The Education of a Youth Council

In July 2005 I watched a documentary called “The Education of Shelby Knox” that “hit the ball home” about the fallacies of systemic youth involvement. Before I go into that, I want to share a little background:

In October 2000 I joined the ranks of the YES Ambassadors, a group of youth involvement advocates hired by the Points of Light Foundation to work in national nonprofit organizations and state agencies across the US. My job was to promote youth voice and service in Washington state’s education agency. In the course of my work there, I found there were dozens of different kinds of youth involvement that didn’t fit conveniently on POLF’s spectrum of what’s acceptable: youth leading protests, youth evaluating programs, and youth researching issues weren’t on the okay list; youth forums, youth trainings, and youth councils were.

Those findings led me to work with friends, many of whom were YES Ambassadors, to create The Freechild Project. Freechild was to serve as a connecting point for all those different types of action, and to let the world know that young people were hard at work…

Fast forward 5 years to June 2005. I’m sitting in a theater in Seattle watching a movie about a young woman in Lubbock, Texas. She does everything “right,” including going to church, getting good grades, signing the abstinence pledge, and joining the youth council. However, its on the youth council where her convenient complacence falls apart, and she becomes inspired to advocate for something more, something deeper than what is acceptable.

While many other reviews focus on the topic of Knox’s activism (here and here) I want to highlight another component that I think is equally as powerful.

I am afraid that the youth council in this movie is indicative of youth councils in most small cities across the nation, which, while it may be good news for Lubbock’s coordinator, is bad news for youth councils in everywhere though. In my work as a trainer of these groups, and as a founder of a youth council in my neighborhood when I was a young person, I can honestly say that most youth councils are irresponsive to the needs of the actual youth they are supposed to represent. Worse still, they are often no more than tokens who carry out the will of their adult coordinators and organizational sponsors.

Its dangerous for me to say this: I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds. However, any amount of critical analysis can easily identify the faults of an adult-driven, adult-oriented group designed to gather and share youth opinion. This was definitely the case of Lubbock, Texas, where Shelby Knox so deftly gave the youth council an education of their own.

I fully recommend this film to any youth council or youth involvement program with similar aims, as it unrelentingly shows the outcomes of youth-driven action in a rural, middle class community. Thanks, Shelby, for a great story and lesson for all of us.

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