What does it mean when youth voice programs send young people into situations where we know there are hostile adults or complex problems that need preparations that young people don’t have?
Recently a close friend told me about a situation where her brother had the opportunity to speak in front of the city council about homeless and foster youth, which he had experienced. Rather than his program spending any time preparing him to speak strategically about his experience they let him go and talk. You know, they patted him on the back when he went up and said, “Good job!” when he was done – but honestly, he flew off the handle. Scrambling around his emotional landscape this young advocate poured his life’s experience on the floor. For some reason the program that brought him trusted that to be enough for him to have a positive experience, and they trusted the city council enough to make sense of his testimony and let it inform their decision-making.
I would wager that the city council was dismissive of him, at best. Its relatively easy to simply listen to youth voice, and then congratulate ourselves for that effort. Rather we need mechanisms in place that ensure the engagement of adults and youth in response to those voices. That’s what I try to illustrate in my Cycle of Meaningful Student Involvement – I just don’t know if I succeed.
Oftentimes I fall back on the metaphor of the 16-year-old and the keys to the car: We don’t just give a youth who wants to drive the keys and allow them to barrel down the Interstate at 75 miles an hour, and we shouldn’t do that with youth voice, either. Unfortunately I’m afraid that is also an excuse to simply dismiss youth involvement as needing too much work, but hey…
Let’s stop handing out just enough rope for young people to become sacrifices on the alter of youth voice. We have an obligation to do more than that.