The Parent-Youth Connections Seminar, or PYCS, was a project of the King County Superior Court with primary focus on early intervention for low-risk youth involved in the court system. Focused on providing fun, interactive seminars to low-risk youth offenders and a parent or other connected adult, Adam Fletcher facilitated the program throughout 2018 as a principal consultant with The Athena Group.
Together, youth and adults explore youth engagement, community empowerment and social change. They explore the skills, knowledge and actions needed to change their lives and the world around them.
In this project, Adam designed and facilitated a 12-hour research-driven program designed to engage and empower families to change their lives. The Parent Youth Connections Seminar used intensive hands-on, interactive and focused activities, to engage parents and youth as they worked together to learn new knowledge, explore previous practices and grow new possibilities for their families. Over two-days, each session featured four workshops for learners of all ages including adult-only and youth-only groups.
The purpose of the Parent Youth Connections Seminar was to engage youth and caring adults in critical topics that would empower young people to make better decisions, be leaders in the future and change their lives in positive ways.
Workshop topics include:
Establishing and maintaining power, trust and respect
Individual and Family Strengths and Weaknesses
Action planning and problem-solving everyday
Finding real adult support
During each seminar, Adam ensured that participants were actively involved, heard engaging stories, completed challenging activities, participated in powerful reflection, discovered useful resources for the future and more.
The other day I saw a note that said poor people are more mentally prepared for the pandemic than anyone else in society. I don’t want to romanticize poverty, and I know that statement was ultimately made to alleviate the pain people are facing right now.
However, growing up as a homeless kid then in a poor family, I knew what it was like to be stuck at home and not being go out. I knew what it was like having empty cupboards and skipping meals because we didn’t have food. So I see the validity of that point, too.
Poverty makes people invisible, and when you’re poor it can feel like you’re left behind by everyone else in society.
During this pandemic, middle class people and upper class people are panic buying toilet paper and stuffing their pantries full of excessive groceries, they’re using their internet and subscriptions to saturate their minds with high-quality entertainment; buying online tutors for their kids; working out in their home gyms; paying all their bills on time; and so much more.
Meanwhile, poor people living without money are struggling to stay housed; suffering from hunger and poor nutrition; faced with anxiety because of overdue bills; living without healthcare; and all the way around, frequently struggling with overburdened responsibilities undue to their station in life.
To think of all the people living that way right now, you have the power of your survival and I know you’ll stay strong. I see you, and I believe in you.
To the people working to stop the pain of people living poor right now, I’m glad you are working so hard to alleviate the suffering people face in all the ways they are. If you are doing that, thank you for doing what you’re doing. I see you, and I believe in you, too.
During the COVID-19 Pandemic we’re being asked to shelter at home and socially distance ourselves from our friends, family and coworkers. Young people are suddenly without schools, the basis of many of their social networks, and they are constantly surrounded by their family. This is a new reality that demands adults learn how to shelter at home with youth voice.
Youth voice is any expression of any young person about anything, anywhere, at any time, for any reason.
I define youth voice as any expression of any young person about anything, anywhere, at any time, for any reason. There are no limits or boundaries for youth voice because it isn’t up to adults when, who, where, how, what, or why children and youth choose to express themselves. Young people don’t even have to strive to make themselves heard because they’re always expressing themselves. The question isn’t whether youth are sharing their voices; its whether adults are listening to what’s being shared.
While we’re all locked up at home right now. Some of us live with young people. The expressions of children and youth, including their thoughts, ideas, knowledge, wisdom and actions, are still valid and important. I’m concerned with how parents listen to youth voice, and engage youth voice intentionally. Here are some types of youth voice at home.
Types of Youth Voice at Home
Decision-Making—There are two types of decision-making at home, personal and household. Household decisions affect everyone in the home; personal decisions only affect individual people. Youth voice can be shared in decision-making in many ways, including places to go together, family food, decorating, shared activities and household budgets affect the household; Eating, clothing, and bathing are personal decisions. Since young people are members of houses, everything they do can affect every other person in the house, including seemingly personal decision-making.
Feedback—Giving feedback doesn’t just happen from adults-to-children; instead, it happens from children-to-adults and children-to-children. It happens all the time too, whether or not adults are listening or even want to hear it. Youth voice can be shared in feedback given about any subject or activity at home.
Creativity—Young people are constantly creative, whether they are in their own space being personally creative or creating out loud for everyone around them to see, hear, feel, taste or touch. Creativity shows youth voice within houses in all kinds of ways, including music, painting, poetry or knitting, as well as moving furniture, making meals or other expressions.
