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?
People get excited watching the news. Like playing a fiddle, newscasters portray very depressing, very upsetting and slightly uplifting events as if they were regular, everyday events. Youth activism has fallen prey to this.
Using young activists as exceptional fodder to capture the attention of viewers and readers, sources including social media, newspapers, websites and television have taken comfort in knowing whenever they show a certain 16-year-old activist they’ll upset particular viewers into calling, emailing or responding somehow.
These same sources quickly post the latest protests, highlighting the picket signs and skin colors of the youth protesters. They are pulling on heartstrings of supporters, and pushing the buttons of haters.
Exciting youth activists aren’t to blame for this either. This isn’t a call to “get those kids off the stage.” Instead, I want to challenge the media to stop sensationalizing and tokenizing youth activism. This doesn’t mean they should normalize it, but it also means that they should quit with the alienation and separation of youth activists in the media. Infantilizing youth activists has to quit, too; when a large school district recently gave youth one day off yearly for civic engagement, a lot of media wrangled their hands at overwhelming the kids. Apparent indifference is no answer either, as was the media’s response to 20 years of activism before today.
Let’s move away from all the bogus responses to youth activism, and instead increase peaceful, kind and accepting responses that will benefit us all.
Before embarking on any exploration of community engagement, its important to understand that most definitions of the term are ill-conceived, if well-meaning. This is because most posit community engagement is either a process oran outcome that is definable according to the needs of the definer. For example, the CDC says community engagement is,
“the process of working collaboratively with and through groups of people affiliated by geographic proximity, special interest, or similar situations to address issues affecting the well-being of those people.”
This definition is meant to rationalize CDC’s mission to improve the health and well-being of people in the United States. The unfortunate part of the CDC salamugundiis that it tosses the values, beliefs and activities of everyday people to the wind by insisting we line up according to CDC’s purpose.
Community engagement is both more than this and less.
In Practical Terms
Based on my experiences as a community engagement practitioner, organizational consultant and as an activist/sociologist, that’s the most practical, operative and fair definition of community engagement today. I came to understand engagement this way just within the last few years as I worked with groups of disenfranchised families involved in the foster care and juvenile justice systems in Washington state.
What these families taught me is that our systems are so fraught with discrimination against working class and low-income people, and so regularly express subjective bias against people of color, that they cannot clearly see or understand exactly what constitutes community engagement within and throughout these communities. Middle class white culture pervades almost every popular notion of community engagement today.
Community engagement does not rely on phycological, emotional, cultural or educational connections; it is not reliant on your notions of positivity or purposefulness, and; it does not necessitate specific inputs or outcomes. Instead, it is simply choosing the same things again and again.
Just because, as a whole, a group of people who co-identify smokes pot, steals cable TV, distrusts police or otherwise acts in ways that white middle class people don’t agree with, that doesn’t mean they are not experiencing community engagement.
Similarly, when a group of people shows up to volunteer for a few hours, or does yoga together for 90 minutes, or sends a flurry of one-time emails to a politician about a subject, they are not necessarily experiencing community engagement.
Fully understanding the definition I’ve shared here is trickier than it appears, and warrants further examination in a different post. I’d love to hear your thoughts about what I’ve shared so far; please leave them in the comments section.
Culture can seem like a hard thing to understand. We know that it includes the arts, like music and painting and sculpture. We know it includes our appearances, including whether we’re gender conforming, which clothes we have on, how we style our hair (or lack thereof!). Culture can be the songs, stories, beliefs, attitudes and abilities we share with others. It can mean a lot more, too.
Youth action happens in a lot of different ways, too. Consciously, connectedly and deliberately, young people around the world are organizing themselves, younger and older people to make a difference in so many different ways.
Culture connects youth action to longer traditions that are more inherent within society. By tapping into these rich veins of connectedness, children and youth build culture and change the world at the same time. Here are some examples of youth action through culture:
It is important to understand the realities within the youth work. Since beginning my career in youth work in the 1990s I have been exploring its theoretical and social underpinnings throughout my career. Wiggling its fingers throughout my efforts has been neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism is the belief that young people are a commodity to be produced, manufactured, bought and sold throughout society. It makes inequality a necessity, creates unfair and unjust outcomes for youth and communities, and relies on the pain and suffering of some to benefit others.
Defeating the values of democratic society, neoliberalism actively teachers young people that their intuition is wrong. Values including Truth, Democracy, Fairness and Equality, Respect for Others, The promotion of Well-Being, and Tipping the Balance of Power and Control are not just irrelevant, but are actually negative.
Neoliberal youth work relies on broad political, economic and social force to drive it. Youth programs around the world have been assaulted by neoliberal forces hellbent on destroying the imaginations of children and youth and the democratic empowerment they were supposed to inherit. It replaces democracy with money-making through authoritarianism and certainty.
