Here’s my answer to an email I received today.
In our town this spring there will be three public issues forums/town hall meetings and we want to include youth voice. Two forums are on youth and alcohol and the third is on public education. In your experience, does it make sense to include youth in these forums or to hold separate youth-only forums?
The following is my response:
About the youth-exclusive versus adult-inclusive forums, here are my thoughts:
1. Create the climate. Its all about creating the climate reflecting your expectations for the forum. Regardless of whether you do or do not integrate youth and adults, you must make clear to all participants that you are striving to create a safe, inclusive environment – but before you do that you must actually think about what that means, particularly in comparison to what young people experience everyday. You know, the houses where parents encourage kids to be themselves and then frown when their teen goes goth. The schools where teachers preach to students about preparing for the future and then ban them from accessing the Internet. So create the climate that will engender the experience you want to foster.
2. Consider the essentials. Who is coming? What is allowed to be said – both overtly and subversively? Who is listening? Before you begin consider all the questions at http://soundout.org/framework.html
3. Examine the messages. What is communicated to a roomful of youth who have one adult at the front attesting to adults wanting to listen to youth voice? What is communicated to a single youth member of a BOD when the adults there say they value -all- youths’ voices? There are a lot of messages communicated intentionally and unintentionally, and we have to be aware of what is said.
4. Consider the outcomes. If you have a roomful of adults listening fishbowl-style to a group of youth those adults are going to be free to dismiss or ingest any one part of the experience however they want. If you have a roomful of youth with ten adults circling them those adults won’t get authentic voices, and if they do they may feel able to censor and edit at will. I mean, there is a lot of nuance and consideration here, but the point is what do you really want to see happen from the event. I would suggest that the most authentic dialog between youth and adults happens in small group settings – 6 to 8 participants – with one or two adults. There should be a technological recording apparatus that avoids adult or youth filtering what is said, along with individual note paper where participants can take their own notes.
5. Make accountability priority. I think that our society is so imbalanced because of the amount of accountability with foist onto young people – succeed in school, stay out of trouble, don’t stay out after 11pm, etc. – without any mutual accountability for adults. That’s not to say youth should have a say in setting adult curfews; rather, when was the last time students could hold their teachers accountable for failing to teach them? When was the last time youth could hold their parents accountable for treating them unfairly? And so forth.
So I didn’t give any direct answers; rather, I encourage people to consider their own specific needs for the activities they want to embark on.