The past masquerades as the present all the time when we’re looking at youth involvement efforts. In communities across the country there are youth advisory councils, youth forums (pdf) and other traditional and convenient forms of youth involvement acting as if they’re responsible and capable of expressing the diversity, power and ability of Youth Voice today. They simply aren’t, and the past is not sufficient for the realities of today.
These kinds of inadequate responses are typically led by well-meaning adults who are uncomfortable with nontraditional, inconvenient expressions of youth voice. They want structured, familiar, controllable opportunities for young people to share what adults want to hear, when they want to hear it, where they want to hear it and why they want to hear it. This isn’t completely wrong; however, it’s mostly off-the-mark, no matter what the situation. These approaches to youth engagement imply that young people are incapable of expressing themselves in ways that are appropriate, focused or otherwise useful to community-building, organizational development and/or personal expression. That’s completely false, no matter what the situation.
I have had many conversations with adults who say that they hand over the mic to youth and never get the responses they want to hear. “Sometimes I’ll even hand over the floor and they won’t say anything at all!” I think this is a straw man argument that relies on youth being uncomfortable with speaking up for themselves, which in turn generally relies on the force of adultism throttling their voices. If adults didn’t constantly create and reinforce the barriers that Youth Voice faces all the time there wouldn’t be an issue with young people expressing themselves.
Writing about turn-of-the-century America, anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote, “In time, the experience of the children of immigrants became the experience of all American children, who now were the representatives of a new culture living in a new age.” We, as adults, are living in a new culture in which we’re immigrants. For too long we’ve treated youth as alien; however, our society now embraces their norms – language, culture, economy and sociology – as normative behavior. The experience of young people online, including self-driven learning, entertainment-driven engagement, and youth-led culture-making, is becoming typical of the daily experience of all young people around the country, all of the time. Adults need to adapt and respond accordingly.
Part of the adaptation that needs to make falls on the shoulders of youth involvement advocates today. We must invent, reinvent, critique, examine and reconstitute our current youth involvement activities in order to become, maintain and sustain the relevance of learning about Youth Voice for young people. Only then can we buck the reliance we’ve developed on the past, and begin to see into the future. Only then can we unmask the past when it’s masquerading as the present.