Adult-Driven Youth Voice

Youth Voice is any expression of any young person anywhere, all the time, about anything. It doesn’t depend on adult approval, it doesn’t need specific spaces or energies, and is always present wherever young people are. The question generally is whether adults want to hear what’s being said.

If a young person is talking in front of a group sharing their beliefs or experience, ideas or knowledge, they’re sharing youth voice. The same can be true of leadership, community service, and teambuilding activities. However, young people who cut themselves are sharing youth voice, just like youth graffiti artists, students who text answers during tests, and gang members. The question isn’t whether they’re sharing youth voice, because they always are – the question is whether adults want to hear what’s being said.

This leads to the phenomenon of adult-driven youth voice.

Characteristics of Adult-Driven Youth Voice
Adult-Driven Youth Voice is when adults motivate, inspire, inform, encapsulate, and generally make youth voice become convenient for adults. Adult-Driven Youth Voice is Convenient Youth Voice. Here are five characteristics of adult-driven youth voice.

  • WHO: Youth who adults want to hear from are selected to share their voices. All young people are members of all the communities they occupy, both in a literal and metaphorical sense. However, adult-driven youth voice selects specific young people who may not jostle adults’ opinions or ideas to share youth voice. 
  • WHAT: Young people say what adults want. They usually echoing or parroting adult beliefs, ideas, knowledge, and/or experience. If they share their own, adults largely agree with what young people have said.
  • WHEN: The calendar is determined by adults for youth. Young people are listened to when adults have the interest or ability to hear them, and not necessarily when children or youth want to be heard.
  • WHERE: Youth voice happens in places adults want it to be shared. Whether on a graffiti wall in a forgotten alley downtown, in a boxing gym for teenagers, in debate class, or at a city-run forum for youth to share their opinions about something, youth voice happens where adults approve of.
  • WHY: Adults solicit youth voice about specific issues. Young people have a variety of perspectives about all kinds of subjects. However, adult-driven youth voice allows only perspectives on issues that are important to adults or that adults pick for young people. If young people move outside adult-driven boundaries, they are either re-directed or expected to stop sharing their voices.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each of the above characteristics. However, this article isn’t meant to share those judgments; instead, I want to encourage you to think for yourself about what matters and why it matters. After you’ve done that, visit The Freechild Project Youth Voice Toolkit to find tools, examples, and other resources to help you with youth voice.

Special thanks to my spectacular friend and longtime comrade Heather Manchester. Her critical thinking and willingness to kick my butt inspired this post (and many others!) and I stand indebted to her genius, patience, and energy she shares with me.

My Youth Council Days

In fall of 1992, I was a 17-year-old struggling through high school, living in the hood, and loving the life I lived. It was an exciting time packed with nerve-wracking moments that were smoothed over by a caring family, good mentors, and great friends.

I grew up in a predominantly low income, African American neighborhood in the Midwest. My family scraped along to get by, but with both my parents at home we were the anomaly. Our neighborhood fit a lot of stereotypes piped out by the mainstream media. It was referred to as a “depressed community”, and every night during the summer there seemed to be a drive-by somewhere around my block. I was jumped many times, and the number of times cops showed up and left from Kenny’s crack house down the street is uncountable. Everyone who was young seemed to be in a gang, and everyone who was old seemed scared.

Whenever I had a chance to do an activity that brought me out of that neighborhood, I took it. The year before, I became involved in starting a district youth council for the United Methodist churches. Run by a young minister from the other side of the city, I began driving to churches around the area to be on this youth council. It was an exciting thing for me personally, if only because I got to create and share and do things I wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

That year, in 1992, I was given a booklet about starting a neighborhood youth council. Skimming through it, I decided my neighborhood needed one. I went to the church’s minister and asked him if we could pull it together and he agreed.

In a few weeks, I had twenty adults and youth in the same room. We were there under the premise that programs that served youth in our neighborhood could do even better by working together. For an hour we talked about what we did, listening to someone running a basketball team, a youth employment program focused on cooking, the food bank coordinator, an afterschool program worker, a VISTA serving in the neighborhood, and a few other people.

The youth in the room were friends of mine, and we all talked. One guy shared ideas, another reflected on how things were going in his life.

After everyone finished talking, we talked about when people worked and which individual children and youth they worked with. After an hour zoomed by, we left and everyone filed out.

For eight more meetings after that, we talked about what folks were doing and where they were doing it. There were conversations about getting more money for programs, more resources for kids and their families, and conversations about the things that were happening throughout our neighborhood. Some people were aware of the gossip while others focused on the newspapers. But everyone brought something to the table. I was proud to be able to lead the conversations.

By the end of that school year, I turned 18 and graduated from high school. The neighborhood youth council was over, and in the two more years I lived in the hood, it never met again.

From that experience, I learned the basics of collaboration. I studied the movements and ideals of the individuals at the table, and heard the stories and realities of the young people in our programs and lives. I learned to see the kids that came and went through all these programs as individuals with their own individual wants, needs, and dreams. Mostly, I learned to see my neighbors.

Since 1992, I’ve been involved with dozens of youth councils nationwide, and I’ve staffed two others at the state and national levels. Early in January 2014, I’m going to launch a new regional youth council for the Pacific Mountain region in Washington State. Its going to be exciting, for sure. But I’ll definitely draw on my own experience in order to best navigate the waters we’ll wade into.

What was your first experience with a youth council?

The Future of Youth Engagement

Society evolves. As young people and communities grow, there are more opportunities for youth engagement than ever before – and more opportunities for youth to become disengaged, too. More sophisticated usages of technology, transformed processes, and varying thresholds for what engages young people have to be acknowledged all the time. This happens from generation to generation and across different communities for all kinds of reasons.

Youth engagement happens, no matter what. Adults may not like what it focuses on or how it happens, but it happens.

Here are three ways that youth engagement will happen in the future:

  1. Subjective relationships—If adults want to continue to expose them to specific issues and activities, or seek particular outcomes from youth engagement, it will be necessary for them to adapt and transform their approaches. 
  2. Equal relationships—Another way is for adults to decide to value the things that young people engage in on their own volition. These youth engagement approaches entail adults meeting young people where they are currently, rather than insist that children and youth come to where adults want them to be in the future. 
  3. Equitable relationships—The middle ground between these two approaches to youth engagement requires active evolution and transformation. It requires that adults learn to see young children and youth as equitable partners in their work, and to treat them accordingly. 

Luckily, no matter which approach adults choose, youth engagement will continue to exist in the individual lives of young people, where they see fit and how they see fit. The sustained connections that young people make will never be solely dependent on technology, and youth engagement will never rely solely on government agencies either, or nonprofits, faith communities, schools, or other specific spheres and systems explored above.