In youth work, neoliberalism takes many forms:
It is obvious in ways many programs are designed by looking at young people as incomplete, unformed and in need of adult direction;
The treatment of young people as disposable populations that should be removed from mainstream society and fed pre-determined programs, purchased from corporate publishers and refused roles throughout their communities and families;
Program funding reveals the exchange of money for production, as children and youth are taught certain skills, led in particular activities and directed through specific pathways in order to produce finite outcomes that are needed by businesses in order to make money;
Neoliberalism is also plain to see in the way youth programs communicate with parents, communities and young people themselves. Talking about “youth at risk,” “opportunity youth,” and “high risk youth” directs young people to act needy, helpless and incapable, and;
In youth work, decisions made by adults for young people without any intention, desire or designs to engage young people in making the decisions that affect them most are neoliberal to their core. They are removing the public, democratic function from society and replacing it with authoritarian beliefs.
Of course, neoliberalism is most obvious throughout society at large. Young people are clearly and deeply affected by the family settings, schools and other places they spend their time. However, youth programs should be a haven for young people to rest and recuperate from the onslaught of vicious opportunism haunting them.
Instead, many youth programs view youth as opportunities to make money, either on purpose or by accident. Undoing generations that said, “Youth are the future,” program after program and organization after organization simply gives up on that idea, let alone the radical notion that “Youth can be the leaders of tomorrow, if we procrastinate.” Instead, young people are simply seen as potential funding magnets for many nonprofits, and potential profit centers by the elected officials who ensure funding, support and evaluation for youth work.
Neoliberalism forces youth workers to go backwards in our thinking about youth: Instead of being a collective bunch of possibilities, we start seeing them as fixed to their identities, positions and roles in societies. This means limiting choices, reeling in perspectives and discouraging hopefulness among youth as well as our peers.
As a result of neoliberal youth work, young people today are growing up believing:
The welfare state — which created youth programs originally, ensured young people had food, shelter and healthcare, and allowed youth to be seen as future citizens — is not worth maintaining;
There are forces working deeply within communities to ensure youth are looked down on while cynically using language that sounds empowering;
Democracy means being able to make all the money you want to without any regard for the people around you, whether they are in your family or neighborhood, within your culture or society, or on the other side of the world;
Money invested in youth must be obviously beneficial to the donors who gave it; in the same way, money invested in the public must benefit every taxpayer directly or it wasn’t worth paying;
Surveillance through closed-circuit television, adult supervision, internet snooping and countless other ways should be an expected, normal part of life that isn’t questioned, challenged or otherwise looked down on;
Widening gaps between wealthy people and everyone else are okay and to be expected because of determination and rights, not because of white supremacy and indoctrination;
The rights of children and youth rights are only what adults are willing to extend to young people in certain circumstances, and not inalienable or unable to be taken away, and;
The public no longer believes in the future of our society, so their investment in children and youth should be squeezed and squeezed away until there is no more.
The results from these perceptions are terrifying, both for the individual well-being of young people today as well as their families, communities and our world. Democracy is on the ropes, with double- and triple-blows socked to it from crass consumerism and runaway capitalism. All of this leaves young people in the cross-hairs of politicians, executive directors, funders and evaluators, each of whom is ready and eager to pull the trigger. By doing this, they lay waste to the present as well as the future, sacrificing children and youth to line their own pockets, perpetuate their missions, and dismantle society as we’ve known it.
Seeing neoliberal youth work for what it is means taking off the rose colored glasses and addressing this scourge for what it is: The rapid, holistic and undeniable effort of a few to make money from the masses. Unfortunately, the few are winning.
Youth work is much more than a site for workforce development; public health promotion; community service completion; or athletic competition. It is the place where we foster democracy in its most obvious forms, where young people and old can find allies and abilities they didn’t know they had; and where the fiery caldrons of disruption and imagination are borne to fruition, with unquantifiable youth engagement and social change emerging en masse throughout society and across futures we have yet to imagine.
Across the United States and around the world, an increasing number of governments are establishing an office of youth engagement. This approach codifies youth engagement as the either the most desirable avenue or outcome of the government agencies involved. If your government agency or elected official is considering addressing young people, this article shares some considerations and ways to establish a government youth engagement office.
Locating an Office of Youth Engagement
For more than 20 years, I have worked with government agencies across North America to establish, revitalize and re-imagine youth engagement.
I have learned that there are a few basic places in government where an office of youth engagement might exist. They include within an elected official’s office, such as a mayor, governor or parliament member.
Another location for an office of youth engagement is within a government agency, department or division. This could include public health, education, public safety or transportation, or several other agencies. The issues these offices can address are as myriad as the agencies or departments they are located within. These can include national service, homelessness, student voice, juvenile justice, foster care, climate change or other individual issues, as well as multiple issues.
The other point about locations for youth engagement offices is that they can exist at many levels. For instance, they can be within an elected official’s office, such as a mayor, governor or parliament member. Another location is within a government agency, department or division. This could include public health, education, public safety or transportation.
