We Are The Problem

EDAYPthumbIt can be challenging to see the practical implications of ending discrimination against young people. This morning I received a note from a reader asking for practical applications, ways that we can actually do this work. I think the reason its challenging to envision how to end adultism is because what I’m calling for initially is a shift in consciousness and awareness, rather than an immediate and direct change in action.

Challenging adultism requires raising the critical consciousness of the people who perpetuate adultism that they perpetuate adultism in the first place. That means that all adults, everywhere, almost all of the time should become aware of the fact that we perpetuate adultism.

As our critical consciousness is raised and we accept out roles in perpetuating adultism, we can begin to overcome adultism be strategically addressing our own actions and attitudes. Then we can address the culture we live in and share with everyone else. And the structures that we’ve created to impose and propel adultism can be addressed as well.

But that first step—conscientization—is what will allow anyone to take meaningful action to overcome adultism. Without accepting that we’re the problem, we’ll only continue to be the problem.

 

You can learn more in my book, Ending Discrimination Against Young People.

Engaging Youth Locally

Its important for all of us to balance our talk with our walk. Since I started writing this blog back in 2007, I’ve worked with a lot of different organizations to promote youth engagement. I’ve done it as a consultant, as a nonprofit staff member, as a state government worker, and in a few other capacities too. I think its important to keep my feet on the ground, even if my head is in the clouds!

Today is an example of my practice. Consulting the City of Olympia, I’ve been running a project focused on youth involvement in a new city park located in downtown. Its atypical for a number of reasons, primarily among which are its location and the users there so far. Sited around a popular artesian well, the park is essentially a slab of asphalt packed between two single story buildings. A cool design element in the form of a mosiac has been placed, but City investment in the space has been minimal so far.

Drawing together several youth engagement practitioners a few weeks ago, I gathered a massive list of wants that would encourage these organizations and programs to use the space in an ongoing fashion. That would populate the park with regular, pro-social values that would more accurately reflect Olympia’s values. However, that’s not the whole solution.

I’m facilitating an All Youth Forum in the park today. We’re expecting dozens of young people, and I’m looking forward to a simple, straight-forward conversation. I’ll report on that tomorrow. For now, here’s the flyer I designed for the event today:

Olympia All Youth Forum flyer

Youth Work on AutoPilot

Thinking can feel like a luxury.

In times when we’re deep in the work we do and the ways we get it done, it can be nearly impossible to take care of ourselves. We are so busy meeting the needs of the kids, filling out forms for our bosses, or writing up the report for our funders that thinking can feel like a luxury.

As a result, we go on autopilot. Day in and out, we punch the clock and get the job done, struggle through challenges and hustle through fun. We get off work, head to our next job or go home and crash, only to do it all over again tomorrow.

Maybe you’re bobbing your head right now, or maybe you’re thinking that people need to get their acts right. Either way, reality is that thinking can feel like a luxury in youth work.

After spending 10 years in the field as a line-level youth worker, I started training people like me and working with organization leaders to help them think about how to more effectively do their work. That has led me to action, over and over, focused on helping people who work with young people do their jobs more effectively.

If you were in a workshop with me right now, I’d walk you through the following steps, or something like them.

Step One: Claim Your Brain

Today, right now, I want you to give yourself a minute to think. If you wanna do it on your own, maybe just sit in your seat and chill for a few minutes on purpose. Try it now. If you want some guidance, maybe think about these three questions:

  • Why do you do the work you do right now?
  • What would you rather be doing?
  • How can you get from here and now to there?

Step Two: Discover Some Options

Want a few more? Here are some tools I created that you can think through:

Step Three: Do Things Differently

Once you’ve gone through those tools, or if you skip those and want to just do something different, here are some resources I’ve created for you:

Looking for more still? Keep your eyes open and you’ll see more action, information, and ideas coming soon!

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Does Every Youth Ask “Why Is The World So Mean?”

Sitting in a circle after our activity, an eighth grader asks me bluntly, “Why is the world so mean?”

After a game, I was facilitating a conversation with a group. I’d asked the students to brainstorm different problems they saw around them, and name some of the ways they were affected by them. Someone said homelessness, and talked about an uncle who was living on the streets; someone else talked about their family going to the food bank. They were an honest group, and after a few missteps, my effort to create safe space was rewarded.

After ten minutes of questions, this young woman summed it all up very succinctly. She wasn’t mad and she wasn’t pitiful. Instead, she was simply sharing a startlingly clear worldview that came into focus during an activity. The challenge is that her worldview isn’t uncommon. Instead, its predominant—and always has been.

The author with students from Santa Barbara, California, in 2011.

It’s A Mean World

 From 2Pac rapping that, “”It’s a mean world n—a; you strapped, or be a throwaway” in his song “Late Night” to BB King singing about, “It’s a Mean Old World“; from the cognitive bias towards violence called Mean World Syndrome to James Whitcomb Riley‘s 1897 poem describing our mean old world, our society generally agrees with the eighth grader I mentioned.

Before the United States, there’s little evidence to show that any society refuted the perception of the mean world. Europe’s Middle Ages, which lasted from the 5th to the 15th centuries, were appropriately called “The Dark Ages”, while Asian cultures lived through a similar “Dark Ages” about 2,000 years prior to the Europeans. There have been predictions about apocalypses for thousands of years,  and believing the world is going to end seems like a firm part of the human story.

However, this perception is not wrong or bad, and may actually incite something much greater.

As I talked more with this eighth grader and her peers, I discovered something that bubbled through in this group. In the midst of being able to talk about the cold, hard realities they faced in a non-cynical, but truly aware and justly angry way, I heard glimpses of hopefulness. After carving out some more space for that conversation, I suddenly got floods of it.

“We Gotta Be The Ones Changing Things”

When they had the room to talk in a different way, suddenly they did.

“I’m doing my homework every day so I can get into college.”
“That’s why I play ball so much, so I can use real skills to get a scholarship to go to college.”
“I work at my dad’s shop on the weekends to fix cars, and I like that.”

The students went on like this, almost uninhibitedly, for ten minutes. When they were done, I asked why they wanted to do any of that. “Why do that if the things around you are so rough?”

“We gotta be the ones changing things,” a young man said, going on about his family and friends and everything that mattered to him. “Things might be hard, but this is our life, and we’re responsible for it.” His friends cheered him on, he got a “Preach!” from the group, and I clapped too. This encouraged him.

“I’m mad , and what is going on around me isn’t okay. I’m going to make things different.”

I beamed. This was the most brilliant thing I’d heard in a long time, and I had to write it down so I could write this piece later. I am glad I did that.

Driving Change

In his last book, the renowned Brazilian critical educator Paulo Freire wrote, “We have the right to be angry and to express that anger, to hold it as our motivation to fight, just as we have the right to love and to express our love for the world, to hold it as our motivation to fight, because while historical beings, we live history as a time of possibility, not predetermination.”

These students didn’t experience their history as a prison sentence, and they didn’t see themselves as incapable of changing the world they are part of. Instead, they named themselves as change agents who could see the challenges facing them, identify their place in respect to those problems, and from that position they could create new visions and take new action to change the situations.

This is the highest place social work can take young people, from being the passive recipients of adult-driven society, to becoming active partners throughout society. The homes, schools, communities, organizations, and other spaces where these students grew up were succeeding, and counter to what history says, they are ready for a positive, powerful future for themselves, their families, and all of us. Phew!

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!