When people proclaim to want to hear others’ voices, they’re often assuming that those people don’t want to or are incapable of doing anything other than sharing their voice. This includes schools that want to hear parents’ voices, youth-serving organizations that want to listen to youth voice, businesses that want customers to make token choices, and politicians that want to engage constituents’ voices.
These organizations often ignore the ability or deny the desire of people to have meaningful input in the things that affect them most. The problem with this is that today, more people more often want authentic opportunities to become engaged in the activities throughout their lives. Authentic means real, whole, true, and meaningful. People want to share their music with the world. They want to help the President get reelected. They want to help lead school reform, have more consumer choices for their broad tastes, and design the streets they walk, ride, and drive on. People want in like never before.
We have the technology, both electronic and real-time, to make this happen. We have a growing capacity throughout the vast array of community leadership to be able to engage people in these ways. We have the ability.
What we need is a non-cynical commitment to humanity and its capacity to serve itself best. What we need is for determination and perseverance to overcome sarcasm and irony. What we need is hope. Hope that people love and care and know and do. Hope that humans have justice and peace in their hearts, and because of that they want to make the world a just and peaceful place- if given the opportunity.
Instead, the organizations that peddle voice are often the most cynical. They most frequently steal voice for their own purposes, selling the people they serve on the effectiveness of sharing their voice. “You’ll help guide us,” they tell us as they take our opinions and squirrel them away in the backrooms of file cabinets and unpaid interns. We know they’re stealing voice when there is little or no accountability for what’s been shared with them. We know they’re stealing voice when they wrote their statement beforehand and used the collected voices to bolster their thoughts afterwards. We know when they’re stealing voice.
What is needed is truth, accountability, reciprocity, and engagement. Genuine, authentic, real engagement. Nothing less will suffice.
10 Ways Past Stealing Voices
- Acknowledge the real actions people are currently taking right now to change their communities and our world, and see how those actions affect your organization.
- Foster genuine interest within your organization to actually engage with people beyond listening.
- Create interest among constituents- whether young people, adults, or seniors- to contribute beyond their voices.
- Position people in sustained opportunities to impact change as real doers and decision-makers.
- Educate people about the whole issue that affects them, not just what they already know.
- Open places for everyone to teach one another and be acknowledged for what they’re sharing.
- Go to people where they’re at and have earnest conversations with them instead of insisting they come to where you are for inauthentic listening events.
- Develop activities that integrate and ingratiate neighbors with each other.
- Give people real opportunities to research the issues for themselves and to share their findings with their friends, families, neighbors, and others.
- Share the benefits of authentic engagement with people.
Are you a well-meaning but “guilty party” to what I described above? Maybe, like I have in the past, you’re trying your hardest and simply don’t know a different way. For years now, I’ve been writing to you to help you feel better about what you’re doing, I have shared dozens free websites, videos, and publications and done dozens of trainings for you, and I have provided free technical assistance to you. Now I’m going to stop that, at least for the remainder of this post.
If you’re with an organization that steals voice, or if you are any kind of a thief of voice, rest assured knowing that despite your best intentions the people who you’re stealing from know you’re stealing from them. You are the reason The Who wrote the song Won’t Get Fooled Again. You can do better than what you’re doing, and should stop resting on your laurels thinking you’re doing enough. We can never do enough to engage people in genuine, authentic, and real ways.
All people have the right to be more than given power by you. We have the right to be in the positions with the education we need to affect change throughout our lives. Nobody should be minimized because of your perception of their inability or your indifference to their interest. Blaming the organization you work for won’t work either, because we know that’s generally a hallow blame game that allows you to feel relief for your actions and opinions.
Nothing less will suffice.
If you’re upset, that is good, you should be. You should be upset with a system that set you up to fail. You should be disappointed with a program that was designed to manipulate, even inadvertently. Ultimately, you might even be mad at yourself- but that won’t serve much good. If you are angry with me for writing so bluntly, call me right now at (360) 489-9680. Let’s talk about this.
