The other day I saw a note that said poor people are more mentally prepared for the pandemic than anyone else in society. I don’t want to romanticize poverty, and I know that statement was ultimately made to alleviate the pain people are facing right now.
However, growing up as a homeless kid then in a poor family, I knew what it was like to be stuck at home and not being go out. I knew what it was like having empty cupboards and skipping meals because we didn’t have food. So I see the validity of that point, too.
Poverty makes people invisible, and when you’re poor it can feel like you’re left behind by everyone else in society.
During this pandemic, middle class people and upper class people are panic buying toilet paper and stuffing their pantries full of excessive groceries, they’re using their internet and subscriptions to saturate their minds with high-quality entertainment; buying online tutors for their kids; working out in their home gyms; paying all their bills on time; and so much more.
Meanwhile, poor people living without money are struggling to stay housed; suffering from hunger and poor nutrition; faced with anxiety because of overdue bills; living without healthcare; and all the way around, frequently struggling with overburdened responsibilities undue to their station in life.
To think of all the people living that way right now, you have the power of your survival and I know you’ll stay strong. I see you, and I believe in you.
To the people working to stop the pain of people living poor right now, I’m glad you are working so hard to alleviate the suffering people face in all the ways they are. If you are doing that, thank you for doing what you’re doing. I see you, and I believe in you, too.
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…
A lot of us working with youth today came from hard times. Whether we came from adversity or trauma, or if we grew up in challenging ways, we have to take care of our heart. The times we live in today are conscientious and aware of how these hard times affect us. This article is about surviving youth. Your youth.
What Is Your Youth?
Your youth is two things: First, it’s the time you lived when you weren’t seen as a child or as an adult. Second, it’s the young people you are meaningfully connected to right now, whether they’re your children, students, program participants or otherwise. Youth isn’t “yours” in terms of possession; it’s yours because you are engaged in youth, whether we’re talking about the time of your life or the people you serve.
You need to survive your youth if it’s affecting your adulthood in negative, hard or challenging ways.
Over the past 20 years, I’ve facilitated self-care learning for thousands of teachers, youth workers and other adults who work with youth. Many people have shared that their awareness of the adverse childhood experiences they lived through as young people shine through in their current jobs. They specifically work to support young people growing up with abuse, household challenges and/or neglect, and they’re very committed. These people are surviving youth.
3 Ways to Survive Your Youth
Many people are surviving the challenges of their younger years at the same time they’re working to support young people. When we work within these realities, we have to be precautious, patient and promising for ourselves.
Here are three ways I teach people to survive their youth.
Be Precautious. Your experiences make you relatable and grant you powers of reciprocity. However, they can make you vulnerable, too. If you haven’t addressed your childhood trauma intentionally, if you haven’t addressed your wounds and sought healing, then be precautious. Even if you have dealt with your suffering and challenges but still hyper-react, overreact or otherwise act disproportionately to the situations, you might need to continue being precautious. Take care of your heart.
Be Patient. While you may want to challenge your own inabilities or charge into changing yourself and the world, you should be patient. Your calmness and self-control can be a model for the young people you work with, however you positively express them. If you feel anxious, excited or too ambitious, be patient and know that the challenges of your younger years are teaching you right now. Allow calmness to hold your heart.
Be Promising. Seeing a greater picture, understanding the wider world and knowing the best possibilities are the best way to be promising to yourself. Don’t make promises you can’t keep, and don’t promise things you can’t follow through. However, hold your heart accountable, listen to your intuition and keep yourself true and honest with what you know best. Set the bar for your heart and keep yourself accountable.
Surviving your youth is essential to being a hopeful, supportive and effective adult ally to children and youth. The steps above can help you understand where to begin doing that. There are a number of great resources emerging in the field, and more organizations are supporting their staff dealing with their trauma as well as promoting trauma informed care throughout education, youth services, at home, throughout communities, and beyond.
However, ultimately you need to deal with your youth. Soothing the inner challenges can only go so far, and these steps are simply triage for the complex wounds you might have. Deal with those challenges, get help and move forward in your career, your family and throughout your life.
After working in hundreds of communities nationally, I am primed to explore this more. Call me to talk about my consulting, training and speaking services at (360) 489-9680.
