Today I’m thinking about how to express my so-far obtuse “Architecture of Youth Empowerment.” I’ve tried before; however, rereading and listening anew to the experiences of people around me has helped me create a new visualization to express the relevance of our varying ideas about youth voice, engagement, involvement and empowerment.
I want you to stand outside a huge building with me. This building represents youth empowerment. For those of you familiar with my work, you’ll know that I’ve long rejected youth empowerment as a motivating ideology for this work. However, I do believe that empowerment is the ultimate goal of voice, involvement and engagement. Its the keen purpose why all this work is so relevant and meaningful, from whichever angle it takes. Take a look across the building in front of you and decide what it looks like to you- maybe its a temple at Bangalore, or a Tlingit longhouse, or a state capitol- whatever it is, make sure its grand and wonderful, and that you can see one whole side. You can’t see the whole thing- we can never fully know this magically evolutionary work we’re engaged in- but definitely look at one whole side.
The foundation of youth empowerment is youth voice. Youth voice is the active, distinct, and concentrated ways young people represent themselves throughout society. The way adults respond to youth voice is essential for the radically democratic social change I envision for our society; however, and luckily, youth voice is not contingent on adults’ response. I believe its our ethical obligation as a democratically-minded society to ensure the active, effective and sustained engagement of youth voice throughout society, and that is why I believe it is the foundation of youth empowerment. The root prefix of empowerment- em– means with. With power. The concept of youth empowerment inherently insists that adults experience power with young people, and that begins with youth voice. Voice is the base expression of any person that can happen in any form.
Distinctly different from this foundation are the walls that hold up the building. These walls represent youth involvement. Different from voice, involvement is the structural supports we create in order to move towards youth empowerment. For a long time well-meaning adults believed that in order to successfully empower young people they had to just listen to them- then trying to do that in the absence of strong walls. The youth involvement walls that hold up our youth empowerment building are made of four primary elements: Reflection, Knowledge-building, Skill-sharing, and Action. These are the main ways young people become involved.
The strong foundation and the powerful walls are capped by the roof of youth engagement. Engagement is a feeling that we have when we’re deeply connected with people, an idea, work or potentially any other thing in our lives. Some people mistake engagement with engrossment; but they’re different. When you’re engrossed in something you can’t remove your concentration from it: a video game, crocheting, a new album, sports, and good novels can do this for me. Similarly, engagement is not the same as involvement. Instead, engagement is a peronal emotional reaction we develop in response to excitement, entanglement, entwinement and enculturation. Its a feeling. No building can withstand the tests of time without a strong roof, and youth empowerment requires that roof to be engagement.
The interaction of these three elements- voice, involvement and engagement- combine to form a healthy, effective and sustainable experience for all young people to become more powerful with us. I believe this is how we build youth engagement.