Within Child an Youth Care, we talk a big talk about “letting kids speak,” “listening to the voice of the child,” and promoting the “agency” of youth.
But what does it really mean, to “let” kids use their voice? And why, of all things, is it in the adults’ power to give or not give kids this space, as if it is an added bonus – a charitable act?
A couple weeks ago, at an annual conference that celebrates nonprofit and small community success in the central WA region, I found myself in a situation that gave my theoretical CYC training some room to play in the practical world. The after-lunch session was to be a roundtable discussion, wherein each person chose a table corresponding with one of four key topics: recruiting volunteers, developing leaders, reducing waste & increasing recycling/repurposing, and engaging youth in community. Each table group, then, was to come up with a feasible project within their topic that a small community could use (we were located in Waterville, WA, pop. 1151). After about an hour, the groups would present their projects, as well as a rudimentary project plan.
Pretty typical conference fare.
(Even more typical, I suppose, for a student – group discussions are the stuff of academic dreams.)
What was different about this group discussion was the set-up of leadership. At each table, holding brightly colored flags that indicated the topic of the group, were elementary students. These, along with an adult co-facilitator, were to be our leaders. Finding a chair at a table where a girl clutched a red flag – engaging youth in community -, I sat down and waited for others to join. Our group was eclectic: we had an educator/youth worker from a town close to the Canadian border; a homeschooling mom from Waterville; the mayor of a small neighboring city; a drug prevention program worker; myself, a CYC student; and Kymberly, our grade six leader.
As the group was taking our seats, Kymberly looked around anxiously, then spotted a man walking by. “Alan,” she called, “I think you’re at my table, with me.” He stopped, looked at her agenda, and proceeded to agree and sit – with the apology that he would also have to leave in just fifteen minutes. This clearly threw Kymberly off, as she saw she was losing her adult support at the table. (Alan did end up leaving, and his presence at the table was largely silent – he clearly was unaware of his role as Kymberly’s aide.)
What happened next was not necessarily surprising, though it was rather uncomfortable. Upon the loss of her co-facilitator, Kymberly proceeded to clam up, wholly uncertain of how to go about leading a full table of adult strangers. These strangers, then, proceeded to try to get the assignment done – conscientious citizens that we are. The resulting experience was one of push/pull, as we would take two steps toward our goal of the project, then back again as we would ask for Kymberly’s lead. Some of the adults seemed happy to lead the process (get the work done, do as expected!), while others of us were less comfortable with taking Kymberly’s role away from her – despite the fact that she seemed to shrink from the task.
Given the topic of our table, I felt Kymberly’s presence to be especially poignant. Here we were, a bunch of adults, contemplating the ways to engage the youth of our communities… and, here we were, struggling to do just that! I remember at one point, as the group asked “well, how do we know what will interest them?”, I pointed at Kymberly with a laugh, and said “well.. what interests you, Kymberly?” I continually found myself returning to and referencing the imposed structure of our roundtable discussion – pointing out that if we could manage just doing this for an hour, it would be good practice towards actually engaging the youth of our community in a way that is meaningful to them.
Despite a rocky experience of feeling under-led, then overstepping our adult bounds of leading for Kymberly, the table had one collective – and unspoken – moment wherein we all stepped up for Kymberly’s leadership.
At the end of the hour, a microphone was passed around the tables, and a representative shared the group’s work. When it came to be our turn, Kymberly cautiously took the mic, and proceeded to read her notes from the hour. What came from her mouth was jumbled at best and, while I know that she had been tracking with the conversation we had all had together, the quick turnaround time for her to give the presentation did not give her the space she needed to collect and express her thoughts well. I could see confusion on the faces of others in the room, and when she finished, tentative applause rippled through the room.
The emcee looked to the adults at our table, and none of us moved to take the mic and “clarify” what Kymberly had said. I am proud of our group, though, and our silent agreement to stand behind Kymberly’s words, scattered and off-topic though they were. The eye contact we shared while she spoke was an agreement to support her, to begin practicing the very thing we had concluded in our proposed project: that youth programs will only succeed with direct leadership from the youth themselves. So, may they lead, and may we be humble enough to follow that lead.
A classmate of mine looked at this very issue a few weeks back in his own blog, and I appreciate his rawness as he indicts adults for not actually caring about children’s voice, despite our words. But of course: it is much easier to sit at a roundtable and talk amongst adults about how to engage youth in community, without having an eleven year old distract us with a tangent about her swim team and how they took a bus to Wenatchee last summer. It is much easier to care about the voice of youth in theory, and not when there’s work to be done. In truth, it is hard to be led by a shy, uncertain grade schooler.
But isn’t that the point?
This is a call to step back, and also to step into the unfamiliar. Because the reality is – it is uncomfortable to do what is unknown. And letting youth lead? That’s unknown. There will necessarily be a learning curve, for all of us.