March 07, 2003
Chapter 1: About This Book - part 10
V. A Special Note to Blog Readers
There are inherent challenges when one tries to serialize a non-fiction book. No matter how clearly I imagine the product that I'm shooting for, actually writing it is a process of discovery. Up until the final draft I'm finding better ways to order the chapters, additional topics that need coverage, and sections that should be deleted altogether.
This makes things difficult for the reader in two ways. Firstly, because I'm breaking earlier promises about the book's outline, it can be confusing when I launch into chapters that aren't the ones I said would come next. Secondly, there's a strong tendency for full-fledged essays to pop up in the middle of chapters, where short sections were supposed to be instead. ...At times, getting from point A to point B becomes an absurdly long and convoluted process.
The present essay is an excellent example. An "About This Book" chapter ought to be a brief introduction. Instead, this subject has taken up ten entries online, and over seventy pages of long-hand, college-ruled composition. Reviewing the product, I count maybe seven autonomous essays here. What a morass!
Still, the effort of pushing through the nesting of this chapter's outline has had value for me. Through the exercise I've produced a rich body of text that can be recycled and refined in other places. I apologize to my readers for the trouble, and hope that they will bear with me for revised versions.
Thanks for sticking in there.
-- END --
March 7, 2003
Posted by Sven at 07:21 PM
Chapter 1: About This Book - part 9
IV. Narrowing the Topic
"Youth Liberation" and "Adultism" are big topics. There's enough material here for a dozen books: ones that counter opponents' arguments point for point; ones that tell how to be better parents, teachers, and friends to youth; ones that discuss adultism in the context of Christianity, the Latino community, or 18th century Japan. This book is only meant to be a general introduction. A lot has had to be left out.
The idea of Youth Liberation tends to provoke strong emotions in an adult audience. There is such a gut-level reaction, objections pouring fourth almost immediately, that it becomes difficult to lay down any meaningful arguments before getting interrupted. In the context of a book, a similar thing can happen. The author seems to be ignoring an obvious issue, or has lumped two very different topics together -- so you find yourself distracted, thinking "But what about...?!" every few paragraphs. Eventually you just give up on the book.
By explaining at the start how I've chosen to narrow my topic, I hope you'll be better able to give what I'm saying a fair chance. Even if you don't agree with it all, maybe you can walk away with a few new ideas that do seem useful.
Here are ten important ways that I've constrained discussion in this book:
1. What Adults Are Like
This is not a book about what youth are like. I don't discuss their biology, emotional needs, or social development. I don't try to prove that their overall character is better than adults tend to think -- although you may accurately surmise that this is what I believe.
Instead, this is a book about what *adults* are like. I describe how adults commonly treat youth, criticize it, and try to explain why they behave this way. To the extent that I deal with youth at all, it is to offer them tools for changing adults.
2. Young People's Point of View
The vast majority of literature about young people is preoccupied with how to love, nurture, teach, guide, supervise, control, manipulate, or punish your child / teen. In other words, it's from a parent's point of view. It's so common, even non-parents tend to think about youth from the parental point of view. Even *youth* tend to think in this way -- at least about anyone younger than themselves. However, what benefits adults is not always in the best interests of youth. The two groups have different standpoints which, inevitably, conflict with each other sometimes.
In this book I try to look at the world from the point of view of someone whose legal status is "minor". This is different from simply reporting children's and teens' actual opinions. ...Suppose you didn't have to be under 18 to be a minor. Suppose any human being, regardless of their age, could be dropped into the identity -- having to obey all the laws, living under the authority of (typically) two parent figures, having to put up with being treated like a youth by strangers. How would it feel to be in that position? How would things play out when conflicts with adults arose? This is the method I use for exploring young people's standpoint in society.
3. Youth As Independent Beings
I want to be careful about how I discuss young people's dependence on adults. Infants are physically dependent on other people for survival. Grade school children are physically independent, but would run into terrible difficulties trying to get food, clothes, and shelter without help (at least with society set up as it is now). Teens can easily survive on their own, but are generally still *economically* dependent -- often for several years after turning 18.
Good care-giving is tremendously important. And it can be difficult, exhausting, thankless labor. However, I think youth are frequently seen *only* in terms of their dependence and care-giving needs. The seeds of selfhood begin sprouting very early on. Adults can work to encourage and respect a youth's independent will from the very start -- but instead often see it as annoying, inconvenient, or insubordinate. This book seldom addresses the ways in which young persons are dependent on others. Perhaps it's overcompensating -- but I believe a perspective that emphasizes youths' independence is a necessary counterpoint to the prevailing attitudes of our time.
