Earlier this year, I posted a blog “Can’t See the Forest for the Fields” in which I talked about the arbitrary (for youth) but systemic (for our schools, communities, and organizations) distinction between the notion of “student” and that of “youth”. I also talked about the gap that we create when a young person is a student say from 7 a.m.-2:00 p.m. while in school and then suddenly becomes a youth when he exits the school building and enters the community. Each “sector” has its own unique training, outcomes, expectations, disciplinary practices and on and on and the only consistency is the young person who has to cross these boundaries. I won’t rehash the whole blog here, but feel free to click above and check it out.
Since the time of this initial posting, I have had numerous conversations with community groups who are trying to work with schools and schools who are trying to work with community groups. No one seems to understand why they end up frustrated or at odds because we all genuinely believe we are working in the best interests of our young people.
But, the reality is that for community organizations the “best interests of young people” often means we want youth to be engaged in their community and in issues important to them. We want them to develop informed and powerful voices, to build positive leadership skills and values, to understand conflict resolution, to build effective relationships and so on. This is what we are measured on; this is what our funding says we have to do.
On the other hand, most of our teachers and schools are struggling with the singular ultimatum of success that is standardized testing. They are trying in the “best interests of young people” to get students to pass these tests, and in order to do so to manage their classrooms, to address behavioral and disciplinary issues, to build relationships, and so on. But, ultimately, the students have to pass those standardized tests. This is what our schools are evaluated on; this is what their funding says they have to do.
Our differences are a matter of perspective, approach, and evaluation, not necessarily intent. The dissonance is between setting and outcome, good process and high-stakes accountability, climate and academic performance. And, despite the research, we have failed to make a strong enough case for the interdependence of these elements; or we have at least failed to create enough urgency to focus on changing our current course to support such a case.
The reason I am revisiting this concept is that I recently received an email describing a community that really seems to be working on eliminating this arbitrary gap for our students/youth. They are doing this with an understanding that a quality environment for young people is a quality environment for young people, regardless of content or specific outcomes, regardless of being in-school or out. In other words, there are some universal elements of quality spaces in which young people thrive that we can and should apply both in schools and in community settings.
An excerpt from the email:
This inspiring 12-minute video documents how the Georgetown Divide, a small community in the Sierra foothills of Northern California, has embraced a positive youth development approach across the settings where youth spend time and has anchored that commitment through widespread use of the Youth Program Quality Assessment. In this video, school teachers and youth workers reflect on their own practice in powerful ways, and describe how the cycle of assessment, planning and training works. District administrators and youth organization leaders describe how they are systematically implementing a low-stakes approach to accountability that has empowered staff, improved practice, and resulted in real change for youth.
To view the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79epysezpVs
The fact is that we know the kind of environment in which our young people will positively develop and thrive socially, academically, and otherwise. And yet, we too often define our educational and community settings around content delivery and short-term outcomes rather than our long-term intentions: developing healthy and prepared young people. If both in-school settings and out-of-school settings could at least share a common understanding of the elements of good “programming” for youth and for what makes quality youth spaces, perhaps we could, despite differing content and accountability, better align our collective efforts for the sake of our young people.
Our challenge now is to follow the lead of Georgetown Divide in understanding that the term “youth” in Youth Program Quality does not in fact exclude the concept of “student” and that the term “program” does not exclude “classroom”.
Ironically, we need to follow a town called “Divide” to ensure our schools and communities better work together for the benefit and wellbeing of our young people.
*The same Youth Program Quality Assessment tools and trainings being used by Georgetown Divide are being used around the country in urban, suburban and rural settings. More can be found at the Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality website: http://www.cypq.org/
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.
In the last twelve months or so, I have connected with at least a half dozen cities, several local and national nonprofits, the philanthropic arm of a major corporation, and even the ministries of education and of local government of Trinidad and Tobago, all of whom are engaged in some way with youth councils. Many were starting new initiatives around school, organizational, and municipal councils; others were barely hanging on to an existing council and afraid to say that it just wasn’t working anymore; and finally, others were pretty much done but weren’t sure how to end it.
