Supporting Adult Allies of Youth

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The other week I heard from Jose*, an innercity high school teacher. He wrote this:

For seven years I taught in a pleasant rural school where students were receptive to me and how I teach. I engage students, and work very hard to get them working authentically on projects that matter, empowering them in my classroom and in the school community. For the last five years I have worked in an urban middle school. No matter how how hard I work to make the curriculum interesting and relevant, no matter how kind and fair I am to my students in an effort to build goodwill and positive working relationships/partnerships, they do not listen and are not receptive.

 

They have their own agenda and it does not involve respecting adults or the school — I can not speak without being interrupted. We have backtalk, rude behavior, students starting arguments with students constantly — they are only interested in their own social agenda. As a result we end up having security remove students from the classroom on a daily basis. Most days I have to toss at least one student out within the first five minutes — they do not even give teachers a chance. I am ready to leave the profession because of the stress.

I thought hard about Jose’s writing, because a lot of it sounded familiar. Then, after meditating on it for a while, I remembered another teacher who I’d heard struggling in a similar way. I analyzed their situation and assessed their circumstance. I answered in earnest, and when I finally heard back it was because they were disappointed with my conclusions. So rather than respond directly to Jose, I’m going to ask him to help himself.

Staying committed to supporting young people can be challenging. Often spending too many hours and earning too few rewards, its important for people who support young people to be honest about how its going. If you’re a parent, youth worker, educator, counselor, or anyone else who strives to be an adult ally, you need to learn to work through the struggle. We all need to learn to work through the struggle, if we’re going to stay committed.

13 Essential Questions for Adult Allies

We each need to know how to work through the struggle of supporting young people every day. The following questions are intended to help adult allies to young people ask themselves whether they need to consider something different. They’re aren’t finished, and if you have any suggestions please leave them in the comments section. Also, let me know if they’re useful for you.

So, if you’re a struggling teacher, counselor, parent, youth worker, or other adult ally to young people, take a moment and answer the following questions:

  • Have you ever decided to have a good day with the young people you’re around, only to have it last for just a few hours? Most of us in who support young people make all kinds of promises to ourselves. We cannot keep them. Then we come to understand that engaging young people requires being honest, and we start to tell the truth to ourselves and young people.
  • Do you ever wish children and youth would just grow up sometimes, and stop being so childish? Adult allies to young people do not project their demands on youth; instead, we accept them as they are, for who they are. We see potential, but do not demand certain outcomes. Instead, we work with who we are.
  • Have you ever switched from supporting one type of young people to another in the hope that this would keep you from burning out? Adult allies to young people support young people in many ways. We spend time with them everyday. Or we donate money. Or we advocate for them. Or we volunteer for boards. You name it, we do it. Anything we do we see through the lenses of supporting young people, because that is who we are.
  • Have you had to quit a job supporting young people during the past year in order to stay or become mentally healthy? This is a pretty sure sign you’re not sustainable in your role as an adult ally to young people.
  • Do you need to be around young people to feel “alive”? At one time or another, most adult allies to youth have wondered why we were not like most people, who really can be around anyone and be healthy and alive.
  • Do you envy people who do not work with young people? Be honest! Eventually, you have to find something else to do if you’re an educator or youth worker, because it will only get worse for you, not better. Eventually, you will not like young people at all, and will quit in anger or dire necessity. Your only hope may be to quit now before radical emotions take over.
  • Have you had problems connected with being an adult ally to young people during the past year? Most well-meaning adults will say it is the people they work with or the program they deliver that frustrates them. Many times, we can not see that trying to support young people is making our lives worse. At that point, we stop solving problems and start becoming the problem.
  • Is it easier for you to support young people in your job or larger community than it is to support the children and youth in your own home or program? Most of us started our jobs thinking it was grand. If young people aren’t cooperative though, or if the program isn’t just right, we get frustrated and have to leave or quit.
  • Do you ever try to get “extra” time with young people because you didn’t get enough at work, home, church or otherwise? Many adult allies trick ourselves into thinking that we can’t do enough at work, and when we’re done getting paid we have to keep going. However, we come to realize that it is not self-sustainable to keep going, and that at the end of our day, we have to stop, for our own good and the good of the young people we work with. Same with parents.
  • Do you tell yourself you can get a job doing anything, or be any kind of parent you want to, but you keep supporting young people as an adult ally even when you don’t want to? Many of us know that we have boundaries, but we don’t acknowledge them or work within them. Instead, we soldier through hoping to make a difference. We are not though.
  • Have you missed days of work or taken a sick day at home because you didn’t want to support the young people you’re around every day? When we don’t allow ourselves time off, many adult allies “call in sick” despite the truth that we need time to recuperate our hearts and minds more than our bodies.
  • Have you ever felt that your life would be better if you did not support young people? Many adult allies start off well-intentioned, hoping to make a difference in the lives of someone younger than ourselves. Once we do the work though, whether parenting or counseling or teaching or coaching or whatever, we discover that we have limits. Then we feel trapped. Eventually it takes a toll on us, and we have to admit that we shouldn’t be doing the work we’re doing anymore. If we’re a parent, we know we have to get support, either from a spouse or friend or extended family.

