Re-post: Stop Seeing Youth! Start Seeing People

Oh yes, is 2002 all over again! Here’s a re-post of an article I wrote in 2002 for TakingITGlobal’s Panorama zine. I was working for a state education agency at the time, and was feeling particularly repressed after working for a national foundation whose conception of youth involvement, I felt, was particularly adultist. So read on and you’ll see me wrestle; you’ll also learn something about the development of my logic and perspective over the years.

Mahatma Gandhi once said that we must be the change we wish to see in the world. Then I say, from this day forward, I will work for social justice with all people, especially those whose race, religion, heritage, sexual orientation and other characteristics, including age, have held them back. I will advocate for change in straight-forward and obvious ways, and I will ally myself with others who do the same.
In his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Power at its best is love implementing the demans of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.” Age-based programs, age-oriented social change efforts, and age-motivated media perpetuate alienation, segregation, and injustice against younger people throughout society, and they are the enemy of love. We must correct these things now.

Soon, The Freechild Project website (www.freechild.org) will feature the new slogan “STOP SEEING YOUTH: Start Seeing People.” Our resources will be refocused towards inclusion and empowerment for ALL people, and towards the elimination of age-based segregation. In the book Strength of Love Dr. King also wrote, “We are called to be people of conviction, not conformity; of moral nobility, not social respectability. We are commanded to live differently and according to a higher loyalty.” Live different, and have a higher loyalty. Stop seeing youth, and start seeing people. What would a world without youth look like? Some people will shudder when they read that line. I don’t. I look forward to that day. When there are no more youth, when there is no more age-based segregation, our communities will change. We will begin to see the need for participation by all people, regardless of age.

While much of our world is currently steeped in ageism and alienation, some people have began to envision change. When many groups who advocate for “youth rights” concentrate on the rewards of age-based elimination, I must differ. I think that the first thing that all people need to experience is authentic responsibility and sincere duty- especially people who haven’t experienced those things before. What you have responsibility for and what you feel dutiful towards are up to you. But we can’t expect the sweetness of reward until we’ve given the fruits of our labour.

When younger people volunteer in their communities, they work to eradicate the anti-community sentiment that pervades our larger society. Younger people can be mentors, can be teachers, and can even be elders in the community- as long as they treat themselves that way, and allow others to treat them as such.

The transformation of “youth” to people can- and will- take time. That is the nature of long-lasting, sustainable social change. It is a journey we must take, one foot in front of the other. Enjoy our journey.Across the world there are new youth programs starting up every day. There are youth tutoring programs, youth sports programs, youth involvement programs, youth activism programs, and so many more. All these programs, all just for youth.

It seems that for every youth program created, there is a “youth” problem cited: youth pregnancy, youth violence, youth illiteracy, and youth delinquency. All these problems, all just for youth.

What’s wrong with this picture? In our 21st century global culture, we’re still focusing on division and separation in an attempt to address our problems. However, instead of building community, increasing activism and engagement, and meeting the challenges of our new century, we are actually only making them worse.

By developing “youth-only” programming, we are reinforcing the dominate social opinions about youth: that youth are purposeless; that youth are inherently “bad” and need special treatment; and that youth are strange, alien beings that should continue to be segregated from mainstream society.

This is why I propose that all young people around the world start demanding that society stops seeing youth as different, and starts seeing everyone as people. 

By doing this, our community organizations will actually serve communities, not special agendas; governments will actually work for everyone, not just the privileged; and you and I can work with each other, because we are people all the same. There are many facets to this discussion, and the rest of this article will explore them.

This most important reason why society should stop addressing younger people as “youth”: we are tearing out communities apart. Reasoning for this statement comes from Alfie Kohn, an education theorist. He said, “Children, after all, are not just adults-in-the-making. They are people whose current needs and rights and experiences must be taken seriously.” Without the inherently altruistic, optimistic, and energetic input and action of younger people, our societies cannot and will not change. 