You’re a fighter- now get busy fighting.
Everyone of us is engaged right now. Whether you find great connection with your kids, the music you play, or the work you do, you are engaged right now. You may be engaged in challenging things like not having your bills paid, suffering through work, or wrestling in relationship to others, and you are engaged in those things. Anyway it goes, everyone of us is engaged right now.
So the question is not if we’re engaged, but what we’re engaged in. This leads to my next best practice in engagement.
Many well-meaning non-profit organizations and individuals look to get people into what they do. They look for volunteers who’ll serve their communities as tutors, house builders, tax form preparers, and board members. They hire staff who seem passionate and engaged. Politicians hope voters will care enough to rally around issues, and teachers think students want to learn what they’re teaching.
The reason why these and so many efforts to serve others fail is because the people who are being targeted aren’t actually engaged. The reason why they’re not engaged is because the person seeking to engage them didn’t build on the things those people were already engaged in.
More than 2,500 years ago Lao Tzu wrote, “At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.” This knowingness uses engagement to connect you in lasting ways to all that you know, all that you want, and who you are. This makes engagement so central to our existence as humans, and makes what we’re currently engaged in so central to our future engagements.
All programs that seek to engage people in something external to themselves are bound to fail if they don’t acknowledge what people are already engaged in right now. Imagine if every nonprofit, church, politician, teacher, doctor, and business sought to ultimately lead their communities, parishioners, voters, students, patients, and customers back to themselves. They would fulfill Rumi’s wise prescription: “I have been a seeker and I still am, but I stopped asking the books and the stars. I started listening to the teaching of my Soul.”
5 Questions to Acknowledging Personal Engagement
- What do you have lasting connections to within yourself right now?
- What do you have lasting connections to outsides yourself right now?
- Define what you think engagement means to you right now.
- What examples do you know of the people in your life that show different things people they’re engaged in right now?
- Identify what you’re engaged in right now.
- Pulling ears
- Hitting with rulers, belts, wooden spoons, extension cords, slippers, hairbrushes, pins, sticks, whips, rubber hoses, flyswatters, wire hangers, stones, bats, canes, or paddles
- Forcing a child to stand for a long time
- Forcing a child to stay in an uncomfortable position
- Forcing a child to stand motionless
- Forcing a child to kneel on rice, corn, floor grates, pencils or stones
- Forcing a child to retain body wastes
- Forcing a child to perform strenuous exersize
- Forcing a child to ingest soap, hot sauce, or lemon juice
“Bullying is enough of a problem among students; the teachers shouldn’t be doing it, too. There’s nothing positive or productive about corporal punishment and it should be discouraged everywhere.” Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY)
“Corporal punishment of adults is prohibited in well over half the world’s countries, yet only 15 of the 190-plus nations have prohibited all corporal punishment of children, including in the family.”
“Young people must be meaningfully involved in promoting and strategizing action on violence against children… Children… need to be well informed about their rights, and fully involved in the life of the [community and] school…”
Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act
In 2010, Representative Carolyn McCarthy, a Democrat from New York, introduced a bill called “Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act” in the US House of Representatives. The bill would impose a ban on all public and private schools with students that receive federal services. Learn more about the bill, and support it. I do.
The privilege of disconnection is one that is deeply seeded in the American psyche. It tells us that we have the right to leave whenever we want: Our families, our jobs, our towns, our lives… At any moment, we can strike out in strange new directions, and if we work hard enough we can make it wherever we end up. This mental positioning seems like it’s entrenched in everyone’s minds, as we struggle and strive with all that we can’t leave behind. For some of us this shows up in subtle ways throughout our lives, as we leave work early and show up to dinner late. For others, this privilege of disconnection shows up loudly, as we quit public schools or shun going to the library, vote against public bonds or want to repeal the children’s health insurance law. This is the United States today.
