Rethinking Youth Empowerment

So many adults say they want to empower youth. When they say this to me, I’ve learned to simply hear them, because its usually those adults who most want to be empowered. So, before you strive to empower a young person, I want you to consider that you might want to be empowered yourself. Right now, take a moment and think about what that means for you. That’s not a value judgment statement or a condemnation; its just an opportunity for you to think about it.

When I write the phrase “youth empowerment”, I’m talking about young people of all ages, including very young children and very old teenagers.

A long time ago, I wrote a definition of youth empowerment: “Youth empowerment is an attitudinal, structural, and cultural process whereby young people gain the ability, authority, and agency to make decisions and implement change in their own lives and the lives of other people, including youth and adults.”

However, if you work professionally with young people, I want you to understand that there is not one single definition of youth empowerment.  There’s no single power that all adults can give all youth. Its not simply ability, authority, and agency, because there’s both more and less to it than that.

The simple fact is that all children and youth are endowed with an innate power that they alone possess, and they alone can own. There are no proper words to express what this power is or how it acts. Youth power is literally larger than words.

As adults, every single one of us needs to acknowledge that we can and frequently do oppress youth power. However, none of us can restore it. We can open doorways that help young people reclaim their power, and those doorways can become gateways to lifetimes of empowerment; but adults cannot reclaim youth power for young people.

I have come to understand that decision-making opportunities are doorways to youth empowerment. So are leadership, teaching, and other activities that position young people in places of genuine and appropriate authority over their own lives, and influence in the lives of other people. However, its also a place of authentic personal understanding: one part motivation to three parts ability, youth empowerment is a personal awareness of the intrinsic nature lying within all people to change the world and change themselves.

Because of the depth of this reality, “youth empowerment” is often misunderstood, misconstrued, and ill-implemented. Many adults simply put young people into positions of authority without ever attending to that authentic personal understanding that needs to be intact. Well-meaning parents give their kids the keys to the house without locking the liquor cabinet, while well-meaning youth workers form youth councils without facilitating training about leadership or self-awareness for youth participants.

Remembering that there’s no one single way that all adults can empower all young people, its also true that all youth empowerment is subjective. That means that what works in one community won’t work in the next, and what works with one teen in a family may not work with younger children in the same family. All young people have their own oppressions that need to be overcome, and if youth empowerment is meant to help overcome those oppressions, adults need to cater to their realities.

There are many, many ways that adults can oppress all young people; oppression is an objective fact. This is true of the youngest among us, as well as the oldest youth in our lives. All young people are discriminated against because of their age, and that is an unquestionable fact. Parenting, schooling, governing, and many more functions of society serve to oppress people whom they’re designed for; whether by intention or coincidence doesn’t matter.

If young people come to believe that their oppression is fair, or that their oppression is their own fault, then they won’t think of themselves as oppressed. Adults routinely work to convince young people that their oppression is the result of biological fact, social norms, or cultural customs, rather than the fault of individual adults whose actions and choices oppress children and youth.

Finally, if you’re concerned with action, here’s a last thought for now: The only way to really, really understand the relationship between youth empowerment and oppression is to observe it directly in your own life. Begin your looking directly from where you stand right now and observe how you oppress young people, children, youth, teens, kids, tots, infants, babies, any or all of them – because we all do. Adults oppress young people as parents, teachers, youth workers, neighbors, aunts and uncles, counselors, all these roles. When you’ve acknowledged that, dig further into your own life and look at your teenage years. Acknowledge how you were oppressed as a youth, then name your oppression as a child. Name each instance and type you can think of. This is hard work, but the first step to uncovering your role as the oppressor and the oppressed.

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