If we are authentic adult allies to young people, we all struggle with our roles supporting them. You are likely to be more aware of the effects of adults on youth throughout society, and more empathetic with youth in general. I say this because I’ve worked with thousands of teachers, parents, counselors, and other adult allies to youth, and they all say so and show me as much. Many of them found out their truths the hard ways though: Burn out, getting fired, or physical injuries resulting from sloppy self-care.

But again, only you can decide whether you think you should keep being an active, engaged ally to young people. Try to keep an open mind on the subject. If the answer is YES, I offer a lot of materials to help support you, and the world does too. Just contact me.

I will not promise to solve your life’s problems. But together, we can see you how you can continue to support young people without sacrificing yourself.

*I changed the name of the teacher who shared this story at his request

Adult Power

Adults have power. A left over vestige of some time gone by marked by limited mortality, adults are rewarded this power simply because we reach adulthood. In this post, I explore what that power is, how it happens and what it means. Special thanks to Lisa Cooley who has been pushing my brain on this lately.

There are distinct differences in the treatment of young people and adults. That treatment is handed out by every adult, all of the time, and is often re-affirmed by young people as part of their social conditioning. That treatment is meant to ensure the power of adults. The differences in how young people are treated are made worse if you, in addition to not being seen as adults, youth are not identified by adults as white, hetrosexual and middle class.

 

Getting On Adults’ Good Side

One of the distinct ways that young people manage to secure preferential treatment by adults is by acting LIKE adults; that is, by assuming gestures, vocabulary, clothes, attitudes, and postures seen by adults as being adult-like. In many circumstances, this is actually labelled “acceptable behavior.”

Acting too much like an adult is frowned upon though. Among some people who advocate for youth rights, there is a belief that any age-determined boundary is arbitrary and should not exist, including drinking, driving and voting rights. 

When I was doing research on the etymology of the word “adultism” back in 2007, the oldest usage I discovered was related to the behavior of young people. Adultism was explained as as, “A boy of 12 and a girl of 13 who had the spirit and personality of adults… They were placed in institutions because of stealing and prostitution. These forms of precocity lead the individual into difficulties and should be recognized early in the development of the individual.”

Young people lose favor with adults when they stop acting like adults or in ways that adults approve of.

 

Legal Boundaries & Social Consequences

Courts have determined that there is a boundary to cross for youth when they go from acting as adolescents to acting as adults; however, that line, also, is blurry, since courts across the country try young offenders as adults starting at the age of 10 and going up from there. In the US, the military will accept 16 year old recruits in some circumstances. Driving, voting and drinking are among other shifting age boundaries to adulthood when adults have determined it is not okay for someone younger to “act like an adult”.

Since adults determine how adults are expected to behave, they also enforce those expectations. Some enforcement is social; other punishment is economic; some is cultural; and other enforcement and punishment is legal. Anything that deviates from the acceptable behavior is in err, or malicious, or unacceptable, and there is always a punishment is doled out duly, legally or illegally, obvious or subtle.

The social consequences of deviating from adult expectations range from subtle discrimination to distinct alienation to overt ostracization. Youth can be shunned in a variety of ways, and excluded in a number of others. This includes taxation without representation, scientific stigmatization, and compulsory schooling that relies on age segregated environments. The over ostracization of youth leads to youth homelessness and overall street dependency.

 

Force & Coercion

How do adults ensure their power? There are no ends to the force we use, which is true for parenting and teaching and neighboring and governing and policing and counseling and selling and buying and any other activity adults do with young people. Force is another word for coercion, and to some extent every adult is coercive over young people, not matter how well-intended they are.

