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?
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.