I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with young people over the span of my early career and more recently to translate some of these experiences into working with adults. The bulk of these efforts have been focused on developing meaningful opportunities for young people to engage in their own lives and in meaningful community change with the support of adult allies and adult-led systems. In other words, I have tried to engage young people as active members of a democratic society. For years, I have stood beside young people as they advocated on issues that were important to them including their having a voice in schools and communities. For years, I thought that making this happen required a combination of deep engagement and preparation with young people and then getting adults to get out of the way.
Now that my work is focused mostly on adults (still around youth engagement), I am finding that the issue of getting adults out of the way is much more complicated than I previously understood. It is not just that we adults are in the way of young people developing democratic values; we are apparently in our own way! We don’t cultivate the democratic values of choice, advocacy and an engaged citizenry, largely it seems, because we are not comfortable with those concepts ourselves. If we are going to work to develop young people to be the next social change agents, the movement leaders, the ethical and engaged politicians or even ask them to engage in youth issues of today, we adults have our own issues to deal with!
In a recent training, after spending a day and a half building report with a group of adult community leaders while increasingly reducing my role as facilitator of their group and turning the power back over to them, I gave them the opportunity to self-organize in groups around a series of discussion topics that they had created. I simply acknowledged that they had come up with some key issues to discuss and I invited them to get into groups around the topic that was most interesting to them and discuss and develop action strategies. It seemed pretty simple.
A few people stood up immediately and started to move. A few followed them, but the vast majority stood looking at me and around the room in utter confusion. One particular woman with an almost panicked look on her face told me “I think we need some more instructions.” I told her simply that I had given all the instructions that were needed. Another woman swooping in to rescue her confused colleagues made an announcement that she thought that everyone should get back into the groups that they had worked in at a previous session, that this would “just be easier.” Finally, a third group member offered his own set of instructions based on my simple prompt of “get into groups based on the topic that most interests you” with an idea around numbering the tables and then choosing a number and so on.
Ultimately, the group went to the tables where they had worked previously and at which they were already comfortable working, and then secondarily claimed topics for discussion based on where they happened to be sitting rather than necessarily by interest. In other words, in the uncertainty of open choice, they followed a protocol that was familiar to them, that was safe, that did not require them do any problem solving, communication, or significant work with their peers to generate a strategy for a simple problem.
As we reflected as a group on this exercise, the adult leaders had to wrestle with the fact that they were totally stumped by the opportunity of choice, of self-organizing, of a lack of prescriptive instruction. They were overwhelmed as my limited directions did not meet their expectations or their needs. Many, quite simply, couldn’t do it. They were paralyzed. They sought parameters and direction from a source of power (the facilitator) and did not know how to claim their own power. They actually wanted to be told what to do. Their mental models required them to have more information -- and less choice -- in order to take action.
How many young people have you ever worked with who wanted to be told what to do?
Now, I do not offer this story as any sort of criticism for this particular group. In fact, this is a normal response when working with adults. The reality is that we have very un-democratic mental models of how the world and our work happens. And, we find comfort in the consistency of someone else’s direction, especially when we trust them. Herein lies the danger of our practice in working with young people. We can build great relationships with young people, powerful and important levels of trust, and yet we can do so while continuing to perpetuate a degree of powerlessness and deference. Whether it is our inability to share power (or perhaps acknowledge our own) or our desire to protect young people from failure, our practices often present formulaic relationships and controlled environments to young people that neither prepare them for their real lives nor create space for them to be creators of their own learning and existence.
We focus on outcomes around safety, engagement, skills development and so forth without ever supporting the development of a healthy, sustainable practice of life, of learning, of growing, of becoming. These sorts of outcomes require the courage to act effectively without (or against) explicit rules or parameters, to create something from nothing. These are the ultimate skills for breaking the mental and societal bonds of oppression that so many of our young people are growing up in. Only with these skills and efforts will we achieve a democracy for all people, not just for those for whom the current system is working.
But with our own deference to social norms and the same formal and informal educational structures we continue to put young people through, we actually continue to perpetuate our own passivity and powerlessness, passing it on to the next generation.
We need a prompt in order to act.
We need to be given choices in order to choose.
We need to be handed the mic in order to speak.
As a result, we adults make parameters, define rules and pedagogical practices and learning environments that keep us safe under the guise of what is best for young people.
So, I ask: who says that magically at 18 years old a young person is prepared to be an active, voting, engaged citizen? Why are we waiting until then to include young people in our democracy? Who honestly thinks that suspension from school or removal from society via juvenile incarceration does anything at all for the positive development of a young person or democratic citizenship? Who believes that 7a.m. is the best time for high school students to begin learning and 2 p.m. the optimum time to send them on their way?
Have you ever met a young person that does his best work at 7 a.m.?
I have been in numerous discussions recently about the fact that young people are involved in crime and in fact dying at a considerably higher rate during the hours of 3 to 7 p.m. What would happen if they were in school at that time? What if school started at 10am and went on into the evening. I am quite certain that I have never met a teenager who would wake up early just to get into trouble between the hours of 7 to 10 a.m.!
The fact is our current system serves our needs (if nothing more than our need to resist change) better than our youth’s needs.
Until we understand the ways in which we adults continue to define the rules of the game, and therefore to ensure that it is, in fact, our game, we will always struggle to engage young people in meaningful ways. Until we check our own needs for our own definitions of support, of opportunity, of education, of democracy and realize that we may be serving ourselves better than our youth -- actually maintaining the status quo that isn’t working for them – then we will continue to fight with great intentions, great righteousness, and limited results.
Just like a well-functioning democracy, working with young people is more messy than clean, more chaos than clear parameters, more calculated risk than controlled curriculum.
We adults have some work to do.