Once a youth advocate understands the reality that segregating youth is an injustice unto its own, they have a responsibility to undo that damage. They have a responsibility to integrate youth. For too long that notion of integration has been limited to simplistic notions about youth participation.
“All we need to do is invite the youth.”
“We need some youth sports!”
“Let’s get a youth on our board.”
Unfortunately, this well-intended and often poorly-executed idealism often leads to further alienating young people, as the traditional youth leaders who are targeted for participation quickly become dissatisfied with the token roles they have in these situations. Otherwise these opportunities serve as mass pacifiers, undermining the very essence of being young by rerouting the mental power of young people towards physical aggression and competitive brainwashing. This gesturing is designed to develop children and youth in the mold of a mass marketplace stereotype that is stuck on accumulation and consumption and dismissive of community, interdependence, and radical democracy.
The alternative to that painful reality is much more complex than previously acknowledged, and yet, much more accessible than is portrayed by traditional youth participation practitioners. I would suggest that in the majority of communities across the United States the alternative to traditional youth involvement can be juxtaposed against engaging young people as partners. In Europe this phenomenon is called youth mainstreaming. Their explanation:
“It [youth mainstreaming] is a strategy for making (youth) concerns and experiences an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programmes, in all political, economic and social spheres so that (youth) benefit equally and inequality is not perpetuated.” – UNESCO
Those political words are powerful, but stiff. While I support strategic approaches, I don’t think the verbiage inside a lot of policy is particularly accessible or appropriate for the activities that are intended to happen because of the policy.
That much said, I want to offer a more familiar term for this burgeoning practice: Youth Integration. When civil rights leaders have referred to integration in the past, they have largely meant desegregation, leveling barriers to interaction, creating equal opportunity, and developing a culture drawing on multiple perspectives instead of just bringing the minority into the majority culture. That is the goal I have for Youth Integration: The equitable, sustainable and holistic infusion of children and youth throughout society.
We can’t continue to settle for anything less.