Why “Youth Empowerment” Fails Us (for Maggie)

A while back I wrote a post called Youth Involvement as a Kludge where I described how youth involvement programs can actually become bigger problems than they are solutions. My friend Maggie responded with the following question:

I don’t know how to become an equal [with youth] without losing my authority; how to give youth their power, without giving too much- is it even possible?

Well, its been a month of Sundays, but I’m able to respond this morning. Let me start by saying that I think you’ve asked a valid question that’s in the hearts and minds of many youth workers, Maggie, especially when we hear the drumbeat of Youth Voice and the call for youth involvement so frequently.
When I was young the youth workers in my neighborhood often talked to me about youth empowerment, and as I got older I explored the assumptions behind youth empowerment. I came to conclude that there is an ambiguity built into calls for youth empowerment that is inherently disenfranchising, both to the youth and the adults who are involved. “Youth empowerment” fails youth because there is no standard for it. I wrote a definition of it for Freechild’s Guide to Social Change Led By and With Youth, stating that, “Youth empowerment is an attitudinal, structural, and cultural process whereby young people gain the ability, authority, and agency to make decisions and implement change in their own lives and the lives of other people, including youth and adults.” But there is no consensus about the definition, as several different organizations, researchers and young people have put out their own definitions. Basically, the term means too many different things to too many different people. Many people will challenge that the intention is the same, and that’s what I tried to capture with my own definition.
All the same, with that uncertainty comes a lot of room for interpretation. On one end of the spectrum are folks who attribute any amount of power-sharing with young people as youth empowerment. This can look like youth chosing the colors of their bedrooms, students planning homecoming dances and teens “getting” a new basketball court in their neighborhood. All these things have been labelled as youth empowerment. On the other end of the spectrum is the absolutism represented by the youth liberation movement: young people completely able to control their own destinies, with economic, spiritual, educational, politicial, recreational and social “freedom” to do whatever they want, wherever they want, whenever they want. I learned early that these dicotomous understandings aren’t necessarily in opposition of each other; instead, they’re locations along a spectrum. All that said Maggie, I think your question ultimately asks how you can find the balance, the midway point along that spectrum. The good news is that I don’t think you have to chose – the challenging news is that I don’t think the question you asked is an honest choice that anyone should have to make. Now I’ll answer your questions within a question directly.
Let me say this unequivocally: Adults and youth cannot and should not be equals. There are practical reasons why nature has provided us with differences in our phsyco- and social metrics, with the child/parent/elder relationship intact in my thinking. This is a challenging thing for me to write, and if asked I’ll provide some gray spaces and exceptions to the rule. However, for the most part I believe that all children and youth should be granted the permission, ability, resources and opportunities they need to be children and youth. Likewise, I believe that all adults should receive what they need to be adults, as well. In my reading of the literature, those definitions have been changing throughout modern times, from the European colonization of the Americas onwards, and those changes should be acknowledged and embraced for their inevitability and validity. I am a proponent of changing those roles myself. However, as our society stands today youth and adults should not be equals. I do believe there should be equity between youth and adults.
The authority adults have in society is assumed and granted by social custom and political institution. It is a false, yet logical, authority that grants power, access and reign simply because of age, rather than ability, knowledge, strength or widsom. The question of whether adults should ever lose their authority isn’t necessarily the right one, because of the political/judicial systems that reinforce our social norms, customs and expectations. Courts hold adults responsible for the interest and well-being of youth, and no adult should be expected to sacrifice their legal compliance to meet the demands of a moral or ethical high ground. If an adult wants to do that it raises the question of appropriate adult allyship and the role of youth/adult partnerships; however, these are questions of gradation rather than absolutism. You don’t have to lose your authority Maggie; instead, you have to recognize where the possibilities for power-sharing are possible. My Cycle of Youth Voice is designed for adults who want to do that.
In a new song U2 sings that, “Every generation gets a chance to change the world. Pity the nation that won’t listen to your boys and girls – cos the sweetest melody is the one we haven’t heard.” Maggie, I think you are on your way to listening to this melody. But I want to make sure you’re not overwhelmed by the chorus singing in the background. Do what you can for you, and what you can for Jenna, and everything will turn out exactly the way its supposed to. Good luck, and remember I’m here if you want more.