As parents, we dole out and withhold love, affection and attention according to how well our child adheres to our desires and expectations. This is forcefulness, under the guise of loving care. Even enlightened parents do this habitually, as if its hardwired into our intuition. We live in a society reliant on very subtle and very overt gestures of coercion. Schools are masters of this to some degree, as they use both mechanisms of subtle and overt control to force students into compliance.

The question isn’t whether or not we force anyone to learn anything, because we all do. Instead, there is a question of the degree to which we’re forcing the Other to do what we want them to. There is a question of the desired and actual outcomes of the force, or why we coerced them. All of this adds up to the rightness or wrongness of using force, rather than simply saying “You forced someone to do what you wanted them to.” We all do that; why and how is what counts.

 

What You Can Do

By not saying anything about this ingrained discrimination against young people, all adults actually condone the behavior of other adults. More so, we are complicit because we send unspoken messages, like that we think youth, too, should have the attitude of adults as well, and that those youth who don’t should expect to be treated accordingly.

These oppressive clarion calls are constantly given throughout our society. We make them through convenient lists of guidelines and rules posted on walls; dress codes and curfews; and many other overt exhibitions of preference. All of these tools are geared towards acceptability, conformity and the maintenance of adultocracy.

Ask yourself why we still award people for reaching age 18 by foisting tons of power on them over another segment of the population. Oh, and identifying the role of adultocracy throughout our society? I wrote a book about it called Ending Discrimination Against Young People, and you can order it here.

Binary Youth Engagement

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Binary thinking is based in the belief that reality is based in either/or truths. We’re convinced in believing that it’s one way or the other, up or down, left or right. This thinking is damaging to young people today in many ways, including Youth Engagement at home, in schools and throughout communities.

Binary thinking leads students to be either forced to go to school or students getting expelled from school. The same goes with peoples’ understanding of youth rights: We’re made to believe that youth either have rights or they don’t.

This binary thinking is not accurate. There is no black and white perspectives in Youth Engagement. Instead, we’re all operating in shades of gray going through variations on the theme of democracy and civic action. That means that instead of believing a kid needs kicked out or needs to be able to leave, there are a lot of variations in between we should understand and be advocating for. I believe that all young people have an obligation, morally and socially, to the democratic society we live in to get educated by other people with varied experiences. Where that happens and how that happens should be the question – not if that happens or who that happens for.

The same thing with Youth Engagement: We shouldn’t be addressing these issues as “youth are engaged” or “youth are disengaged”. Instead, we should acknowledge the shades of engagement all of us feel all of the time throughout their lives, whether in school, at home, or throughout our communities. Instead of pretending that youth are disengaged, we should see what youth are actually engaged in right now, and work to extend their engagement instead of pretending they’re completely disengaged right now.

It seems to me that the whole piece where we keep getting hung up on either/or and this/that thinking is just idle wheel spinning that takes up time and energy that could otherwise be expended more effectively.

Youth-Adult Relationship Spectrum

Youth-Adult Relationship Spectrum

 

I have seen three primary ways adults relate to youth, no matter whether the relationship is parenting, teaching, or policing. The first way is over-permissiveness; the second is responsible; and over-restrictive. Before I explain these, its important to remind you that I’m an adult and these are my opinions; a young person and other adults surely will see things differently.

Over-permissive relationships between children, youth and adults allow young people to do whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever and however they want. Disregarding the longer term effects of how young people relate to adults, over-permissiveness can incapacitate young peoples’ ability to successfully relate to the broader society around them. By allowing too much freedom, these relationships give children and youth “just enough rope to hang themselves” by extinguishing their inherent away their sense of purpose and belonging throughout the larger society in which we all belong. Based in a well-meaning notion of equality between young people and adults, these relationships conveniently relieve adults of the burden of responsibility in parts or all throughout the lives of young people. They often happen to encourage freedom.

Over-restrictive relationships between young people and adults override the decision-making capabilities of children and youth and disable their inherent creativity in order to assure adults’ sense of authority, protection, and ultimately, ownership over young people. By discouraging young people from experiencing the freedom and ability they need in their natural learning process as well as throughout their social and familial worlds, these relationships can take away enthusiasm and unfettered joy, only to replace it with rigidity and structure. Over-restrictive relationships enforce inequality between children and youth, and occur by adults enforcing their power with heavy-handed education, tight schedules and severe rules, and harsh punishment. They often happen to encourage safety.

