by Dana Wilson
When I sit down with members of the Memphis community and discuss the great work our Bridge Builders youth are doing, I always get the same question: “How do you find so many confident, smart and thoughtful young people?”
My answer is always the same: “They’re everywhere.”
Memphis has a huge youth population—the largest in the state. Too often I sit with my non-profit and education colleagues and community leaders who are focused on solving the “youth crisis” in our city, and I can’t help but feel we are missing the mark. The youth of Memphis are not another problem to solve. In fact, they’re perhaps our greatest asset in tackling the very real problems we face.
We, the adult “experts” on education and youth development, too often stand in the way of the profound social change that the youth in our programs are demanding. We fail to listen to, profoundly value and follow youth leaders in our city. And too often, we justify the dismissal of youth voice by judging how youth show up and challenge us. Was their research sound? Did the students present their arguments respectfully? Were they dressed appropriately?
Now, as a youth development worker and educator, I’m all about making sure the youth I work with know how to research, construct cogent and critical arguments, and even dress appropriately for an interview. These are basic leadership skills, and we measure that stuff all day long.
In my position as Vice President of Bridge Builders, a youth leadership program with a 30-year legacy in Memphis, I have—at times—been the unfortunate obstacle that youth must overcome to make significant change in our organization and city.
But I can learn from my mistakes, and so should you. So here’s my advice to my fellow youth workers:
1. Unpack your adultist knapsack. If you’re reading this and thinking, “This doesn’t not apply to the youth I’m working with because of x, y or z,” then you might be biased against youth.
At BRIDGES, our high school age youth have developed workshops on adultism, created a dual mentorship workshop for teachers to get youth feedback on their lesson plans, and are currently developing training for new police officers in partnership with the Memphis Police Department.
The tools BRIDGES youth are creating help adults and youth reflect on our beliefs and actions, so that we can “unpack,” and eventually overcome, our biases.
2. Commit yourself to the belief that youth voice is essential to your work. Youth are experts on the issues they face every day. Seriously, who better to inform youth interventions to challenges than the ones who live the challenges every day?
So if you’re committed to continuous improvement and increased positive outcomes for youth in your programs, then youth voice is indispensable to doing your work effectively.
Resist the temptation to take the phrase “youth voice” too literally. Having a youth read a statement written by your communications director at a press conference is not an exercise in promoting youth voice. That’s tokenism.
Having your communications director meet with youth to craft a statement, prepare to read the statement, read the statement and debrief the experience, is an exercise in youth voice. Better yet, having youth participate in program planning, goal and outcome setting, and program evaluation, are all profound exercises in youth voice.
3. Create mechanisms for youth voice in your institution. Having recognized the importance of youth voice, you now are ready to seek input from youth. Be thoughtful and intentional about how, when and why you seek youth voice.
At BRIDGES our goal is to create mechanisms within our institution that place youth in the center of the decision-making process whenever possible. First, creating mechanisms makes the work practical. And to respectfully ask youth to make decisions for our organization requires that we provide adequate training, information and time for youth to consider the critical questions we seek to answer together.
It wouldn’t be fair to invite youth to a meeting with the board to discuss organizational vision and strategic planning without a substantial amount of preparation. But when we plan and prepare to have these conversations, they’re transformative.
4. Strive for youth and adult equity.Ideally, youth and adult collaboration will catalyze new movements for positive change in our community. If we couple all the professional experience and networks adults have with the creativity, ingenuity and experiences of youth, our programs will certainly continue to improve and adapt to better meet the immense challenges we face in the most efficient way possible.
Youth and adult equity isn’t a relationship status; it’s a discipline we must practice. At times it’s messy. Sometimes we fail to meet one another’s expectations, and we let each other down. But when youth and adults assume good intentions, we make it through the mistakes and miscommunications, arriving at better outcomes for everyone. It’s a journey.
Our organization has been on this journey for several decades, and it’s brought us to this point: When I sit down with the youth of Memphis and discuss the work the adults are doing, I pretty consistently hear the same things. Luckily, one of them is, “There’s just a good feeling you get when you come to BRIDGES.”
That atmosphere can, and should, emanate from every youth-centered organization and institution in our community. If we begin to value and respect our youth as assets instead of regarding them as a persistent problem to be mitigated, we can transform Memphis, together.
But it’s on us, the adults who hold the power, to start that cultural shift.
Dana Wilson is a native Memphian whose experience includes classroom teaching, curriculum design, program evaluation and administration. She is passionate about experiential education and social justice. Wilson currently serves as the Vice President of the Bridge Builders at BRIDGES. www.bridgesusa.org