Standing awkwardly at the back of the room, I listened to the words coming from the four tables in the middle of the space. It was a drab, faded white hall with dull, grey carpet that smelled musty, felt greasy and looked depressed. I was 17, wearing my most optimistic white sweatshirt and clean jeans, and trying my hardest to stay attentive to what was being said.
“Why would any kid want to come to our meetings?” said Paul, a gruff World War II vet who clearly didn’t support the idea.
“I don’t think there’s a place for him here, or any other teen. This is the work of people with experience and knowledge, and when you’re in 12th grade you have none of those,” said Betty, who was one of the grandmas in the room that I liked.
That night, the church council decided there was no role for youth in their work. I’d lobbied the church and minister to allow me onboard for several months before that vote. Hearing their decision, I was crushed.
For three years, I’d been actively involved throughout the life of the church. Joining the choir, coming to classes, continuing my membership in scouts, and helping whenever the minister asked led me to join the church council. My mentors in the church made so many spaces for my voice and involvement that I wanted to take it to the next level. I had helped plan classes, build events and relations between the church and community, and preached at Sunday services at the invite of the minister.
I wasn’t ever given firm reasons for why I wasn’t allowed to join the church council. Instead, I was given platitudes and misdirections like, “You’re too young to understand,” “This is adult work,” and “We don’t have space for kids in our work.”
When I wasn’t allowed to join the church council, I internalized a lot of the messages given to me, whether they were inadvertent or intentional. Those messages included:
Youth voice matters in certain situations, but not all the time
Youth voice is useful when it fits adult expectations, but not when it goes out of the boundaries
Adults don’t want to listen to all youth voice, just the ones they want to hear from.
Rather than try to engage me in any sense, the church council simply denied me altogether. It would be too simple to say that was disheartening to me; instead, it’s more apt to say it was crushing. I didn’t realize it then, but I stacked that experience onto many others that felt disempowering, disconnecting and unaccepting.
Within the next year, I slowly moved away from the home I’d felt at the church. My longtime skepticism about religion took hold of my imagination, granting me some critical thinking but mostly lavishing cynicism in my heart. I no longer saw the people in that place as family, but instead as overseers. Sure, I still had mentors there cared for me, and I was always respectful and cared about them. But never again did I feel the same.
A few years later I left that denomination entirely and never returned. In the 25 years since, that congregation folded and the church changed hands. I moved on too, only occasionally visiting the place that raised me. My work allows me to keep it in mind though, especially as I work with organizations to consider never allowing adult discrimination against youth to happen again.
“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” ― Albert Einstein
Lately, I find myself thinking more about what actually changes in our lives, and why that change happens. At the beginning of my fourth decade, I’ve seen minor and major changes so far throughout my lifetime.
There have been many major life changes, including finishing college; owning a home and selling it; having and raising a child; and walking with family and friends as their lives have changed, too. There have been countless minor changes in my life. Thinking about this world we all share, there’ve been a lot of big changes since 1975, including the toppling of political regimes and the beginnings of new ones; the deaths of world leaders and the emergence of others; new technologies and the evolutions or end of olds ones; and endless small changes.
As I reflect on these, I see others’ stories interwoven with my own. The mentors who guided me as a young man; the women I’ve loved and relationships I’ve grown through; so many times shared with friends, and the growth of my born and adopted family; as well as the people who I’ve barely known or never knew who have touched my life in ways seen and unseen.
Today, I understand that with strengthening and weakening through experience, its been my heart that’s changed the most. I was born and raised as a good kid, albeit one who made mistakes and was far from perfect, but with an open heart, strong imagination and good humor. As an adult, all of that has been messed with, poked and prodded and challenged and hated; however, I am who I am, still.
I understand know that life is oftentimes an appearance. Because appearances depend on my viewpoint, my experience, my lenses and my interpretation, appearances are always subjective. That means all of these things I thought I experienced are simply a matter of appearance: Seeing the horror of a friend dying from disease can be the honor of walking a friend towards their next journey; or the joy of a family member winning the lottery may be the challenge of watching shallowness replace depth of journeying; or the suffering when a love left me is the welcoming of solitude and sanctity; or the sadness of a pet passing away from old age can become the cherishing of time shared and love gained.