Earlier today I was talking with a youth empowerment worker in Nigeria about the tense elections in his country. Chukwuemeka Uzu is running an initiative in Lagos that is teaching young people in his country about democracy, elections, and voting. He explained to me, in very careful and unambiguous terms, that the work of the youth in his organization is central to the success of democracy in his country. According to Chukwuemeka, his youth are teaching the public about democracy and elections, protecting the voting boxes from tampering by thugs, and struggling for accountability and transparency in government. He explained that because long-term politicians and government officials in Nigeria have vested interests in keeping the voting public illiterate. Believing deeply in the power and possibilities of democracy to deeply change his country, Chukwuemeka is organizing young people to counter these painful realities. Chukwuemeka’s youth organizing efforts are impacting his country deeply, as are the youth themselves who are connected through his work.
This is the type of engagement Americans routinely severe and disconnect from.
It is an engagement that reflects the true meaning of the term: social, emotional, and intellectual ties that extend throughout our lives for all sorts of purposes. These are the ties that bond us to each other, to the places we live in and co-occupy, and that build and sustain roots of all sorts. If you get the sensation that the very survival of democracy in Nigeria would be threatened without the work of Chukwuemeka Uzu, then you are starting to get it: Engagement is a necessity; disconnection is a privilege.
This is the reason why I stay committed to public schools, despite their flaws. This is the reason why I continue to attend city hall meetings, despite the fact that I can’t vote (I’m not a US citizen). This is the reason why I believe there is so much more going on than any crass social abandonment advocate reveals. The forces trying to dismantle democracy in the United States are not nearly as overt as those Chukwuemeka Uzu faces in Nigeria; however, they’re just as real, and just as pressing.
Stay committed – democracy depends on YOU.
Well, I’m no fan of mock voting, and as a matter of fact I stand firmly in opposition to it. However, I do appreciate that at the very least it raises the visibility of Youth Voice. It seems that the preliminary estimates from the National Mock Election, held last week across the United States, show Presidential candidate Barack Obama winning 46 states.
Mock elections, mock voting and mock parliaments are an apparatus of ignorance that forces young people to internalize their powerlessness in the political process of the United States. Mock elections grind into young peoples’ heads that their political voice is not worthy of full consideration until they are 18, at which point their minds will become suddenly capable of understanding politics and their votes will suddenly matter. Oh, and you’d better become politically active when you’re 18 for fear of being a pariah. (Ever wonder why the voting rates for 18-25 year-olds weren’t high after the national voting age was lowered in the 1972? Because youth were continuing to react to generations of systemic disenfranchisement. Young people are just beginning to emerge as significant political players, and as they begin to recognize their individual and collective power we are only going to see increased ephebiphobia throughout society.) A complicit component in these mock elections is the emphasis on the so-called “youth vote”, which generally when spoken of by the mainstream media refers to actual voting by 18 to 25 year olds. What does that tell young people under 18? That they aren’t youth and that they are still children. And since we, as a society, have infantalized children to the point of worthlessness to society, no one wants to be a kid.
All told, this situation makes the mock affairs nothing more than exercises in futility that frame children and youths’ opinions as not worthy of real consideration. Further complicating the scenario are the well-meaning adults who propagate these activities in schools and youth-serving organizations. We mean to engage young people, we mean to hear their opinions, we mean to validate them by at least acknowledging what they think. These adults aren’t bad people, and honestly I have been a promoter in the past. However, it ended for me the day a group of teens at a youth center scoffed at me when I suggested they participate. I asked them to tell me why, and they did, and now, well…
Now I see a different route to promoting civic engagement among young people. Rather than continue to perpetuate this egregious and immoral violation of citizenship and human rights, the United States should completely abolish the voting age. Germany has considered this as a serious legislative agenda, and we must follow this mode. Only then can we move from openly and unabashedly mocking Youth Voice to actually engaging, sustaining and integrating young people throughout society.
