In my work I try to integrate the principles of positive youth development, beginning with the assumption that every young person has a unique set of strengths and positive qualities that can be cultivated to his benefit and that of society. For a project with New Yorkers for Children‘s Youth Advisory Board, I’ve started looking into models and methods of youth-led community organizing, which extends the logic of positive youth development thusly: If we truly view our youth not as victims to be saved, problems to be solved, or vessels to be filled with our wisdom, then why not let them lead the way in youth development and youth advocacy?
Professors Melvin Delgado and Lee Staples (specialists in youth programs and in community organizing, respectively) explain that such an approach places youth front and center in forming their own political identity and determining the direction of their intervention. Their book furthermore proposes that young people themselves should decide the extent to which they wish to engage with their adult allies. The point is not to ignore the fact that youth need guidance, nor to dismiss wholesale the experience, perspective, and knowledge of adults. This approach, rather, promises to bring to light ideas and concerns that would otherwise be subsumed under adult-directed agendas. Delgado and Staples highlight, for example, the issues that arise repeatedly in the youth rights movement. Among them, perhaps predictably, are efforts to challenge the age of majority, the age of consent, the drinking age, and the driving age. But youth also want to engage in conversations about education. In this field two of their key interests are to pose the existence of gulag schools (programs to reform the behavior of “troubled teens”) as a human rights issue, and to examine unschooling as a respectable and viable alternative to both public education and homeschooling. If some of these ideas make you bristle, that is the point. What a far cry they are from a list of concerns drafted by child welfare advocates!
Letting youth forge their own paths empowers them by offering them a real chance to set themselves on a path of self-actualization. They also benefit from the opportunity to practice important life skills. In advocating for themselves they learn to form an opinion, advance persuasive arguments, and bring people together to bring about change.
I learned this lesson in a small but significant way during last night’s workshop at New Alternatives for Children. During this follow-up session to my Teen Brain program, I asked the youth either to draw comic strips or put on skits that captured some of the challenges teenagers face. Significantly, none of the challenges that the mentors brought up in the first session—problems related to decision-making and impulse control, for example—surfaced. What immediately became clear was that every single young person in the room was concerned with issues related to social acceptance and personal style. “Being true to yourself,”in the face of cliques, bullies, and parents, was the theme of the evening.
This revelation has led me to rethink how I would present my program to a youth audience, because as it is, it is more properly pitched to adults who need to understand why teenagers act the way they do. Yes, young people continue to need help with things like goal-setting, decision-making, and risk-taking, but they don’t experience any of that as the central challenge of their lives. The good news for me is that it should make my upcoming workshop on identity formation very useful for this group!