Its happening to me again and again. For the past several days I’ve been traveling the San Joaqin Valley in central California, training students and educators from almost 50 schools about youth empowerment. Picture this: groups of 4-6 middle school students, accompanied by teachers and/or principals, gathering with 3-4 other schools in their area. The adults break off to one room, I take the youth to another.
For the next 2 1/2 hours we go over several aspects of youth empowerment: teaching yourself, empowering other youth, educating adults, and exercising power in different ways throughout our schools and communities. While all of this sounds exciting, in reality its a little exasperating, and sometimes its just frustrating.
No matter how hard I try to “connect” with the young people in the room, many times they simply aren’t having it. After being systematically disenfrachised throughout their lives, these students have disengaged, disembarked, or disconnected from the possibility of a stranger, a non-teacher, or an outsider adult actually reaching them. My friends connected with co-counseling refer to this as “internalized oppression”, or adultism.
What to do? As an adult who regards himself as an ally to many young people, and a comrade in the struggle against adultism, I believe that it is my responsibility to reach further, work smarter, and commit more of my energy to reaching those who are disenfranchised by the heirarchy of age within our society. The first understanding that I have mined from this experience is that I have a tremendous responsibility to connect with those who are most disconnected. The second is that I believe that the most potential for youth empowerment lies within those who feel most disempowered, primarily because you cannot experience hope if you have never experienced anguish. All young people know anguish, no matter what their social/political/cultural/educational background. However, not all young people consciously experience that pain. My experience has shown me that those who do are often those who most deeply repel my simplistic, popular postures on youth empowerment in these workshops. Therefore, I must work deeper to connect with them directly. I must speak more pointedly, and pose more challenging questions. Only then can I truly resonate in the hearts of those young people whom I feel most drawn towards and formerly part of.
I believe that my ethics, as an adult ally and as a critical youth worker, obligate me to reach towards the most disenfranchised youth with the hope of connecting with their anguish. I want for nothing more than to move them towards anger, then hope, and then love. As Paulo Freire tells us in Pedagogy of Indignation, those are the three parts to truly liberating the oppressed. I don’t have any false conceptions of what I can do in 3 hours or less; however, I do have high hopes. Along with anger and love, hope is the core of my action.