Bound up in this ongoing conversation about youth engagement is the question of who has the right to be heard. In the United States, there are two distinct conversations that happen regarding the rights of children and youth; one is protective (Children’s Defense Fund) and the other is liberatory (National Youth Rights Association).
Children’s Ombudsman Offices are independent, impartial public officials with authority and responsibility to receive, investigate or informally address complaints about government actions, and, when appropriate, make findings and recommendations, and publish reports. Their roles are almost wholly interpreted to be protective, with few reports indicating that they’ve done anything related to liberating young people.
Twenty-two states in the US have official children’s ombudsman offices that deal with children’s rights issues. Have you ever heard of these offices in Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Washington, California, Texas, Utah, Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Iowa, Nebraska, Arkansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Oklahoma, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Delaware, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, Montana, Ohio, South Carolina, or Virginia?
You can learn about these offices, including what they specifically do and how they operate, from this website.
This would create relevant, meaningful opportunities for young people of all ages to engage in democracy. It would also catalyze vibrant conversations in many places where discussions about children’s rights, youth rights, and civic engagement are dead.
What is ahead? Expanding children’s rights in the United States may be the next route to take.
One of the main points of youth involvement activities is to foster a deeper connection between young people and the communities they are part of. They become connected physically by spending time; mentally by sharing their thoughts; emotionally by sharing their feelings; and in many other powerful ways too. Whether they are involved in schools, nonprofits, government programs, or faith-based communities, all children and youth deserve opportunities to become deeply connected.
There are many challenges to youth involvement though. Society has a legacy of routinely and systematically excluding young people from many substantive opportunities for them to become engaged. Rather than be a conspiracy that’s designed by few and inadvertently compelled by the masses, segregating children and youth is a blatant design in our society. This segregation defeats many well-intended youth involvement activities.
Education System. Everyday around the world, young people are separated from their families and neighbors and placed within specially designed environments that segregate them from mainstream society, simply because of their age. Within those confines, they’re segregated again by age and measured ability, both of which are arbitrary markers of their capacities to learn. Oftentimes this is made into a bigger issue because of racial and socio-economic segregation. Schools can overturn this ignorance by actively integrating young people with each other in recognition of their differences. They can also infuse learning throughout communities through service learning, internships, place-based learning, and other approaches—for all ages, everywhere, all the time.
Childcare. Before and after school, many young people face receiving care in isolated facilities that are operated to stop them being at home alone, and relieve the concerns of parents who can’t be there with their children. Regardless of size, these locations almost always segregate children and youth from mainstream society, instead relying on a few well-meaning adults to guide young people during this time.
Youth Programs. Nonprofits, community groups, government agencies, and schools all provide programs for youth during out-of-school times. They may be recreational, educational, social, or faith-based, but most of them depend on separating children and youth from adults in order to affect them. The idea that young people should be segregated from their families and the rest of the church started with youth schools, spread to youth programs, and is now in commerce, recreation, and media. Young people are now routinely ghetto-ized.
Jobs. While age discrimination in the workplace is prohibited for older people by federal law, there are few protections for young people. Well-intended child labor laws met the end of abusive employment practices that exploited child and youth workers. However, there is rampant age-based isolationism in workplaces that causes youth workers to only be able to work with other youth. Ephebiphobia and adultism make unwritten practices in workplaces that segregate youth workers the norm, while marketers make youth consumers an isolated clientbase too. All that says little about the few number of jobs actually available to young people anymore. As the economy went south, jobs that used to be for youth went to adults while programs that funded jobs exclusively for youth were shut down with bipartisan support.
