Engaging Different Youth

I’m sitting in the cold steel and glass of another city hall somewhere out here in America. There have been dozens of these types of visits for me over the last decade, working and participating in meetings, forums, panels, and workshops held by well-meaning government workers. I have cringed at many of these; enjoyed a few; scoffed at a couple.

There are people for whom these environments are perfectly suited. They may be list-makers or note-takers; policians and wheeler-dealers; doers of all stripes. They may be career government workers, or movement-driven activistas. These are the folks occupying a lot of goverment positions, as elected, appointed, and hired employees.

Admittedly, at this point in my life I know I’m not so well-suited for government work. For all the time I’ve spent working in and with the system, I’ve come to understand that I find the machinations of government to be restrictive and confining of the energy I have.

All that said, this is how I’ve come to understand youth involvement over the last ten years: there are some young people for whom the rigamorol of traditional youth involvement is perfectly suited. The youth advisory committee meetings and youth forums work well for these youth; service learning programs and youth philanthropy activities just make sense.

But just like me as a government worker, for a large group of youth these activities just don’t work. They are too restrictive and binding. Does that mean they should simply be excluded from youth engagement outreach activities? I’d suggest otherwise. Instead, these youth should be appealed to even more so than their cooperative peers. It’s their voices that are routinely excluded or repressed, and their actions that could make all the difference in our community-building efforts.

Rachel Jackson, an organizer with the Ella Baker Center in California, once said, “Our youth are not failing the system; the system is failing our youth. Ironically, the very youth who are being treated the worst are the young people who are going to lead us out of this nightmare.” She was right. Let’s bring them in now, and let them lead. Our world cannot wait any longer.


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