How to See Your Viewpoint
Here are five simple steps to seeing your own perspective more clearly:
Say “I see things according to my own viewpoint, biases, attitudes, knowledge and experience.
Write down your perspectives on a specific situation. For instance, how do you feel about your house? What do you think about dogs? Who are your favorite friends?
Once you’ve written those perspectives, ask yourself why you think those things. Are you justifying your thoughts? Criticizing your thinking? Do you feel righteous? Ignorant?
Identify whether you are willing to rethink your own attitudes and behaviors. If so, you’ve identified your viewpoint about something. If not, you have also identified your viewpoint about something.
Consider whether you think some people cannot understand your viewpoint? Do you think you should change others’ minds to understand your viewpoint?
Today, I understand that my point of view is always skewed by my perceptions; I am always subjective. Whenever I pass judgment, I’m weighing evidence against my perspective. That doesn’t mean that nothing has value and nobody is ever right; its totally the opposite. Everything has value and there is right and wrong in the world. However, it does mean that appealing to the hearts and minds of people is as important as changing the society, structures, policies and processes that things happen through.
I’m going to keep Einstein’s quote in mind for myself: “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”
When I was young, I was involved in programs at a church in the low-income, predominantly African American neighborhood where my family lived.
One day when I was 16 years old, some friends and I were walking down the street when we came across a couple of shiny new vans delivering a small hoard of white kids dressed in optimistic clothes to the church.
Curious, we we asked some of the youth what they were doing. Nonchalantly, they said they were here to paint this ghetto church, pointing at our fortress of hope.
When we asked if we could help, an adult with the group told us it was their project, and they’d be doing the painting. We brought our concerns to the minister, who explained they were missionaries from another state and this was mission trip, to paint our church.
That didn’t make any sense to me then, and I spent more than a decade trying to reconcile their well-meaning intention and my sense of dejection.
As an adult, I’ve met bunches and bunches of well-meaning middle class people and white people who want to save the world without ever looking at how to empower people to save themselves. These same folks rarely examine their own complicity in oppression and the ongoing slight of snobbery in volunteerism and philanthropy.
With so many people more focused on “changing the world” today, I think it’s high time that we reflect on Gandhi’s call for us to “be the change we wish to see in the world. We each have to examine our motivation.
I’ve been writing about that process for a long time without ever offering rationale for why that matters. The story I share here is meant to show one reason.
If you’re interested, check out my PETS (Personal Engagement Tip Sheets) for practical ways to look inside yourself before you try to change the world. You might also read my poem, Missionary. One of the most powerful pieces I’ve ever read about examining our motivations is a speech given by Ivan Illich called “To Hell With Good Intentions,” where he critically examines what it means to serve others. I also recommend Paulo Freire’s last book, which pushed me to embrace my own assumptions in new ways. Its called Pedagogy of Indignation.
Recently, a youth activist in the UK wrote to me with some excellent questions about adultism. I loved responding to him, and I think we have some excellent conversations ahead of us. I want to give you a peek into what was exchanged. Let me know what you think?
Question 1: Why does youth-based ageism matter to you, both personally and from a broader societal perspective?
Growing up, I experienced homelessness, generational PTSD, generational alcoholism, and situational poverty. After beginning youth work as a teenager, I discovered a realm of youth advocacy focused on youth rights. Beginning with the analysis that youth aren’t granted rights and freedoms enjoyed by adults simply because of their age, in my early 20s I examined my own professional practice and discovered that I’d perpetuated this discrimination against youth in my youth work. My own professional journey took a critical turn at that point, and I’ve never looked back.
