Youth Engagement: Support People or Change Systems?

The “golden mean” of the youth engagement movement has been seen as systemization for at least ten years, and I have been a proponent the entire time, at times leading that movement and at times following. Today I’m wondering if I have been on the wrong path.

Somewhere along the way I learned that the charismatic, energetic and enthusiastic youth worker wasn’t enough. I came to believe that those of us who have the ability to draw young people out of their reticence were somehow anamolous and inherently flawed: rather than having a “gift” or some type of special ability, we are marked with some “X” that acts as a blight for sustainably engaging children and youth, because one person being able to do something is inherently unsustainable.
I came to believe that it can’t be all about us, these workers who have this ability. Instead, it must be about transforming systems in order to realign organizational priorities to focus on youth engagement. I came to understand that these single individuals are inherently going to be the “work horses” of youth engagement; instead of focusing on meeting their needs, we must focus on the larger systems surrounding their work. This is partially what has driven me from spending my time on the single-user focus of the Freechild Project website to working within the Washington State Department of Health, this desire to change the systems that affect youth workers rather than support youth workers directly. Today is catching me wondering why.
There is a dearth of adults whom fit the criteria of being able to successfully engage young people. These people must be:
  • Authentically and genuinely committed to engaging young people
  • Humble and determined enough to actually learn directly from young people
  • Motivated and intentional in their professional and personal lives to sustain youth engagement
I never believed it was wrong or incorrect to be these ways; rather, I came to believe it was the systems these folks work in that need transformed to better sustain and nurture these traits, and to build and develop them within people who don’t already have them.
But all these years after researching and training, watching organizations wax and wane, and seeing systems change slowly disintegrate in the face of massive governmental budget reductions and foundation giving dissolve, I’m not so convinced that systems change is the way to go.
This is me considering where I’m at, where our movement is at, and where to go next. Let me know what you think.

2 comments

  1. well, adam, I see the problem through the lens of responsibility– youth don't take it, and institutions don't encourage it.
    E.g. I'm working with a group of 9th and 10th grade students right now. The program is put on by a partnership between a local university and a local (urban) public high school newly fashioned to be a preparatory school. This summer program has the kids on the college campus using the facilities, etc. There are indeed some great intentions.
    Once in the program, however, the students are not allowed to use vending machines, go off campus to eat lunch (and thus must eat free lunches provided by the district that are the rough equivalent to jail food– mystery meat sandwiches, a piece of waxed & sprayed fruit, and tiny carton of 1% milk), visit myspace while in computer labs, use cell phones or ipods, etc. etc. etc.
    Imho it is ludicrous to expect these kids to act with much responsibility at all… if it was me I would be seething inside at all the ridiculous rules. (Why can't I listen to my ipod at lunch?) The funny part is that much of the rationale behind these rules is that the adults feel that they need to be "respected" by the students. I see a certain contradiction, however, between achieving genuine respect & responsibility and providing only a narrow window of behavioral options. Perhaps I'm rambling, but my point is that I do believe that structural change should occur, but it can only occur by people like us engaging kids and eliciting "naturally" responsible behavior, proving to others that kids really can be young adults if they have the freedom to choose it.

    And some may choose not to be, as well… Should we restrict the choices of every child because of the actions of these folks?

  2. Adam, I do believe that the systems need to change… But so do the people. You can implement all the policy and guideline changes you want but if they're never enforced it doesn't matter.

    Honestly, it comes down to you need to support people and change the larger system. Then be prepared for reality's backhand, because such changes are either held suspicious or scrutinized by one side of the other and as a result rejected, and resisted to maintain the status quo.

    That's my opinion of the thing. It's a hard thing to accomplish. Really the main system in the way is this country's social system. We've become an apathetic people who don't know how to take responsibility anymore. That is perhaps the root of the problem that needs to be addressed.

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