Youth Voice and the Urgency of Now

This morning I was looking through one of my AmeriCorps scrapbooks – I served three terms – and thought about the ways I understood youth involvement 10 years ago. Those were different times for me, when I was tied deeply into my own experience and hadn’t critically examined a lot of the assumptions I had. My head was full of weighty considerations and even some painful memories, as a lot of my attempts to make my voice heard as a youth were squelched, suppressed and negated. However, I was also filled with an optomism, a hope that youth involvement could stretch far beyond just showing up and earning the accolades that adults had laid out for me. At 23 I saw youth involvement as a door opening for young people to sit with adults and work as partners and really be members of their communities – I just couldn’t put a finger on what that looked like. 

Here I am 10 years on, and this morning I read an article by Bono in the New York Times. He’s bragging about his time with Frank Sinatra, and says once Sinatra told him that, “Being modern is not about the future, its about the present.” That is what I love about modernity, is that its so present, and I think that is the challenge of youth involvement: instead of focusing on some fuzzy unrelatable past or some foggy hopeful future, youth demand that we focus on now. As an adult I have often found fault with that thinking, lambasting the sentiment behind it for not being sustainable or considerate or whatever… but there’s a deeper lesson within it that I think we’ve got to give credence. The urgent necessity of now is that we not look away, look ahead, look behind, but rather that we look forward and around, seeing and hearing and breathing and believing that presence of the present.
Thoreau once wrote that, “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land, there is no other life but this.” Let’s find the eternity of youth by considering their moment, which is inherently fleeting. Rather than entrench our hope in some future we bestow on them, let’s embrace the duality, complexity and depth of urgency of today and now, which is the only time we are guarenteed to share with our young allies.
This consideration for modernity calls us to raise the stakes and outcomes we are seeking from youth involvement. Rather than attempting to educate young people that they’re working for some remote and intangible future, we suddenly becomed forced to acknowledge their agenda. 
This is backed by scientific literature [*note: I can’t find any good free online literature about this; email me for a short bibliography] about the brain and comprehension that shows there are major differences between how children understand time and how adults understand time. One of those differences, and there are many, is that young children aren’t able to conceptualize the abstract basis of “the future.” What does that mean for a 4-year-old picking up trash with her mom for a service project? As young people reach their middle teens they have a more complete understanding of the past and an emerging interest in the future; however, their ability to plan and consider the future is still remote and disjointed from their present. 
I think that differentiation has radical implications for youth involvement. It doesn’t mean that we stop thinking about the future, or challenging young people to consider the future; however, I believe it does mean that consider more than the future. Rather, we should seek to help children and youth understand how their actions, ideas, knowledge and wisdom affect the present, this moment, right now. If we can’t answer that question ourselves then perhaps we need to think about the same. 
That’s how we can get to the point: There is an urgency to Youth Voice, and an urgency to the present. Let’s meet the challenge that’s implicit in that.

3 comments

  1. Differences in perception of time are definitely one of those key issues when thinking about youth participation.

    I tend to just opt for the simple (rather than neuroscientific) explanation that – when you’re 10, one year is a tenth of your life – when you are fourty, it’s just one fourtieth.

    Big difference.

    Any why saying ‘It’ll take three years for us to make a policy decisions based on those consultations responses’ just doesn’t cut it in participation work.

  2. That said Tim, there is still a necessity to actually teaching young people about long-range impact and the need for working for the future, right? At some point we must move beyond -now- and look towards the future. I think my concern is that we do that too often in youth involvement efforts.

  3. Hi! I’m Jessica, I’m 15 years old, I’m reading this from Portugal and it’s amaizing how people just stereotype young people and just think they are the king of person that only cares with fashion, music and friendships. But we are conscient about what is made and the changes cause we know that it may change our future. Really nice article, sorry the possible mistakes.

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