The Ghetto

I was presenting at a conference in Arkansas a few weeks ago when a guy came up to me and introduced himself. After telling me that he subscribe to Freechild and had downloaded all of my publications and being very appreciative, he very sincerely said, “You are the best youth speaker in the world.”

I couldn’t help but think, “What do you mean ‘youth’?” That’s like saying you’re the best woman speaker, or best African American speaker. There is a constant ghetto-ization of this work, and I am just not sure what to do with that.

For a long time I avoided any talk of “youth voice” for that very reason: We cannot and do not represent any one given characteristic of ourselves at any one given time. Any youth is also the product of her community, his school, their race, our society; but moreso than that, every youth is more than any of that!

We don’t usually see it, but we have to start looking. Young people need to investigate youth and adults’ perspectives of their voices. Youth and adults need to examine the differences in their perspectives on power and authority. We need to explore the differences between legitimate and tokenized youth voice. I need to identify youth who will mentor me to help CommonAction, The Freechild Project, and SoundOut stay grounded. There are so many nuances to this work – and ghettoizing young people is the last thing any of us should do.

One comment

  1. I’m not going to deny that “ghetto-ization” of youth voice and youth involvement work does not happen. But, your article struck me as a bit mean in response to your words about the man who belongs to Freechild and has downloaded all the publications thereof.

    While hearing “You are the best youth speaker in the world” probably rubbed you in the wrong way, my initial thought was “Where was Adam’s follow up question? Didn’t he thank the man for visiting Freechild and utilizing its resources, but then go on to ask for clarification in his statement – realizing that Adam is no longer a youth himself, but someone that believes in the thorough and complete involvement of young people in all aspects of society and has made it his life’s work?” Perhaps if the man had said something to the effect of “You are the best speaker that I have heard on behalf of youth and their involvement within our society” you wouldn’t have blinked. I guess what is bothering me in the statement the most is that your words come off as if the guy was being slightly malicious (for the lack of a better word right now). When in reality, I saw it as someone meeting a role model and being tongue tied (yes, I see you rolling your eyes and pa-shawing me right now…but anything’s possible and from this interaction it doesn’t seem too far from the truth). Granted, the core of this work is to constantly question, react, and examine what is being said and done so that stagnation and complacency do not come into play (a fate that has engulfed many) – for that I give you some props. But, not everyone does such a thing on a regular basis for reasons of just accepting what they see, not being sure what they are looking for, or a host of other reasons. This is where I see this man: in a place of wanting to be part of something big where young people are concerned and finding Freechild has given him such an outlet. The fact that you were speaking where he happened to be was probably a culmination of his experiences with Freechild and something that he will hold in fairly high regard for some time AND it probably re-invigorated his commitment to the work that he hopes to do (has done).

    I don’t know where this came from, but for some reason I was bothered by how I perceived the conversation between you two not play out – I guess bothered just enough to send you a response about it.

    Signing off for now…

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