It is difficult for me to listen to the experts and professionals preach about “youth leadership“. There is an inherent dilemma in that phrase and in the practices behind it that is repulsive. I have not met a program that bills itself as a youth leadership program that teaches young people how to survive the system, how to take control of their personal lives or how to challenge the messed up situations that many, if not all, young people live in.
Too often these organizations just focus on skill development: communication, leadership, conflict management, decision making, time management, and leadership styles. They sometimes teach action-oriented skills: project development, change management and volunteer development. Rarely do they put context to youth leadership, meaning that any discussion about depleting water supplies, parental abuse, the school-prison-military complex, police abuse, adultism or educational inequities is gone. Instead, the organizations that do teach these skills in context are marginalized by their assigned categories, like youth activism, youth media or youth rights. These groups might attach “youth leadership” in their descriptions, or buried within a grant application, but they don’t surface the title because generally they know what it implies.
What is most problematic about that is that whenever adults convene meetings or conferences or call for young people to become engaged in their communities, they put out general calls for “youth leaders”. They want the young people who shine to show up. What makes a young person shine? Why, anyone who acts just like me! Adults, 2.0 – you know the type. They know how to dress, act, walk and talk like adults. They can turn a phrase and spin an idea like the pros, and often make adults look silly because they are smarter and quicker than yesterday’s youth. (The training ground of “youthhood” is ironic, because as soon as you stop being young you become outdated, no matter what you do. That is how it is.) Meanwhile, young people who need skills different from the white, middle- and upper-class struggle to find accessible, appropriate and relevant opportunities to develop them.
When I was 16 I participated in a youth leadership program of the Urban League in Omaha. I remember it being a pretty intensive program that was filled with all kinds of sessions, maybe once a week for a quarter or something. It was a little awkward for me because suddenly I was sitting with the other people from school who lived in my neighborhood but didn’t talk with me. Oh, we saw each other: they were notorious bangers or the funny, smart, cynical people at the front of the class. But suddenly we were in the same class together, collectively seen as “youth leaders”. I don’t remember anything else from the class. I don’t remember writing it on any college applications, either.
But isn’t that the thing? We look for youth leaders who we know will succeed, who we can trust not to fail our expectations, because as adults our worlds sometimes seem so concrete, so firm. But our world is changing! We have to develop a different vision of what leadership is – there simply is not a choice. We need more than a next generation that just comes in here to hold up the roof so it doesn’t all fall in on us. We need young people – every single one – to come in here and work with us to show us that the roof needs taken down, and then to help us construct a new vision of our collective present and future, as well as to help us understand our past. We need new dreams – another world is possible.