How to Get to Real Youth Empowerment

Youth empowerment is a tricky concept that makes a lot of adults feel good about themselves. They see themselves as “handing over the reigns” and “giving up” control in order to teach young people magical lessons about power. Comparing themselves to others, these same adults often preach the value of youth empowerment and advocate its great abilities throughout our society.

Something is not right about that.

While my daughter is growing up I take it as my responsibility to be consistently conscious and aware of her needs, responsibilities and rights as a fellow human being who I am lucky enough to share those needs, responsibilities and rights with. And by “share” I don’t mean “give to”; instead, I am talking about the reciprocal exchange of authority and duty, by which she allows me to care for her needs while I am allowed to expand and build her mind, her hands and her spirit. That’s an awesome thing. Here are some rules I follow to help really empower my daughter:

Don’t dismiss everything the adults in your life did. Parents, teachers, preachers and scout leaders had some right ideas mixed in there. Those times your dad let you run the power saw after he taught you how to do it? That was good. Him coming along after you were done and recommending how you could do better? That was great. I know it can be hard for young people to hear criticism from adults, but honestly that is our responsibility. It is wrong to demean or destroy a young person, but it is right to offer corrections and identify opportunities for growth.

Don’t do everything you learned in Youth Development 101. While Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget and many others had good and right concepts regarding the development of children and youth in Western societies, they aren’t always right. Around the world these days more credence is given to the concept of evolving capacities than youth development, and those readers in the U.S. should check out that idea, too. There’s more to the world than convenient staircases; let’s look at the options.

Avoid youth programs that claim to empower youth. There’s an old Buddhist saying to the effect of “Those who say they are humble are not.” That’s true a lot of the time with youth empowerment programs, too. Organizations and adults that are in the business of building the capacities of youth, creating and fostering opportunities for “wide-world learning” and breaking through the barriers of oppression that young people face simply do that work – they don’t make grand pronouncements about their desire to see youth running the world because they are busy seeing to it that young people can run the world, either today or in a near future.

Get out of the office. If you are a youth worker who spends five hours a day in an office and three hours with youth, make a resolution to flip those numbers. If you’re a researcher who meets with young people twice monthly, flip that number. Real youth empowerment requires real youth, and that’s an important key for all adults to remember. In the same way, if you are constantly exposed to the same youth, go find some others for a day. Reflect on why you like your constituency, why you love your job, why you want to really empower young people.

Don’t look for a magic bullet. We have to get past quick fixes and simplistic responses to the sophisticated, complex worlds that young people occupy today. There are no magic bullets. Cooperative games don’t work in some groups; community organizing isn’t effective in every situation; youth voting won’t cure political corruption right away; intergenerational equity will take lifetimes to achieve. Let’s stick in it for the long haul and do the good things we need to do.

These are some simple tips – let me know if you have anything to add.

One Reply to “How to Get to Real Youth Empowerment”

  1. I love the concept of “evolving capacities” when speaking of youth empowerment and am so glad you mentioned it here. The idea requires a greater sophistication on the part of adults to notice children as individuals and assess their emerging abilities. In my opinion, youth empowerment depends upon a higher level of consciousness: being in present time, and simultaneously being aware of one’s own biases and patterns of behavior that stem from one’s past. This is also true with the other oppressions but I think adultism is the one that we have been able to overlook for so long because we (as adults) are all in unconscious collusion about it. We’re so happy to be “adults” we want to forget about how poorly we were treated.

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