Learning—Children and youth are teaching and learning all the time at home. The subjects and the issues they’re learning about vary, and include things unique to their home like family history, making food, and constructing walls; as well as things they share with young people around the world, like gaming and tech, creative writing or academic subjects. Young people also learn through teaching their siblings and their parents. Youth voice comes through learning in all these ways and many more.
Problem-Solving—When faced with challenges affecting the whole family, children and youth can be partners with adults in the home to solve problems. Creating opportunities for that collaboration can foster family cohesion and positive belonging for everyone involved. Youth voice can come through problem-solving at home in many ways, especially in day-to-day activities as well as long-term.
Energy—The way people in a house think and feel affects how they treat each other. This treatment sets the household tone and culture, and is a visible factor to anyone within the home. The energy of the house is reflected in the language, attitudes, beliefs and ideals within and among the people who live there.
Recreation—As young people having fun, relaxing and recreation is essential to daily living. Whether its gaming or reading, dancing or bicycling, there are many ways recreation happens. Recreation can share youth voice in many ways, including making decisions and the tone of the recreation, the choice of activities and the people who are chosen to participate.
Consumption—Household consumption is a choice everyone makes all the time, and those choices are a type of youth voice. Whether young people are consuming food, electricity or otherwise, they can make their decisions about consumption on their own, help others in the household make their choices, and partner with adults at home to choose how to consume things.
Communication—The styles of communication in a household reflect youth voice indirectly and very directly. Whether its communication between adults and children or from child-to-child all communication in a household is an expression of countless factors. These expressions can happen through spoken words and unspoken body language; actions by a person as well as inaction; and many other ways. Youth voice is shared in the ways young people express themselves; the topics and subjects expressed about; the timing of expressions; who they are expressed towards and with; and where they are expressed.
Health—Our health, including our mental, physical and spiritual realities, includes our sleep, food, exercise, surroundings, activities and much more. Youth voice is expressed through health in all ways, because ultimately every way a person treats themselves reflects their thoughts, knowledge, feelings, ideas, and wisdom.
Mindsets—Our mindset is the mental framework we approach the world with. Youth voice reflects mindsets, and mindsets reflect youth voice. Young people share their core beliefs, personal assumptions, cultural wisdom and much more through their mindsets.
These are some types of youth voice at home. What would YOU add to the list? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!
A new reality is setting in around the world as more people are practicing social distancing, isolating themselves within their homes and accepting that Things have changed. Among those people are children and youth today.
Not merely passive actors in this gigantic play, young people are finding their schools shut for uncertain amounts of time; parents at home and out of work, or working from home; and the looming threat of a virus killing family members, neighbors, teachers and others they know and care about.
Unfortunately, the media is taking this as an opportunity to paint young people with a wide, negative brush. They are assaulting children and youth with hyperbole, dismissing them with adultism and demeaning them with plain hatred and antipathy.
Advocates for youth, including those of us who care about youth voice, youth involvement, youth empowerment, youth activism, youth leadership and any form of giving a damn about young people, have to be attentive right now to all these damning perceptions. They are not reality, and they will harm young people today and into the future.
I would suggest the tone being set right now is will shift the culture long into the future. For more than two decades, we’ve made progress with adults perspectives of young people leading positive social change. In recent years, this has become more pronounced with youth leading massive movements for social change.
However, given the threat that viewpoint poses to the adultocracy that dominates our daily lives, there will surely be a backlash. Unfortunately, I believe we’re seeing that emerge right now, and more pronounced than ever before.
What To Do
Adultocracy—A governing system that assumes power should be concentrated in the hands of adult members of society; the collection of obvious and unobvious tools adults use to impose their authority, domination and superiority over children and youth.
Adult allies to young people have to stand up with and for young people right now. We have to message on social media, promote in our online workspaces and otherwise communicate to our coworkers, our friends and family, politicians and others three essential messages:
Young people are not the problem; they are the solution;
Adults need to support young people with attitudes, words and actions right now, and;
Organizations need to stand with youth as allies more than ever before.
By focusing on deliberate support for young people right now, we can continue to move forward in our society with young people providing essential wisdom, ideas, action and outcomes. Without this focus, we might lose the ground we’ve gained for all these years of struggle.
In order to be heard, we have to learn to listen. Listening can be simple, painless and easy; it can also be complex, painful and hard. Either way, we have to learn to listen if we want to get past just hearing what is being said.
