Creating Meaningful Engagement, Anywhere, Anytime with ANYONE

Late last year the Mid-Atlantic Network for Youth (MANY) invited me to Baltimore, Maryland, to talk with nonprofit leaders from across the country. I joined a dozen other speakers in talking with these leaders for a day, and MANY recorded what I said.

I would love to hear what you think of this video. Please share your comments here, and PLEASE don’t hold back! Criticism, concerns, ideas, and anything else is welcome!

Why No Student Voice?

Going over my Guide to Students on School Boards this weekend, I found an interesting fact: Almost all of the states of the states that have outlawed students on school boards allow corporal punishment in schools.

The 14 states that have laws that don’t allow students to serve on district boards of education Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and West Virginia.

The 19 states that legally allow corporal punishment are Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia and Wyoming.

This represents a diminutive view of young people in general, resultant of social norms from hundreds of years ago.

High rates of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination, exist in these states’ schools as well. Relying on fear and intimidation to ensure social structure is ever-present in these states’ school systems, as well as throughout many of the local communities in these states.

The results of these stringent efforts to systematically disenfranchise students ensures the success of the school-to-prison pipeline that targets low-income students, students of color, and others. This pipeline, in turn, is devolving much of society for the benefit of the notorious one percent.

Ultimately, I believe that states have outlawed students on school boards in order to ensure social division, secure corporate profits, and maintain the culture of fear that benefits historically powerful populations in our society, including the legacy of racism and much more.

To note though, even though other states may not have laws against students on school boards, and others still actually have students there who aren’t allowed to say or do anything significant, the danger is that positioning students on school boards may be largely tokenistic: Without a relevant framework informing their actions, well-meaning adults may simply be placating popular interest without affecting any real change in schools.
Its important to understand that students on school boards is a step towards meaningful student involvement, but not the whole path. That is a much larger framework involving many more activities that can actually engage every single student in every single school all of the time. That’s my grand vision for school reform today, and what I think we should all be working for in schools everywhere.
Luckily, I’ve seen the number of students, parents, educators, and others who agree on that grow each year. We’re heading toward the future, and its coming to meet us in schools right now.

New Approaches to Youth Action

Description

If our goal is to engage young people in social change, there are many ways to do that. This diagram illustrates four distinct ways to engage young people: youth-driven community organizing, systemic youth involvement, situational youth voice, and service learning. It then illustrates the traditional and non-traditional approaches to doing that within these ways, as well as the overlaps that are apparent.

 

Traditional Approaches to Engage Young People in Social Change

  • May be exclusively youth-led
  • May partner with adults
  • May be led by adults
  • May include equity
  • May have explicit learning connections
  • May include adults
  • May be focused on sustained change
  • May have sustained funding
  • May position youth as “outsiders” versus “insiders”

 

New Approaches to Engage Young People in Social Change

  • Infuse youth as full members
  • Recognize mutual investment by youth and adults
  • Focus on sustained change
  • Make explicit learning goals for youth and adults
  • Focus on systemic and cultural transformation
  • Requires equity between youth and adults.

 

Explanation

In my own restlessness, I find myself craving something different these days.
I’m increasingly dissatisfied with isolated experiences of “youth-led” activity that is seeded and driven by adults. I have come to see that the majority of this work is largely disingenuous and ultimately incapacitating for the young people who participate in these activities. I say that very cautiously, as I personally know and am professionally aware of the immediate feelings of empowerment that are inherent in this type of action.

 

Today, I’m coming to understand that we need approaches to this work that more deeply situate young people as full members of currently existent society. That way they can be partners in what already exists and transform situations in deeply sustainable, deeply transformative ways.This has to happen by working with the institutions we already have in place. It has to happen with the attitudes we already have at work. This is where my writing on meaningful student involvement comes from: Students working in the places they already occupy with people who are already committed to working with them. There are attitudes, cultures, structures, and connections to transform, but those are sustained changes that won’t go away with passing generations.
This article is meant to illustrate what the difference I see looks like visually. Respond and let me know what you think about a new approach to youth action – I’d love to hear what you think!