“Critical reflection on practice is a requirement of the relationship between theory and practice. Otherwise theory becomes simply “blah, blah, blah,” and practice, pure activism.” – Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom
In completing my bachelor’s degree in youth studies and critical pedagogy at The Evergreen State College I wrote a 190 page critical reflection on my then 9 years experience in the fields of youth development and community organizing. I called that document Reclaiming My Youth. After spending several years lamenting the continued decimation of the roles of youth across the U.S. and studying writing by Henry Giroux, Mike Males, and other authors, I decided that there is at least an equally important challenge: reclaiming the futures of youth. After dozens of years of neoliberalism decimating public services for young people as public schools are sold and youth programs are privatized and parenting books and fee-for-service religious services and other ways of selling off the good of children and youth, we – young people and their adult allies – must stand up and reclaim the future of youth.
How to reclaim the future of youth: Engage the distinct ideas, opinions, attitudes, knowledge, and actions of young people throughout our society. A crisis of disconnection has led to this loss, as youth are disconnected in our communities, youth are disconnected from our public good, and youth are disconnected from their own futures. Youth are disconnected in our communities: at home, in school, during youth programs, across our neighborhoods, across our state and throughout our shared history. There is no decision-making for the public good, young people are not routinely engaged in creating positive effects on the whole community, and they are routinely forced to participate in poor community activities.
Youth are not being engaged in creating their future because of the perspectives of adults, the bias against youth, structures that disconnect them, and because young people themselves have internalized the messages broadcast to them.
The reason why the future of youth must be reclaimed is because of Hope. Our nation’s untold history of youth demonstrates that there are alternative roles of youth throughout society, and because they possess the energy, wisdom and strength adults need to successfully cocreate democratic societies that engage everyone as equal partners. The early common history of the nation, 1960s and 70s youth empowerment activities, 1980s and 90s community building orgs and 1990s and 00s youth voice programs are the greatest indicators we have of those new roles existing.
There are new opportunities being created throughout society as new relationships, programs, positions and other avenues are being opened for young people throughout communities, actually creating “wrap-around” community engagement opportunties. As important in the current climate, powerful outcomes are being proven through research and evaluation that actually demostrate the meaning and depth of young people today.
I have a plan for the future of youth I want to write more about:
Point 1 – Promote community-wide accountability for the problems that affect the whole community
Point 2 – Engage every young person in every community as a powerful and purposeful partner
Point 3 – Encourage and educate every adult in every community about the potential of youth voice
Point 4 – Create safe and supportive opportunities for youth voice throughout every community in Washington State
Point 5 – Infuse youth voice throughout the structures that affect every young person everyday
Our only hope is to reclaim the future of youth. Once I saw Rachel Jackson, an organizer with Books Not Bars, speak at a rally in Oakland where she 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.”
Our only hope is the future of youth. Let’s get to work. PS – You can see the original powerpoint from the speech I gave on this in November 2007 here.
“The futures we inherit are not of our own making, but the futures we create for generations of young people who follow us arise out of our ability to imagine a better world, recognize our responsibility to others, and define the success of a society to the degree that it can address the needs of coming generations to live in a world in which the obligations of a global democracy and individual responsibility mutually inform each other.” – Henry Giroux, “Translating the Future and the Promise of Democracy“
However, buried inside this rosy picture is an inherent tension that isn’t often acknowledged. In my experience many conversations about youth involvement in government begin with one of two assumptions:
Youth are under-informed about government and could learn more by becoming involved, and;
Youth are fully informed and can contribute equally to adults.
The tension therein is that neither is assumptions is wholly true or false. I’ll explore that a little in the near future. Have a great day, and write back – I’d love to hear what you think.
With the excitement of the election of Barack Obama last Tuesday its can be difficult to see through the dilemmas facing us. In reality there is a gap between our best wishes and the truth behind past rhetoric and reality. For the past few years I’ve had the privelage of serving on the National Youth Rights Association’s Advisory Board along with Mike Males. A sociologist, Males has written several books about society’s betrayal of youth, including the ways that media, teachers, and parents force their negative perceptions of young people onto society at large. His website is the most powerful tool many adult allies of youth don’t even know about.
Following is a post Mike shared with me, that I want to forward to you. Let’s carefully consider the analysis he presents, and prepare ourselves for the work ahead.
