Sometimes inspiration is all that’s needed. Last night I facilitated a group of 20 youth and 6 adults at a 2.5 hour youth forum in rural Pierce County, Washington. Their community is a mobile home park founded 25 years ago as a retirement community that has seen evolved into a neighborhood filled with a variety of residents, bringing along with them all the complexities that economic diversity does: nice houses clashing with poorly-upkept homes; drug addicts stealing from everyone, and; people who use the neighborhood food bank not looking good for people who just bought a new house in their area.
The young people faced many of the same situations young people everywhere face, including a lack of recreational activities, no safe routes to school or parks or through their neighborhood, and violence at home and among friends. They also shared a lot about drug use. Adults who were in the room talked about many of the same issues, sharing challenging situations and relating to many of the youth participants’ experiences.
But there were sticky points throughout the evening. Many youth were suspected of being high, and others were scowled at for goofing around during the activities. Looks of disapproval were handed out freely among youth, and some were shared from adults to youth. Some youth scowled at the adults. These are incidents that I am very familiar with.
It will come as no surprise to people who know me that when I was a teen I was a little too rambunctious and a little too inaccessible to some adults. I frequently goofed off in class, and sometimes made fun of the minister during church services. I skipped a lot of school and didn’t really apply myself in a lot of classes. The times I got in fights or did other bad things were balanced by my volunteer activities in a strange dichotomy, which I still live today in my own ways. But I wasn’t widely applauded for doing good things, and that wasn’t why I did them. Instead I did them because it felt right, or I did them because it was a thing to do. Those are the reasons why a lot of young people were there last night.
Rather than see these youth as broken or in need of services, these are the precise young people who need to be seen as resources. It’s not because they’re easy to work with or particularly amicable towards adults; its because they care deep within themselves. That caring lays the foundation for a radical commitment towards their community and towards the world around them.
With that as a foundation I believe that any neighborhood can move young people from passive residents towards becoming active partners in community building. This is the ground-floor of my mission of re-envisioning the roles of young people throughout society: actively engaging every young person as a full member of anything, be it a community improvement group, school, a summer program for kids, or at the city hall. In the last few months I’ve watched this work underway in Manchester, Connecticut; Arlington, Virginia; and now in rural Pierce County, Washington. There are great strides underway with youth engagement, and we can continue reaching further. Let me know what you’re up to!