Since then, I’ve studied the phenomenon of adultism in-depth, writing dozens of articles and a book about it called Facing Adultism. I’ve also led workshops with hundreds of youth and adults across North America and in Brazil over the last 15 years. Among my findings, I’ve discovered some radical trends that are disturbing. Rather consistently and regardless of setting, adults appear to be consistently predisposed to the actions, ideas, words and opinions of other adults. I call this bias towards adults adultism. Adultism seemingly happens everywhere, including many places that exist simply to serve children and youth, including schools, after school programs, youth centers, summer camps, and in childcare facilities, as well as businesses that serve young populations, including stores, healthcare, and restaurants. On a very basic level, the problem of adultism in democratic societies is that it inherently undermines and ultimately dismantles democracy. We basically spend 18 to 25 years of a person’s life telling them to be passive recipients of hierarchical, authoritarian decision-making, and then one arbitrary day we bestow them with the mantle of Voter and pray they have faith in democracy. That disjunction doesn’t sit well with most people, and easily explains why so many people are disaffected by voting today.
In a more complex way, I believe adultism is the conditioning that permits all other discriminations to co-exist throughout our societies. From infancy we’re taught in subtle and overt ways that adults are dominate in our worlds. At the same time we appropriately rely on them for food, clothing, shelter and security, we’re conditioned to accept their control over our appearance, attitudes, education and behaviors. Through this control, adultism opens the doorways for oppression through sexism, racism, hetrosexism, classism, and many other biases and discriminations, allowing each of us to both become oppressors and the oppressed. This has massive effects throughout our societies that are grossly underexamined.
Question 2: Is youth-based ageism entrenched in politics/culture/society? What are the consequences of it?
Bias towards adults is thoroughly entrenched throughout the entirety of society, including politics and culture, and education, healthcare, law enforcement, familial relations, community structures, government, economics, religion and spirituality, the arts, and even crime. This bias towards adults, and the discrimination against youth which is consequential, disallows all young people of every age from fully realizing their own capacities, personalities, abilities and interconnectedness. This continues until the time when society stops disallowing them to do so. This means that any contributions that children and youth could make to a better world for all people; any economic contributions they could make; any education they could become truly passionate about; any subject which they could master; all of this and so much more is thwarted because of adultism. The youngest people in our society could make the greatest contributions, if only they weren’t continually denigrated by adults simply because of their age. Mozart was five when he composed his first minuet – not bad for a kid. Imagine what any of us could do without the shackles of adultism.
Question 3: What would you argue is the main factor that prevents pro-youth organisations, such as the UK Youth Parliament and perhaps US equivalents, from being more effective than they are?
I would suggest that adultism is the main factor that prevents youth-serving orgs from being more effective, and that adultism uses money as a lever to control the structures, attitudes and cultures of those organizations. There are strong financial incentives that exist in order to enforce adultism. These fiscal constraints are the most powerful force that ensures the sustained habituation and enculturation of adultism in all of its forms throughout our society, especially within youth-serving organizations. Whether these organizations are working in hyper-local settings on the familial, neighborhood and community levels, or in national or international forums, all of them are generally constrained by the authority and ability granted to them by money. The simple fact is that there are absolutely no funds anywhere that actively support the elimination of adultism, or any steps preceding that. Because of that, each of these organizations choose the routes they need to follow in order to most effectively meet their funders’ expectations.
For instance, the UK Youth Parliament chooses politics as its avenue to serve youth. In these politics they follow the pathways which grant them the most ability to affect change on behalf of their constituents. That means that if a bill is going to be fought effectively, it might require a little adultism here and a little adultism there, which is acceptable in order to fight that bill. Similarly, a well-meaning teacher in a public school might know in her heart that student voice should be infused throughout her classroom, with students making and enforcing rules, cowriting and critiquing curriculum, administering and evaluating assessments, and so-forth. However, she also knows her headmaster placed a book in her hands, gave her a URL for student testing, and she must do what she’s told to keep her job. A little adultism here and a little adultism there, and she has a job again next year.
Question 4 and 5: What’s the solution for schools? And what are solutions beyond the school remit?
Schools must stop existing simply to promote academic achievement, and instead adopt the understanding that their singular purpose is to engage students in learning, teaching and leadership throughout their own lives and their communities. Academics is one avenue to student engagement, but only one. There are dozens of ways to engage learners, and schools should be held to the highest account for engagement, simply because that does not happen anywhere else in society. That’s because student engagement is the sustained connection a student feels towards something, and schools should be responsible solely for fostering that feeling. Who is in charge of whether or not a student becomes engaged in something? The student, and the student alone. Who can help facilitate whether a student becomes engaged in learning, teaching and leadership throughout their own lives and their communities? Educators. Student engagement would be the ultimate goal for schools because nowhere else could do it quite the ways they do.