Perhaps most importantly is the reality that a government office of youth engagement can exist on the local, county, state or province, or federal level.
Finally, a youth engagement office can supersede any given office, issue or location by addressing an entire jurisdiction and all of its needs.
Note that this isn’t singularly about youth civic engagement, but rather any form of youth engagement throughout a community.
There are many considerations for establishing an office of youth engagement. Following are some of them.
Placement: Where will the youth engagement office be located within the government? Having a firm, consistent location is essential for ensuring successful implementation.
Practices: What activities, cultures, and attitudes will the individual adults and youth involved with the office of youth engagement exhibit and possess?
Personnel: Who has roles in the youth engagement office and to support youth engagement? How are they selected, who ideally fills them and how are those people supported for success?
Policies: What are the practical, applicable rules, regulations and outcomes codified in government policy to support the office of youth engagement?
Products: Can you identify the actual outcomes of the youth engagement office, including the effects on individuals, the impacts on communities and the considerations for the jurisdiction that supports government youth engagement?
Processes: What are the everyday, mundane considerations that can make or break youth engagement, who’s responsible for them and what are the anticipated outcomes?
Promotion: Who strategically shares the stories, successes, challenges and failures that are essential for promoting youth engagement?
These seven P’s can provide a useful framework to embark on government youth engagement strategies. Offices of youth engagement can facilitate the most authentic forms of connectedness within and throughout communities. These were some approaches and considerations for your government’s journey to establishing an office of youth engagement.
For further information, including examples, training and technical assistance, call me at (360) 489-9680 or send an email to email@example.com.
Within the last decade, there has been a groundswell of youth engagement around the world. International youth-led movements like the Arab Spring and the Hong Kong protest; and American youth-led movements like Parkland’s March for Our Lives and #BlackLivesMatters have burst into the public consciousness, with millions of young people taking action. Recently, climate activism has spurned more youth engagement, enlightening and empowering more young people to make a difference. This is a groundswell that foreshadows massive social change whose time is at hand.
Peak youth engagement happens when more young people are choosing to become active in more activities addressing more issues than ever before. Peak youth engagement makes adults in society to pay attention to issues they would otherwise neglect or deny, i.e. drug use, sex, vaping, or gangs. This is also true within the family structure when individual kids become engaged in sports, romantic relationships or video gaming.
In recent years, peak youth engagement has happened in the issues mentioned above, including pro-democracy movements, public health crises, and racial justice. Historical peak youth engagement has been seen around these topics, and others too, including anti-war activism and economic reform. We have yet to see peak youth engagement in issues like school reform and lowering the voting age, and only time will show what comes next. That’s hard to anticipate!
Breaking the Flow
For better or worse, and perhaps more than anytime in the past 25 years, the media, politicians, community leaders, academics and others are hyping the power of young people to change the world. There are many, many local, regional, national and international organizations that say they support youth engagement, especially with the youth they specifically serve and the issues they particularly care about.
Advocates for youth engagement must address widespread adultism next.
“A youth revolt grows up when it reaches beyond its beginnings,” preaches the Washington Post with the now-normal posturing from well-meaning but poorly informed adults who write those articles. This type of adultism is cynical at best; belittling and demeaning, it assumes young people aren’t capable of finding the strategies and approaches that matter most to them. Adultism pervades the popular response to youth engagement in its myriad forms. Peak youth engagement invites these hyperbolic and ineffectual responses though, and with the power of youth intact, these criticisms fall to the side.
The social change at hand will see peak youth engagement reach massive proportions across all populations around the world. More adults than ever will come to support young people in active and empowering ways, and all kinds of transformations will take place. Aside from meeting basic human rights and the values enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the emerging peak youth engagement will ensure global transformation. These changes will include:
I believe understanding this concept of peak youth engagement can help youth program workers, organization leaders, grantmakers and others consciously and specifically develop the metrics they need to ensure success. It can show the rest of us where our culture is going next.
What do you think of “peak youth engagement”? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
“Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.”
—Man’s Search for Meaning (1985)
Given that he was a Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, Frankl knew the depth of saying that. In his observation, Frankl challenges us to find meaning in our lives.
You get to name what you live for. Not just your purpose, but the meaning behind that purpose. This isn’t a chance to name your favorite band or farthest travel dream, either. Instead, its an opportunity to take a look inside and really explore the questions at the middle of you:
Who am I, really?
Why do I live?
Where is my heart right now?
What difference do I make every single day?
When is my life the best?
How do I want to live versus how I am living?
These aren’t just billowing, pie-in-the-sky thoughts either. Frankl knew the depths of human hell, saw the worst in mankind and fought with every tooth and nail of his existence to become more, do more and be more than his captors thought he could.
Today, I’m leading a workshop at North Seattle College for 200 professionals in the field of diversity and equity education focused on finding your meaning in life. If you’re interested in what that looks like, contact me.
You can do more than you think you can, too. You get to make your own meaning, determine your own purpose and live your own life. How are you going to live it today?