A friend recently asked me whether a graffiti spree by a group of youth in a Midwestern city constituted youth voice. Following is my response:
I believe every expression young people share is youth voice, whether or not we agree with it. The challenge becomes whether or not adults are capable and/or desiring of listening to it. I teach adults that there are two types of youth voice: convenient and inconvenient. Convenient youth voice does what we want, when we want, where we want it to. Inconvenient youth voice are expressions of youth voice that do not fit the mold of adult expectation.
Hidden within the story of this youth graffiti crew are genuine expressions of humanity. The question shouldn’t be how should we punish these kids; rather, it should be how can we refocus them. The difference between adults and young people, in this respect, is that we know young people have the developmental capacity to realign their behavior to socially acceptable outcomes. More importantly, they have the capacity to evolve their own expectations, abilities, knowledge and passions towards the good of society.
The question I would pose is whether the adults who are in these young peoples’ lives are being held accountable for the present and future of these youth- and not just their parents, either. Are their teachers committed and actively working towards their engagement as lifelong learners? Are the youth workers in their lives promoting civic engagement and active membership in the larger society around them? Does their minister deliberately reach out to help them make meaning of their worlds on their terms, rather than forcing them to come to God in an adult-prescribed manner? All young people, rich and poor, black, brown and white, deserve completely engaged, connected, and meaningful relationships with adults throughout their lives.
Anything less than all this is doing these particular youth a disservice, to say nothing of the communities they belong to and the society where they live. We have to be bigger than that, right?