Over the years, I have done a lot of work with educators and youth workers across the country and have often found myself trying to help them identify what I call “the intention-to-practice gap”, the space between what we believe and we value in our work and our actual delivery of our work. At the practical level, this frequently plays out with frustrated adults who genuinely want to empower young people but may not have effective skills around sharing power, facilitating open/honest dialogue, or creating democratic environments in which youth feel some shared ownership. These are complex concepts and require ever-evolving skills. I have always seen my job as merely helping to spur reflection on and acknowledgement of the gap and offer a few tools to try to close it. With new awareness and a few tools, we can turn our frustration into a positive generative force.
Several years ago, with no intention of facilitating this type of workshop, my colleagues and I accidentally stumbled upon perhaps a deeper analysis than the intention-to-practice gap suggests; and it is one that I continue to mull years later. That’s what I am doing here, finally mulling in writing, and asking you to mull with me.
Two colleagues and I asked a group of about 25 educators and youth workers about their work as part of a casual conversation before a workshop. As might be expected, they all talked sincerely about how much the loved their students and how working with youth was their “passion”, their “life” and their “life’s mission”. This is what we almost always hear; no one is in education or youth work because they dislike youth, right?
So, when we started the session formally, we facilitated an opening brainstorm by asking the group to give us, in rapid fire format, words or ideas that come to mind when we say “youth culture”. We spent the next 15 minutes literally filling a 4 x 6 foot white board with their thoughts, writing furiously. When the ideas slowed, we all took a moment to peruse the now completely filled white board.
My colleagues and I had used this exercise simply to break the ice, but it quickly became the content of the workshop. Almost every (probably 90%) idea, comment, or word captured on the board had a negative connotation (if it was not outright negative). The 100+ comments could be captured by the following themes: Derogatory slants on media, music, fashion, and teen relationships. Drinking, smoking, sex. Rebellion. Laziness. Instant gratification. Lack of focus. Entitlement. Selfishness. Superficiality. No clue about the “real” world…and so forth and so on. If you didn’t know better, it would be obvious that whoever brainstormed these ideas about youth culture, really, really disliked youth. But, these were educators and youth workers, people who have dedicated their lives to young people, who genuinely love them! It was quite an unexpected moment for all of us and generated a pretty powerful group reflection.
To see if this experience was an anomaly, my colleague repeated the process several months later in a workshop with a different group of about the same size and again made up of educators, advocates, and youth workers. Same results. Almost identical.
Somehow in the prompt of “youth culture”, we had accidentally objectified the idea of young people in such a way that the participants no longer envisioned “their” young people when they responded. Perhaps we moved them from what they “feel” about their youth to what they “think” about youth more generally. The implication, then, would be that somehow “their” young people are not a part of youth culture, which, of course, the participants all acknowledged was not the case. So, how can we disparage youth culture to this extent and still be effective mentors, supporters, and advocates for and with youth?
This experience stands as one of the most profound in my years of facilitation and suggests the need for adults to check our language, our intentions, and our practices to see if they are all really aligned. If we are failing in connecting with our young people, we can guess that they may not be. It’s not just a matter of “practicing what we preach”. It’s more complicated. It’s practicing what we believe and believing what we practice. It’s about consistency and honesty with ourselves and our young people.
We all may need to step back and objectify our own practices, remove how we feel about our work, and think clearly about what we are really doing, how we are doing it, and why.
We may well be feeling one way, thinking another, and acting somewhere in between.
Part of the confusion and pressure of being a middle and high school student is not just that relatively new feeling of “otherness” (i.e. being different) but that this feeling charges our emotional and cognitive development in ways that can last a lifetime. These are truly formative years. Starting in our teens and carrying through the rest of our lives, we develop habits in response to our “otherness” in which we: 1. conform and adapt so that we are included (eliminate otherness), 2. isolate and look for proxies for positive social relationships (neutralize otherness), or 3. develop the confidence to be who we are regardless of what others think (celebrate otherness).
The reality is that during the teenage years we move in and out of all of these responses quite frequently and without notice. This is kind of what defines the teenage years. It’s why adults think teens are weird! It is also what makes the teenage years such a critical time for inclusion and genuine engagement.
But, for many students with physical and intellectual disabilities, the option of “conforming” feels impossible in a traditional sense. They are so strongly considered “other” by peers and adults that the opportunity to just become one of the group is out of their hands. Similarly, they are often structurally isolated – both socially and physically – living parallel lives to their same-aged peers in their own wing of the school, with their own teachers, classrooms, and school and community activities. And, as long as this is the case, as long as they are the “others”, inclusion and full engagement are impossibilities for everyone.
The fact is that every teen, every one of us actually, is “other”. We are all different and we all need to have a say in our own development and the paths we choose. When otherness is allowed the space to be celebrated, inclusion, rather than isolation, becomes the norm. When everyone is understood as other then otherness as we know it no longer exists. And, when we engage others, we all engage our best selves.