I was that kid: a little more excited, a little more motivated and a little more interested than the other young people around me. Sure, I grew up in a rough neighborhood, but there were those among us who stood out. I was the kid who other parents pointed to- literally- and asked their kids why they weren’t more like me.
When I was really young I sat with my parents while they talked with their friends. I helped my mom clean the house, listened carefully when my dad lectured me, and used my newspaper route money to help pay family bills. I volunteered for the neighborhood elementary school’s PTA when I was in junior high, and was the school’s Santa Claus for 3 years. I joined the church leadership council when I was 14. I made up a guerilla environmental justice activism group for my friends when I was 15. I helped stock in the food bank my family was assisted by, sat with my dad to watch Habitat for Humanity sites while they were being built, and started a neighborhood youth council when I was 17. I was that kid.
I hung around with a few different handfuls of friends throughout school who were subjected to my ambitions. Tracy and Marlin and Joe and I were friends from 5th grade into high school. They were my neighborhood friends who played video games and basketball with me, joining the scout troop my dad started and riding scooters with me around North Omaha. There was Kelly and Tara and Lesley and other girlfriends in junior high, and in high school I had really good friends who didn’t live right in my neighborhood. Bethany and Erin and Mary and Brian and Jason set templates for the friends that I have wanted throughout all the rest of my life. I was tight with my friends in scouts, too, especially when Jimmy, Nick, Scott, Jaimie and I were able to get together outside that program. All of these people were subjected to my peculiar brand of obosteriousness, overzealousness and enthusiasm, and lucky for me they tolerated it for as long as they did. They were the mirrors that I saw myself through and wanted to be more like. But I can say now, through the lenses of time and space and distance that none of them were identical to me. They each shown brightly in their own ways, and while I don’t know where almost any of them are today, I believe they must be doing well, or at least okay, because of those ways they shown brightly.
Looking back at it, it is youth like my teenage friends who I believe are the “outlyers” of youth involvement. They tended to fall into that realm of “middle achievers” in youth voice, those who neither glowed or were fully thwarted; instead, they were just *there* in many cases. Now, to remind you I am talking about youth voice specifically; a lot of my friends were academically gifted, athletically skilled or socially wonderful. Some had the gift of gab while others aced tests and won trophies. I didn’t hang out with a lot of ruffians, and my friends were a lot of things I simply wasn’t in a lot of respects. But thinking about their expressions of engagement, their infusions of ability and energy related to sharing their unique ideas, opinions, actions and wisdom, I can’t recall a lot of “umph.” None of them were that kid- that was my job.
We need to reach those young people. In workshops I’ll often share a piece of informal observation tool Greg Williamson and I once created. Its a pie chart split into 25, 50 and 25 percent slices. One 25 percent slice represents children and youth like I was: no matter what the situation, what the resistance or supports, we were always going to be heard. Generally this 25 percent’s voices are impossible to thwart or suppress. The other 25 percent slice represents the most oppressed, the young people whose voices are most squelched because of poverty or abuse or other dire situations. Tonight I’m thinking about that other slice, that 50 percent right in the middle who show up because their mom told them they had to go, or whose girlfriend picked them up and made them go, or were simply there because they didn’t have anything better to do at that moment. Those are the young people who are caught in the middle between extremities. They generally aren’t involved in honors clubs or recitivism programs; instead, they are young people who don’t stand out in crowds, who don’t stand up in meetings and who don’t connect with their communities in meaningful ways as they grow up.
Let’s stop focusing on that kid and reach those kids: these who are moving away from small towns, who don’t vote, and who have broken the cycles of social capital that once tied together our communities. Those who perform vanishing acts when volunteers are sought out and those who sit quietly at the back of the room when their opinions are sought. And let me be clear here: its not their fault they aren’t engaged. Rather, its the failure of our communities as a whole, and particularly those adults in their lives who are responsible for providing substantive, sustainable and real opportunities for them to be heard. That’s the only way we can move this movement forward- as a whole.