CHALLENGES TO YOUTH ENGAGEMENT: PREJUDICE, MYTH, AND REALITY

When young people are engaged in community decisions that affect them, better decisions are made and everyone benefits. When communities involve

youth in ways that are meaningful, they tap new energy, knowledge and leadership. And yet, too often, young people do not participate in civic activities-especially the traditional, public decision making process of governments.

There are many prejudices regarding the interests and capacity of youth. These beliefs contribute to feelings of alienation and disempowerment,

predispose youth engagement efforts to failure, and can lead directly to individual harm. Individuals are hurt further when people and policies write off disengaged youth as impossible to reach or even as trouble-makers.

“Adultism” is a harmful and pervasive pattern of adult behaviours and attitudes

toward children and young people. It is based on adults’ beliefs that they are better, more advanced, and more highly developed than children and youth.

Sociologists, educators, anthropologists, psychologists and child advocates note that many child development theories, parenting approaches, cultural

practices, social institutions, and laws promote and perpetuate adultism. Some claim that adultism is the first form of oppression that all people experience. Like fish in water, most of us are so surrounded by adultism that we fail to notice the phenomenon or its impact. Yet, adultism can be an underlying

component of child abuse and neglect, bullying, manipulation, and exclusion. Young people describe some of the negative consequences of adultism that they experience:

# an undermining of self-confidence and self-esteem,

# an increasing sense of worthlessness,

# an increasing feeling of powerlessness,

# a consistent experience of not being taken seriously,

# a diminishing ability to function well in the world,

# a growing negative self-concept,

increasing destructive acting out,                     seriously,

# a diminishing ability to function well in the world,

# a growing negative self-concept,

# increasing destructive acting out,

# increasing self-destructive acting “in” (getting sick frequently, developing

health conditions, attempting suicide, depression, etc.),

# feeling unloved or unwanted.

Closely related to adultism is ephebiphobia—the fear of youth. Based on negative stereotypes, ephebiphobia is often perpetuated by media. Young people

in many communities and countries report that suspicious shopkeepers follow them as soon they enter a store, residents cross the street to avoid passing groups of young people, and municipalities prohibit youth gatherings or enact unwarranted curfews. The way that young people talk, dress, or wear their hair can evoke wide-ranging and sometimes negative reactions from many adults. Differences in background, language, and culture can also lead to or heighten these reactions.

Adultism is an enormous barrier to youth engagement that must not be taken for granted or underestimated. Forms of adultism that prevent authentic

youth engagement include:

# withholding information and access to benefits or rights with the belief that children and youth are too immature or incapable or using them properly,

# acting on behalf of a child or young person without the individual’s informed consent,

# making judgments and decisions based on generalizations and stereotypes instead of dialogue and response to individuals and actual situations, and

# providing barriers to the participation and voices of children and young people as individuals or as a group.

In addition to the more obvious effects, young people may become so guarded against adultism that they assume all adults harbour deep-seated and unconscious prejudices against youth. They may perceive well-intentioned adults as patronizing, co-opting, or currying favour.

In their zeal to treat young people as equals, adults actually may pander to or over-identify with youth. Some adopt an overly permissive attitude and assume that anything young people want to do is acceptable. At the same

time, adults often continue to overlook or under-value the supports and help that young people need to become full decision making partners.

Acknowledging adultism is not enough to eliminate it. Like racism and sexism, its pervasive influence must be countered with a range of strategies, including

intentional training and consciousness raising, rethinking organizational and service strategies, and reconsidering public policies.

Among the harmful stereotypes is the label of young people in their teens and twenties as apathetic, self-indulgent and cynically detached from civic activities and interests. Reports from the “mature” democracies of western Europe and the U.S. as well as the younger governments of South Africa and beyond document decreasing participation of young voters. Many young people are

disillusioned with the traditional political and civic engagement process. They report little patience for decision making processes that seem to exclude and ignore them. However, this does not mean that young people are disinterested in public well-being and decision making.

Youth are engaged by first hand experiences of pressing social problems. Research suggests that while many youth view traditional political and civic decision making as largely futile, they are attracted to local, face-to-face problem-solving related to issues they experience personally. Young people report a preference for hands-on community improvement efforts that yield an immediate and practical value, such as tutoring, working in homeless shelters and other volunteerism. They want to see changes in problems and issues they encounter daily.

Youth are engaged by honesty and genuine sharing of authority. Although they feel excluded and ignored by the political process, many young people say they are attracted to organizations and decision making approaches that are honest about power and willing to genuinely share authority. Many are drawn to participation only if adults and community partners acknowledge the dynamics of power and resources within the community and are willing to negotiate how these forces will be used.

Youth who have the most to lose are often the least engaged. Disaffected youth and their communities—those facing the greatest risk to well-being—are the most likely to be disengaged from activities and decision making processes that affect them.

# Disengaged youth who do not participate in formal group activities tend to be older, more challenged, or members of minority groups.

# Developmental psychologists in the U.S. report that youth from low income families and youth of colour feel more alienated from their communities than young people from middle income, white families.

# Research has documented a political “participation gap” between youth of high and low socio-economic status.

#Distressed communities are likely to offer few opportunities for youth to get involved. U.S. studies indicate that communities at risk—those that have

experienced job losses and with large gaps between the rich and poor—have few points of connection with youth. Aside from connection with their families, peers and schools, there are few opportunities for youth involvement in the community as a whole.

The path to authentic youth engagement is not easy. Believing in the capacities of young people is not enough. Adultism, other prejudices, and myths about young people must be overcome. Empowering youth to make decisions and take actions that will change their communities is a fundamental change for adults, organizations and decision makers.

Ironically, without the help of adults, genuine youth engagement cannot happen. As adults, we must not even attempt to partner with young people unless we are willing to give control to them. We must share our power,

knowledge, and resources. We must be willing to listen when it’s difficult to hear what they have to say. Recognizing that we all learn by making mistakes, we must be willing to let them falter without withdrawing our support or trust.

We must give them credit along with responsibility. We must allow them to use the resources that we have worked to develop.

This is our first challenge. If we are willing to truly share our power, there are strategies that young people advise us will work. The next section outlines

those steps and provides examples of communities and people who are giving youth a real voice.

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