Youth Voice is being thrown around these days as something special, unique, and never wrong. The simple fact is that while all children and youth are powerful beyond measure and important beyond words, Youth Voice is nothing that should be romanticized or pedestaled. It should be integrated, normalized, and mainstreamed, but not worshiped or seen as infallible, because that’s simply not true.
Youth Voice is any expression by any young person anywhere about anything, for any purpose. Many well-meaning adults who advocate for Youth Voice are often talking about what is convenient for us as adults.
Convenient Youth Voice happens whenever adults know who is going to speak, what is going to be said, where its going to be shared, when its going to happen, and what the outcomes are going to be. Adults might not have written the script, but what’s going to be said is no surprise to them. This can include the young person speaking to the city council on behalf of a local organization, the youth advisory council, and the youth researcher program. It can also include the traditional youth leaders in your school or program, the young actors from the local theater, or the service learning program at your community center.
Inconvenient Youth Voice is when young people express themselves in ways that aren’t predictable. They share ideas, shout out thoughts, take action, reflect harshly, or critique severely. They write, draw, graffitti, paint, play, sing, protest, research, build, deconstruct, rebuild, examine, and do things that adults don’t know, understand, approve of, or otherwise predict. Inconvenient youth voice can be young people graffitting on lockers at school, texting test answers back and forth, joining gangs, or protesting teacher firings.
The difference between these two approaches depends on location, position, and circumstance. A young person’s race, socio-economic status, gender, sexual orientation, educational attainment, or other identities frequently determines whether or not Youth Voice is heard, engaged, interacted with, approved of, or denied, ignored, or penalized.
Working thousands of young people in hundreds of communities across the US through The Freechild Project has taught me that there is much more Youth Voice happening than adults ever approve of. Inconvenient Youth Voice is all over. Its a matter of whether adults actually want to hear it.
I even wrote a book about it! In March 2013 CommonAction published The Freechild Project Youth-Driven Programming Guide, and you can order it on Amazon.com right now.
What do you think? Where does Youth Voice have a role in your life, convenient or otherwise?