model include that youth workers could:

  • View nonviolence as being more than just a tactic to use in difficult situations
  • Make nonviolence a guiding framework for their work practice
  • Practice nonviolence in their personal life as well as their work life
  • Identify potential sources of structural violence within their services and address them
  • Be open and honest in all they do.

Develop a reflective work practice

The implications of the proposed model of practice are many, and the model is not meant to be prescriptive. It outlines broad principles that may help workers to build their practice on a philosophy of nonviolence. In order to adapt the model to their specific contexts, youth workers need to reflect on the relationship between theory and practice and to develop their awareness and skills. Reflective practice provides a process for doing so. According to Fook (2002), reflection assists practitioners to consider the context of their practice, to explore theoretical assumptions and application, to develop theory directly from their practice, and to take into account the variety of factors which impinge on situations they need to address. There is a particular focus on questioning “power relations, and how structures of domination are created and maintained” (Fook 2002, p. 41). Implications of this feature of the model include that youth workers could:

  • Be willing to question and challenge assumptions they hold on a wide range of issues
  • Seek supervision that will assist them to reflect critically on their work practice
  • Explore the implications of nonviolence for all areas of their work practice
  • Explore the relationship between theory and their work practice.

Build professional, caring relationships

Both the literature on youth work and the in-depth interviews identified the importance of building relationships for youth work in general and for managing behaviour in particular. Youth workers need to genuinely care for young people but, as Sercombe (1997) argues, the relationship needs to be a professional one with clear boundaries. By emphasising both the caring and professional nature of the relationship, the model encourages youth workers to find an appropriate balance. Implications of this feature of the model include that youth workers could:

  • Genuinely care for and respect the young people with whom they work
  • Ensure there are clear boundaries to their relationships with young people
  • Develop professional relationships with young people in which the relationships are intentionally limited to protect the safety of the young people
  • Be open and honest in their relationships with young people
  • Base their actions on love and concern
  • Build positive relationships with fellow staff through cooperative, supportive teams.

Focus on power-with

In nonviolence, power is seen as arising out of relationships rather than being a characteristic owned by individuals, and so there is a focus on power-with rather than power-over. According to Starhawk (1990), power-over is linked to “domination and control” (p. 9) and is ultimately backed by force. Power-with is linked to “social power, the influence we wield among equals” (p. 9) and is based on respect, influence and empowerment. Implications of this feature of the model include that youth workers could:

  • View power as arising out of relationships rather than being inherent in a position or individual
  • Negotiate clear mandates with the young people with whom they work
  • Involve young people meaningfully in all aspects of their youth services
  • Adopt inclusive, participatory forms of decision making
  • Allow young people access to files that are kept on them
  • Recognise the skills, experience and wisdom of the young people with whom they work
  • Adopt cooperative approaches to conflict resolution
  • Challenge policies and practices that attempt to control young people.

Be committed to social change

Nonviolence “springs from a commitment to, and passion for, justice” (Walz & Ritchie 2000, p. 217). It is an action-oriented philosophy and, at its heart, the philosophy of nonviolence is about creating a more just and peaceful society. Much youth work also has a strong commitment to social change and, as White (1987) suggests, there is a significant difference between youth workers who “actively and consciously situate” their work within “a framework of broad political and social objectives,” and “workers who concentrate on the provision of services without reflecting too much on the social or political significance of their day-to-day practices” (p. 25). Implications of this feature of the model include that youth workers could:

  • Adopt models of youth work that contribute to social justice and social change
  • Ensure their services are as inclusive as possible
  • Undertake awareness raising programs within their services
  • Take part in broader social change campaigns where appropriate
  • Discuss nonviolent work practices with other youth workers
  • Challenge policies, work practices and attitudes that contribute to injustice, violence, or marginalisation
  • Challenge policies and practices that view young people in terms of deficits or exclude young people from meaningful participation in the community.

Apply principles of social justice

Not all social change is positive (e.g., racist movements) and so youth workers should actively seek improvements in the position of “the least powerful and most disadvantaged groups of young people” (White 1987, p. 25). The model thus encourages youth workers to apply principles of social justice in their own practice. Implications of this feature of the model include that youth workers could:

  • Ensure that their services value equity, participation, access and equality
  • Act as advocates on behalf of young people where necessary
  • Challenge policies and practices that marginalise, or discriminate against, young people or groups of young people
  • Identify marginalised groups of young people who are not using their services and consider ways of meeting their needs
  • Maintain a passion for social justice.

Ensure there are adequate, appropriate staff and resources

If youth workers are to be able to respond to situations nonviolently, they need to have adequate, appropriate staff and resources. A sole youth worker running a youth centre with 40 or more young people cannot respond adequately to conflict or other issues that arise: there needs to be the staff and resources to allow effective responses. Implications of this feature of the model include that youth workers could:

  • Work with their management committees or other management structures to identify the best use of available staff and resources
  • Include a commitment to nonviolence in their selection criteria for new staff
  • Lobby for adequate staffing and funding for youth work
  • Work with other staff to develop work practices that are consistent with a philosophy of nonviolence
  • Provide support and encouragement to other staff, and promote a positive work environment.