Responsible relationships between children, youth and adults are based on trust, mutual respect, communication, and meaningful interactions. Positioning each person as an evolving member of a broader society, they identify roles, opportunities and outcomes that benefit every person in uniquely appropriate ways while holding the greater good ahead of individualism. These relationships occur when adults consciously decide to foster equity throughout the lives of young people by intentionally acknowledging each others’ according abilities, fostering deliberate opportunities and continually embracing the evolving capacities of children and youth throughout their lives, starting when they are infants. Responsible relationships nurture appropriate attachment and encourage interdependence between young people and adults. They often happen to foster democratic sensibilities.

I have not met one adult who is constantly and consistently one of these ways with all young people all of the time. This isn’t meant to provide a puzzle for people to fit together the individual pieces, either. Instead, by showing a spectrum I meant to show that each of us can be any of these at many points throughout our lives.

Share your thoughts in the comments section!

Infantalizing Kids

A respondent today on a Facebook post asked me to explain this to them:

I ran into an 18 year old on campus who said that his parents pay fully for college, he lives at home with no bills. He asked me how crazy old his mom was because she asks for him to clean his room once a week in return for all the support they give him. How do you explain that, Adam.

I wrote back the following:

That form of dependence is a manipulation fostered by that person’s parents in order to ensure their child remains as childlike as possible. If you’re reporting that person’s response accurately, then they are reflecting the conditioning their parents perpetuated and that adults throughout their life failed to disrupt.

 

This phenomenon is called infantalization, and its is increasingly common throughout American middle class society. It is meant to incapacitate the ability of children to become self-sufficient adults by providing them with decreasing amounts of autonomy throughout their childhood and their experience of youth.

 

Parents have an obligation to raise their children with increasing amounts of independence, autonomy and empowerment. Young people should learn independent living skills from the time they are children and be encouraged to employ those skills throughout their home, school and community lives. Not doing that is the failure of parents. It negates the ability of youth to become responsible adults, and in the most dramatic circumstances, wholly incapacitates young adults from becoming successful adults.

 

Unfortunately, media portrays this outcome as “entitlement” and wholly foists the burden of dependence on the shoulders of young people. Dismissing the responsibility of parents for raising successful children robs mothers and fathers of their duties to society. Worse still, it actually encourages parents to shirk their responsibilities by taking away the blame.

 

What should be done instead is deliberate parent education that focuses on raising strong, resilient and independent children who can and will become strong, resilient and independent adults who value the interdependence of communities while thriving on their own senses of healthy self-worth and individual capacity to create the lives they want to live. That’s what we should strive for.

 

Do this explanation answer your question?

What do you think? Was that young person’s complaint a response to their circumstances, or it is better explained away as entitlement? I would love it if you responded on my blog and let me know what you think!

23 Phrases to Encourage Youth Voice

23 phrases

 

After working directly with youth for more than two decades, its easy for me to admit that I’ve said some poor things to youth. Either on purpose or by accident, I have said things that made young people feel hurt, confused, or angry. Anyone who works with youth—teachers, social workers, or program leaders—is going to make those mistakes whether we intend to or not. But its just as important to say the right things.

Since youth voice is any expression of any young people anywhere at any time about anything, its important to recognize there are ways adults can encourage it, rather than stifle it. Here are some things you can say to encourage youth voice.

 