This is how to listen to others:
Open my heart and mind to others
Release my assumptions about others and their interest and ability to speak for themselves
Make space for others to speak for themselves
Be quiet and listen
Ensure opportunities for others to speak for themselves always exist in perpetuity
Continue always to stay mindful about my voice, my listening and my actions that affect others
Be aware of my conscious and unconscious impact on others
Step aside so others can speak for themselves
Advocate for others to speak for themselves
When they are absent, speak for others who cannot speak for themselves
Build my ability to listen
This isn’t meant to be completely comprehensive; instead, its intended to hold space for people who want to learn what they can do for themselves and others in order to build their ability to listen.
What would you add? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Standing in the dark, cavernous sanctuary, I shouted from the stage into the midnight silence of the empty pews before me:
For the next three hours, I let loose with all the thoughts, feelings, ideas, concerns, criticism, conclusions and questions I could muster. Speaking with my greatest vibrato and whispering in my lowest loud tones, I was excited, nervous, scared and frustrated.
The previous year had been a roller coaster for me. That night, I was the 19-year-old youth director at a suburban church in the Midwestern United States. With little practical knowledge of how to do the job, I ran off of inspiration and enthusiasm, generally winning the hearts of young people with my personality before appealing to their minds with my abilities.
Before that night, I went to college for several months before having to give it up for both fiscal reasons, and simply because I had no idea what I was doing, literally. I worked at this church during that time, as well as running a youth program at another church and working in an independent living skills program for foster, homeless and other disconnected youth.
Out of frustration, a few months before then I’d packed my car full of all my worldly possessions—bed comforter, dress clothes, high school diploma, etc.—and headed off to make a life in New Orleans. I had no idea what I was doing then either, and halfway there my car permanently broke down; the drive shaft separated and went into the oil pan as I drove down the highway. A scrap heap, I sold my car and almost everything I owned to a wrecker for $50. Buying a bus ticket, I continued onward, only to run into rejection, theft, violence and loneliness for the next three weeks. Sleeping behind dumpsters and playing my harmonica on a street corner at the edge of the French Quarter after Mardi Gras, my parents and other adults back home wouldn’t save me, send me money or otherwise help me get on my feet. When my brother finally returned from an overseas deployment in the military, I asked him for help and he sent me a bus ticket. I went back to the city where I lived and took the youth director job back at that church.
Working late into the nights anytime during the week was my norm. I didn’t enjoy the nightlife of the university city where I lived, and I wasn’t really connected to other young people there, so being at the church all the time was comfortable for me.
By that point in my life, I was well aware that I wasn’t a traditionally religious person. My upbringing was punctuated by my mother’s zealous appreciation of Gandhi, who she constantly quoted and whose life she made lessons with. I became enamored with the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. in my teenage years, reading Letter from a Birmingham Jailrepeatedly by then. I didn’t read the copy of the Koran I kept that often though, and the Tao Te Ching didn’t make a lot of sense to me then. I constantly listened to U2, though, and that wasn’t a bad leadoff for the spiritual development of the teenage me. Sure, I flipped through the Bible and henpecked my favorite scriptures, too.
I adamantly didn’t believe in the tenets of the faith though, and it was increasingly awkward for me to be working at this church. My job there was to lead Bible studies, teach Sunday school classes and informally counsel the youth there. Many of these teens grew up in the church and were stronger in their faith than me, as well as more determined to grow into their faith. Others were rebellious in ways I had never been, and I couldn’t relate to the struggles they wrestled with.
Oh, and the other part of my job was to co-lead church services with the minister. Once a month I got to deliver a sermon. These parts of the job were exhilarating for me. There was nothing as rewarding as weaving together my favorite Gandhi, King, U2 and Bible quotes with stories from my own life, and an occasional piece of news or other tale I’d picked up, only to have a kind middle-age mother come to me after the service to say she understood exactly what I was saying, or an older parishioner tell me she loved how dynamic I was. As much as I relied on metaphor and analogy, I strove to be understood and found it rewarding when people “got it.”
There were times when I didn’t get it though. Standing at the pulpit in the story at the beginning of this, I was wrestling with the universe as I stood there. That call was purposely Godless, distinctively direct, and purposefully submissive. I didn’t want to think I knew it all, because I felt responsible for the cataclysmic shape of my young life then, and clearly knew then that I just didn’t know what I was doing.
It wasn’t the first time I’d done this kind of midnight ghost preaching. After being invited to talk in many churches during the three years before that, I was (over)confident in my abilities as a speaker.