My analysis of 51 exit polls and each state’s vote show that the 25 million voters under age 30 elected Obama. Had only voters ages 18-29 been allowed to vote, Obama would have won with a landslide 66% of the popular vote and carried 41 states (including Kansas, Nebraska, Mississippi, Texas, and Kentucky) with 478 electoral votes if only 18-29 had been allowed to vote,, versus 57 for McCain (two states would have been tossups).
In contrast, had only voters over 30 been allowed to vote, the election would have been virtually tied. Obama would have barely won, if at all, carrying 23 states with 271 electoral votes. He would have lost Florida, Indiana, North Carolina, and Iowa and been deadlocked in Virginia and Ohio, probably throwing the election to the courts.
In many key states, Millennial support for Obama was staggering: 76% in California and New York; 74% in North Carolina; 71% in Illinois and New Mexico; 65% in Pennsylvania; 63% in Indiana; 61% in Florida, Ohio, Iowa, and Montana; 60% in Virginia; 59% in Missouri; 56% in Mississippi; 54% even in Texas. The 25 million Millennial voters’ thundering enthusiasm for Obama overruled their more ambivalent parents and grandparents, whose 45-and-older age group voted by slight margins for McCain.
How will Obama treat young people? It’s too early to tell, but initial indications are not encouraging. Obama’s candidate for the powerful job of chief of staff is Rahm Emmanuel (not yet accepted), the Illinois congressman and chair of the congressional campaign committee, known to many of you as a vehement opponent of youth rights, including cynical advocacy for curfews, zero-tolerance policies, and vilifications of youth as a political tactic to promote Democrats to conservative voters in the same fashion as the Clinton presidency (which he also served ) did.
To my knowledge, Obama’s advocacy for change has included virtually nothing on youth issues or social policies affecting youth (including lowering the voting ages) other than a broad platitudes on education equality and poverty along with a few fairly ignorant comments on crime, television viewing, and keeping the drinking age at 21. Clearly, an Obama presidency’s potential for progressive youth policies cannot be taken for granted.
We have to stay diligent on the road ahead, and not allow adultism and neoliberalism to be lost in the warm wishes we have for the next Administration.
This is the sixth of six posts today celebrating the election of Barack Obama as the next President of the United States. Congratulations to everyone out there who worked for Obama’s election and had a role in this vote for change. I’ll share my reflections at the end of this post.
Throughout the course of this election cycle the youth vote has been courted heavily. Now, “youth vote” is cliche and will become passe as young peoples’ emerging power as a voting bloc becomes more apparent; they, too, will be carved into subcultures and demographic groups and their age bracket will likely become irrelevant – just like in marketing and consumerism! In the meantime, I want to address the role youth have played in the election of Barack Obama.
In his election night speech Barack specifically acknowledged the young soldiers in Iraw and Afganistan, and young people who voted for the first time. He made a promise “every young American: If you commit to serving your community or our country, we will make sure you can afford a college education,” and he said we must “provide more ladders to success for young men who fall into lives of crime and despair.” Barack acknowledged there are a lot of students to teach in schools, and said he “will not settle for an America where some kids don’t have that chance.”
He also acknowledged his own daughters, Melia and Sasha, naming his pride in them.
I have done this analysis of Presidential acceptance speeches for three election cycles, and was never surpised that youth were never called out more than once or twice, even by Bill Clinton. Barack is naming his constituency, and I want to congratulate him for that. Barack does embody change I can believe in.
I am a Canadian citizen who has lived in the U.S. for the majority of his life; my green card lets me work and study here, and for that I’m grateful. It has been easy to be pleasantly detached from the electoral process, and if not totally turned off then mostly cynical. These last two years, and particularly this last six months, have been difficult to be either detached or cynical. After growing up with many African American heros in my own life and from history, and while spending much of my life wrestling with issues of race and white privelage, I walked cautiously into this election. That caution melted away today, and this is one way I’m celebrating. Another way will come in the morning when my daughter and I do a happy dance in honor of Barack’s election. Thanks for reading, and let’s keep this movement moving! Yes we can!
This is the forth of six posts today in honor of the election of Barack Obama as the next President of the United States.
As young people and their adult allies continue to expand and enliven the movement to integrate Youth Voice throughout society there are patterns and trends emerging. I began analyzing this development in 2001, when I worked with a group of friends and allies from across the US to develop The Freechild Project. Today our databases are widely acknowledged for their breadth and depth. I want to lay out three predictions for the future of Youth Voice, based on trends I’m identifying in current activities across the country and around the world.