23 Phrases to Encourage Youth Voice

  1. What do you think? Encourage young people to form their own opinions and share them with you. This improves critical thinking skills and reassures them that it’s right to have their own opinion, and that its even okay that it’s different from yours. When adults do young peoples’ thinking for them, children and youth stop taking responsibility for themselves and can’t handle greater responsibility as they grow. 
  2. I know you. Reaffirm for young people that you know them without telling them you know all about them. This reassures them in times of low confidence and encourages them to feel a part of something else, instead of being alone.
  3. I believe you. Let young people know you trust their judgment.
  4. I disagree with youInstead of simply saying no, validate what young people think, believe, or say in an open and honest manner. Don’t make it into a battle of wills or otherwise compete. Instead, open up an honest dialogue and be willing to go where the conversation takes you.
  5. How did you do? Don’t tell young people how they did before you let them tell you. Ask them and listen to what they have to say.
  6. Please and thank you. Young people are people first, and they deserve your manners just because they are people.
  7. I believe in you. Support and encourage children and youths’ self-judgment and abilities by affirming their capabilities and self-esteem.
  8. Can you help me understand? This let’s young people know that you honor their perceptions, even if you disagree with them. Allowing children and youth to explain things from their perspectives empowers their voices.
  9. You worked so hard. Instead of constantly telling young people how smart or special they are, this phrase acknowledges their hard work and effort.
  10. I’m sorry. Show young people that you are a fallible human who makes mistakes, and that you’re big enough to apologize to them.
  11. I’m available to you. Instead of constantly telling young people how busy you are, remind them that you’re available to them to talk to, hang out with, play with, and be around.
  12. What are the consequences? It’s tempting to make decisions for young people, but they learn more when they make their own choices. Remind them to think about the positive and negative consequences of any choice they make.
  13. I trust you. Reaffirm that you believe in the ability, ideas, plans, and suggestions of children and youth by letting them know directly that you trust them.
  14. I’ve got your back. Young people feel safest when they know they have your support, no matter what. When they’re facing especially challenging things, remind them you’re behind them.
  15. I’m so proud of you because… Young people want to know that you see the work, effort, and energy they put into their jobs, activities, and selves. Acknowledge them with specific, concrete feedback that helps them grow.
  16. You did a great job. Without over-doing it, its important to acknowledge a job well-done. Praise often, but don’t overdo it or your words will seem insincere.
  17. How does it feel to get that done? When children and youth get things done, it should be about making themselves happy instead of making adults happy. Self-esteem needs a boost? Reaffirm they can make themselves feel better.
  18. Turn it up! Without hamming it up or trying to hard, let children and youth know they can create the environment you co-occupy with them. Ask them to share their music, shows, or other media and creations in the spaces you are with them.
  19. You are worth it. Be intentional in supporting young peoples’ self-worth without being condescending.
  20. You are good, inside and out. Young people need to be engaged within themselves as well as in the world around them.
  21. How would you do it? Encourage children and youth to think about doing things differently, and then go further by helping them implement their ideas. Their conclusions could help them and you do things even better.
  22. Are you willing to do what it takes? Accept young peoples’ answers to this question without criticism or correction. This will help young people open up to you and answer honestly, rather than simply the way you want them to.
  23. What do YOU think we can do? Activate young peoples’ senses of ability and possibility by actively engaging them as co-conspirators, co-actors, and co-learners. Foster equity between you, and consciously build their sense of ability to make a difference.

 

A lot of people are tempted to make youth voice into a special or exclusive thing that only well-behaving young people who do what adults want them to should be able to share. What would you add to this list to encourage authentic youth voice?

 

Remembering Maya Angelou, Every Single Day

This was the morning the world received the announcement that Dr. Maya Angelou passed away. A larger-than-life yet down-to-earth poet of the people, Dr. Angelou is being mourned today by presidents and generals, rappers and musicians, and by the people, all of us, many of whom struggle to find our voices.

I first read Dr. Angelou’s classic memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, when I was 23. Throughout my youth, I’d heard her name bandied about on the news, particularly in her role as the Poet Laureate of the United States. I decided to read her to understand the world better; she has repeatedly taught me how to understand myself.

“Until recently each generation found it more expedient to plead guilty to the charge of being young and ignorant, easier to take the punishment meted out by the older generation (which had itself confessed to the same crime short years before). The command to grow up at once was more bearable than the faceless horror of wavering purpose, which was youth.”

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

The reality that its easier to act grown up instead of actually being young has become a central point in my understanding of youth today. Faced with a world of adults cloning adulthood onto children and youth, Dr. Angelou helped me understand the need to grab a hold of “wavering purpose”, which is uncomfortable and unrelenting, and actually sit with it, let it be, and learn to live through it. On the other side? PURPOSE, BELONGING, and luckily, WISDOM. What comes on the other side of false adulthood but more falseness?

It seems meager to say that Dr. Angelou inspired millions; it’s a gross understatement that does her life little justice. Dr. Angelou literally changed the world, not only with words, but with actions. She was a civil rights activist all of her life; a spiritual seeker who stayed active on her pathway toward universal engagement; and a friend to many.

I ended up reading A Song Flung Up to Heaven, along with two of her poetry collections. One of those was called Poetry for Young People, and it held this poem, called “Still I Rise”:

Still I Rise

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

This poem holds the fire in the belly of youth throughout its mighty stanzas. Dr. Angelou masterfully gives life to the strength and glory of youth throughout it, celebrating the hopefulness, justice, and ability that makes up the hearts and minds and bodies of young women and young men. She justifies every person’s burning desires, calling us higher in our own thoughts and feelings, demanding that we hold true to our guts and demand the same of others.