I share this memory with you to share with you my dream. When I was 15, I participated in an Urban League youth leadership program that included Toastmasters training. From that point forward, I wanted to speak professionally, captivating audiences with magically woven words to enlighten, educate and engage broad messages that flowed magically from my complex mind.
I have had success accomplishing that dream. However, I still feel like my work in this way has just begun, and I’m looking for ways to improve myself, improve my messages, and improve the vision in my heart and mind.
That job didn’t last long after my last midnight sermon. At some point towards the end, I painted a wild image of Golgotha, or Calvary, on the wall of the office I kept there. While I don’t have a pic of it, the image is burned in my mind. I didn’t feel like Jesus or a savior when I worked at that church or preached anywhere. Instead, I often felt like the thief basking in the shadow of greatness, hoping to be forgiven right before my own imminent demise.
Tumwater, Washington is a small city wrapped around a large hill. The first town in western Washington, it was started in 1845. In 1999 and 2000, I spent a year running a youth center there.
I moved to Olympia, next door to Tumwater, a year before. A young man, I was determined to continue my youth work career and expand my heart and mind. It was a challenging time personally, as I’d been out of college for a few years and simply working. My partner at the time was excited to move to her family in Olympia, so I went along for the ride.
Olympia was a damp, glorious place to visit. After growing up in the Midwest and being born in Alberta’s prairies, I was excited to live by the ultimate combination of the ocean and the mountains, near Seattle and Portland without being in either one. The Evergreen State College was a big draw for me too, and I envisioned graduating there. The place called to me, and I answered.
The city of Tumwater is mostly working class white people. 20 years ago, there were several low-performing elementary schools in the city, and one of the high schools was a football powerhouse. The two main features of the city are its beautiful waterfalls, and Tumwater Hill. In 1999, the City government completed a renovation of the old fire station/city hall at the bottom of Tumwater Hill and opened a youth center there. I was the first director hired to run it.
Immediately, I set about developing programming and opportunities for young people in the surrounding neighborhood to come in. Typically, we offered after school safe space along with organized sports and games. Groups of children and youth teens would come in for a few hours every night, I’d make sure there were snacks and volunteers to hang out, and everything buzzed along for a few months. Then…
One night a group of the young teens who came in were ready to fight. Rarely causing trouble, this was the type of crisis I was warned about by my manager. She knew I’d worked in much more challenging situations, and she wanted me to be ready for this place to be challenging.
However, in my own style, I quashed the beef before it got out of hand. The young people who wanted to fight each other were mad about something that happened in school, and after they started trouble, I stood with each pair of youth and explained I would be calling their parents, and calling the school if anything got out of hand at the youth center. Incredibly enough, that worked! There was some unusual vandalism around the center the following weekend, and when confronted everyone involved denied they were complicit.
Afterward though, an interesting thing happened: The popularity of the youth center tanked. The young people involved in the debacle were connectors who had led their peers into the center for the months prior, and when they stopped attending, they encouraged their friends to hang out with them elsewhere.
Without young people coming in to the community center, its worth was questioned and my leadership was challenged. I struggled to bring back the young people after that, and while I had occasional successes the numbers weren’t as robust or consistent as they were originally.
While I was successful at managing volunteers and making the case for new part-time staff and managing them, and I did make the shoestring budget work by wrangling donations and more, I simply wasn’t able to raise sustained interest by the neighborhood youth after what happened. The center needed new energy for that.
I learned a lot from this experience, like these things:
As important for youth participation as recruitment is, retention is vital, too;
My prior professional experience in a disenfranchised community didn’t guarantee success in a new one, especially when the disenfranchisement was different;
Youth participation happens on a continuum, and its important to understand that individually, we can’t be all things at all times, and;
No single adult can serve all the functions successfully 100% of the time.
After several more months of varying popularity in the youth center, I was recruited to a fellowship focused on youth involvement. Taking my time as a youth center director with me, as well as my decade of experience before that, I was enthralled to go to Washington, DC to learn and grow in ways that still benefit my professional and personal life.
However, that wouldn’t have been as valuable without that year in the youth center at the bottom of the hill.
For more than a century, there have been a legion of young people and adults committed to building the skills, knowledge, abilities and power of youth. These people work in programs that are dedicated to recreation and education, providing safe and supportive environments, and that holy triumvirate of youth services: Intervention, prevention and empowerment. The overarching title uniting many of these people together is Youth Worker.
In the United States, being a youth worker is challenging, at best. Without a solid career pathway, with little cross-sector acknowledgment of interconnectivity, and lacking substantive opportunities to make a successful living at the work, many youth workers treat their jobs as starting points towards other work.