Trend Two: Youth are progressive. The fractious and mostly arbitrary differentiation between Republicans and Democrats is divisive and derisive. However, there is a true and substantive difference between liberal and conservative thinking. Progressiveness is different – and the same – as both. To be progressive means to be committed to movement, either to the right or the left. In this way, and by way of generalization, I believe young people are largely progressive, as the inherent nature of life between the ages of birth and twenty-five (or older) is that of change. That makes their politics, their culture, their actions, their knowledge, their ideas and more progressive.
Trend Three: Youth can find equity in our society. Equity and equality are two different things, and I believe it is irresponsible to advocate for youth equality throughout society. However, equity is about fostering and engendering fairness and justice by deliberately making concessions, acknowledging mutual benefits, and creating partnerships that are sustainable and effective. Any adult who considers themselves an advocate and/or ally to young people has an ethical imperative to do nothing less.
These are patterns I’ve found – how about you? What do you see as the emerging, the next big thing?
This is the third of twelve posts today honoring the election of Barack Obama as the next President of the United States.
In the history of the U.S. There comes a time in the history of every major social movement, including feminism, African American civil rights, and gay rights, when the architects and leaders of these important movements had to identify the exact ills that stopped them from moving forward towards their goals of liberation, empowerment, integration and equality. I believe the youth movement is rapidly coming towards this juncture.
Let’s begin by naming the foremost barrier to youth rights around the world today. Rather than blame ignorance or denial, I believe its vital to identify fear as the single greatest barrier affecting youth today. This is the fear of the unknown, the fear of the different, the fear of “the Other” that so many minority groups find themselves facing from their oppressors. When targeted at young people scientists and sociologists have labeled this as ephebiphobia, which I’ve written about before. This fear has more than manifested itself in recent times, which I became more sensitive to in 2003 after reading an article from the Christian Science Monitor quoting James Carville talking about George Bush’s legislative tax schemes:
“This is not class warfare, this is generational warfare. This administration and old wealthy people have declared war on young people. That is the real war that is going on here. And that is the war we’ve got to talk about.”
Along with Henry Giroux’s hard-hitting analyses in his early 2000s books, Carville’s words were a door-opening for my awareness, calling me to pay attention to the differing realities of youth today, versus the realities I’d faced as a young person. The power of youth today extends much deeper, much more sophisticatedly than young people in the 1980s and 1990s, when I was a teenager. Since then youth have actualized their power in the form of economic power, technological savviness, and cultural influence that has never been witnessed before.
Perhaps these elements individually wouldn’t have constituted the threat that many adults percieve. However, I think this election cycle has given many entrenched adultists a more urgent reason to be fearful: Young people have shown their true power by bringing together the wieght and strength of their might, tying together their individual and collective economic, technologic, and cultural abilities with political will. By doing that young people have undisputably, clearly and forevermore demonstrated that not only do youth have the ability, but they have the fortitude to see through their intention, ideas, knowledge and actions to create change. In other words, Youth Voice has clearly shown itself to be a force to be reconded with.
That should give any young person hope, and if you are scared of youth, now you have a clear reason why. Let’s work together to change those opinions, hearts and minds – because we can.
This is the second of twelve posts today in honor of the election of Barack Obama as the next President of the United States of America.
One of the privileges of my work is that over the last 10 years I have been in this movement I have identified, studied, witnessed and promoted a transformation in the international movement promoting Youth Voice. Almost 200 years of youth voice have permeated American history.
The Earliest Years
The first youth voice in the Americas existed among the historical nations already here before Europeans arrived. These American Indian nations were often directed by young people working with adults.
As a distinct phenomenon, I have identified Youth Voice first emerging as a distinct movement in the 1830s. During that decade, young women called the Lowell Mills Girls worked in textile factories. In 1834 and 1836, they led protests to get better wages, and identified the source of their problem as discrimination against the young.
During the Civil War, 12 and 13-year-old young men fought to preserve the American union on the lines against the rebellious South.
In the 1890s, newsboys across the Eastern U.S. went on strike against William Randolph Hearst, effectively defeating one of the largest economic titans of their day. At the turn of the century, young people left the mines, factories and plants they worked in to march against child labor. More than 10,000 joined Mother Jones in a march from Philadelphia to Washington, DC.
After receding throughout the next 30 years, in the mid-1930s Youth Voice resurfaced in the form of the Declaration of the Rights of American Youth, which was delivered directly on the floor of the U.S. Congress by the American Youth Congress. The AYC was suppressed in the 1940s, and white youth apparently stopped protesting for almost 15 years afterwards.
