The Myth of “Neutral” Youth Work

I was presenting to a group of youth workers last week and talking about the politics affecting young people today. Typically in these conversations I will hear that youth are not political, and that adults shouldn’t confuse them with politics. I usually share some of the ways politics affect young people, including education, social service funding, and government laws, workshop participants usually identify the way their work is political, and consequently, the ways youth are political.

Last week in the middle of a workshop a young African American male community youth worker from a middle-class nieghborhood threw a curveball at me: “I am not political. I am neutral.”

This caught me off-guard, mostly because I’d never heard it before. I have imagined it, and heard it in peoples’ assumptions, but I have never had anyone just say it. “I am neutral.” The very thought of someone pretending they are neutral in any work done with youth is offensive and belittling, if not to young people themselves, then to their own work. This claim is bizarre to me. Why would anyone want to present themselves as “neutral”?

So I asked this person that. As they talk, their missionary ideology floated out, revealing a perspective that is both paternalistic and commercialized. In an era when corporations design school curriculum, manufacture youth culture and manipulate social policy, I just can’t let adultism and consumerism take over in my workshops. Again, its not that I haven’t seen it before, its just that its never been so clearly defined.

So I called this person out. As a group, we identified the different points of contention inherent in the statement that “I am neutral.” We didn’t come to a clear resolution in the next hour, and that is part of the point: Devoid of happy bows and neat wrapping, youth work is not a happy gift that is simply thrown into our laps to open when we want. This work is urgent, demanding, and inherently political – and that is the point. We’re struggling against many forces that are vital to identify. By denying the role of politics, economics, or social forces, we’re ignoring the basic assumptions upon which any prevention, intervention, or empowerment program is founded.

  • By saying that we are “empowering” youth, we acknolwedge that youth do not currently have power. That is political.
  • By proclaiming that we are “teaching” students, we acknowledge that students are devoid of some form of knowledge or ability. That is political.
  • By working to intervene in youth crisis situations, we acknolwedge that young people are in crisis. That is political.

In Pedagogy of Hope Paulo Freire wrote,

Washing ones hands of the struggle between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.

Our challenge is to be conscious of the politics inherent in our work with young people that show themselves in our assumptions, our actions, and our outcomes.

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