Growing up in a struggling family in a depressed neighborhood, I learned the value of poetry at a young age. One of the very first poems I remember distinctly was actually Dr. Angelou’s classic, On the Pulse of the Morning, which she wrote for her Arkansas brethren Bill Clinton’s inauguration. I watched her read that poem on tv, and it left a permanent mark on my psyche. In the middle of it, she said, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

Dr. Angelou challenged us to not live history again, again and again. I know in the deepest part of myself that we are capable of doing that. I learned that from many heroes, including Dr. Angelou. I remember her every single day because of that.

Oh, and the other heroes who I have known? They were likely influenced by her, too.

How about you?

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The NEW Youth Voice

"Education does not transform the world. Education changes people. People change the world." - Paulo Freire
“Education does not transform the world. Education changes people. People change the world.” – Paulo Freire

You might have noticed that since publishing The Freechild Project Youth-Driven Programming Guide last year, I’ve come to feel strongly about aggrandizing youth involvement.

A lot of organizations and programs tout their credibility with youth involvement, youth engagement, and youth organizing by highlighting all the wonderful things they position youth to lead. By doing this, these organizations are actually doing youth disservice. The many challenges include:

  • Positioning adults as beneficent rulers who allow youth to do things
  • Incapacitating young peoples’ innate responsibility for themselves and others
  • Negating the abilities of communities to work together for the common good

 

Instead of helping, these activities actually and often harm the people they intend to help.

We need to see things differently. In recent months, I’ve begun to envision a new way of being, knowing, and doing. This way is currently emerging between young people and adults, and it is happening throughout society. This way re-positions children, youth and adults from assuming power relationships dependent on subservience and authority, towards seeing each other in a more holistic light.

The old way of Youth Voice…

  • Relied on adults having power over youth
  • Positioned young people as “adults-in-the-making” not to be seen as whole people right now
  • Depended on youth being subservient and compliant to adults
  • Required systems of oppression that enforced adults’ power
  • Demanded youth be compliant with adult desires out of fear of violence
  • Necessitated systems of authority enforced by structures of abuse
  • Made programs that put “youth in charge” necessary in order to rebalance power inequalities between youth and adults
  • Routinely positioned youth against each other and against adults in order to ensure compliance and conformity
  • Saw children and youth progressing along a predictable, staircase development cycle towards adulthood

The emerging, new relationships between youth and adults look different. The new Youth Voice…

  • Sees young people as whole people no matter what their ages
  • Utilizes holistic youth development as the organizing framework for young peoples’ growth, education, and ongoing formation as humans
  • Treats all young peoples’ growth as non-linear, non-sequential and non-uniform, instead treating every child and youth as an evolving human
  • Allows equal room for adults and young people to have, express, and critique power and authority
  • Positions children, youth, and adults in equitable partnerships designed to foster engagement, belonging, and ownership
  • Grants adults and young people equitable, responsible space for learning, teaching, and leadership in all roles, all of the time
  • Replaces command-and-control authoritarianism by honoring the collective, democratic perspectives of all people, regardless of age
  • Acknowledges programs that put “youth in charge” to be ineffectual and unnecessary
  • Dismantles youth-against-youth and youth-against-adult power struggles through common action and mutual support

Paulo Freire wrote, “Education does not transform the world. Education changes people. People change the world,” and the same can be said of Youth Voice. Youth Voice does not transform the world. Youth Voice transform people. People change the world.

If we are going to change the world, we must change ourselves first. Changing ourselves comes from active, deliberate work. That’s what my proposition for new Youth Voice is – an attempt to engage each of us differently.

Through these active, distinguishable ways of being, knowing, and doing, young people are adults are working together to transform the world we share. Everyone can and should aspire to nothing less.

 

Mindsets for Youth Engagement

Many adults could engage youth effectively, but they can’t. Youth workers, teachers, parents, and others could because they see the problem, the cause, and directly observe youth disengagement when it happens. These same people can’t though, because they don’t think they can.

Youth workers often believe they don’t have the authority, because their supervisors didn’t tell them they could. Teachers don’t think they can because of Common Core State Standards or district regulations or school rules. Parents don’t think they can because their kid is different, their kid is out of control, or their kid just doesn’t listen. The thing is though, all of these people could engage youth effectively.