3 comments

  1. FROM TIM LADD: I feel "hearing" a voice is not an abdication of authority or power. I heard my son say he's not going to take a bath. I still exercised my own authority by saying oh yes you are because you just crapped down the side of your leg and that's not staying there.

    I don't think youth voice is hearing and providing total validation of the message. Some youth voice is wrong, just like some adult voice is wrong. It's part of a continuum of voices, a symphony of voices.

    In our culture we have come to think that "listening" to youth voice is incorporating all that is voiced and validating it to the nth degree. We can't possibly tell the "child" they are wrong or mistaken because that's just not going to be good for their ego. That, I feel, is wrong because one day that "child" will be told — you are full of crap and they won't even comprehend the concept because they've always had their voice "listened" to in the past. Not in a real way but in our adult "listening" way.

    Perhaps the equality comes from taking the voice of the youth and treating it just as you would a voice from an adult. It's input, its part of the symphony, its part of the tapestry of interaction. Some adult voices articulate really stupid thoughts and ideas. Some youth voices articulate really profound thoughts and insight. Some very bright children lack the full construct of a lifetime of experience to frame their understanding and will say naive and erroneous things. Some adults have never learned to fully integrate their lifetime of experiences to provide a framework for their observations or "voice" and will say naive and erroneous things.

  2. CONTINUED FROM TIM LADD: Part of the key may be to remove the natural bias we attach to the youth voice. Or remove the additional weight we give to adult voice. It's like an automatic weighted scale in our brain — two statements, one from a youth and one from an adult. Equal in all ways except the adult statement always get more weight in our automatic system.

    Or, let's get real deep. Got your pressure suit on, this is gonna get deep.

    In my opinion, life is a series of interactions with others. Reality is based on relationships; a series of relationships throughout every minute of every hour of every day of our life. It is our perception of those interactions that shape our view of the world. It is also our participation in the interaction that changes our perception and hence our world view. Yep, you’ll have to reread that one cause its a little recursive. And to blow the mind even more, it's what we look at (for) in relationships, our focus (based on experiences, surroundings, bias, culture, childhood scripting, etc.) that leads us to see "reality" as we've constructed it. In other words, you will see that for which you are looking – sometimes nothing more.

    I “judge” your voice based on my relationship with you, my perception of that interaction which is also skewed by my own participation in that relationship AND based on what I expect to see – that for which I’m looking.

    If I am in a room with my boss, my colleagues and a few children (or youth) and there are voices speaking, whose voice do you think I’m “focused” on? Whose voice has more weight? What relationships do I have that will shape my reality? What is my perception based on my focus? And if I am “looking” for a voice (shaping the reality of the situation) to which I need to listen, whose voice do you think that will be?

    Perhaps it’s like the integrated model of an adult human psyche with adult self, child self, parent self, etc. How do you think your childhood frames the voice that has the most weight in your own internal individualistic pieces and conversations? How can we hope to master listening to “youth” voice when we can’t even hear our own inner child speaking (sometimes screaming) to be heard?

    Do I abdicate authority when I listen to my “inner child”? I might feel that way but honestly it doesn’t have to be that way. I can just include that voice in the symphony of voices that are inside my head. It is one part of a greater whole. If I choose to ignore parts of the whole I will have holes in my whole. 🙂

    I think maybe listening to “youth voice” is just choosing to “look” for it during our daily interactions and relationships that create our reality and thereby it becomes part of our construct of reality. We have seen it, by looking for it and therefore it gets included in our reality.

    Whew, we can come up for air now! 🙂 I really need to get a blog up and running so I can play online with you in your playground. It's a lot of fun! 🙂

  3. I finally had a chance to come back and try to focus a bit on your message, Adam. My ADD mind is swirling at the moment! I totally get what you are saying and can see some of it in action when it comes to youth and adult interaction. I just spent three days with youth and adults at a Transition Conference….and it was awesome. The young adults really knew how to get their point made and helped pull the younger youth in, to hear their voice as well.

    I'll be happy when there is a true "middle of the road" on the spectrum. I'm all for that. I don't think a parent or responsible adult should give up their authority over a youth that needs guidance, but in the same breath, I feel a youth deserves to be heard. I guess that's all. I hope my disjointed thoughts make sense today.

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