Youth Voice EVERYWHERE!

As any expression of any young person about anything, anywhere, at any time, Youth Voice happens in countless places in every community every day. This includes schools, businesses, alleys, sidewalks, libraries, city halls, government agencies, afterschool programs, summer camps, foundations, nonprofits, community centers, at home, on the streets, and in parks. Youth Voice happens in these places; whether its heard is another question altogether.

Each of these places has a special assignment for children and youth:

  • In schools, young people are assigned to be students
  • In businesses, youth are assigned youth to be shoppers
  • In libraries, young people are assigned to be readers
  • In alleys, youth are assigned to be vandals, thieves, or street artists
  • In summer camps, youth are assigned to be campers
  • On the streets, young people are assigned to be innocent, gang members, or bad drivers
  • And so on…

All of these expectations are not inherently bad; they show that young people are seen. The issue may be that they aren’t seen fairly, or justly, or accurately, or according to their own self-identification. Instead, they’re assigned roles by adults that generally benefit adults.

But they do offer an opportunity to identify where Youth Voice can happen. There are other places where young people never go, but that affect them every day. Adults don’t often consider it, but these sorts of

places are all over:

  • City halls makes decisions about laws, regulations, planning, and programs affecting young people
  • School district offices make decisions about classes, budgets, and curriculum for students
  • Hospitals focus their services on young patients
  • Community centers and neighborhood associations are for young people
  • Businesses choose what young people will like and sell them on wanting it

Again, these places are not bad, only under-informed.

Youth Voice Is For Living

Youth Voice can—and does—happen throughout our society, in the places where young people belong and the places that affect them. That includes large geographic areas; small learning communities; outdoors in nature, and in homes, hospitals, hospices, and hallways in our neighborhoods, schools, halls, legislatures, and across the state.

Youth Voice happens in different types of institutions, organizations, and communities across our communities, too. Following are several different types, as well as considerations for those Youth Voice activities.

  • Youth Voice Where Young People Live: Youth Voice begins at home. There are a lot of ways that young people can contribute to decision-making that directly affects them every single day. This can include helping plan meals and decorating their own bedrooms, as well as decisions that affect the whole family, like whether moving across town is a good idea, or when its time to buy a new couch, comparing buying a new one versus a used one. Youth Voice at home is encouraged by having children advocate for their own needs (with consideration to others’ needs), speak up for themselves to adults, and by adults advocating for their children when needed. Where Youth Voice happens has to do with where young people actually live. Young people who live in suburban areas have different circumstances to consider than those who live in large cities, rural towns, or island communities. Those differences are significant, and they matter when trying to engage children and youth. 
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  • Youth Voice is for Suburban Communities: On the outskirts of cities around the world, suburban communities face unique challenges engaging young people. These sometimes include trying to connect with families who are new to the area. Suburban youth may feel they lack a focus or reason to making Youth Voice real, as they may see many of their needs already met. It can be difficult to physically involve young people who are physically disconnected from each other by lack of roads or public transportation. Suburban communities may also have high numbers of young people who are at home alone after school and who lack parental support for participating in Youth Voice programs. It is also difficult to incubate Youth Voice in communities that lack a physical center or downtown. Belonging is central to Youth Voice.
  • Youth Voice is for Rural Communities: Small towns and remote areas share some issues in common with suburban communities. They both have challenges with transportation, and getting to any central geographic “hub” can be tough. These communities face other challenges as well, including what some people call “brain drain.” This phrase usually summarizes the loss rural communities feel when large percentages of young people move away because of a lack of opportunities. Young people who stay in the area may feel like they live in a “black hole” where their voices, their dreams, and their lives never escape. Small, local economies suffer when there is a blow to the area, such as the loss of an important industry or lack of highway access. The resulting poverty can make it difficult for young people to feel hopeful, as if they don’t have any ability to create change in their lives or the lives of their communities. Hope is central to Youth Voice.
  • Youth Voice is for Urban Communities: Inner-city areas rely on hope. The experience of many urban youth shows that urban neglect, a common issue in inner-city neighborhoods across the state, can steal hope. For many young people it is hard to feel hopeful when you don’t have food on the table. Safe schools, glaring financial inequities, and negative relationships between youth and police are a sampling of the issues urban youth face. Other communities where there are particular challenges and rewards of engaging young people. They include isolated communities in extremely rural areas, Native American reservation communities where culture and heritage is strong, and military base communities with largely transient populations.

