“We don’t just want a seat at the counter – we want to own the counter”
– Malcolm X
With this quote, Malcolm X was laying down the opening salvo in a much larger battle than the battle for equality. In a simplistic reading, he was saying that instead of simply being given the chance to be “the same” as everyone else, African Americans deserve opportunities to rise to positions of power and authority, just as all Americans are promised the opportunity to do.
This is one problem that the Youth Voice movement has had in the past twenty years: Adults have wanted young people to sit at the table without owning the table. One of the premises behind CommonAction is that in order to affect real change in communities, young people and adults need to equitable relationships. One of the “misses” of the early youth involvement movement is that those leaders sought equality between youth and adults. There is a difference between equity and equality – and the difference is our situation is that equality means one group bowing to the demands of the other.
In the case of equality between youth and adults in our adultcentric society, there is rarely a group of adults who is willing to become more youthful, despite their best intentions. Sure, there are boards and staffs and small groups who will take a running stab at it by incorporating cooperative games or music or any other “youthful” type atmosphere tool. But I have seen too many of even these groups who back away over time and slowly sink back into adult-type routines because of adult-type pressures and adult-type demands. The topics that used to be fun become bland, and the young people who used to show up start hiding from our knowing glances.
So in these scenarios it becomes the responsibility of youth to become more like adults. This often means formalizing their behavior and attitudes, as so many traditional youth leadership programs exemplify. That sucks! One of my favorite quotes is from Alfie Khon, who writes, “Children, after all, are not just adults-in-the-making. They are people whose current needs and rights and experiences must be taken seriously.” If only ever child and youth heard that – especially if you are a young person who does not see their self as the kind of youth who is traditionally involved in leadership activities. If a program does appeal to nontraditional youth leaders, or to youth who do not identify as leaders at all, oftentimes that sort of group is seen as inaccessible to adults, effectively killing off any notion of equality in that sense.
As a last resort, a lot of organizations that seek to form effective youth/adult partnerships end up creating segregated, unequal avenues to foster partnerships. These opportunities take the form of youth councils and youth festivals and youth arts walks and youth this and that and the other thing… To do justice, this type of segregation isn’t always afflicted by adults onto youth; sometimes youth develop these approaches themselves without adult intervention.
However, I would propose that this type of self-segregation is simply a response to the social segregation young people face everyday as they are warehoused into age-segregated schools, tracked into age-specific labor pools, and arrested for status offenses that only target their behaviors. The fields of youth media and youth-led organizing are excellent examples of these types of responses. They are separate and unequal avenues for getting the voices of a minority heard by an overwhelming majority, except in the case of what seems like 1/2 of all youth media programs, which actually have youth targeting other youth – but that’s a different story.
The solution for this injustice is a new model of youth voice that any conscious adult ally must consider, at the least. Taken from the field of environmental justice, the term “intergenerational equity” summarizes this new approach best. It is not simply enough to give young people a seat at the table, because honestly said, they have never learned how to sit still in their seats. They have never learned how to speak jargon. And adults, we have never learned how to successfully relate to youth after we leave that age group. We have never learned how to strongly, empathetically and non-judgmentally listen to youth. We just don’t know how.
Intergenerational equity will bring us a lot closer to our goals of forming deep partnerships with the people who co-occupy our planet – and we need to do that. Parker Palmer once wrote that, “Deep speaks to deep.” Let’s go there.