Cultural Programs. The very programs that are designed to sustain our culture and society are oftentimes ones that most deeply segregate young people from adults. Ironically, children and youth are expected to learn about history devoid of the people who’ve actually lived it. Instead, they’re expected to study it and examine it alone, or with the guidance of a well-meaning but frequently poorly equipped teacher. A 1998 study from the William T. Grant Foundation says, “There is a portrait of youth that is not only misleading, but harmful. We ought to correct the record out of a sense of fairness, as well as accuracy. These young people desperately need a chance to get started in responsible careers. Instead, they are frequently saddled with the image of being uninterested and unwilling to assume responsibility. Complaining about youth is all too common.” This is correct, if not even more exacerbated, in cultural programs of all types.
Scanning throughout society at the places where young people are and adults aren’t, there are many more innocuous and a few more nefarious examples I could draw on. However, I’m going to leave you with this opportunity to imagine them yourself. Answer these questions:
Am I interested in stopping youth segregation?
Do I think age segregation of all kinds is valid?
How do I discriminate against young people?
What am I willing to sacrifice in order to stop youth segregation?
When you’re done answering you can see where you are, and where you want to go. Be realistic.
There are places throughout our communities that engage us as people in things outside of ourselves that are larger than ourselves. Then there are other things people do that deeply engage us within ourselves. In popular culture that seems to pull us into those extremes constantly without attention to balancing our interests, it can be important to acknowledge that there are different positions for different activities throughout our lives.
Envisioning Our Connections
One day a comrade and I were talking about different ways folks engage throughout their lives when I had an epiphany about how to illustrate this dynamic between self-oriented engagement and socially-oriented engagement.
Rather than draw it on a static spectrum I saw the necessity of demonstrating the breadth of value different activities can have towards their given ends. Quickly brainstorming some possibilities, I acknowledged the following patterns emerge in my own work.
Different types of engagement activities affect different people in different ways.
The broadest measurement for success in engaging people is how closely they fit a given definition of engagement.
Engagement is the sustained connection a person feels with something inside or outside of themselves. This definition makes no value judgment about different perspectives and outcomes of engagement; instead, it positions engagement as a non-linear phenomenon both within and outside of a person.
For the purpose of measuring the efficacy of an activity in relationship to this definition, in a workshop participants would brainstorm a variety of activities that engage people within themselves and in their own lives, and activities that engage people outside of themselves and throughout their whole communities.
Personal engagement (or self) happens when activities engage a person within themselves. This could include exercise, listening to music, studying, meditation, and reading.
Community engagement (or social) activities engage a person throughout their larger world. They may include reading the newspaper, eating dinner with your family, volunteering at an animal shelter, sitting on a nonprofit board of directors, volunteering for a play, and so forth.
When people brainstorm these lists, it can be useful to be as specific as possible.
The essential part of this activity happens next:
Have a brief conversation comparing what they’ve found in their own identifying of activities.
Then chart actions on the following diagram. On this diagram, activities with the most impact on an individual (personal engagement) would be charted at the extreme left of the spectrum; while the activities we do solely for others (community engagement) would be on the right. Activities that mutually benefit both ourselves and others would be in the middle (universal engagement).
When completed, participants should have a wide array of activities represented on their Spectrum of Engagement, acknowledging the depth and breadth of engagement activities that are happening throughout a given community.
I believe young people are capable of doing absolutely anything, right now.
The roles of young people are actively changing right now throughout society. Today there are young people with jobs as city planners, volunteering as nonprofit board directors, and voting as members of public commissions. Other young people are actively creating film productions, developing high-end websites, and controlling other media.
There are youth starting businesses, developing civic campaigns, and creating strategies for engaging their friends and peers throughout their communities. None of this work is actively being done to throw off the shackles of oppressive adult control, or to wrest the torch of authority from adults—or at least very, very little of it is.
Society WANTS to Be Changed
Instead, it’s being done because more than ever young people are facing a convergence of personal will and social aptitude: Young people are changing society at a point when society wants to be changed!
This is a wonderful reality that really, truly signals the possibility of a grand future that I only imagined as a 17-year-old starting a youth council in my neighborhood, one that is limited only by the imaginations of young people and their adult allies, and those imaginations are limitless.