I personally have had many experiences when people have assumed that I am a “youth,” and have treated me poorly because of it. When they found out that I am an adult, or work fulltime they automatically treated me with more respect. If we continue to seperate younger people from adults in our society, we will continue to treat each other differently. (I’d bet your opinion about me changed when you read I am an adult.)

If the adults and younger people working for change across the globe are serious about changing society, we must level out the playing field for all people. Folk singer Raffi once wrote, “Children are the most reasonable people I know. Their days are spent trying to make sense of the world, searching for meaning, figuring things out. Their perception is magical, and their questions are intelligent quests for understanding.”

This leads into my second point: youth programs are not good. I don’t say this flippantly, or without cause. I’ve been working in youth programs and as a trainer for fourteen years, since I was 14, and I’ve seen hundreds of youth programs around the US and Canada. Today I firmly believe that “youth work” is flawed from the get-go, and that it isn’t sufficient for our efforts to bring peace and justice to the world.

The people who usually participate at the “highest levels” in youth programs are usually upper- or middle-class, highly privileged, and not representative of their age-group peers. We must quit pretending that these efforts are enough. Programs that do focus on other youth are usually charity operations, dealing only with “at-risk” young people. These efforts offer a double-edged sword to the youth they “serve”: first they isolate youth from the rest of society, and second they segregate people according to race, religion, and economic status. Without the thorough integration of all people throughout all levels of social change, the situation will not change. All people, especially minorities, people of color, low-income people, and others must be included at the table.

Which brings me to the third reason why society must stop seeing youth as different from other people: “youth” doesn’t matter. Being young doesn’t make you better or worse than anyone else. Being young doesn’t make you smarter, faster, or despite what the media says, prettier. Your age is, for the most part, irrelevant to the rest of society. Businesses see young people as just another demographic. Many major religions have rites-of-passage before “youth” kicks in. And most popular schools treat “youth” the same as children all the way through college. 

So what’s the difference? There are issues that revolve around voting, drinking, sex, and self-determination, but if society stops seeing youth and starts seeing people, I think that as a society we would quickly determine that those ‘rights’ should be based on ability, not age. 

There are issues around child labor, but how many 15-year-olds in North America and Europe work today? A lot, according to the news. While child labor is a serious issue in many third world countries, the world would see the situation a lot differently if it would stop singling those countries out simply because of the age of the workers. What conditions exist that kids must work in the first place? Seeing youth as people would force us to look at the REAL issues at hand. 

Which answers the question of child soldiers, as well. Why do “those” countries employ children as soldiers? Because they can’t find adults? Or because a major country backed a civil war that terrorized the country and forced peasants in the country to hide in the city, therefore rendering them inaccessible to the military? 

Why does the role of “youth” exist around the world today? Many would argue that it is a psychological role; I would elaborate and call it a psycho-social development. Before our nations deemed it nessesary to have a role for “youth,” younger people were seen as people. In the 1960s Robert Kennedy said, “The answer is to rely on youth- not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease.” That sums up a former societal opinion about youth. Now its come to this, and that’s why we must change.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

One thought on “Re-post: Stop Seeing Youth! Start Seeing People

  1. Here’s my comment. I started reading “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” to my son this evening. In the preface of this particular bound presentation of Mark Twain’s books there is the suggestion that although the books were written for ‘youth’ per se. There is the dangling of the carrot to invite the aged adult back to a more playful time of their own youth. I suppose this is a bit of an awareness for me. I need to be reminded to play and remember my days of youth lest I forgot the experiences that have shaped and continue to shape me into the person that I am today.

    If I unique myself because I am such and such age, I lose my connection with people of all ages. Does it all matter in the big picture? Aren’t we all just travelers in this experience called life? All in need of one another to grow, learn, and experience the world around us and all that it has to offer.

    There my friend in the wee hours is a tibet to ponder.

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