Close your eyes for a second and imagine a group of youth talking naturally among themselves. Go ahead, close your eyes.
Really, close them for just a minute.
Now, take a minute and write down your answers to these questions, one at a time:
1. What does that group look like?
2. Who are the youth standing there?
3. What races are they?
4. Where are they at?
5. What clothes are they wearing?
6. What are they talking about?
You might be familiar with this activity if you’ve participated in any of my recent workshops. In the last six months I’ve done it a dozen times, and each time adults will whip through the first five questions. The youth often look like the people in their programs or classrooms; sometimes they are even those particular young people. The locations are usually familiar, although sometimes they sound more like the TV show “Boston Public” instead of Papillion, Nebraska. There are the predictable gripes about clothing and incantations of acceptance.
The question folks get most hung up by is number six. For some reason we have such a difficult time imagining what youth are talking about, or worse still, what they are saying. Even when the youth are familiar, even when the setting is knowable, for some reason it is difficult to imagine exactly what youth are saying? Why does youth voice have to feel secret to adults?
When I conduct forums in schools, I usually ask that administrators and teachers leave the room in order to establish a “safe space” for students to have honest – and hopefully, authentic – conversation. More than once I’ve left the room, only to find a group of adults standing outside the door, waiting to evesdrop on the conversation. Or I’ve come to the teacher’s meeting after school, only to hear the first question out of peoples’ mouths: “What did they say?”
Take a moment and familiarize yourself with some authentic online youth voice sources. You can start by visiting our collection of school-focused youth voice sources at SoundOut and then check out the forums at YouthNoise, the National Youth Rights Association, or TakingITGlobal, and then visit the BLOC Network website and Freechild’s MySpace page. Those sites offer an accessible way to begin listening to youth voice.
The voices are there – we need to learn to hear what they are saying.