Recently, I wrote an entry on this blog called “The Gradual Release of Authority” in response to a series of conversations I’ve been having across the country. This issue continually comes up with adults who are grappling with moving young people from being passive recipients of adult-driven programming, whether in schools, nonprofits, government agencies or other places, towards becoming active partners throughout the world they are part of. Well, apparently writing that article wasn’t enough for me, and I had to create a video, too.
When considering youth as allies to educators, adults may be tempted to act as translators for youth voice. Concerned that youth are not capable of speaking “adult-ese”, well-meaning program staff, nonprofit administrators, researchers, government staff, youth advocates and teachers reword the ideas of youth, interpret them, or otherwise differentiate between what youth actually said and what adults believe they meant. Adults do this because we do not believe that the raw data represented by youth voice has actual value in the space of government policymaking, program teaching, organizational leadership, or community improvement. We do that because we do not trust youth at face value; without extracting what we think youth are actually saying, without reframing it into concepts, ideas, or beliefs we share, we think youth voice is foreign, alien, or immature and juvenile.
The challenge here is not that youth do not have valuable things to add to the conversation, but that adults do not have the ability to solicit the perspectives, experiences, knowledge and wisdom of youth without filtering, analyzing, or otherwise destabilizing their expressions. We have to accept that responsibility and build our capacity to to do this important work. We have to stop bastardizing youth voice.
I do not use that word lightly. To bastardize youth voice, adults corrupt how youth share their voices, however it is expressed. Sometimes inadvertently, sometimes intentionally, adults debase youth by adding new elements, their own ideas, moving their own agendas and forcing their own beliefs through the actions, ideas, experiences, and wisdom of students. Bastardizing youth voice this way is not necessary, appropriate, or relevant to creating youth/adult partnerships.
All adults throughout the education system need to learn that all young people of all ages have the capacity and the ability to speak for themselves, albeit to different extents. Often this capacity may be undermined by the disbelief of otherwise good-hearted adults who honestly believe they know what youth think. Youth/adult partnerships creates appropriate platforms for youth experience, ideas and knowledge of the world without filtering those words through adult lenses. Youth can learn about the world they live in, the topics they should learn, the methods being tested on them, the roles of adults and students, and much more.
Questions to Ask
How do you interpret youth voice right now?
Does the idea of adults bastardizing youth voice offend you? Why or why not?
Where can you practice simply listening to youth voice today, without interpreting or bastardizing it?
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.
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.
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.
When adults are talking rude to young people, they show patronizing superiority. Many parents, youth workers, teachers, and others are not aware of how rude they are towards children and youth.
Most adults would be shocked if young people were as rude towards them as they are towards young people. When we’re confronted by a brave youth, we usually deny it (“that’s not what I meant”, or “you’re being too sensitive”).
However, even well-meaning adults can say things to youth with good intentions that come across as rude. Because of their past experiences, social conditioning, peer influence, and other reasons, most youth are really hesitant to share their real feelings with adults. Because of that, most parents, teachers, youth workers, and other adults who work with youth may never know how they talk towards youth.
Here are eight rude things adults often say to youth. Whenever you say them, its going to sound rude.
8 Rude Things Adults Say to Young People
The risk of writing a list like this is that there are almost always exceptions depending on the context. With young people, as with all people, it’s often not what is said, but how you say it–the tone of the message. A simple phase like, “What’s up” can come across as rude if truly someone feels that they are superior to the other person.
Whatever the case, just beware that if you’re working with young people, you probably sound rude today.
1. “I’m not a creative youth like Lavonia here is, so she should do that!”
I really doubt that Lavonia loves slogging through mundane details any more than you do, but she has to – as a youth council member or youth staff, it’s her job and not yours, so she does it. She takes pride in what she does too, and does it well. So don’t call her out in front of other adults and youth as a “detail” youth, as if that’s her job as a youth, and then congratulate yourself for being an adult who knows the “big picture”. A similar condensing bit of “praise” for youth is something like, “Hey, let me introduce you to Juan – he’s the one who really runs things around here, not me (snicker, wink).” No, he doesn’t really. You’re an adult, and you run things. Juan is just doing his job as a youth council member, stuff he’s supposed to do. Don’t pretend otherwise. It may not be a big deal to you, but it must be a big deal to the youth in your program or they would not have brought it up. Adults need to take the time to listen to youth and find out why they are concerned. Then, adults can take the opportunity to coach young people to help them find a solution.
2. “Don’t worry about it,” or “It’s no big deal.”
It may not be a big deal to you, but it must be a big deal to the youth in your program or they would not have brought it up. Adults need to take the time to listen to youth and find out why they are concerned. Then, adults can take the opportunity to coach young people to help them find a solution.
3. “It’s for your own good.”
That makes adults the only people who can decide what is good for young people? Children and youth should be expected to have a serious, meaningful role in determining their “own good”.
4. “Well, that sounds good in theory, but in the real world….”
So what world are you saying the young people your are talking to are from? You might want to take some time to hear young peoples’ “theory” out and check your assumptions at the door – the children and youth around you might be more real than you.
