Poverty and Youth Voice

“In our hearts we are wandering gypsies;
in our minds we are heirs to the jewels.
To the poor we are swaddled in riches;
To the rich we ain’t nothing but poor.”
– Mark Heard

The last school year has been incredible and busy. I have worked in schools across the country with SoundOut. I started working with Amanda Irtz and Teddy Wright to develop a national model for the Washington Youth Voice Institutes. Grantwriting, contracting and publication distribution have been increasingly successful, and as an organization, CommonAction is moving forward – tentatively, but deliberately.

However, as Paulo Freire implored in his first book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, action without examination is merely action; devoid of critical examination action robs the human of purpose – we are not merely actors on a stage. With that in mind, I offer this, my first installment in a series examining Equity and Youth Voice.

A child or youth who never actually examines their voice is being robbed of the opportunity to explore and identify new ways of using that voice. The adult who sees youth voice but does not examine it is doing more than robbing youth – we actually steal opportunity from ourselves. Over the last year I worked in a number of high schools in Seattle, Boston and New York State where there were a range of students whose voices were engaged. However, when I talked with students one group was consistently critical and conscious of their voices, the voices of students around them, and the inadequacies of adults who were engaged in listening to them. Those students consistently identified themselves as poor, low-income or working class.

Once privilege has been taken from someone, or if someone is acutely aware of their lack of privilege, it becomes so important to grab a hold of any kind of authority or power you can. I know this personally from my own experience growing up occasionally homeless with a family living in situational poverty. One of the other things I learned growing is that poverty breeds a kind of anger inside, especially once you become conscious of the causes and perpetuations of poverty.

Ruby Payne is an internationally-known writer and speaker who focuses on poverty. Her most popular book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, has been soaked up by thousands of teachers and youth workers who want to understand the students they work with. Many people support her simplistic analysis of the reasons why people are poor, including the responsibility she pins on poor people for being poor in the first place. Rather than examining the causes of poverty and the complex relationships between generational, racial, cultural and economic forces that drive poverty, Payne oversimplifies being poor, simply concentrating her energies on identifying (read: stereotyping) poor students and prescribing (read:standardizing) the ways adults should respond to poor young people.

This brings to mind the ever-popular models of youth voice that the national youth organizations have been promoting nationwide throughout the course of the youth voice movement. Ever since these clarion calls for youth councils, youth board members and youth voice trainings went out, a whole segment of America’s population of children and youth have been nominated and chosen and called and voted and drawn towards youth voice activities – routinely and effectively excluding millions of young people who actually need more opportunities for more youth voice. 1 in 5 American people under the age of 18 are poor. (source) We need youth voice programs for those young people.

What do these programs look like?

EarthForce – Using a popular national curriculum, many teachers across the country have actively engaged low-income youth in learning about the environment and designing powerful projects that help their local areas. I saw particular power to this approach in the Tampa-area when I visited Melissa Sherwood this year. She showed me how non-English speaking students and working-class students from throughout her middle school were actually learning and doing really cool projects. What blew me away was the fact that many of the students were actually coming from homes with parents who are migrant laborers. It means something when you learn about what affects you most everyday – and then learn to do something to help or improve it. Read more about EarthForce here.

Student-led Organizing – In 2005 Kari Kunst started documenting the successes of student-led organizing focused on school reform for SoundOut. Since then I’ve watched as dozens of groups across the country have led schools in transforming from reactive to proactive, passive to active agents who are working with low-income youth to actually transform learning, teaching and leadership throughout schools. This is power in action. Much youth-led community organizing on any issue is focused on engaging low-incoming youth as well. Freire would be proud – especially considering what these youth activists are learning every single day.

Youth Media Council – Across the nation there is a growing movement among low-income youth to create the media that has for so long targeted them. They are doing that, and they are becoming more powerful as an outcome. In Oakland the Youth Media Council engages low-income youth in creating media, helping youth organizations create successful media, and supporting the Bay Area’s powerful organizing campaigns.

These stories continue, even here in Olympia: GRuB and PIPE offer great programs designed to engage low-income youth voice. The stories continue to become more powerful. But there are particular challenges to engaging youth voice in low-income communities, with the greatest among them being AUTHENTIC ACCESS, sustainability and funding. Staff from Stanford’s Gardner Center youth-led research program wrote about some of these challenges in 2003. Young people working with the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada were so concerned about the treatment of youth voice that they went so far as to write a report called the Declaration of Accountability On The Ethical Engagement of Young People and Adults in Canadian Organizations.

There has to be a watershed coming, where finally our schools and youth-serving organizations and larger communities all realize that all people have a role in creating, fostering, challenging and transforming democracy. Tomorrow I’ll explore Race and Youth Voice to see if more answers become apparent.

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