One of the main points of youth involvement activities is to foster a deeper connection between young people and the communities they are part of. They become connected physically by spending time; mentally by sharing their thoughts; emotionally by sharing their feelings; and in many other powerful ways too. Whether they are involved in schools, nonprofits, government programs, or faith-based communities, all children and youth deserve opportunities to become deeply connected.
There are many challenges to youth involvement though. Society has a legacy of routinely and systematically excluding young people from many substantive opportunities for them to become engaged. Rather than be a conspiracy that’s designed by few and inadvertently compelled by the masses, segregating children and youth is a blatant design in our society. This segregation defeats many well-intended youth involvement activities.
Here is what youth segregation looks like in five places.
- Education System. Everyday around the world, young people are separated from their families and neighbors and placed within specially designed environments that segregate them from mainstream society, simply because of their age. Within those confines, they’re segregated again by age and measured ability, both of which are arbitrary markers of their capacities to learn. Oftentimes this is made into a bigger issue because of racial and socio-economic segregation. Schools can overturn this ignorance by actively integrating young people with each other in recognition of their differences. They can also infuse learning throughout communities through service learning, internships, place-based learning, and other approaches—for all ages, everywhere, all the time.
- Childcare. Before and after school, many young people face receiving care in isolated facilities that are operated to stop them being at home alone, and relieve the concerns of parents who can’t be there with their children. Regardless of size, these locations almost always segregate children and youth from mainstream society, instead relying on a few well-meaning adults to guide young people during this time.
- Youth Programs. Nonprofits, community groups, government agencies, and schools all provide programs for youth during out-of-school times. They may be recreational, educational, social, or faith-based, but most of them depend on separating children and youth from adults in order to affect them. The idea that young people should be segregated from their families and the rest of the church started with youth schools, spread to youth programs, and is now in commerce, recreation, and media. Young people are now routinely ghetto-ized.
- Jobs. While age discrimination in the workplace is prohibited for older people by federal law, there are few protections for young people. Well-intended child labor laws met the end of abusive employment practices that exploited child and youth workers. However, there is rampant age-based isolationism in workplaces that causes youth workers to only be able to work with other youth. Ephebiphobia and adultism make unwritten practices in workplaces that segregate youth workers the norm, while marketers make youth consumers an isolated clientbase too. All that says little about the few number of jobs actually available to young people anymore. As the economy went south, jobs that used to be for youth went to adults while programs that funded jobs exclusively for youth were shut down with bipartisan support.
- Cultural Programs. The very programs that are designed to sustain our culture and society are oftentimes ones that most deeply segregate young people from adults. Ironically, children and youth are expected to learn about history devoid of the people who’ve actually lived it. Instead, they’re expected to study it and examine it alone, or with the guidance of a well-meaning but frequently poorly equipped teacher. A 1998 study from the William T. Grant Foundation says, “There is a portrait of youth that is not only misleading, but harmful. We ought to correct the record out of a sense of fairness, as well as accuracy. These young people desperately need a chance to get started in responsible careers. Instead, they are frequently saddled with the image of being uninterested and unwilling to assume responsibility. Complaining about youth is all too common.” This is correct, if not even more exacerbated, in cultural programs of all types.
Scanning throughout society at the places where young people are and adults aren’t, there are many more innocuous and a few more nefarious examples I could draw on. However, I’m going to leave you with this opportunity to imagine them yourself. Answer these questions:
- Am I interested in stopping youth segregation?
- Do I think age segregation of all kinds is valid?
- How do I discriminate against young people?
- What am I willing to sacrifice in order to stop youth segregation?