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Youth, for a change!

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Beki-Saito.jpgLast week I had the great pleasure to speak at and learn from a group of 200 youth, youth workers, administrators, funders, policy makers, police officers and researchers in Milwaukee, at a conference called "Youth/Adult Partnerships: Engaging Youth in Community Transformation," organized by the Center for Urban Initiatives & Research. The conference focused on, and modeled youth engagement as a philosophy and strategy for community change.

If you know me, you know that youth engagement is a cornerstone of my work here at the Youth Work Institute. The conference organizers did an incredible job of taking a leap of faith and having youth speak on panels, perform and lead poster sessions about various community issues they had researched. And you could feel the change-a-comin'--oh yes, you provide the opportunity and young people will lead the way.

By the end of the day, folks, young and old, were ready to get organized, to commit to work together to enable youth to lead the way for Milwaukee.
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Conference participants talked about creating a youth-adult partnership project in which teams of youth and adults from the various providers and ethnic communities within Milwaukee come together and do a city-wide community mapping project, both as a vehicle to increase youth engagement opportunities and for the individual people and groups to come together as a force for "Youth, for a change!" A great resource about youth as change agents is "Core Principles for Engaging Young People in Community Change", by Pitmann et al.

Milwaukee has long wanted and have attempted to connect program providers so It was a goose-bumpy kind of experience for me to see this group of fairly disparate individuals coming together spurred on by the notion that perhaps what Milwaukee needed to get organized was to stop waiting for the adults to get it together but rather to flip the paradigm from "youth as participants" to "youth as leaders with resources and skills."

Where have you seen youth break through barriers where adults have failed? What are the supports needed and challenges faced when letting go of some control and partnering fully with younger people? Where in your program, organization, neighborhood, life and community are there opportunities to utilize young people's knowledge, skills and wisdom to ensure a wide range of ladders of engagement?

If you have the opportunity, ask young people with whom you work about their views on what it takes to work well with adults, what challenges they've faced and how they've been addressed.

-- Rebecca Saito, senior research associate

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5 Comments

Dana Fusco said:

Glad it worked out, Beki!

Joanna Tzenis said:

What powerful work, per usual, Beki. I am curious, were any "next steps" established after this conference? Are there youth leaders (among their peers) who will ensure a follow-through?

To respond to your inquiry about barriers, both in my practical work experience and in my examination of the literature around youth engagement, I have found that one of the largest barriers to youth engagement remain adults' perception of young people as being too young or too immature to contribute anything meaningful. Young people in all their hopefulness and often newly empowered sense of selves seem to hit walls when trying to engage in equal partnerships with adults. I will definitely take on your charge and ask youth "what it takes to work well with adults." That would certainly be an important research question with meaningful practical applications.
~Joanna

Kathryn Sharpe said:

Beki, thanks for sharing your experiences at the conference--how exciting! Thank you also for your challenge to us to examine our own practice, and to invite young people to give us feedback on how to work in a more mutual, power-sharing way. I guess that in my own practice, the challenge is always in how to find the balance between giving youth the space to lead vs. partnering with them and mentoring them to build the skills they need. I learned from teen peer educators I worked with in Denver that just giving them free rein wasn't empowering--it was like them throwing them into the water before they knew how to swim. What was empowering was to partner and mentor them, help them build their skills, and THEN get out of the way and watch them flourish. Thanks for bringing this all-important topic to the foreground for us all the time, Beki.

Nicole Pokorney said:

Thank you Beki for the blog topic! I was just with a group of 30 youth that struggle with their voice being heard back in their community clubs. We were able to discuss with them their ideas and needs from the adults that are working with them. For change to happen, I think it is so important to have all players in the room, facilitated with an open discussion about roles, needs, desires and practicalities of an youth-adult partnership. Would love to talk to you more on this!

Beki said:

[Sorry for delayed response—technical problems]
Wow, sometimes you get more than you give and all of your questions, insights, comments, challenges have been much more meaningful to me, than I gave.

I think the "equal partnership" question that Joanne raises is a key concept to think about before or as you prepare to do youth engagement especially in terms of collective action, youth-adult partnerships in which you intentionally work to share power.

Kathryn is exactly right when she identifies the most common challenge of youth/adult partnerships as finding the right "balance between giving youth the space to lead vs. partnering with them and mentoring them to build the skills they need." I think it's "both and" in this case Kathryn.

The thing to remember, from my perspective is that equal or shared power does not mean that you turn all the power over to anyone--it's a partnership. And, as Nicole suggests, equal doesn't mean the same. Partnership implies the recognition that everyone brings strengths to the table. They are different strengths.

I do think the question, "What does it take to work well with an adult?" is an important question to ask young people and for youth workers to know.

And lastly, youth engagement is a developmental imperative in multiple ways. Developmentally, as children become teen-agers, they need multiple opportunities to try on new roles, explore new ideas, experience new experiences; and people, regardless of age, need scaffolded ladders of engagement to learn through intentional, staged experiences how to use their voice and power effectively and create change.

Programs, organizations and people that work with older youth would do well to create opportunities and experiences that meet the developmental needs of young people for voice and co-creation.

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