Beyond schools, there are countless avenues towards a more successful society for all people, regardless or because of age. Starting with full suffrage for all people regardless of their age, I believe it extends towards complete citizenship for all people with equitable roles, responsibilities and rights accorded to people because of their ages. Teaching, reinforcing and uplifting the notion of interdependence is vital, too, as it can help both young people and adults understand complex social understandings in a concrete, tangible way. In his last book published, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “When we get up in the morning, we go into the bathroom where we reach for a sponge provided for us by a Pacific Islander. We reach for soap created by a Frenchman. The towel is provided by a Turk. Before we leave for our jobs, we are beholden to more than half the world.” I believe that same sentiment must be translated on the age issue. I don’t think we have a case of youth versus adults here, Tom. Instead, this is an issue that’s endemic in Western culture and its tearing us apart. We can work past this, given the right mindsets and resources.
Again, this was just the start of a long conversation. Let me know what you think and whether you’d like to read more!
I don’t understand. In the neighborhood where I grew up, in this last week there have been A LOT of shootings, several murders, three home invasions, and a lot of robberies. I turn on pop music though, and here’s another rapper claiming to “rep the hood” while they’re driving expensive cars, wearing expensive jewelry and shooting guns. I don’t understand.
Shooting guns. With the rash of mass shootings over the last year, I don’t understand how people can still assert their supposed Second Amendment rights, allowing corporations to flood the streets with mass amounts of weaponry and exploiting peoples’ feelings of insecurity and doomsday-ism. I don’t understand.
In the place where I was born, there’s a lot of joblessness and fear washing into the lives of everyday people. With the North American oil market collapse, my cousins and brothers-in-law, their families and friends, and a lot of people are suffering from economic insecurity. Yet these same people are damning the election of a Liberal prime minister who wants to build sustainable power options across the nation, create a new economy that’s not reliant on raping the Earth, and building community among a damaged people. I don’t understand how anyone can hate that.
THOSE THINGS are all true. But I want to tell you what I DO understand.
I understand radical personal engagement. Everyday I’m faced with the choice of whether or not to maintain the connections I have within myself and to the world around me. Everyday I get to decide who I am, how I connect, and whether something matters to me or not.
I do understand the world is working exactly how it needs to right now. There are crappy situations for a lot of people in a lot of places, and even though they look compromised and painful, they are the right things for this moment. From the tragedies and drama, hurt and discouragement, something is getting dismantled, and something else is getting built.
That’s true for me, too. For the last several years, I’ve struggled to make sense of this career I’ve made for myself. I’m a bit of a consultant, a bit of a writer, a bit of a speaker, a bit of a designer… I’m a little bit of all of these, and yet, none of them. My audience wavers, bringing me in when its popular or convenient, but forgetting me when there’s more to be done. But this is exactly how its supposed to be!
Right now, the fiery furnaces of our individual bodies, hearts and minds, are working in concert with everything, everywhere to create the massiveness that is within each of us. The gangbangers and the concert maestros, the mothers and the children, the vandals and the politicians… all of us are within this place doing this thing in concert with one another.
Maybe Neil DeGrasse Tyson said it best:
“Recognize that the very molecules that make up your body, the atoms that construct the molecules, are traceable to the crucibles that were once the centers of high mass stars that exploded their chemically rich guts into the galaxy, enriching pristine gas clouds with the chemistry of life. So that we are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically and to the rest of the universe atomically. That’s kinda cool! That makes me smile and I actually feel quite large at the end of that. It’s not that we are better than the universe, we are part of the universe. We are in the universe and the universe is in us.”
Just by being alive, the world is moving along perfectly, imperceptibly excellently. I have lived through a lot of things, lost a lot of things, and done a lot of things, and I know this one thing is true for me. This is what I understand today, and what I wanted to share with you.
I really wanna hear from you. Give me a call or reply to this? Take care.
Sometimes I get anxious or excited, and I want my way to be the way. I get disappointed when I set myself up that way.