5. “We’ll look into that,” “I’ll think about that,” or “You’ll have to work that out on your own.”
Noncommittal answers dismiss youth and imply they aren’t worth the time, honesty, and effort of adults. Also, again, you’re missing a great opportunity to coach. Ultimately, that’s your job – to coach and guide the young people around you.
6. “I know you’re feeling ______ right now, but you really shouldn’t because…”
Never assume you know what young people are feeling or tell them how they should be feeling. Ask them how they feel, and acknowledge it by responding with empathy.
7. “You’ll understand when you’re older,” or “When I was your age…”
Well, maybe young people do understand you right now, and just don’t agree with you. Try finding out why and you might learn something. Taking this approach creates a line of separation between young people and adults and invalidates what children and youth are experiencing right now.
8. “Kid” or “Homie” or “Sweetie” or “Dude”
Many young people prefer to be called by their first names – but its always a good practice to ask individual people what they’d like to be called.
“I brought you into this world, and I can also take you out!”
”You’re so smart for fifteen!”
“When are you going to grow up?”
“Don’t touch that, you’ll break it!”
“As long as you are in my house, you’ll do it!”
“You’re being childish.”
“You’re so stupid (or clumsy, inconsiderate, etc.)!”
“Go to your room!”
“Don’t ever yell at your mother like that!” (yelling)
“She doesn’t understand anything.” (about a baby)
“You are too old for that!”
“You’re not old enough!”
“Oh, it’s only puppy love.”
“If you don’t stop crying I’ll give you something to cry about.”
“What do you know? You haven’t experienced anything!”
“It’s just a stage. You’ll outgrow it.”
“Go to your room!”
“Act your age.”
“Children should be seen and not heard.”
“What do you know, you’re just a kid!”
“Do as I say, not as I do.”
“You’ll understand it someday, just you wait.”
“It’s my house and you’ll follow my rules!”
“You’re just a kid,”
“These kids are a form of birth control!”
“You’re cruisin’ for a bruisin!’”
“Did you just do what I saw you do?”
“Because I said so.”
“Someday I hope you have a kid and she’s just like you.”
“Don’t get smart with me.”
“You’ll do it and you’ll like it.”
Ground Rules to Stop Rude Adult Talk
One way to set the stage for clear and comfortable communication between young people and adults is to set ground rules when working together. Here is an example of some commonly used ground rules:
Speak for yourself—No put-downs Take responsibility for your words, your action, and your learning
Expect unfinished business—Listen to others and to what you are saying, too
Have fun—You have the right to pass at any time in group discussions or activities
Create Space—Its important to create environments where young people and adults feel comfortable asking questions and being themselves.
Stop Hesitating—Make sure everyone knows they can stop conversation and ask questions at any point. Make it a norm to inject in the conversation when its appropriate.
Be Diverse—Celebrate the variety between youth and adults, and among youth, and among adults. AND try to always talk in ways that are understood by everyone in the group.
Body Language—Be aware of body language and facial expressions. If you are speaking, pay attention to how other people are reacting and ask questions, if you need to.
Be Comfortable—Use language you are comfortable with. Don’t use jargon or slang just to fit in. Just be sure you’re sensitive to others in the group, no matter what their age.
Questions to Ask Yourself—How about you? What does rude speech sound like to you? Do you speak in a way that everyone can understand what you’re saying – young people? adults? people who speak English as a second language? others? Are you aware of the views and perspectives of the young people and adults in the room? Do you talk with others respectfully? Do you listen carefully to what they have to say? If somebody is speaking with words or in a way that is confusing to me, what should I do? When is it okay to use slang or jargon?
Researching for a presentation in 2013, I identified fewer than 40 youth councils connected with city governments across Washington State. This state has over 280 municipal governments. There were also fewer than 10 counties that had youth councils, and only one state agency reported a youth council, in addition to the Washington Legislative Youth Advisory Council.
Here is the presentation I made:
Youth are everywhere! According to the United Nations, young people between the ages of 12 and 21 account for more than 25% of the world’s population today.
In the United States, the Census reported in 2011 there are over 73 million people under 18 in the United States. 10 to 19 year olds make up more than 14% of the US population.
At that same point, the Census reported that young people ages 10 to 19 make up 13% of Washington’s population.
There are more than 281 municipalities in Washington State, including incorporated towns and cities. Research conducted by the Washington State Legislative Youth Advisory Council has found that only 35 of those municipalities have Youth Councils.
Youth Councils have vast differences, and many different possibilities. Some of the differences depend on where they are located, who is on the Councils, and what the local municipality needs from them.
However, the missions of many Youth Councils aren’t generally informed by research-driven best practices, national trends or patterns, or other factually-based decisions. Instead, they are determined by well-intentioned adults who want to do the right thing, but are limited by their own imaginations, by their city or town leadership’s vision, or the way that everyday people see young people.
However, and luckily, we’re not limited to negative or challenging perceptions of youth. As one community organizer said, “Our youth are not failing the system; the system is failing our youth. Ironically, the very youth who are being treated the worst are the young people who are going to lead us out of this nightmare.” The way they’re going to do this? Youth Councils.
