Today I received another spectacular question from Jackie, an executive director of a nonprofit focused on youth involvement in the Northeast. Reflecting on the Freechild Project Measure of Social Change Led By and With Young People, Jackie made an important point about this work:
…[I]f our goal is “all community members equally make decisions, take action” can it come from an effort initiated by an adult, like what I’m trying to do? I like the quote from Lilla Watson, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together.” I’m afraid maybe what I’ve organized is trying to “help” youth. Do you have time to share any thoughts?
I had to mull this over all afternoon, and honestly I’m not fully satisfied with my resolution – I think there’s more here. But here’s how I replied:
All adults have a moral and ethical responsibility to engage young people throughout the communities we co-occupy. It is true that we mostly fail to live up to that standard; however, that does not make it okay or right. We live in an adultcentric society that is reliant on the ideas, knowledge, and actions of adults to make the world turn; by deliberately setting about engaging children and youth in equitable and sustainable roles we can begin to rectify the disengagement we so regularly thrust upon them.
In consideration to Lilla’s quote, we must measure our responses in a responsible fashion. When I first read it a long time ago I internalized it, thinking that my inability to bring actual students into the state education agency I worked in was a failure to students and myself. However, I have come to understand that systemic change requires that adult allies assume responsibility for advocacy in the absence of youth themselves. I learned to talk with students directly by traveling around the state and going to schools and having safe and supported conversations with them about school improvement. I then took their words – directly, without my interpretation – back to the agency in their absence. When space was created within the agency for young people I had students I could go directly to, who I knew were informed and engaged in the lives of their schools as well as the language of school improvement. This led to their self-representation being a sophisticated contribution to these opportunities rather than bringing under-informed, under-prepared and frankly, disingenuous student voice into the room.
I say this at the risk of sounding as if I’m trying to rationalize away the selective inclusion of youth; however, I think that there are appropriately varying responses that need to be considered according to particular circumstances. By “selective” I do not mean WHO; I mean HOW. We don’t give 16 year olds the keys to the car and expect them to teach themselves how to drive; we shouldn’t do that with Youth Voice. This is particularly true when we consider the implications of youth involvement: its about efficacy as much as rights. We know that children’s rights and youth rights conversations generally don’t carry a lot of water in organizations and agencies today; however, we also know that school improvement and program efficacy are important throughout our communities. So let’s qualify and quantify youth involvement, if that is what is going to get young people at the table. In order to deliver on that, though, we must be very intentional and deliberate.
It is alsincredibly important to acknowledge that the nature of the quote has to do with the difference between sympathy and empathy. By differentiating ourselves from the young people we serve by dissing our actions we are merely perpetuating the “otherness” of youth. Unfortunately, I am convinced this is the silent messaging of a lot of programs that promote the perception that young people have the program within them. Ironically, this further strengthens the segregation of youth, which in turn enforces the alienation a lot of young people feel from adults, effectively undoing any notion of civic engagement and community building we thought we were encouraging through that approach in the first place. Now, please don’t get me wrong – there is a place for young people to run their own activities. However, I think that is a compromised position, at best, particularly when the work is in context of improving our whole communities and not singularly the lives of children and youth. If we are to address community problems what is a more effective, equitable approach than engaging all members of that community as partners? That includes children, youth and adults.
I guess to sum it up Jackie, at the end of the day I am a proponent of a radical democracy that sees the youngest among us as the logical engines, advocates and allies – just the same as everyone else. Full support, full opportunity and full inclusion are the only outcomes that I will accept; however, I know that the road from here to there is bumpy, unscripted, and sometimes isn’t a road at all. That’s why your work is so important.
I would love to hear anyone else’s response to Jackie’s question or my response.