Today I read a great article by a thought leader in New Hampshire’s democratic education community, Peter Berg. Peter does some cool work including coaching for young people themselves, and I really like his blog. Cool guy. His article, “Empowering Youth to Take Charge of Their Health“, got my brain running this afternoon, as his writing often does.
When I think about the ability of young people to access what they want throughout their lives according to their own volition, my red flags come flaring out. They do whenever any talk that is libertarian in nature comes out. The reason why is summed up by what Henry wrote more than a decade ago: “The freedom and human capacities of individuals must be developed to their maximum but individual powers must be linked to democracy in the sense that social betterment must be the necessary consequence of individual flourishing.”
This connectivity between youth empowerment and democracy is absolutely essential. We have to make explicit the reasons why young people should have access and authority in relationship to the social good. Peter asserts this in a subversive sense in his article, and I like that. I think too often youth empowerment practitioners don’t examine that.
Similarly, we don’t examine why and how youth empowerment is important to anyone beyond youth themselves. This was apparent through most of the 2000s research on youth involvement, youth activism, and youth engagement, as many sociologists and educationalists were looking to those activities merely for their benefits on the individual youth who participated. The most important studies done last decade, including work by Michelle Fine, Taj James, Shep Zeldin, and Shawn Ginwright contextualized the changes of the young people participating in youth empowerment activities in relationship to their affect on democracy and social change as a whole. This vital bridge demonstrates the interdependence between young people and communities, empowerment and social transformations.
While these cross-life links were made, others became obvious too, including connections between mental/physical/emotional well-being and academic/recreational/social goals. Increasing young peoples’ abilities to participate in empowering activities was almost definitively shown to be an avenue for improving all peoples’ lifestyles.
However, all of this left me wondering a few questions:
- At what point should children and youth have access to options adults deem as unhealthy and disempowering?
- Should adults withhold the choice by eliminating unhealthy and disempowering options from the lives of young people?
- Should young people be presented with side-by-side choices everywhere, all the time?
- How does the ability of young people to make decisions in any and all areas of their lives relate to their overall empowerment?
- Are there ever times when limiting young peoples’ choices or removing their choices actually empowers them?
- What control does a parent have over their children? What control should they have?
- What responsibilities does a school administrator have for their students? What control should they have?
- Is there a point where limiting or increasing the abilities of young people to access unhealthy and/or disempowering things actually becomes empowering?
When we begin to unpeel the different layers of the onion, more questions arise.
I think the larger question pertains to how adults view young people. As responsible adults or parents or teachers or public health workers or healthcare professionals, etc., treat them as:
- Simple passive recipients of food/activities/schools/family/culture/society who indiscretionably ingest whatever is served to them?
- Advanced active buyers of food/activities/schools/family/culture/society who discern choices with intention and awareness?
- Potential creators within the food/activities/schools/family/culture/society cycle who could fashion/distribute/barter/co-create the things they partake in daily right now?
- Future inheritors of a democratic society actively fueled by active citizen awareness-building and mobilization?
In any of these roles, what is the relationship young people have to the manufacturers, sellers, purchasers, and consumers of the food/activities/schools/family/culture/society we all co-occupy?