I have been conscious of presidential elections since 1992, when Bill Clinton was making his first run for president and I was a junior in high school. That year was the first time I heard of Rock the Vote, a nonprofit hooked up closely to MTV, where I heard their message. Its not that my house had MTV – we didn’t – but a lot of my friends did, and that’s where I got the feed. (Since then MTV has expanded their interest into youth activism, all suspect for the consumerist bent, but hey – who else is talking about it?)
Anyway, since then the marketing, aka voter drives, to get youth voters engaged in the electoral process has become much more intensive. This year that 16-year campaign comes to fruition, as media and pollsters show young people are more interested than ever before, more youth are going to vote than ever before, and Obama is going to win by a landslide because of youth voters.
But these sources are downplaying the substance of the so-called “youth vote.” Along with the realization that there is no such thing as one “youth vote,” young people increasingly identify their disenfranchisement within a political system that does not acknowledge the unique needs, perspectives, actions or wisdom of youth.
Politicians try to acknowledge this imbalance by actively speaking to the issues all young people care about, like education and the wars. However, the disjuncture between that rhetoric and the realities faced by children and youth today has to do with politicians’ sources for learning about those issues. Rather than relying on simplistic polls and research summaries by their lackeys, politicians need to listen to young people themselves to learn what they care about and how they care about it and how they think it should change. Only then will the youth vote have any substance.
I don’t like to speak to pop culture too often, but every now and then I turn on CNN.com in the morning for background noise. In the following video from CNN.com rapper Bow Wow, age 21, is promoting young people voting and the significance of these elections to young people today. My beef is that he refers to 18-25 year olds as “kids” and “these young kids.” I’ll write more about internalized adultism later, but in the meantime, here’s Bow Wow:
Embedded video from CNN Video
But in elections across the U.S. last week the country saw a slew of action from the outskirts of the youth rights movement: A variety of candidates from across the country drew national attention, and if leveraged right, they could draw attention to the efforts of activists working for civic engagement, youth rights and intergenerational equity.
Michael Sessions turned eighteen in September, and ran a write-in campaign in his hometown of Hillsdale, Michigan. Beating a 51-year-old incumbent, Sessions ran as an anti-establishment candidate in a town of 8,000+ and won the support of the town’s symbolically powerful firefighter’s union.
A recent USA Today article also reported that Jeffrey Dunkel was one month shy of 19 when he was sworn in as mayor of tiny Mount Carbon, Pennsylvania in January 2002. He was reelected this week. Chris Portman was 19 at his inauguration in Mercer, Pennsylvania was originally elected the same month. Portman resigned before the end of his first term after it was alleged that he was too immature for the position. He routinely rode around in police cars with officers and had an MTV camera crew follow him extensively.
A little digging shows that Luke Ravenstahl is the youngest mayor of any major American city today. After becoming mayor of Pittsburgh in September 2006, Ravenstahl began his political career at 23, right after graduating college. As a city council member, Ravenstahl was elected Council President in 2003, and then was appointed mayor in 2005 after the previous mayor died in office. By defeating a Republican challenger in 2006 he ensured his office until 2010. Christopher Seeley of Linesville, Pennsylvania and Sam Juhl of Roland, Iowa are two other eighteen-year-olds who were elected mayor last week, as well.
Things aren’t all rosey for young people in politics. The campaign for Brett McClafferty to become mayor of Streetsboro, Ohio must have pissed off the right people. Right after his near-loss campaign to get on the ballot, the city council raised the minimum age for candidates to be 23-years-old.
Here’s an interesting PSA from Do Something with one story. Later on I’ll share an analysis of all this: I think there is a much more important point to be made instead of simply suggesting young people should run for office. Stay tuned…
- I just created this List of the youngest mayors in the United States on Wikipedia.
CommonAction staff is available to train on Youth Engagement and much more. Contact me to talk about the possibilities by emailing email@example.com or calling (360)489-9680.