It’s because of my knowledge of these realities that I firmly believe any presuppositions about age-oriented developmental psychology theory are based on age bias and discrimination.
Adultism is a Malignant Tumor
Today, after studying developmental psychology and education as an undergraduate and spending 22 years as a professional community educator, I maintain that youth development as we know it is a psycho-philosophical mis-orientation, a malignant tumor on the heart of society today. I believe that this bias towards adults and discrimination against youth—which is called adultism—is a society-wide construct that permeates our legal, political, cultural, economic, environmental, educational, and familial institutions.
There are those who would suggest that young peoples’ motivations for engaging in social change is a psycho-chemical reaction that is responsive to their age. However, after these years of field study and practice, I have found that rather than any time-based orientation, the motivations of children and youth to change the world come from their socio-economic backgrounds, class consciousness, and political world views. Yes, that’s correct: young people have political world views.
Capable if Not Able
In my belief, age is irrelevant; rather, it is exposure, critical engagement, and conscious reflection that drives the desires of young people to want to form, reform, challenge, critique, examine, deconstruct, and otherwise identify the imbalances of the world around them. All children and youth do not want to change the world; however, all are capable of engaging in social change, and that capability is not contingent on their age.
Social conditioning—including familial backgrounds, socio-economic grouping, and education—is the single greatest factor in determining a young person’s desire to change the world.
That is to say that I believe developmental psychology is generally bunkus when it comes to explaining social engagement. With regards to physiology, I don’t believe that chemical reactions in the brains of an average young person make them incapable of empathizing with others; they merely make teachers, parents, and mentors more responsible for doing their jobs capably.
That said, it can easy for adults to agree with all that, and still make the assumption that age is still the predominant factor for engagement in social change, if only because age is assumed to be the great accumulator of experience.
The thought is that the longer a person lives, the more they’ve done, and the more a person has done, the more they’ll desire to change the world, and the more knowledge they’ll have in order to change the world. None of this is true.
Age isn’t determinant of experiential accumulation, if only because the breadth and depth of experience is due to cultural stimulation rather than age. In the same way that a lot of teens have more political education than a lot of adults, not because of age, but because of interest, it holds true that there are young children who may be more engaged than youth in work designed to change the world.
However, that isn’t because of interest, alone. Rather, it’s because of their experiences, and this, in turn, reinforces my statement at the beginning of this paragraph. Children can have a great deal of experience with discrimination, oppression, disparity, and inequity, even at young ages. Whether they relate because of their race, socio-economic status, compassion for the Earth, or other factors, all young people of all ages have the ability to empathize, and that is what determines their aptitude for engaging in social change.
Again, this reinforces my belief that age isn’t generally relevant, insomuch as their empathetic background. Let me say that I do believe that young children may not have the capability to determine when to run from a burning building. However, I do not believe that every situation is analogous to a burning building.
Unfortunately, many adults treat almost every situation that way because we’re conditioned to. That conditioning, which is adultism, unfortunately rears it’s ugly head in a lot of ways.
There is a philosophical reasoning behind re-imagining the roles of young people throughout society and there is movement towards this, we have not overcome the broad acceptance of adultism. The next steps in this effort are to address the cultural and attitudinal effects of adultism.
While continued action by children and youth is essential for doing this, I believe that it’s absolutely imperative that as adults we re-examine our assumptions, beliefs, and actions throughout society towards young people. Only then will we be able to go to the next step. Only then will be have the radically effective democratic society millenia of people saw as possible. Only then will we actually become fully powerful as individuals, communities, and societies to become the world we have always dreamed of becoming.
Youth can do anything, and will continue doing as much as they can. It’s up to us to create the scaffolding, opportunities, and sustainability needed to expand and deepen what anything means, and as long as we’re not doing that, we’re part of the problem—not the solution.