Part of the opportunity and the challenge of working with youth councils (and youth generally) is that we adults come to the game with very good intentions, but too often with very stale models or without a clear vision of what we really want. We have what I call a massive “intentions-to-practice gap.” We assume that, because we were youth once, we must know what we are doing when it comes to working with youth. (This is a fallacy by the way.) We come without a true understanding of how to make a council successful and sustainable for our unique circumstances (i.e. our city, state, school, community, organization and youth). We come wanting to provide an opportunity for youth, but lack the understanding and skills to genuinely share our power with them. We come because we believe it is the “right thing to do” for our youth, but without articulating why it is the smart thing to do for our organization, city, state, school or otherwise. We just start a youth council – seems pretty simple.
This is why 3-4 years down the road so many groups get so frustrated when things are not working out like they had hoped. Maybe the youth stop coming. Maybe our initial diversity doesn’t seem so diverse anymore. Maybe it feels like the council is just meeting to be meeting. Maybe the adult who championed it is no longer around. Maybe our city or organizational leadership has moved on to other more pressing issues or ideas. Maybe our initial funding has run out.
Effective youth councils are far more complex than we typically prepare for. So, in order to help close the intentions-to-practice gap, and in order to provide better and more lasting opportunities for our young people and therefore more sustainable communities and a stronger democracy, I offer you the following considerations before you start a council or revamp your existing one:
Consideration of these and other questions in your thinking around a youth council are critical if we are to close the intentions-to-practice gap. But, understand that you may not initially have all of the answers. This is not a prescription or a static plan. Over time, however, from the start of a council to a year-end reflection to a complete revamping after many years, addressing these issues and questions will help you ensure your best intentions are met with best practices.
Finally, we also must understand that the “youth council” is only one of many options for engaging young people in your work. If the council model does not match your core strategy or your staff capacity or you just don’t have the funding to do the quality work to answer these questions, that’s OK. Don’t start a council. Be creative. Use some of these and other criteria and questions to find something that will work for you that is strategic, sustainable, and meaningful youth engagement. This is the goal; the council is just one of practically infinite strategies for getting there.
We often struggle in education and in youth programming with the “relevance” of our efforts in the lives of young people. What is more relevant to a young person than his/her own life? Youth-led participatory research is a tool and a process that connects young people more deeply to their own experiences while also expanding awareness, developing skills, and building a sense of power and personal efficacy. Here are 5 critical components to effective youth-led research:
Tell Your Story, Speak Your Truth
The process of storytelling provides us with the opportunity and the challenge to put into words many experiences and relationships that we only know from an emotional perspective. When we tell our stories, we have to decide what parts we want to share and what parts we need to hold onto in order to share perhaps at a later time. In order for this to be a healthy and supportive process, when we tell our stories, when we speak our truth, we need those around us to support and encourage and validate our experience even if they disagree or have differing experiences.
Build Your Context
We all grow up in a culture, in a family, in a socio-economic class, in a geographic location, and at a time in history that we did not choose or define. Many young people internalize the values and norms and oppressions related to these circumstances and begin to understand them as their identity. When we research from a basis of our own stories, our own lived experiences, we have the opportunity to deepen our understanding of the systems in which we live and which impact us every day. When we can name those systems, we can also externalize many of the negative impacts that they have on us. For example, we can objectify causes of poverty at a systemic level rather than purely identifying ourselves by it symptoms.
Explode the Issue
With a deepened understanding of familial, social, cultural and historical systems and their impacts on our lives, we can begin a process of identifying specific issues that are important to us. We can focus our efforts on the causes and root causes underlying our issues rather than the symptoms of them. For example, instead of lashing out at a guidance counselor individually for not helping us get to college, we can understand and focus our energy on addressing a broken guidance counselor system that has our counselor so overworked that she does not have time to support us. On a personal level, exploding the issue can help deepen our understanding of our relationships and the causes and root causes of those that are working for us and those that are not.
Organize Your Thoughts and Your Plan
During the participatory research process, we gain incredible insight into our own lives, into our own identities, and into the systems and issues that affect us in our daily routines. In order to take the next step in the journey, we need to organize all of this knowledge and develop a clear plan for what we want to change for ourselves personally, in our families, in our schools or in the broader systems that affect us. Without this clarity, we will be frustrated by our inability to address issues despite our deep understanding of them.
Whether it is addressing a struggling relationship in our family or a broken education system, the purpose of deepening our knowledge and skills through participatory research is to take action. If we have not found a way in this process to begin making change then we run the risk of further frustrating young people and instilling a sense of powerlessness. Taking action can mean working on ourselves, having a conversation we have avoided with a family member, or even advocating for change at City Hall.