That doesn’t mean that people don’t make the best of it! While my own livelihood has been a journey through harrowing odds, against hardening obstacles and towards an uncertain endpoint, for more than 25 years it has kept me alive, enthused and inquisitive. My passion for youth voice, youth engagement, education transformation and meaningful student involvement is hotter than ever, and opportunities keep unveiling themselves to continue growing and learning. While positive youth development, youth empowerment and community youth engagement grow in my heart, I’m confronting my own adultism, white supremacy and toxic masculinity, and how they pervade my work. This is the richest living I have done in a long time.
The youth worker career challenge is bigger than any single persons’ journey though. We have to strive to connect with each other, learn together and challenge one another to reach higher, more intentionally, past the boundaries and borders of grant expectations, organizational competition and professional burn out. Instead, we have to fuse our hearts and minds together with love, hope and genuinely transformational empowerment. Nothing less should be woven throughout our profession, now and into the future.
I support youth workers who are at the beginning of their journey, in the midway or seeking a logical way out, whether they’ve worked three months or three decades. Through one-on-one coaching, small group workshops and retreats, and my speeches I reach into the hearts and minds of the people who do this work everyday to challenge, enliven and enthrall those who want to change the situations young people are in right now, everywhere, all the time.
I strolled onto the sun scorched parade ground at camp wearing a banana yellow poncho and sunglasses, with a crown of Christmas tinsel wrapped around my head. It was 93 degrees out that day, and we were about to have the water fight of the decade. Somehow, this would become an ideal allegory for much of my career in youth work afterward.
Freshman year of college was abysmal for me. It was 1993 and 1994. Constantly feeling a sense of confusion and being overwhelmed, as a first generation college student I struggled to make sense of the experience. I didn’t understand where I was at, what the purpose was, whether I belonged and how to pay for it. Of all those questions, the last one was the worst. After being unable to pay tuition at the small college where I thrived but couldn’t keep going, I started over at a different one only to be overwhelmed by the size and process of attending classes with 45,000 other students. Fish. Out. Of. Water.
I grew up entrenched in nature. While I spent my teens living in the middle of a city and far away from “deep nature,” my dad made sure I camped monthly since I was 12. Even before that, my dad encouraged me to be outside and took me on adventures. When we first moved to the Omaha area and were living in the Rainbow Motel off Highway 375, he took me to Fontenelle Forest, a nature preserve along the Missouri River. We’d sneak in through the barbed wire fence surrounding the place, then meander along trails, down hillsides and short cliffs, and into the river bottoms, swamps and wetlands along the riverside. Staying there for hours at a time, he’d point out deer, rabbits and coyotes, eagles and red tail hawks, and everything he saw with his seasoned hunting eyes. By the time I graduated from high school, I was an eagle scout who’d spent months away from home at scout camps teaching nature.
Before winter was over freshman year, I’d signed on to leave the city where I went to college and join the staff of a YMCA summer camp in southeast Nebraska. Surrounded by an oak forest snuggled up against the Platte River banks, mostly white children and youth from middle class homes were sequestered at the camp for a week of residential living. Sleeping overnight in spartan cabins, campers slept stacked in bunks, each fretting that lightning bugs and junebugs and daddy long legs were all trying to break in to eat them up. They participated in swimming, horse riding, craft making, archery, and all the other traditional summer camp curriculum.
The staff looked a lot like the campers. Almost everyone was white and on summer break from some local college. We only shared what we wanted to, and because of that we didn’t know a lot about everyone. Encouraged to take pseudonyms to curtail campers’ attachments, I was called Mister Jones all summer long. Other staff had nicknames like Smiley and Lola, and as far as I knew, everyone stayed an arms’ length away from campers’ real stories, too. Among the staff, one person shared a tragic backstory; another was a cowboy-type from western Nebraska; another played college volleyball; another was a deep water scuba diver. I was simply the nature director, and few people knew that I’d come from North Omaha.
For nine weeks that summer, my job was to use the props in the little nature shack to keep the attention of small groups for an hour at a time, every day, all summer long. Of course, I went a little overboard in my attempts. My classes surely included the typical lifting and petting the taxidermy birds and varmints; flipping through dated charts and old books; and overall, just trying to make sense of all the crap left there by generations before me. But my activities also included mud hikes down freshly soaked creek beds cutting through the camp; building a “snail sanctuary” made of moss and sticks in the daylong shade around the little nature shack in the woods; and singing goofy, made-up nature songs that no young person wanted to be seen singing outside the context of my nature classes. That part of the job was a riot.