Just telling students you care about student voice isn’t the way to engage students in schools. As a teacher, principal, counselor, or other adult in schools, you set the tone and create the climate for student voice to be an effective tool in the school improvement arsenal. Check out the following 10 Ways Adults Can Show They Care About Student Voice.
Commit and follow through with the idea that student voice should be as student-driven as possible.
Fun and laughter are requirements for successfully engaging student voice.
Create awareness around different problems throughout the education system and seek to engage your students as active partners who can help solve these problems.
Connect individually with your students about their thoughts about your class, school, or program as frequently as possible and demonstrate that you actually care about their specific thoughts and feelings about school.
Encourage students and help them to find opportunities to engage in school that use their strengths, talents, interests or skills. Create those opportunities as often as you can.
Make sure your students are using their friendship networks to find out what their friends think about schools.
Promote student voice in happy, friendly and accessible ways when appropriate. When necessary, confront adults who are resistant, and challenge apathy or disregard for student voice.
Promote the benefits of student voice to students – both personal benefits and the potential final results.
Provide opportunities for students to socialize and just talk about student voice.
This isn’t a deep prescription, but it does provide a place to start. Check out www.soundout.org for more useful info about student voice in schools!
Hey all. I’ve spent the last two weeks enmeshed is strategic planning for two state agencies, writing a Summer of Service guide for a national nonprofit organization, action planning for a state coalition I help run, and rewriting an internationally-renowned guide to getting youth on boards. My brain is exhausted and my fingers are numb… which won’t stop me from blogging! It just slows me down a bit. In all of this I’ve continued twittering as best as I can, and you can see my thoughts are meandering across the topics I’m addressing on any given day.
As I’ve delved into inter-agency relationships at the state level here in Washington, I’ve extensively considered the roles and applications of meaningful youth involvement within the state government apparati. It seems daunting, and has caused me to fall back on the question, “What would youth do?” Well, in order to answer this I am going to convene the first meeting of a statewide youth cadre here in Washington soon. The dilemma with that, as always, is who is at the table, and what their interests are. Promoting the homogenization of youth voice seems inevitable in these types of activities, and that is an inherent challenge in involving youth in state and federal government decision-making.
The work of operating a statewide coalition is challenging, to say the least. For the last year I’ve been the co-chair of Washington Action for Healthy Kids, a group of volunteers who are challenging obesity by promoting physical activity and nutrition in schools. Its been a reach for me, as my interest in the topic is tangential at best. I do see the value of it, as my own daughter attends public school and I do have the opportunity through my position at the state Department of Health to learn more about the effects of these issues on the education of young people. The experience of operating this coalition is what I’m after. So far I’ve learned a great deal so far, but this last few weeks has been a heap of learning for me as I’ve worked with our national team service rep to create an action plan for the state. Its interesting to think of the sophistication and deliberation of so many of these types of groups in relationship to their actual operation: instead of a finely honed instrument of democracy actively engaging 1000s in the operation of a movement, its one guy and one woman on the phone and Internet carving out a plan that will affect the masses – if its approved. Fascinating.
Finally, Youth On Board has contracted me to rewrite the wonderfully short and accessible guide to involving youth on boards they originally wrote for BoardSource in the late 1990s. Its a real pleasure to work with Karen Young on this, as her guidance and our conversations have helped shape and drive my work in new directions over the years. I do have to admit though that whenever I work on their materials I find myself challenged to stay focused on the topics at hand: my brain spins in so many directions whenever I think about engaging youth in decision-making. There are so many nuances and subtlties that I know Youth On Board understands as an organization, but that I think youth-serving organizations don’t understand in general. Those are the issues I want to address, that I regularly blog about, that need curricula and guides and websites dedicated to it. If I could find the funding or the interested organization that is surely the route I’d go.
I will unpack all this more in later posts, as I tend to see each of these activities as a potential rabbit hole; note my treatment of the Summer of Service section, which was so nice it had to be its own post. However, this is meant to catch you up on where I’ve been and where I’m going – look for more soon.