It was in the 1961 Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society that white youth came back en masse. This stepping out effectively led to the youth revolution of the 1960s and early 70s, birthing many, many radical attempts to thrust young people into the mainstream political of American society. The 1965 case of Tinker vs. Des Moinesshowed a pair of young people fighting against adultocracy and attempts to limit their voices. A lot of that energy came to fruition with the passage of the 26th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1971. And then the 1980s happened.
In the late 1970s Youth Voice moved began to go viral, seeping into the mainstream culture and “poisoning the Kool Aid” with its idealism, passion and enthusiasm. This became apparent in two once-dicotomous cultural backgrounds: Hip hop, embracing rap, DJing, graffiti writing, and breakdancing and infusing them with vigor and fervor; and so-called “Yuppies“, defined as “young upwardly-mobile professionals” whose self-reliance and determination to be financially secure individualists secured their upper-middle class status to this day. I believe those two cultural backgrounds are still determining American social values today, as I have lived through their maturation into mainstream memes that defy the boundaries of race or class.
The determination of 1970s radical youth and 1980s self-serving youth was not lost into the air. In the 1990s their leadership led to the development of a variety of Youth Voice programs and initiatives across the U.S. and around the world. National nonprofits, foundations, and other organizations began beating the drums for youth involvement, and community-based organizations rose to the task and led the way, illustrating diverse, new ways to engage young people throughout society.
In 2004, School Girls Unite led a campaign to start the International Day of the Girl. Working hand-in-hand with adults as allies, this organization achieved lasting recognition for youth voice.
With the emergence of new technologies that are quickly adopted by young people the new millineum has brought a celebration of Youth Voice that has never been seen. Organizations such as Freechild, YouthNoise and TakingITGlobal came out quickly as national and international networking hubs focused on connecting divergent young people and moving forward. This has led me to call for youth integration and intergenerational equity at every corner, as we must continue to live up to the challenge of Youth Voice.
In that way we can live up to the hope, the expectation and the courage young people embody. Let’s build society we want our young people to grow up in.
This is the first of twelve posts I’m putting up today to celebrate the election of Barack Obama as the next President of the United States. This is a historic time and we should all celebrate – and recommit ourselves to being the change we wish to see in the world.
Let’s start by addressing politics: In this sense I am not discussing party politics and the artificial discrimination between Democrats and Republicans or the true distinctions between liberals and conservatives. Rather, I am looking at politics as the social relations that seek, enforce, collect or ensure authority or power throughout society. My analysis of youth is inherently political, as I am almost exclusively concerned with the power relations between young people and adults throughout society.
Labeling someone a “youth” because of their age makes them different
Categorizing a group of people as “youth” because of their age, knowledge, opinions or actions makes them the Other
Routinely isolating groups of people because of their age segregates them and constitutes their relation to power for the rest of their lives
Identifying someone who is immature or inexperienced as a “youth” reinforces powerlessness and dismisses any notion of self-efficacy
Isolating the indiscretions or accidents human beings make throughout our lifelong development as “youthful” diminishes the responsibility all people share
Relegating freshness and vitality as “youthful” as the last definition after each of the others is cynical, to say the least.
This definition needs to be acknowledged for being what it is – a political tool that identifies, influences, isolates and otherwise differentiates between young people and everyone else in society. That type of “otherness” is political, and that is that.
…[I]f our goal is “all community members equally make decisions, take action” can it come from an effort initiated by an adult, like what I’m trying to do? I like the quote from Lilla Watson, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together.” I’m afraid maybe what I’ve organized is trying to “help” youth. Do you have time to share any thoughts?
I had to mull this over all afternoon, and honestly I’m not fully satisfied with my resolution – I think there’s more here. But here’s how I replied:
All adults have a moral and ethical responsibility to engage young people throughout the communities we co-occupy. It is true that we mostly fail to live up to that standard; however, that does not make it okay or right. We live in an adultcentric society that is reliant on the ideas, knowledge, and actions of adults to make the world turn; by deliberately setting about engaging children and youth in equitable and sustainable roles we can begin to rectify the disengagement we so regularly thrust upon them.
In consideration to Lilla’s quote, we must measure our responses in a responsible fashion. When I first read it a long time ago I internalized it, thinking that my inability to bring actual students into the state education agency I worked in was a failure to students and myself. However, I have come to understand that systemic change requires that adult allies assume responsibility for advocacy in the absence of youth themselves. I learned to talk with students directly by traveling around the state and going to schools and having safe and supported conversations with them about school improvement. I then took their words – directly, without my interpretation – back to the agency in their absence. When space was created within the agency for young people I had students I could go directly to, who I knew were informed and engaged in the lives of their schools as well as the language of school improvement. This led to their self-representation being a sophisticated contribution to these opportunities rather than bringing under-informed, under-prepared and frankly, disingenuous student voice into the room.
