If You Don’t Have Anything Good to Say…

Youth development programs are ill-designed at best. The juvenile (in)justice effort has been corrupt since it was conceived. Any education system designed to rely on compulsory attendance is damned to fail. Mass media portrays young people as demonic sloths, the military preys on low-income young men and youth of color, feminism has been cannibalized by corporate sharks, commercialism blinds the better judgment of parents and the public sector has been privatized at the expense of the public good.

The world is messed up.

In the fall of 1999 I was running a city-funded youth center in Washington State. The young people who came through my program were mostly low-income and working-class white youth struggling to fill their hours with something other than what was expected of them. Their parents knew they would get in trouble if they stayed home, their friends knew they’d only watch TV at their house, local businesses knew they would shoplift if they were hanging out there, and they knew they didn’t have anything else to do… so, mostly they were fighting expectations.

I had a long string of youth-focused jobs before that, and everyone of them reflected that pattern: well-meaning adults struggling to fill the non-school/out-of-home hours of young peoples’ lives, as if their in-school or in-home hours were that great to begin with. As an adult youth worker and teacher, it was repeatedly my job to implement programs, create activities, and recruit or manage other adults as they carried out these well-intended, if poorly-informed, projects. The programs I worked in criss-crossed America’s social spectrum, as I worked in rural Latino and American Indian communities, inner-city African American neighborhoods, and privileged white middle American suburbs.

However, by the summer of 2000 I had enough. After re-reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed once more, I was determined to begin my exploring my own experience of youth programs, both as a young person and as an adult. After 300+ pages of writing I came across several themes that eerily repeated themselves throughout my work:

  • White people cannot meet the needs of communities of color. I believe this is because of white supremacy, which causes many people of European descent to act above the communities they serve. For more about this, read this article. The examples of this glare, and as a white person I have more than a few examples on display in that article.
  • Adults’ efforts to listen to youth voice often does a disservice to young people. While many people mean the best, adultism is still a reality throughout many youth programs. As a matter of fact, it is often a premise upon which these programs are founded. The Convention on the Rights of the Child is one of my inspirations in this work, if for no other reason than its Article 5, which acknowledges that all young people are different and have different abilities. This inherently breaks the back of adultism.
  • Almost all youth work in the US today is corporatized, and because of that the majority of youth work in the US today is morally bankrupt. The disgusting deification of commercialism and corporate funding of youth organizations in America today has led to the wholesale disenfranchisement of authentic approaches to youth work. This completely undermines democracy and community, and threatens the entire future of democracy in the US. There are few public examples of any programs that attempt to break this mold; The Freechild Project has held out for the last 5 years, but even we aren’t a great example. Here’s a great article about this development.

This kind of critical engagement with youth programs is largely absent from formal educational exploration, as too many young academics are frightened by the established order presented to them in their developmental, educational, phsycological, political, and economic discourses. I only stumbled upon the opportunity to embark on this study while attending The Evergreen State College, a publicly-funded radical alternative to traditional colleges. My own explorations were strengthened after an encounter with Peter McLaren at The Evergreen State College in Fall 2001, and then by the growth of my interactions with Henry Giroux over the last three years. But those are exceptional encounters.

bell hooks, Henry Giroux, Peter McLaren, Ira Shor, Paulo Freire, Michelle Fine… there are so many critical cultural theorists whose work must be examined and made sense of in the areas of youth development and civic youth engagement, consequently informing youth voice, youth involvement, youth-led organizing and youth/adult partnership programs. Yet no one is taking that lead yet. Why?

Alvin Toffler wrote,

“All education springs from some image of the future. If the image of the future held by a society is grossly inaccurate, its education system will betray its youth.”

Our image of the future is grossly inaccurate. Let’s stop betraying our youth by beginning this critical exploration – only then can we go forward in an honest light.

One comment

  1. There is a lot of wisdom in what you point out. I am struggling to figure out how to awaken adults and youth from the stupor this culture leaves us all in. I have ideas, but lack the financial resources to make things happen. Attempting social change while supporting a family is a difficult task. Becoming a parent has helped me see the adultism that is just taken for granted in this culture. I want my children to grow up confident and empowered. I try to treat them as individuals that I have been blessed with the task of guiding into this life. This culture is so powerful though. Everything in it is geared toward distraction.
    We have to figure out how to awaken and empower that little voice within people that is saying “this way of livin, just ain’t right.” I have talked with so many that know something is wrong, but feel powerless or are afraid to attempt change.
    Our culture keeps most blind by teaching us to chase fleating happiness instaed of the deep joys that would leave us satisfied.

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