The Conundrums of Working in Systems.

I a systems worker who currently operates and has operated in a variety of systems for a number of years. Today its mainly the state health department here in Washington, in addition to growing work in the mental arena and community development. Historically, these systems have included education, national service and youth development. Recently I have become acutely aware of the conundrum presented by youth involvement. There are ethical, social, educational and cultural challenges that each must be called out for what they are.

I am faced with an ethical imperative to do this work that I have spent my lifetime doing, not simply because of my own history, but rather because I know from personal and professional experience the effectiveness and potential inherent in youth involvement. On its surface, youth involvement does not appear to be at odds with any of the design of the state’s government, this particular agency, or public health as a whole. However, scratch underneath the surface as I have done and you’ll discover underlying tensions reflecting adultism, along with racial, class, socio-economic and cultural barriers. The presumption that youth involvement is enough simply isn’t enough in many of these settings; rather, in order to conduct any sustainable, deep work designed to accomplish the lofty task of personalizing public health (or whichever system you operate in) youth involvement advocates must come to understand their work as a logical extension of their duties. 
The acknowledgment of the social implications of youth involvement doesn’t come lightly to me. I readily acknowledge that at times I can be a “joiner”. So working in a gigantic state agency attempting to build a social network which can support me as a person within the system can be challenging, particularly when your logical allies are other youth-oriented program workers. The reality of being a youth involvement advocate in relationship to those allies has been challenging, particularly when working in lateral relationships which I value. There’s a particular conscientiousness that I haven’t always been attuned to.
Educational backgrounds often factor into one’s understanding of youth involvement, as they do with most forms of involvement, whether parent, family, client or constituent. Working hard and reflecting often can lead to intense learning that grows on its own; however, it can also set in stone negative patterns that promote adultism and undermine youth involvement. If a person lacks a higher education, they may be devoid the language to vocalize what they inherently grasp; additionally, the may lack the skills or knowledge necessary to develop the steps needed to successfully involve young people. However, the presence of a college degree does not equate to knowledge, or concurance; rather, a person’s educational field likely affects how they go about their work. A state worker with a CHES certification will have a different perspective than someone who has a degree in experiential education; similar to the differences between curriculum design majors and educational policy majors. Each of those folks will see youth involvement differently according to their discipline, and similar to the first person who’d reflected on their experiences, all have their own understandings of what, how, who, when, where and why youth involvement matters. Note: As an autodidact I am sensative to the implication that those who’ve spent a lot of time in school know more than those who haven’t. The power of self-education can’t be underestimated.
Finally, there are a lot of cultural considerations with youth involvement. Two of the most poignant documents I’ve read addressing the different cultural perspectives towards young people and youth involvement come from different areas of the United Nations: first is UNICEF Innocenti Centre’s The Evolving Capacities of the Child [pdf] by Gerison Lansdown, and the second is Eliminating Corporal Punishment, which is an imprint of UNESCO. Both pay particularly poignant attention to how culture factors into a young person’s involvement in both systems and throughout their personal lives. In my systems work I have come to discover there are some very real cultural undertones within the agencies I’ve operated. In schools I have found there is a broad acceptance for normative assumptions about the necessary power of adults over students. In public health I have discovered a propensity towards social justice and the necessary requirement of the government to be reponsive to the disparities throughout society.
All of that is to say that we must be deliberate and practical about youth involvement no matter where we’re working, but particularly when we’re working inside to change the inside. At some point in the near future I will explore how these conundrums play out inside systems; in the meantime I would love to hear about your experience, no matter what the size of your organization or community.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

2 thoughts on “The Conundrums of Working in Systems.

  1. I’m inquiring about the possibility of engaging Adam Fletcher as a speaker for our Social Research Social Justice Conference for undergraduates. Any information you can provide will be appreciated.
    Kind regards,
    Kate

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