A while back I wrote a post called Youth Involvement as a Kludge where I described how youth involvement programs can actually become bigger problems than they are solutions. My friend Maggie responded with the following question:
I don’t know how to become an equal [with youth] without losing my authority; how to give youth their power, without giving too much- is it even possible?
Well, its been a month of Sundays, but I’m able to respond this morning. Let me start by saying that I think you’ve asked a valid question that’s in the hearts and minds of many youth workers, Maggie, especially when we hear the drumbeat of Youth Voice and the call for youth involvement so frequently.
When I was young the youth workers in my neighborhood often talked to me about youth empowerment, and as I got older I explored the assumptions behind youth empowerment. I came to conclude that there is an ambiguity built into calls for youth empowerment that is inherently disenfranchising, both to the youth and the adults who are involved. “Youth empowerment” fails youth because there is no standard for it. I wrote a definition of it for Freechild’s Guide to Social Change Led By and With Youth
, stating that, “Youth empowerment is an attitudinal, structural, and cultural process whereby young people gain the ability, authority, and agency to make decisions and implement change in their own lives and the lives of other people, including youth and adults.” But there is no consensus about the definition, as several different organizations
and young people
have put out their own definitions. Basically, the term means too many different things to too many different people. Many people will challenge that the intention is the same, and that’s what I tried to capture with my own definition.
All the same, with that uncertainty comes a lot of room for interpretation. On one end of the spectrum are folks who attribute any amount of power-sharing with young people as youth empowerment. This can look like youth chosing the colors of their bedrooms, students planning homecoming dances and teens “getting” a new basketball court in their neighborhood. All these things have been labelled as youth empowerment. On the other end of the spectrum is the absolutism represented by the youth liberation movement
: young people completely able to control their own destinies, with economic, spiritual, educational, politicial, recreational and social “freedom” to do whatever they want, wherever they want, whenever they want. I learned early that these dicotomous understandings aren’t necessarily in opposition of each other; instead, they’re locations along a spectrum. All that said Maggie, I think your question ultimately asks how you can find the balance, the midway point along that spectrum. The good news is that I don’t think you have to chose – the challenging news is that I don’t think the question you asked is an honest choice that anyone should have to make. Now I’ll answer your questions within a question directly.
Let me say this unequivocally: Adults and youth cannot and should not be equals.
There are practical reasons why nature
has provided us with differences in our phsyco- and social metrics, with the child/parent/elder relationship intact in my thinking. This is a challenging thing for me to write, and if asked I’ll provide some gray spaces and exceptions to the rule. However, for the most part I believe that all
children and youth should be granted the permission, ability, resources and opportunities they need to be children and youth. Likewise, I believe that all adults should receive what they need to be adults, as well.
In my reading of the literature, those definitions have been changing throughout modern times, from the European colonization of the Americas onwards, and those changes should be acknowledged and embraced for their inevitability and validity. I am a proponent of changing those roles myself. However, as our society stands today youth and adults should not be equals. I do believe there should be equity between youth and adults
The authority adults have in society is assumed and granted by social custom and political institution. It is a false, yet logical, authority that grants power, access and reign simply because of age, rather than ability, knowledge, strength or widsom. The question of whether adults should ever lose their authority isn’t necessarily the right one, because of the political/judicial systems that reinforce our social norms, customs and expectations. Courts hold adults responsible for the interest and well-being of youth, and no adult should be expected
to sacrifice their legal compliance to meet the demands of a moral or ethical high ground. If an adult wants
to do that it raises the question of appropriate adult allyship
and the role of youth/adult partnerships
; however, these are questions of gradation rather than absolutism. You don’t have to lose your authority Maggie; instead, you have to recognize where the possibilities for power-sharing are possible. My Cycle of Youth Voice
is designed for adults who want to do that.
In a new song U2 sings that, “Every generation gets a chance to change the world. Pity the nation that won’t listen to your boys and girls – cos the sweetest melody is the one we haven’t heard.” Maggie, I think you are on your way to listening to this melody. But I want to make sure you’re not overwhelmed by the chorus singing in the background. Do what you can for you, and what you can for Jenna, and everything will turn out exactly the way its supposed to. Good luck, and remember I’m here if you want more.