Last week my daughter turned six. She had a nice party at a local blueberry patch with seven of her friends, picking berries, playing games, relaxing on blankets and just enjoying themselves all the way around. I enjoyed myself too, and I think many of the other adults there did, too. Tonight was another exceptional time, as I was surrounded by young kids who were running, playing, enjoying music in the park downtown, and just relaxing in their way and in the world around them.
I don’t remember a lot of this type of frivolity from when I was growing up. Sure, there were days when pushing a toy truck around the block or watching steer roping captured my imagination, but for the most part I think that the pressures of extreme poverty, familial homelessness and constant community disconnection limited my experience of unbridled enthusiasm for my community and the people in it. That’s not to say I didn’t have that at all: I know and honor that my parents struggled for my happiness and that of my siblings. But I also know that the simplicity of joy escaped me.
Today I work with educators and youth workers across the country to encourage them to find those experiences of enthusiasm and joy in their daily work with young people. I think that embedded in those times are the keys to self-actualization and the simple side of Youth Voice. Self-actualization in the sense Mazlow talked about it: a person is spontaneous, works to actively problem-solve and accept themselves and others and don’t make prejudgments. The simple side of Youth Voice in the sense that without romanticizing it, there is an adulturated exuberance and enthusiasm when young people can simply connect with their place and time and still be themselves.
Without trying to create an idealistic image that is neither culturally or socially aware, I want to acknowledge that there is a utopian possibility for Youth Voice, one that can embrace all realities and possibilities. Whether growing up in public housing projects, suburban sprawl or the backseat of a Chrysler K-Car, there is hope for Youth Voice in all communities. This is what I’m working for – what about you?