A youth council is a formal or informal body of young people that is driven by advocacy and decision-making. They address the absence of youth involvement in decision-making for any age of young people, with kids as young as 7 and young adults as old as 24 being involved in Youth Councils across Washington State.
There many different kinds of youth councils, including those sponsored by local governments, including towns, cities, and counties; state government agencies and legislatures; local nonprofit and community organizations; and national organizations.
Communities with Youth Councils in Washington
The Washington State Legislative Youth Advisory Council had:
All corners of Washington
All walks of life.
Meet up to four times per year in Olympia.
Hold monthly conference calls to discuss projects and goals.
Hold an annual Action Day to meet with legislators and testify on important youth-related bills.
Advocate for youth-related bills. In 2013, lobbying efforts helped move three bills to be passed into law.
Partner with youth groups and organizations.
Other types of organizations have youth advisory councils. They include:
Ethnic and Cultural Groups
Performing Arts Orgs
And many others
Alfie Kohn once said, “Youth should not only be trained to live in a democracy when they grow up; they should have the chance to live in one today.” Youth Councils allow young people to experience democracy in realtime.
The context for youth councils comes from many places. I find poetry inspiring, and in particular, Langston Hughes’ poem Freedom’s Plow:
Thus the dream becomes not one man’s dream alone,
But a community dream.
Not my dream alone, but our dream.
Not my world alone,
But your world and my world,
Belonging to all the hands who build.
Would you build with young people? Youth councils provide one way to get that done.
Do you want to engage, involve, inspire, motivate, or activate young people? Then order my book, The Freechild Project Youth-Driven Programming Guide!
Packed with useful activities, deep insights, practical tips, and other information and resources your need to move youth voice, youth engagement, youth leadership, and youth empowerment to the FRONT of your work with young people!
The book is meant for people who work with middle school and high school youth. If you work with traditional youth leaders, you’ll learn how to move that work forward. If you work with nontraditional youth leaders, you can learn how to engage them in positive, powerful activities that can change your program or organization.
The Freechild Project Youth-Driven Programming Guide
“The Youth-Driven Programming Guide is a must read for youth workers in all settings. Adam does a tremendous job of getting straight to the point with a clear message in a concise format that even the busiest of youth workers will be able to make time to read. We operate a Parks & Recreation related youth program that provides multiple youth after school program sites, late night events, a series of dances, and a Youth Commission. This guide is the newest required reading for all volunteers and staff within our program.
—Paul Simmons, Parks and Recreation Director, Cheney, Washington
“I work with groups of young people in Preston, Lancashire, England to have a real voice in decision making in our Impact Youth Groups, co-working with young people training to be Youth Workers and my work in schools and justice projects. The book is an excellent informal education tool in planning your work young people, supporting the work you, developed with young people in a simple understanding education tool, creates fun in learning, while young people can be given a real voice with support, in their social education learning and decision making experiences.”
—Terry Mattinson, youth worker, Preston, Lancashire, United Kingdom
Recently, I was called to a meeting where it was requested that we BYOD, Bring Your Own Device. It seemed ridiculous to me at first, as I thought that people who were inclined to bring their own devices already would. But when I got there, we were led through activities that could only be done online with a device. People without a device—a phone, tablet, or laptop—were left out or had to mooch off their neighbor.
There is absolutely no way I’m advocating for this in youth programs, even though I’ve seen it in some. Its ignorant, privileged, and genuinely excessive to assume that young people, no matter what social strata they’re from, have the capability to access technology in the ways adults want them to, whenever they want them to.
However, one of the most effective ways to engage young people is to meet them where they are right now, rather than insist they come to where we want them to be. This happens in one of two primary ways:
Literally—Rather than have programming at your facility, have programming where young people in your community already spend their time. If they spend a lot of their afterschool time at a neighborhood park, hold programs there. If they spend time at other nonprofit programs, hold programs there. Same thing with shopping malls, gyms, even homes.
Figuratively—In activities, attitudes, and culture, rather than insisting young people act like you, behave like you, think like you, and do think you do as an adult, you can meet them where they’re at by using the technology they use, interacting with the culture they absorb, and utilizing the values and attitudes they hold.
Both of these require adults to step out on a limb. They mean that we have to step outside the relative safety of our defined programming spaces, our intentional curriculum, our social class or culturally-accepted practices, or our adult-biased attitudes. In order to do any of that, we have to acknowledge and accept that our way may not be the only way.
More importantly though, this approach shows us that we can work together with young people. That lays a foundation for establishing real partnerships with children and youth, and opens the door to creating substantive, sustainable opportunities for young people to become meaningfully involved throughout the operations of the programs that target them every day.
For youth workers with a preconceived notion about the roles of young people in society, this collection may be challenging. For teachers who think they know the power of students, Ginwright may be shocking. For young people who think they understanding “the movement”, this book may be eye-opening.
Ginwright collects dozens of the best examples of youth-led and youth-driven activism and refines them to their finest points, charging the reader to do more than complain about apathy or revel in cynicism. He leaves us no choice other than getting up to do something. Thanks Shawn – we need that. This book is an incredible read for anyone interested in the movement at any level.