Negotiate clear expectations and boundaries

The youth workers and young people interviewed during the research emphasised the importance of having clear expectations and boundaries for behaviour that were negotiated with young people. This was seen as an important first step in responding to behaviour nonviolently. Negotiating clear expectations and boundaries also includes negotiating boundaries to the relationship between young people and youth workers to ensure that the relationship is professional and caring, and negotiating mandates with young people and other stakeholders (see Sercombe 1997). Implications of this feature of the model include that youth workers could:

  • Negotiate clear mandates with the young people with whom they work
  • Involve young people in developing clear expectations of behaviour (for both staff and young people)
  • State clearly their expectations about the ways in which their services will operate
  • Challenge behaviour that is inconsistent with agreed expectations
  • Be willing to change expectations on a regular basis
  • Comply with agreed expectations in relation to their own behaviour.

Create a positive environment

The interviews also emphasised the importance of creating a positive environment that contributed to safe, nonviolent behaviour. Rather than just responding to negative behaviour, youth workers could actively create a positive environment. Implications of this feature of the model include that youth workers could:

  • Involve young people in creating positive environments
  • Be welcoming, friendly and accepting
  • Promote behaviour that is accepting, nonviolent and welcoming
  • Address behaviour that is unsafe, discriminatory, or violent
  • Listen carefully to young people and address their concerns
  • Respond to negative behaviour in ways that do not escalate the situation
  • Maintain positive physical environments.

Respond to behaviour nonviolently

Unlike education, which has a large body of literature on discipline and behaviour management, there is little discussion of managing the behaviour of young people in Australian youth work. (For example in some two year Diplomas of Youth Work, behaviour management is not part of the curriculum.) Youth workers do not even have a common language for discussing this aspect of their work. In the focus groups, many youth workers felt uncomfortable with using either of the terms “behaviour management” or “managing behaviour” (because of connotation of control or behaviour modification) but there were no commonly accepted alternatives. At the same time, youth workers do need to be able to limit the behaviour of young people or to exercise some degree of control in order to “create an appropriate learning environment, promote equality of opportunity and ensure the safety and well-being of young people” (Jeffs & Banks 1999, p. 94). If youth workers adopt a philosophy of nonviolence, they need to explore strategies that are non-coercive and are highly respectful of young people. The in-depth interviews identified a range of responses to unsafe or inappropriate behaviour on a continuum from non-coercive to coercive. Non-coercive responses included supporting of young people, diverting their attention, and taking a very low key response. More coercive responses included exclusion, physical intervention and the use of police. There is a need for much greater discussion of ways in which youth workers create safe, inclusive environments and respond to unsafe, discriminatory behaviour. Implications of this feature of the model include that youth workers could:

  • Avoid attempts to control the behaviour of young people through coercion
  • Consider developing a policy of no exclusion in situations where young people have few or no other options
  • Only use exclusion when the safety or wellbeing of others is at risk and exclusion is a last resort, or when young people have other options and they are given the opportunity to make a genuine choice between following agreed expectations of behaviour or being excluded for a period
  • Develop relationships with local police and discuss nonviolent responses with them if they might be used as intervention strategies
  • Respond early to disruptive, violent or discriminatory behaviour
  • Identify alternatives to physical intervention, circumstances in which physical intervention might become necessary, and ways in which its negative impact can be minimised.

Facilitate informal education

According to Rosseter (1987), “first and foremost, youth workers are educators” because youth work is about bringing about change and the development of “knowledge, skills and feelings” within young people (p. 52). Banks (1999) argues, “education is both the process and the purpose of youth work” (p. 7). It is not, however, the formal education offered in schools and other traditional education institutions. Education occurs informally: the emphasis is on “discovering and learning things by experiencing them” (Rosseter 1987, p. 54). Widely promoted in the United Kingdom, informal education  has not been widely discussed in Australian youth work. Although youth workers may adopt other roles as well, informal education provides a useful theoretical framework for youth work (Banks 1999; Jeffs & Smith 1990; Smith 1988): one that is consistent with a philosophy of nonviolence (Stuart 2002.). Important features of informal education include that it can take place in a variety of settings (e.g., over a game of pool, at a shopping centre), it does not need to occur at set times, participation is voluntary and it is based on conversation (for more information see It is grounded in a commitment to social justice, individual and social transformation, critical thinking, dialogue and collaboration (Jeffs & Smith 1990), and has been shaped by advocates for social change such as Dewey, Illich and Freire. Jeffs and Smith (1990) argue that informal education involves dialogue and critical thinking, through which people can recognise the ways in which they are marginalised and disempowered and to take action for change. They also suggest that informal education entails “a respect for truth and for justice, a commitment to collaborative working and a belief in reflectiveness and theory making” (p. 9), all of which are important components of nonviolent youth work practice. Even when focusing on individuals, youth workers can encourage them to reflect on their broader cultural and social contexts. Through informal education, young people can:

Gain a deeper insight into their situations and the institutional structures that surround them. They may experience an enhanced sense of freedom and choice, which often leads to more critical questioning, to increased self-respect for their own thoughts and ideas and to greater involvement in community and political life (Francis 1990, p. 59).

