People get excited watching the news. Like playing a fiddle, newscasters portray very depressing, very upsetting and slightly uplifting events as if they were regular, everyday events. Youth activism has fallen prey to this.
Using young activists as exceptional fodder to capture the attention of viewers and readers, sources including social media, newspapers, websites and television have taken comfort in knowing whenever they show a certain 16-year-old activist they’ll upset particular viewers into calling, emailing or responding somehow.
These same sources quickly post the latest protests, highlighting the picket signs and skin colors of the youth protesters. They are pulling on heartstrings of supporters, and pushing the buttons of haters.
Exciting youth activists aren’t to blame for this either. This isn’t a call to “get those kids off the stage.” Instead, I want to challenge the media to stop sensationalizing and tokenizing youth activism. This doesn’t mean they should normalize it, but it also means that they should quit with the alienation and separation of youth activists in the media. Infantilizing youth activists has to quit, too; when a large school district recently gave youth one day off yearly for civic engagement, a lot of media wrangled their hands at overwhelming the kids. Apparent indifference is no answer either, as was the media’s response to 20 years of activism before today.
Let’s move away from all the bogus responses to youth activism, and instead increase peaceful, kind and accepting responses that will benefit us all.
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.
From 2009 to 2013, Adam consulted the American Institutes for Research (AIR) Technical Assistance Program focused on youth involvement in systems of care. Supported by SAMSHA, this project was designed by AIR to provide nationwide support for youth in foster care as they became systems advocates for transforming, sustaining and advocating change in their lives and the lives of those who came after them.
Adam consulted in many roles for AIR, including providing expert guidance for staff and grantees across the country, and co-writing a national guidance manual. He also keynoted several national gatherings, trained local grantees, and assisted in the evaluation and reporting of activities.
“Adam truly cares about people; nowhere is this more evident than in his passion for creating inclusive communities with a space for everyone. His passion for youth engagement is contagious and I appreciate his ability to challenge us be our better selves so that we can live in better communities that support and honor us all.”—Reyhan Reid, Program Coordinator, American Institutes for Research