Most things about the camp were typical and traditional. The camp director was astutely aware of the need for drama and wove it throughout the days. Every night we had a closing reflection time with a cabin, sharing our highs and lows and thinking aloud about what we learned from the day we just had. Every week, closing night at camp was a water works of tear-jerking storytelling and knee-slapping jokes, skits and songs. All of that was performed by staff and campers in front of parents and camp alumni, all of whom were strategically invited to see the value and power of camp.
Once a week, when it was my turn to facilitate the closing reflection time, I would march my cabin to the nature shack and welcome them in, without allowing flashlights during the short hike along a wide trail in the woods. Walking into the shack, eight campers would line either side of my teaching table, which had one fat candle in the middle. Striking a box of wooden matches very slowly, I milked the entire scene for effect. I told a story about a kid who suffered discrimination when he was young, and after learning how to fight for justice from his father, he grew up to become a minister and continued fighting for justice when he was a parent, a preacher and a leader. Alluding to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s story the whole time, I would end the short session by playing a song for them from my boombox, which was cued up to U2’s song, MLK.
However, there were problems with my camp experience that undercut my experience there. For as much as I fit in, I was sticking out the whole time.
That summer my parents divorced after 20 years together. Having gone through hell together, living apart was what was happening now. My brain didn’t know how to deal with that, so I just kept trucking on, pretending nothing was happening. When I signed up for camp, I was distinctly aware that I had no money and no plans for what happened after camp. My mother offered to rent me the bedroom I lived in for the prior eight years, so I kept that idea in mind. With the chaos happening at home though, I went off to rest at this camp in forest for the summer.
When I got to camp, I was confronted again with a foggy sense of separation and difference. I had faced it just the previous fall when I started attending a small, vastly white, vastly middle- and upper-class college. I had no idea why students looked so damn clean when they went off to class, and decided the overarching purpose of the place must have been to create drones to run the world. Mostly apolitical as a youth, I did carry the innate awareness of injustice typical of so many young people from low-income, disenfranchised backgrounds. I knew what was right and wrong, and the college I went to didn’t seem right.
This camp didn’t seem right either. Today, I know that the children and youth there were simply different than me, with different customs, traditions, culture and affects from what I was conditioned to. But then, those differences offended the very core of my being. Wearing new clothes to summer camp, demanding things of adults and routinely dismissing manners was just the edge of the swords these campers wielded. The brute force of their existences seemed to be apathetic or indifferent attitudes towards their privileges, along with a crass entitlement toward the creature comforts. These bothered me most. I couldn’t make sense of the attitudes and actions that seemed so foreign to me, so I condemned them in my own head.
The staff I was part of, those people I worked with, felt the same way to me. I didn’t understand the long-timers, those 18- to 25-year-old young adults who attended camp there and had a love for the place brimming from their eager smiles and determined actions. I didn’t get them. I also didn’t understand the “old pros,” the 25-plus year-olds who worked at other camps, worked in other kid spaces, and came to this job in sequence of the rest of their careers. All of them seemed comfortable with the young people we were working with, and none of them appeared indifferent to anyone; they all cared so much!
I was angry about the entitlement and differences. My self-imposed isolation was frustrated by a seeming indifference to my suffering by everyone around me. So much was conspiring in my life at that moment, and in an environment so distinctly different from where I’d known, I had no idea how to relate to my charges, or to my peers. I also had no idea of how to rectify the changes in my world outside camp with the world at camp. Ultimately, I was scared.
All of this boiled over with just two weeks left at camp. All summer long, I’d been cracking racial jokes and repeating the “your mama” insults I grew up with in North Omaha. I guess I was trying to get comfortable and bring people to the level I was used to playing on; but apparently, I stood on an uneven playing field.
By the end of the summer, my inherent racism as a white person became grossly entwined in my attempts to be witty.
One evening on the long walk to the end-of-session campfire, I was slowly moving along in a line of campers with staff at the end. In those Nebraska nights of flickering lightning bugs, cicadas squealing and frogs croaking, it was a camp tradition to walk in silence once we got into the campfire space. Every week, I used that walk to decompress, a chance to crack wise and relieve some of the tension of the coming campfire theatrics I mentioned earlier. That night, which was just two weeks before the end of summer, I made a joke to a fellow staff member who wasn’t amused by my antics. “Just go to the back of the line and leave us alone,” they commanded. Without thinking, I replied, “Isn’t that how it is, always sending us to the back of the bus?” When they rightly scoffed and became visually upset, I quickly apologized.