Implications of this feature of the model include that youth workers could:

  • See one of their main roles as being to assist young people to develop skills, experiences and knowledge within their everyday life
  • Assist young people to explore their social, economic, cultural and political contexts
  • View disruptive, violent or discriminatory behaviour as opportunities to explore alternative behaviours
  • Work with young people in their social and cultural context
  • Assist young people to identify their own learning needs and learning styles
  • Use conversation to allow young people to explore issues of interest or importance to them.


Since commencing the research for this model in 1999, the World Trade Centre has been attacked; the Bali bombings rocked the Asia Pacific region; the USA, Australia and other countries have gone to war in Afghanistan and Iraq; and Australia has toughened its response to asylum seekers and refugees. Internationally millions of people continue to die or suffer because of starvation and poverty while the West consumes the world’s resources at an unsustainable rate. Locally, Indigenous Australians continue to experience oppression and injustice, violence in the home is widespread and many young people are marginalised by social structures and practices that fail to protect their interests. Often the vision of a nonviolent, just society appears to be beyond our reach, and so it is vital that alternative ways of relating are explored at many levels of society. The model of nonviolent practice presented here is one attempt to explore ways in which nonviolence can become a foundation of a better society. The two most important principles contained in the model are be committed to nonviolence in all you do and develop a reflective work practice. If youth workers are committed to nonviolence and reflect on their practice, they will discover ways of being nonviolent. Hopefully this model can be a potential starting point.

If you liked this post you might want to follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. Principles of nonviolence
  2. Youth work and the police
  3. Shout Out youth forum – planning
  4. Domestic violence, family, friends and neighbours
  5. The widening gap between rich and poor – Time to even it up.
  6. Strengths-based approaches = HOPE


Banks, S. (ed.) 1999, Ethical issues in youth work, Routledge, London.

Burgess, G. & Burgess, H. 1994, ‘Justice without violence: Theoretical foundations’, in Justice without violence, (eds.) P Wehr, H Burgess, & G Burgess, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder.

Fook, J. 2002, Social work: Critical theory and practice, Sage Publications, London.

Francis, G. 1990, ‘Informal education with young women in the community’, in Using informal education, (eds.) T Jeffs & M Smith, Open University Press, Buckingham. Available from <>.

Gandhi, M. 1951, Satyagraha: Non-violent resistance, B Kumarappa, Trans., Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, India.

Jeffs, T. & Banks, S. 1999, ‘Youth workers as controllers: Issues of method and purpose’, in Ethical issues in youth work, (ed.) S Banks, Routledge, London.

Jeffs, T. & Smith, M. 1990, ‘Using informal education’, in Using informal education, (eds.) T Jeffs & M Smith, Open University Press, Buckingham. Available from <>.

King, M.L. 1958, Stride toward freedom: The Montgomery story, Harper and Row, New York.

King, M.L. 1963, Strength to love, Collins, Glasgow.

Ritchie, H. 2001, ‘Gandhian thought as general theory for social work practice’, Masters of Social Work thesis, The University of Iowa.

Rosseter, B. 1987, ‘Youth workers as educators’, in Youth Work, (eds.) T Jeffs & M Smith, Macmillan Education, London.

Sercombe, H. 1997, ‘The youth work contract: Professionalism and ethics’, Youth Studies Australia, vol. 16, no. 4, pp. 17-21.

Sercombe, H.; Omaji, P.; Drew, N.; Cooper, T. & Love, T. 2002, Youth and the future: Effective youth services for the year 2015, National Youth Affairs Research Scheme, Hobart.

Smith, M. 1988, Developing youth work, Open University Press, Philadelphia.

Starhawk 1990, Truth or dare: Encounters with power, authority, and mystery, HarperSanFrancisco, San Francisco.

Stuart, G. 2002, ‘Youth work as informal education – issues of control’, paper presented at the What Works!? Evidence based practice in child and family services. Association of Childrens Welfare Agencies Conference, Sydney, 2-4 September 2002. Available from <>.

Walz, T. & Ritchie, H. 2000, ‘Gandhian principles in social work practice: Ethics revisited’, Social Work, vol. 45, no. 3, pp. 213-222.

White, M. 1999a, Step 4: Help end the cause of suffering, Soulforce, viewed 17 June 2002, <>.

White, M. 1999b, Take the five Soulforce vows or promises, Soulforce, viewed 17 June 2002, <>.

White, R. 1987, ‘Youth workers: Training for what?’ Bulletin of the National Clearinghouse for Youth Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, pp. 23-27.

Originally published in:

Stuart, G. (2004). Nonviolence as a Framework for Youth Work Practice. Youth Studies Australia, Vol. 23, No 3, pp. 26-32.

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
This entry was posted in Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), Social change and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Nonviolence as a Framework for Youth Work Practice

  1. Wotu, Elijah says:

    This is a master piece, well done. More grease to your elbow. Good bless you.


  2. cbecker53 says:

    Thank you for this great, well-researched, post. When I read about movements for social change, I am always embarrassed that I haven’t done more.

    Liked by 1 person

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