I say this at the risk of sounding as if I’m trying to rationalize away the selective inclusion of youth; however, I think that there are appropriately varying responses that need to be considered according to particular circumstances. By “selective” I do not mean WHO; I mean HOW. We don’t give 16 year olds the keys to the car and expect them to teach themselves how to drive; we shouldn’t do that with Youth Voice. This is particularly true when we consider the implications of youth involvement: its about efficacy as much as rights. We know that children’s rights and youth rights conversations generally don’t carry a lot of water in organizations and agencies today; however, we also know that school improvement and program efficacy are important throughout our communities. So let’s qualify and quantify youth involvement, if that is what is going to get young people at the table. In order to deliver on that, though, we must be very intentional and deliberate.
It is alsincredibly important to acknowledge that the nature of the quote has to do with the difference between sympathy and empathy. By differentiating ourselves from the young people we serve by dissing our actions we are merely perpetuating the “otherness” of youth. Unfortunately, I am convinced this is the silent messaging of a lot of programs that promote the perception that young people have the program within them. Ironically, this further strengthens the segregation of youth, which in turn enforces the alienation a lot of young people feel from adults, effectively undoing any notion of civic engagement and community building we thought we were encouraging through that approach in the first place. Now, please don’t get me wrong – there is a place for young people to run their own activities. However, I think that is a compromised position, at best, particularly when the work is in context of improving our whole communities and not singularly the lives of children and youth. If we are to address community problems what is a more effective, equitable approach than engaging all members of that community as partners? That includes children, youth and adults.
I guess to sum it up Jackie, at the end of the day I am a proponent of a radical democracy that sees the youngest among us as the logical engines, advocates and allies – just the same as everyone else. Full support, full opportunity and full inclusion are the only outcomes that I will accept; however, I know that the road from here to there is bumpy, unscripted, and sometimes isn’t a road at all. That’s why your work is so important.
I would love to hear anyone else’s response to Jackie’s question or my response.
All of the readers of this blog likely rank as “well-meaning,” in the sense that none of us wish ill in our work with young people. Now, its true that I hold some people in contempt of violating that trust, either consciously or unconsciously. Rather than being as bold as I was last week, I want to step tepidly in the following pool. By doing this I am simply attempting to create a dialog, rather than launch an attack; I regard people practitioners and proponents of child-friendly environments as allies, and nothing less.
Yesterday I introduced the topic of Child-Friendly Environments, these conscientious attempts at creating physical spaces and social places where young people are acknowledged as the full-fledged humans they are, with distinct needs and desires that are valuable in creating positive, healthy, and supportive opportunities for their growth. This work is going on in cities and nations around the world. Today I want to introduce the flip side of that coin.
In my study of this topic I have discovered a continuous undertone that implies that children, particularly the youngest ones, are incapable of rendering their own judgment about their environments. Its this sentiment that drives many parents and childcare providers to develop “cutesy” rooms where child psychologist-approved colors, shapes, sizes, heights and activities create a safe, nurturing space that allows “kids to be kids.” The dilemma of this approach is that inherent in it may render the opinions, ideas, knowledge and actions of children as nil. In this way creating child-friendly environments may deaden Youth Voice.
Its for that reason that I would challenge any well-meaning adult ally to young people to consider creating “child-friendly” environments that move beyond Internet censorship or healthy snacks, whether or not those are valid elements. Instead, I want to encourage all of us – myself included – to adopt a wider-reaching set of principles designed to guide all elements of our societies. The United Nations suggests child-friendly environments:
Reflect and realize the rights of every child;
See and understand the whole child, in a broad context;
Is gender-sensitive and girl-friendly;
Promotes quality learning outcome;
Provides education based on the reality of children’s lives;
Is flexible and responds to diversity;
Acts to ensure inclusion, respect, and equality of opportunity for all children;
Promotes mental and physical health;
Enhances teacher capacity, morale, commitment, and status;
Is family focused, and;
This is a reasonable start. I would emphasize the first element, that of children’s rights, among which the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child includes Youth Voice. Only by taking such an assertive stance can we move past the adultism inherent in much of the development and implementation of child-friendly environments, particularly as I’ve known them in the U.S. and Canada. There is a logical connection between this work and that of today’s youth advocate: let’s create the space to collaborate.