The next morning I was called into the camp director’s office before breakfast. Knowing that I was going to face the music for my ignorant comment, I walked into the small command center with the director and his number two. Scowling and tersely, it was explained to me that staff had been complaining all summer long about me in a variety of ways: I made inappropriate jokes, I didn’t respect their judgment about things, and I was stand-offish. I was told that I was being racist against white people. I was given the choice of leaving immediately, or finishing the summer in a diminished role.
I apologized to the camp leaders, offered to apologize to the other staff person again, and took their offer to stay. When the other staff person came into the office, I stated plainly that I was deeply ashamed of hurting them, and embarrassed by what I’d said. They told me that after growing up as a mixed race person and trying hard to The next two weeks were slower and more tedious than any other, and I was ready to leave when it was done.
I stayed inspired. Focusing on the task at hand, I was determined to make campers experiences’ in my classes different from everything else at camp. In those last few weeks, I made sure campers got their hands and clothes dirty every time they came to the nature shack, especially after I was told not to take campers on any more creek bed hikes. Apparently, parents complained because the Nebraska clay wouldn’t wash out of their kids’ clothes. I was defiantly proud of that rebelliousness.
Something in me changed after that though. Rather than continuing to take any youth work job anywhere with any young people for any reason, I was newly determined to work specifically with low-income youth and youth of color. Not quite understanding what I was onto yet, I started looking for jobs that were empowering and inspiring for the youth who were in them.
Feeling squashed in my own spirit was hard, especially when my struggles were misunderstood by me and the people I worked for. Coming from the disenfranchised background I did, including the homelessness and addiction and depression and PTSD coursing through my familial veins, it’s a wonder to me that I made it into this job in the first place. When I was interviewed, I wanted to impart my passionate perspective to the program director more than anything. Without disclosing any of my personal experience, I let that person know that I cared deeply about young people, and was committed to engaging them in nature, much as I had been as a child. Admiring my conflated memories of him, I envisioned myself as a nature guide the way my dad had been, gently moving young people along a pathway to become nature lovers by creating mini-epic hikes and activities to spark their imaginations and enflame their hearts. It was an audacious idea, and I was bold enough to believe it even after I’d failed my fellow camp staff so badly.
It was the last day of that summer camp as I stood in that banana yellow poncho and sunglasses, my crown of Christmas tinsel and beads of sweat collecting in my unkempt long hair. The weeks struggled past me, and this water fight was awesome. Despite the strife of the previous weeks along with the mixture of guilt and struggle left in my heart, I was having a blast. Playing the role of a sun god, the 200-plus campers had a moment of tag teaming me to put the sun out with a hose and buckets of water. The staff ganged up on me too, and suddenly I stood wide open to a torrent of forgiveness and encouragement. When campers left that week, nobody knew what I’d been through that summer. I wasn’t sure myself. Standing in that poncho and being celebrated despite or because of my differences would become an allegory for continuing past adversity, and served as a pathway for much of my work from then on.
This wasn’t the last time I toxified the environment around me, and it was far from the last time I was confused in my work. However, it was a major change moment for me that continues to inform my work, 25 years later. Today, my energy with young people and my peers is different. I have learned to simmer instead of boil and to marinate instead of explode. I’ve been taught that sense of racial exceptionalism extending from growing up in a predominantly African American neighborhood doesn’t apply, isn’t valid, and doesn’t matter. Sure, there are definite differences between Black people and white people, but they don’t extend towards enlightening me, a goofy white Canadian immigrant cis male. I have no special knowledge and I get no special pass because of my experience.
Perhaps most importantly though, I’ve learned to get quiet when it’s time. Back then, my humor wasn’t welcome, invited or appropriate most of the time. I’ve discovered that what I experienced wasn’t unusual or exceptional for that age, or for the experiences I had to that point: A lot of 19-year-olds, a lot of former homeless kids, a lot of struggling youth, a lot of first generation college students, and a lot of “racial-experience-diversified” white kids feel like they are both fitting in and sticking out. That knowledge has resulted in my own mellowing, calming and relaxation. I see now that this experience was good, and I’m grateful for having the times I did at this camp. I also know indebted to the people there who taught me, whether intentionally or accidentally.
My work continued after this, different than ever before…
The gigantic, cream-colored fellowship hall at the old Methodist church was filled with tables and chairs made into a square, with a row of chairs behind them like an observation gallery. That’s where I sat. A few months earlier, I asked the pastor if I could join the church’s governing board. He said he’d ask a few people, then let me know the board was going to take up the issue.
