After training 1000s of people around the country for several years on the topic of Youth Voice it strikes me there were several tensions in the concept of “engaging youth voice.” I have sought to address some of them:
- The now-routine segregation of youth and adults perpetuated by most schools and youth-serving nonprofits;
- The demonization/infantalization dicotomy promoted by youth-focused consumerism and promoted by mainstream media;
- The inherent dependence of the nonprofit industry on portraying young people as “broken,”
And so forth. However, long after one of my mentors tried teaching me about it, today I came to understand another incidious problem: when individuals, programs, and entire organizations confuse the purpose and function of Youth Voice.
Seeing “engaging youth voice” as the sole purpose of a program is an inherently problematic perspective because this goal focuses on the means not the ends – the function, not the purpose. Engaging youth voice is an way to achieve many purposes, many of which I’m not promoting. Engaging youth voice can be a great way to promote consumerism – it’s already used in countless ad campaigns for products that “make” youth want to buy them for the sake of buying them; the ads made them feel special, hopeful, or told them that an otherwise unknown desire could be satiated by owning a particular thing. Engaging youth voice can be a great way to recruit young people into the military; it can be an effective way to lure students to complete school; and it can be a convenient vehicle for imposing compliance and authoritarianism – yep, that’s right – youth voice can be a way to promote control. At the same time youth voice can be a vehicle for promoting deeper learning, more effective governance, and more successful community belonging. All those are ends, or purposes, for engaging youth voice.
But engaging youth voice for the sake of engaging youth voice is a myopic perspective, at best. At worst, it promotes gross negligence and narcissism. Young people need to understand that their words and actions take meaning in the larger world beyond them, and with that in mind they need to assume the responsibilities and obligations inherent in caring for that world. When we focus on “getting the youth on board” without naming the reason why we’re doing that, we inherently subject young people to the ambiguity of social order and the prevailing order of our society.
Let’s acknowledge that youth engagement is a means to an end, and not the purpose in and of itself. Only then can we move forward beyond this place.