From Occupy Wall Street to government and campus protests, to overthrowing leaders -- there is definitely something happening with youth today. I remember sitting in a class last winter watching a live link to the protests in Egypt and feeling like the world had shifted. So much has happened in such a short time, and youth are playing an important role in it. What does that have to do with youth programs? Perhaps everything.
This statement by Shannon Service in YES! magazine sums it up for me "After three decades of dormancy, youth activism is again flowering. But today's flower children are a hardy new variety. They're economically, ecologically, and electronically sophisticated. They're also globally organized, dead serious about democracy, and determined to have more fun than their opponents."
So my question to all of us is this: What are youth programs going to do to respond?
I think the answer may lie in engaging youth in ways we have yet to imagine. I like to call it Youth Engagement 2.0 and it was the theme of our annual youth program quality conference last week.
The idea is simple: Let's innovate how we engage youth on their issues using social media. We know engaging youth is important inside our programs and in our communities, so why haven't we tapped social media?
There are a few of us locally who are paving the way. MGIZI and Intermedia Arts are ahead of the pack with youth-led media projects on Facebook and Youtube and more to catalyze youth action on issues. But they are hardly enough. I know it may feel like letting some kind of genie out of the bottle, but if youth workers can't find ways to support youth engagement using the power of technology, what will we lose? Perhaps everything.
Youth and social media is a trend that is not going away. I think Thomas Friedman is right -- the world has become flat. His book of that name is a powerful accounting of all the ways the world has already become flat, thanks to the powerful force of technology. Think democracy and capitalism on steroids. Through the Internet, all kinds of people in the smallest corners of the world now have access to business opportunities, making social change and innovation, being a part of global conversations and a part of local solutions. And the flat world includes a whole bunch of young people. Shouldn't programs be a place for leadership as youth explore their roles in a flat world? Aren't programs places where youth navigate their roles in the community and the world? If we want to prepare youth for tomorrow, let's engage them in the work of today.
It is scary for the adults, I know. We have so many things to do each day, to make happen inside our programs. But our roots should hold us true -- roots in experiential education, in social change through settlement houses, in advocating for human rights -- to name a few. So find some inspiration. This is not a time for a slow, tepid testing of new ways to engage youth using social media. They are doing it already and we are far behind.
Look to some of the brightest researchers and thoughts leaders on the subject. A recent symposium held here at the Extension Center for Youth Development on the Digital Youth Network in Chicago is a good place to start.
Look to others who are further ahead:
- The Australian YCC that is engaging youth to address climate change issues.
- Or the United Nations' YouthNet, working with youth on social innovations for their community.
- A book about youth civic activism in the US and its implications for practice called Beyond Resistance!
- Look to the youth inside your own community -- maybe even those who are not interested in what your program is doing today. Maybe they would join something that engaged them as active member of community problem solving.
But don't just look ... Do. Then join me in answering the question: How will you support youth engagement 2.0? Will you find space for youth to occupy your program, their community and their world?