In the early part of this decade I worked for a national nonprofit organization promoting youth involvement. They had whittled youth involvement into a handfull of nutshell-type experiences and wanted us, their on-the-ground promoters, to share those nutshells with the field. You are likely familiar with those nutshells: Youth councils, youth evaluators, youth trainers, youth forums. You probably know about the different ways people promote those ideals, couching them in popular methods such as service learning and participatory action research.
Talking with my new comrade Stephanie Cayot Serriere today I was reminded that buried inside of all these nutshell-type experiences is what Lilia Bartolome refers to as a “method fetish”: we want a particular way to do this work of youth involvement. We want special models or proven methods or replicable practices that we can just pick up and roll with. I have dones this before, and would suggest that my own work has fallen prey to this fetish, too. The dilemma of this approach is the temptation to generalize all youth and to mechanize youth involvement. Somehow we believe that if we just follow somebody else’s lead we’ll be successful, and when we’re not successful we can just blame our inability to respond on them rather than shoulder the burden of responsibility ourselves. The simple fact is that youth involvement must change, meld, transform and be re-invented anew in each community. Rather than relying on models youth workers must learn to be comfortable with the need, and ultimately their responsibility, to respond directly to needs of the young people they work with.
In my thinking the alternative is to begin seeing youth involvement for its nuansces: woven within each of these activities, inside of all of these practices is an emergent set of principles and designs that pulled together form a broader framework for youth involvement. This is what we must explore, together, and what will lead us towards humanizing youth involvement.