I’m learning not to be in the immediate gratification crowd that believes you can actualize your dreams almost the instant you form them. When I was younger and spent so much energy advocating for youth involvement, this is what I believed: If I trained enough people, changed enough policies and moved enough mountains, things would change for young people immediately.
That’s not true.
Honoring the process of change requires accepting the boundaries of time. Moving hearts and minds takes more than education, it takes time and acceptance. People and systems and communities rarely change immediately, on the turn of a dime. Instead, they have to take their time. That doesn’t mean we don’t incentivize or motivate or move what we can, when we can. It does mean accepting our role in the ways things work.
It seems to me that the universe takes it’s time. Sometimes it allows me to see the fruits of my life and other times it holds back the results until another, undetermined time further on down the road. Maybe I get to see the outcomes, maybe I don’t – mostly that’s not up to me to worry about.
Instead, I look to nature for evidence: Trees almost always have more leaves than they technically need, and that’s why they’re able to serve the planet by processing CO2. The ocean laps too many waves, and that’s why it’s capable of wearing away the weight of the land while pulling beaches and seaside cliffs into the depths. The sun burns too brightly, and that’s why life is so abundant on this world. It all works in abundance, and I get to trust my life will, too.
By the same token, all of those things take time and processes, and nothing works independently of anything else. I don’t know if sunflowers require patience while their seeds germinate over the wintertime. I don’t know if birds simply have to trust that they’ll know where they’re going when they get their after their long migrations. But I do know that I have to let go and let the universe do its thing, work in it’s time, again and again, over and over.
If I look to the world around me for fulfillment, I’ll always be disappointed, because the world around me doesn’t work on my cues! But when I take a look inside me and find contentment in who I am, how I am, with the way things are instead of how I want them to be, then my life gets easier.
The old turtle in Kung Fu Panda might’ve said it best: “Yesterday is history; tomorrow is a mystery; today is a gift – that’s why its called the present.” I get to learn to appreciate the gifts! That’s my work these days…
My childhood was rough. As a way of coping with the experiences I had, somewhere along the way I started to gloss over details of my days by concentrating on big pictures. That was fun when I was younger, as it afforded me views I didn’t experience a lot of my peers having. However, it has cost me as I’ve grown older, since operating at 30,000 feet doesn’t make for close connections with a lot of people. I want those connections.
As part of my work, I get opportunities to talk with a lot of youth workers and community educators. Their perspectives of young people are fairly unique, and their jobs are always demanding. Every time I interact with them, I try to thank each one for what they do because youth workers saved my life as a teenager.
Recently, I’ve had the privilege of being in contact with a youth worker in the upper Midwest who has reminded me of something very important to me. In my email exchanges with him, BC comes across as a down-to-earth, authentic person who is conscientiously, intentionally working to be real, true and honest with the people he serves and the ways he’s serving them.
I’ve been pouring over his blog for the last few days. In the course of 100s of entries, he continually lays it on the line, connecting deeply within himself in order to have a more genuine relationship with himself. For me, it’s been a refreshing, ernest reminder of the power and potential of personal engagement.
So, I’m committing myself to reconnecting with two things in my writing from this point:
My personal experience in life and through my work that allows me to do what I do, and
My practice in personal engagement that sustains me.
In doing this, I hope I can speak as truthfully as BC has reminded me that its necessary to do. Over these last several years, I’ve been learning to let my feet truly soak into the Earth as I walk, whether or not I let my hands brush the bushes I past or keep my eyes to the skies.
When I was very young, my cousin cut off a section of an oil barrel and hung it from a gate header. He spray painted it “Adam 5” and used to launch me on wild rides inside of it. Today, I can’t imagine that would be any fun, but then I thought it was the bees knees!
Sometimes, being transparent can seem like a losing proposition. Openness leads to vulnerability, and being soft can lead to getting hurt. However, the old way of self-defense is slowly making its way into history. More than ever, we need leaders and followers who can be truthful, ernest and real with people.
Here are a few things I try to remember when I want to connect with my reasons:
What matters most to me?
Where do I come from?
Where do I want to go?
What difference do I want to make?
Those questions bring me back to my heart when I’m drifting, and nearer to my essence.
That’s where I strive to work from. Thanks BC – I appreciate you reminding me to do that!