The biggest roadblock to youth engagement isn’t youth themselves, or oppressive systems of social control that keep them disengaged. YOUR THINKING IS THE BIGGEST BARRIER TO YOUTH ENGAGEMENT.

Mindsets

The model above shows that in order to address how we engage youth, we have to think about why we engage youth; what happens when youth engagement happens, and what difference the outcomes from youth engagement make on our thinking.

Your thoughts about youth inform your actions with youth, and your actions affect the results which inform your beliefs about youth, which in turn affect your thoughts about youth. This is called your Mindset. It directly affects youth disengagement and youth engagement, and there is only one person responsible for it: You.

You can change your mindset, and if you want to become a person who can successfully engage young people, that’s what you must do. Here are some stories of people who changed their mindset about youth:

  • Sue, a case manager for homeless youth in Rochester, New York, addressed her mindset about youth in a workshop I led in 2011. Soon afterwards, she began engaging her youth as partners in their cases. In the following two years, her case efficacy increased by 35%.
  • Tom found that his classroom was consistently unfocused and disconnected from the social studies topics he was teaching. In my workshop on meaningful student involvement, he learned several practical ways to re-envision the roles of students in schools. According to his account, his students were 100% more engaged afterwards.

I offer quick, powerful processes for identifying old belief structures, creating a mindset focused on youth engagement, and identifying what needs to be done to maintain engagement. My solid follow-up structure supports your team in constantly focusing on the right mindset and actions that produce the results you want.

 

Voices of the Damned Youth

damnedyouthWe should never give up on any young person, or any person as far as that’s concerned. There is nobody – absolutely nobody – in our society who is too far gone to simply relinquish them to the trash can of society. Especially children and youth.

In reality though, many young people are born into indifference, apathy, and intransigence. Depression, inability, and oppression are holding legions of children and youth from realizing the dreams they could have.

They face families, communities,and nations that are wholly indifferent to their realities. Because of this, these children and youth struggle with society’s norms, cultures, customs, and behaviors. They can be gifted or struggling, adult-pleasing or anti-authoritarian. A few times, they lash out. Mostly, they internalize.

I know of this because its lived experience for me. Identifying in turns as an impoverished homeless immigrant child, white-kid-grown-up-in-an-African-American-neighborhood, nearly dropped out, couldn’t-pay-for-college, been-a-youth-worker-all-my-life kinda guy, I have struggled with those senses of alienation all of my life. My story has been told by a half-dozen journalists who think they should expose the scars as well as the stars in my life. Its not their story to tell though, its mine.

The same is true for many youth today. Their stories deserve—mustbe told, but not by well-meaning adults. Not by reporters or grantwriters, poets or politicians. Instead, we must make space for damned youth to speak for themselves.

To be specific, I want you to know that I believe we should routinely, systemically, and completely engage the voices of young people who identify as academically failing. Poor, Low Income, and Working Class. Homeless. Minority culture. GBLTQQ. African American, American Indian, and other communities of color. Immigrants. Runaway, foster, and Ageing Out. Incarcerated. Court-involved. Juvenile Delinquents. Addicts and Abusers. And many, many others.

We shouldn’t deny any young person the opportunity to share their voices, and I’m not suggesting that we shut down one youth in order to create another. I am fully in support of expanding every possibility available throughout our society in order to create more space for the voices of youth. Youth Voice includes any expression of any young person anywhere, anytime, about anything. (Luckily) It doesn’t depend on adult approval. I’m suggesting that we, as adults, make space for youth voice, and especially those of the damned youth.

These youth are damned because they’re inconvenient for adults to listen to. They’re damned because they say things we don’t want to hear in ways we don’t want to listen to. They’re damned because adults are the majority culture and youth are the minority culture. They’re damned because they’re youth. More importantly though, they’re not really damned at all.

In sharing my own voice, I learned that I wasn’t damned; moreso, I am vastly privileged. I believe my younger brothers and sisters must learn this too, and so I call for them to have the space I was fortunate enough to experience as a young person, no matter how rarified it was.

Voices of the damned youth require:

  • More youth voice from the children and youth who we don’t routinely hear from.
  • More youth involvement from the historically disengaged.
  • More empowerment for youth who are oppressed.
  • More democracy for everyone.

Then we’re going someplace spectacular, together.