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I am growing increasingly sensitized to the myriad ways youth involvement can potentially fail young people. One of those ways is the assumption that it is only through youth involvement – formalized, systemic participation of young people throughout institutions and organizations – can young people make a difference in the decisions that affect them. However, through workshops and conversations with 1000s of adults I have come to understand that youth involvement in organizations is not the core problem. Instead, its the belief that many youth and adults hold which says that political power is the only power young people have. I would suggest the opposite.
Political power is not youth power – its just one tool among many. The two terms are not synonomous, and for all of the saber-rattling among youth rights activists and civic engagement advocates, the simple fact of the matter is that youth power is much, much bigger than these approaches consider. When I speak here I’m not only talking about political parties or the political process; instead, I’m talking about the definition of politic, which is the process by which people make decisions, and here I’m talking specifically about organizational or governmental decision-making.
Instead of concentrating solely on this form of involvement, I am beginning to understand that we need to engage with young people on their terms where they are. Dragging youth to board meetings or propping them behind podiums or insisting they join advisory committees is only going to work a very, very small portion of the time with a very limited group of youth. There are some who argue that’s the very purpose of these activities, to weed out those youth who would become “leaders” throughout our society. However, and unfortunately, there are many, many very well-meaning adults who believe its these approaches that are going to engage the “every youth”, and even the historically disengaged young person. In reality though, the culture, the activities and the outcomes of these activities is generally too obtuse and too minute to appeal to these youth.
Unfortunately its this type of participation that gets the brunt of attention. But we must get away from assuming this is enough. Instead, let’s help every young person learn the skills and knowledge they need to make successful decisions in their own lives. Let’s engage youth in identifying their locus of control and how they can affect that. Let’s broaden the abilities of adults to actually meet genuine, practical and everyday needs of youth instead of creating kludges, that while well-meaning, generally result in inadequate or unsustainable outcomes.
My colleague Dan DeLucey has a great quote in the footer of his emails. He writes, “Teach me to successfully navigate life… not systems.” Let’s starting thinking about generalized youth involvement in decision-making this way, and then build upon that in successive opportunities, rather than vice versa. Let’s remember that political power is not youth power – its just one tool among many.