The issue was that I was 16-years-old. A year earlier, I went on fire after reading a booklet called “Youth Involvement in the United Methodist Church,” or something to that effect. The year was 1990, and I had started working for our neighborhood nonprofit as a drama teacher. Reading this booklet, I decided joining the church’s governing board was a logical extension of the my newfound voice that would give me a chance to express my opinions, ideas and knowledge about what would be right for the church that I loved.
This was no ordinary church, whatever your idea of that might be, and I didn’t feel like any ordinary church youth. Instead, Pearl Memorial United Methodist Church in North Omaha, Nebraska, was a mission church established to serve a once suburban congregation that was struck hard by white flight, where the transitioning neighborhood around it looked more like tales from the 21st century Detroit than any sense of a bucolic Midwestern city pumped full of the American dream. The surrounding neighborhood was predominantly working class and low-income residents, and my family belonged there.
I struggled to belong in my neighborhood though. As a goofy white immigrant kid from rural Alberta, Canada, I wore cowboy boots and corduroy pants in a school where other kids were were Air Jordans and parachute pants. Pearl Church was filled with old white people who’d refused to move from the reverse-gentrified neighborhood, and survived off the energy of post-hippy young parents who wanted to live radical faith, and saw the church as a logical extension of their Christianity.
Not understanding their faith, I marched into that room full of church elders and made the case for why I should be allowed to join that board. My lack of knowledge about the Bible and the Christian faith didn’t hold me back; I was driven by determination and zeal. I made the case that since I was the senior patrol leader for the church’s scout troop; since I volunteered in many of the church’s ministries; and since I was young, I could provide a voice that was missing among the group, which was a voice of youth.
The church had never had a youth member on their governing board before. In this era, it was brash for a teen to ask to represent themselves or other people in these types of setting. To that effect, I distinctly remember Paul, one of the resident WWII veterans, immediately scoffing at the preposterous idea that a kid should be a leader in the church. After being dismissed from the group to so they could discuss the issue, I heard back later in the week that I wasn’t allowed to join the board.
Holding that United Methodist Church booklet in my hand, I wagged my finger and sighed in response. Soon, the pastor of the church invited me to get involved in worship services, and within the year I’d preached my first sermon. In addition to working with one of those radical post-hippies to start the church’s youth group and recruiting my friends to attend, I got involved in the district youth council which covered all of Omaha, and was invited to represent the district youth at the state conference. After that I was invited to annual regional youth gatherings for a few years, and when I was 18, I got to attend a national youth conference. All of these were honors that didn’t escape me.
However, that first sting of awareness that I was seen as less-than-worthy because I was young never left. The excuse given to me for my rejection was simply that I was too young. They didn’t say I didn’t know enough and they weren’t overtly rejecting my abilities or lack thereof. The reasoning was solely dependent on my age. This became part of the energy that fueled my decades-long quest to build youth power throughout our society.
These days I’m beginning to understand (again) how these experiences from my own youth inform my practice as a professional in this space. Not only did the overt discrimination drive me, but the implicit exceptionalism and adultcentrism hurt. From then on, when I ran youth programs I intentionally worked to engage youth in making decisions whenever possible. Calling out my peers and challenging authority, I demanded the presence of young people in rooms where decisions were made for them, and when I had no authority to do that the anger and frustration built in me against those situations.
I was hurt because I felt rejected, and because that rejection was made explicit. The sense of difference and separation stays with me today, and no matter what kind of setting I’m in I still struggle with not fitting in, not belonging and otherwise feeling not quite right in many situations.
However, I’ve also used all of those hurt feelings in positive, empowering ways. My written and visual art is emboldened by my experiences of difference. Emotional experiences with friends and family are made stronger because of my ability to find the sense of place and purpose I didn’t have when I was young. Ultimately, I have learned to belong wherever I want to, and that’s a powerful skill. That was definitely informed by my experiences at Pearl Church.
Just like organizations throughout our communities, churches and other places of worship have to do more, better in order to engage young people. And not just the convenient youth, either; instead, they need to engage every young person within their locus of control. Roles will emerge throughout the structure of churches that allow every young person to become meaningfully involved, including planning, teaching, evaluating, decision-making and advocacy. Children and youth in churches have been involved in the multiplicity of issues affecting Christianity and spirituality, too.
Until that time, young people will continue to evacuate faith communities en masse. Their experiences as young people will continue to inform their opinions, ideas and knowledge as adults, too, so expecting them to en masse have a change of heart as adults is asinine, at best.
How do your experiences as a youth inform your youth work, classroom or youth engagement practice today?