Over the last 25 years nonprofit organizations serving young people have grown exponentially by providing a variety of services for children and youth: tutoring, mentoring, recreation, leadership development, sports, skills-training, community service, teen nights, camping, drop-in programs, after-school programs, employment programs, dances, government programs, youth councils… the list goes on. During that time our society has hyper-structured the lives of young people, with time management becoming a prized commodity among some families, and visits to juvenile detention centers becoming routine for others. This type of hyper-structurizing is having dramatic effects on children and youth, and I think we’re far from understanding the breadth of those effects.
In the meantime, we need to embrace new approaches to designing, implementing and evaluating the programs serving children and youth in order for those programs to survive. This is why youth involvement is going to become so much more important to our communities than ever before. Finally, for what seems like the first time in my almost 20-year career, I am seeing a practical, pragmatic lever that Youth Voice advocates can use in order to leverage the radical transformation needed to foster deepened, systematic and sustainable youth involvement. As my friend and ally Wendy Lesko pointed out so well, people under 18 make up at least 26% of the American population. However, in the historical shackles thrust upon them in our schools, youth-serving organizations and community groups we’ve been unable to leverage the strength, energy, wisdom and ability inherent in that huge portion of our nation, let alone worldwide.
In this time of social and economic transformation lets move forward beyond the traditional barriers. Let’s deliberately move past segregating youth from the leadership of the organizations that exist to support them. Let’s consciously build the partnerships children need to move our society forward. Let’s intentionally transform the cultures structures that enforce adultism and adultcentrism. Why? Because we literally cannot afford to enforce them anymore! Adultism costs too much!
There is so much money put into creating and managing adult-driven, adult-managed, adult-guided, adult-evaluated, adult-motivated, adult-centered programs for children and youth. Consider all the traditional youth programs in our schools and neighborhoods. Despite being designed with the best intentions in mind, these activities have largely produced mediocre results, as dropout rates continue to grow, disengagement continues to sting, and disenfrachisement continues to be enforced. They just aren’t effective, and this ineffectiveness just costs too much.
My research and practice over the last nine years especially has shown me that there is an alternative to this mess. That alternative is the systematic engagement of children and youth throughout society, including the all of the structures and cultures we rely on every single day. We must engage young people in the research, planning, teaching, evaluation, decision-making and advocacy our programs conduct every single day. We must engage children and youth as trainers and teachers for their peers and for adults. We must change the ways that adults percieve young peoples’ abilities by actually infusing children and youth throughout the daily functioning of our society. We must create new opportunities for young people to support adults so that adults of all ilks can learn new behaviors, new attitudes and new ways of interacting with children and youth as partners. Then we can enfranchise generations of new voters, legions of new community volunteers, hoardes of new donors, and tons of new partners throughout all of our work to change the world.
This will get at the heart of some of those ineffective programs President Obama is after. This will strike at the cowardice inherent in adultism. This will transform our nation – and our world – forever. This is why I am going to act as and introduce myself as a “radical integrationist” from now on. Our society can’t wait any longer.