Enough Rope To…

What does it mean when youth voice programs send young people into situations where we know there are hostile adults or complex problems that need preparations that young people don’t have?

Recently a close friend told me about a situation where her brother had the opportunity to speak in front of the city council about homeless and foster youth, which he had experienced. Rather than his program spending any time preparing him to speak strategically about his experience they let him go and talk. You know, they patted him on the back when he went up and said, “Good job!” when he was done – but honestly, he flew off the handle. Scrambling around his emotional landscape this young advocate poured his life’s experience on the floor. For some reason the program that brought him trusted that to be enough for him to have a positive experience, and they trusted the city council enough to make sense of his testimony and let it inform their decision-making.

I would wager that the city council was dismissive of him, at best. Its relatively easy to simply listen to youth voice, and then congratulate ourselves for that effort. Rather we need mechanisms in place that ensure the engagement of adults and youth in response to those voices. That’s what I try to illustrate in my Cycle of Meaningful Student Involvement – I just don’t know if I succeed.

Oftentimes I fall back on the metaphor of the 16-year-old and the keys to the car: We don’t just give a youth who wants to drive the keys and allow them to barrel down the Interstate at 75 miles an hour, and we shouldn’t do that with youth voice, either. Unfortunately I’m afraid that is also an excuse to simply dismiss youth involvement as needing too much work, but hey…

Let’s stop handing out just enough rope for young people to become sacrifices on the alter of youth voice. We have an obligation to do more than that.

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5 responses to “Enough Rope To…”

  1. Cycle of Meaningful Youth Involvement is a great learning resource. I lead the Tutor/Mentor Connection, based in Chicago, and am a Commissioner on the Illinois Commission for Volunteerism and Community Service. I’ve long felt that complex problem solving needs more than an emotional voice. It needs research, reflection, innovation, then presentation, team building, etc. This is a process of involvement that must be sustain for many years for complex problems to begin to be solved. Thus, we need to think of youth involvement as something that later continues as adult involvment, because youth become adults. If we can help people learn the habits you’ve outline, and find ways to keep them involved in this form of learning and problem solving, for many years, we can do much to reduce some of the problems facing the world.


  2. Adam:So glad you’re back. I was wondering where you’d gone to. Just yesterday I was speaking with the minister of my UU congregation about adultism and she raised the same issue as your blog today…that we can’t just throw young people into situations without preparation or where they would find themselves over their heads. I will be sharing your insights with her as we make steps to engage our young people more fully in congregational life.I would also like to make the point, however, that sometimes we hold back our powerful emotions too much as humans. I don’t know the details of the story you told about the young man, but expressing what’s really going on inside can be cathartic to the individual and moving to an audience. I’m assuming this situation left the young man feeling defeated or humiliated?


  3. There is a vulnerability that is assumed of youth that given the appropriate time and place there can be powerful revelation within that perspective. However, when presented an opportunity to influence the corridors of power inherent in a city council, adults have a responsibility for ensuring the testimony of young people is as effective as possible. I think about it like this: There’s no way I would go into a city council session without knowing what the issue was or how I was going to talk about it. I’d read some, make some notes, think about how I would say what I’d say, and then take a stab at it. But for some reason adults oftentimes assume youth don’t need that same preparation. Margaret, I will take the liberty here of suggesting that may be another enculturation of adultism, when adults assume that simply giving youth “room to speak” is enough, particularly when more is rightfully required.


  4. Adam, I couldn’t agree with you more! Thanks for writing this. I’ll be sharing it with others.


  5. Adam, I couldn’t agree with you more! Thanks for writing about this.


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