Diversity and Youth Voice

Engaging non-traditionally engaged young people is not a mysterious process – neither is it a foriegn, “Other”-oriented mystery, nor is it a process that you do the same every time. Identifying diversity is an important beginning, but along the way action is required. Following are important tips for young people and adults who want to act on what they know.
1. Transform sympathy to empathy. Don’t feel for someone else. Find commonality and discover similarity before you try to do something for someone; if you can’t, don’t. Discrimination affects people for many more reasons than their age: race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and academic performance affect whole communities everyday. Learning about discrimination in all its forms strengthens understanding about Youth Voice. After exploring discrimination, it is easier to understand why we should not do anything for young people; we should do it with them. This is the first step to honoring diversity among youth, particularly for adults, because young people are distinct from adults.
2. Take personal action, and encourage others to do the same. Identify your diversity and learn about how other people identify themselves. Everyone is affected by ignorance, and everyone can benefit from learning and doing more to support diversity. Encourage your peers, family, class, and community to examine and act to support diversity. Individual and collective action encourages deeper understanding about Youth Voice.
3. Challenge ignorance and examine assumptions. When a young person in your group says or does something that is hurtful, hateful, disrespectful, or biased, call it out. Either individually or as a group, call out what was said or done, discuss what or how it could be different, and commit to challenging the person or situation to changing. Talk about differences within your group. Encourage young people with mixed ethnic, racial, religious, educational, economic, or other backgrounds to examine how they are similar and different.
4. Acknowledge that discrimination affects all youth differently. Young people share a lot in common because of their age: curfews, no voting rights, and “No children without parents” signs in stores affect everyone under 18. There are differences, too: young people from low-income neighborhoods have different experiences than those from affluent communities. Identify, examine, and embrace these differences. Acknowledge those differences on your own and with young people.
5. Find diversity everyday. There is diversity in every group of young people. Talk about the diversity in daily life by exploring differences at home, at school, in spiritual beliefs, in appearances, in thinking, and other ways with your entire group. Share perceptions and learn (or unlearn!) from each other. Create opportunities for young people to dialog about Youth Voice with young people in foster homes, juvenile detention, drug treatment centers, and other areas. Bring young people to ethnic fairs, refugee resettlement centers, and other settings where they can be exposed, challenged, and engaged to incorporate diversity into Youth Voice.
Whether you’re a middle class African American seeking to work with low-income American Indian community, or if you’re a well-meaning white person working in the Global South, taking action to promote Youth Voice is necessary and can happen. However, it must happen with justice. These tips are the beginning.
Adapted from the Washington Youth Voice Handbook, copyright 2006 Adam Fletcher. All rights reserved.

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