Race and Youth Voice

“This isn’t just a simple case of black and white – we’re in it too deep for that,” an eleventh grade white student told me. Some of the rest of the mixed group bobbed their in unison, but there was some hesitancy.

I was at an urban high school in the Seattle area talking with students about race relations in their experiences at school.

“What are other ways you experience inequity?” I ask them, hoping for a breakthrough.

I had introduced the topic earlier in the training, expanding on a definition I heard from a teacher at Roosevelt High School in Seattle earlier in the year. I explained that equality is everyone starting the race at the same point and seeking the same finishing point. Equity is recognizing that everyone does not want to run a race, or reach the same goal – and if we do, we aren’t starting at the same places with the same equipment or backgrounds, and acknowledging that we’re going to finish at different times. Oh, and equity is seeing that before some folks came to the race they were kicked in the knees. Others wouldn’t even make the race, and if they did they would be snatched out of it by a seemingly arbitrary force that sought them out only for the color of their skin.

Suddenly, a young women in the class raised her hand and said she felt awkward holding hands with her girlfriend in the halls “like everyone else does.” Another spoke up, saying she wasn’t allowed to try out for football last year. “Shoot, they were afraid of a girl beating them anyone,” said someone else in support of their classmate.

“What about when I’m at the store and some dude follows me around? Why do they do that?!?” This guy was about 17, and he honestly sounded confused. “What about the teen dance ordinance?” “Why can’t we cruise anymore?” “I want to vote about that new law.”

A firestorm of conversation picked up, with questions and answers volleying back and forth like the call-and-response between the DJ and the crowd in a club. While it was interesting, it quickly began to decline towards gripping about ignorance. I asked the group what those experiences felt like, and one of the students wrote the words up on the board. Hurtful. Pain. Stupid. Sucks. The list grew quickly.

Then I parts of a guide from Racism and the Experience of Asian American Students. After a stunned moment, the students started talking again, although this time there was a different tone to the group.

Just then the bell rang, and the student from the beginning of the class said loudly, “I guess we’re not all equal.”

Making connections between racism and youth voice seems too obtuse for many adults. We become so concerned about simply acknowledging youth as having a powerful voice that we – particularly white people – forget about the experiences of people of color. That’s easy for white people to do – but that doesn’t make it fair or right.

The fact of the matter is that many of the institutions set up to support young people succeed at supporting white students. In 2004 48% of Washington State students of color graduated on time. Meanwhile, community-based agencies across the country are re-aligning their missions and feeling pressure from foundations and government funding sources to standardize and assess their youth programming into oblivion.

These realities simply do not address the differences between people of different skin color – and there are real differences. The United States was born on that back of those differences, and has only grown because of them. Children and youth of color need youth voice experiences that acknowledge and celebrate those differences, using them as a foundation to build substantive and meaningful opportunities to express, examine, challenge and transform our schools and communities.

The most power example I know of is Bob Moses’ Algebra Project. Working across the country, the Algebra Project Young Peoples’ Project hires high school students to teach middle school students algebra. This would be simple if we were talking about a group of people who traditionally have access to learn algebra. However, Moses learned about education while working in the Civil Rights movement. Using the knowledge that algebra is power, Moses has designed a model that demonstrates and imposes the reality of algebra by having students of color effectively teach their younger peers. His program has been at work on this since the early 1980s.

That is the best and most thorough example I can share to illustrate the point that approaches to youth voice need to be as diverse as the youth they engage. Only in that way will they be as sustainable and effective as we, the adults who run the programs, want them to be.

Continuing on my journey of critical reflection about CommonAction’s 2006/07 school year, tomorrow I will examine gender and youth voice.

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