Youth Voice Is For Learning
Learning in classrooms, after-school programs, at home, or around the community provides excellent opportunities to engage young people. Children and youth can share responsibility for planning what they want to learn, how they want to learn it, and where they learn. They can work with adults to create realistic, tangible learning goals; when finished, young people can evaluate their accomplishments, learning experiences, and learning environments. In schools and community centers, young people can help teachers discover which teaching strategies are most effective and what methods work best. Youth Voice can help education administrators make student-centered decisions, and policy-makers create more effective laws and regulations that govern schools. young people are also engaged when students lead classes, research learning, plan new schools, and advocate for education.
  • Youth Voice is for Classrooms: The pressure is on schools to improve teaching and learning. As educators struggle to encourage achievement from kindergarten to twelfth-grade, they are discovering Youth Voice makes a difference.
  • Youth Voice throughout Schools: Students are also working to change schools in other ways. Out-of-school programs provide young people with safe, supportive environments to expand their learning in healthy, constructive ways. However, these programs share the responsibility schools have by needing to actively strive to engage young people in meaningful learning. Youth Voice can be a source for those experiences.
  • Youth Voice is for Community Centers: Youth Voice doesn’t happen in a vacuum. By involving young people in recreational activities with adults and seniors, our communities grow stronger and stay together longer. Dances, game nights, and block parties encourage youth to mix with adults in safe places; classes and training opportunities that bring adults and young people together help them learn from each other and see each other as partners, not enemies. Youth can also make good staff at community centers when they’re engaged in leading and growing programs.
  • Youth Voice is for Parks and Recreation Programs : Green spaces, play places, and nature are important to everyone—especially children and youth. Who better to help plan and grow outdoor areas than those who use them? Young people can learn through service projects in parks about biology, ecology, and neighborhood design; and park staff can discover what works best in parks. Youth Voice can also activate in parks leadership, advisory councils, advocacy campaigns for better parks, program evaluation and park redesign.
  • Youth Voice is for Libraries: Public libraries can bring together communities by making knowledge accessible to young people and adults. Young people are encouraged by youth-friendly spaces that are designed with young people. Featuring a section to the interests of young people, like popular culture and youth action, and hiring youth as staff, are both positive strategies. Youth have also served as full members on library guidance committees.
  • Youth Voice is for After-School Programs: Programs that affect young people most can engage young people most effectively, purposefully, and deliberately. After school programs for children and youth can focus on Youth Voice, responding to what young people see as their most pressing needs and fulfilling their grandest dreams. Rather than adults designing programs from their imaginations, program coordinators are looking to youth for inspiration, guidance, support, and leadership. Many programs have engaged young people as program planners, project leaders, and as program evaluators.

Youth Voice Is For Government

While youth programs and schools are logical places where Youth Voice happens, there are more public places where it is increasingly essential to infuse children and youth as partners with adults.

  • Youth Voice is for City Hall: Local governments are in the unique position of being able to foster and support Youth Voice as a benefit the whole community. Many towns and cities have created youth advisory councils where Youth Voice measures the impact of regulations and laws affecting youth. Other municipalities have actually created positions for young people on existing committees including parks and recreation, libraries, and community planning.
  • Youth Voice is for Government Agencies: Young people can be effectively engaged by local and state government administrators who are committed to serving communities. Research, program planning, budget decisions, and other activities have each been completed by children and youth serving on special committees, advisory boards, action councils, and in youth staff positions.
  • Youth Voice is for the State Legislature: A growing number of politicians, lobbyists, and state government officials are relying on Youth Voice to make their policy decisions more effective, responsive, and inclusive of their constituents.

Critical Questions

  • How often do young people actually think about, share, and act on their ideas, knowledge, opinions, and experiences in these places?
  • Where should Youth Voice be that it is not right now? 
  • Are the differences between types of communities important enough to note? 
  • How does Youth Voice need to change for your communities? 
  • What communities are missing from the Youth Voice conversation in general?

Want more resources? Visit The Freechild Project Youth Voice Toolkit!

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

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