4. Gender Neutral Criticism
Women have been, and continue to be, the primary caregivers for children in our society. There is a history of male "experts" unfairly shaming women for how they mother. In this book I deal with both mothers and fathers as "parents". I hope that my artificial gender neutrality on this issue will be balanced out by equally neutral discussion of domains that are traditionally male-controlled, such as government. Should readers still find anti-woman bias herein, I invite hearing constructive criticism from them.
[For more about how society blames mothers, I suggest starting with these books: "The Myths of Motherhood" by Shari L. Thurer, "The Myth of the Bad Mother" by Jane Swigart, and "Motherguilt" by Diane Eyer.]
5. Active Abuses
There is much discussion about absentee parents who don't take their role as care-giver seriously; they go out partying and leave the children on their own, abandoned. Some look to their offspring to emotionally take care of them. Commentators have said that these people need to "grow up" and act more "adult". I don't see being responsible to other people as having anything to do with whether or not a person is adult; so I choose not to address issues arising from lack of responsibility.
This book deals with parents (and other adults) who are actively engaged with youth, but in a negative way. In extreme terms, I deal with abuse but not neglect -- harm done by acts of commission, not omission. I think much abuse of power is done out of a sense of responsibility. This should not be misinterpreted either as my saying that parents are not responsible for being good care-givers, or that they should simply disengage from youth and abandon them.
6. Grouping Teens with Younger Children
You'll quickly notice that I usually talk about "youth" and "young people" without distinguishing between infants, grade-schoolers, and teens. Obviously the physical and psychological differences are enormous. However, minors from age 0 - 18 tend to be treated equally under the law; parents' authority to control minors' lives remains essentially absolute up to age 18; and to some extent all minors suffer similar prejudices from adults -- being seen as unintelligent, incompetent, and generally worthy of ridicule.
Because my main concern here is with young people's ability to get their complaints heard and dealt with, I see no need in most cases to distinguish between age groups. All voices are worth listening to. Yet, this very emphasis on *verbal* complaints does exclude babies. I acknowledge that teens are best equipped to do Youth Liberation activism, being most verbally articulate. Yet, I remain loath to say that any young person is simply unable to communicate that they're being mistreated -- even infants can communicate displeasure, in their inarticulate, non-verbal way.
[The main challenge to this grouping is where changing laws is concerned. I see a variety of issues arising. In some cases I find no justification for drawing an age line (e.g. city-wide curfews). In other cases, finding appropriate ways to accommodate age differences is very problematic, and I have no better alternative than the laws that already exist (e.g. age of consent laws). These issues are discussed in depth later on.]
7. Other Differences Between Youth
With few exceptions, I do not deal with differences between how boys and girls are treated. This is not for lack of interest in the subject! As with differences between teens and younger children, I've chosen to discuss commonalities of experience over differences. Gender differences in child-rearing and in the classroom have been explored at length by other authors. To do so here would expand this work beyond reasonable lengths.
By the same token, other differences between youth also receive little attention. I don't talk about what it means to be straight versus gay (or lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, or intersexed); I don't talk about the cultural differences of growing up in a black, Latino, Asian, or Native American family; I don't talk about being working class or living on the streets; I don't talk about being developmentally delayed, physically or mentally handicapped, mentally ill, or incarcerated. Each identity combines with adultism to create new, specific forms of prejudice and oppression -- there's too much to consider for an introductory text.
8. The United States / Urban Areas
This book is specific to the United States of America. I don't attempt to discuss adultism in other nations. And even within the U.S., I recognize that I'm mainly dealing with cities and urban life.
Adultism is omnipresent; but the resources to support Youth Liberation are not. For this kind of activism to thrive, you need a large pool of youth to draw from, and a context of other activist groups already disturbing the peace for social change. Circumstances like these exist mostly just in metropolitan areas. Looking at a map, there are roughly 50 large cities in the U.S. (not evenly distributed). Additionally, within each state there are also several large towns where organized youth activism might be really practical. By my estimate, there should be about 250 - 300 locales where this book can be immediately useful.
9. "Mainstream Culture"
Within the U.S., I presume that a "mainstream" culture exists -- growing out of universalizing forces such as television, compulsory schooling, and the "melting pot" ethic. Adult-youth relationships vary somewhat, according to which ethnic or lifestyle subculture they occur in. Still, the mainstream's influence is sufficiently powerful, finding its way even into these pockets, that I feel comfortable making generalizations.
I'll spell this out once, at the beginning: the mainstream U.S. lifestyle tends to be defined by white-skinned, European-descended, middle-class, politically moderate, Christian-leaning, heterosexual, family-oriented parents. By talking about mainstream values, these are the people I'm most strongly referencing. That said, I won't bother to repeat such qualifications throughout the rest of the book.
10. Shifting What's Normal
If I knew how, I'd write a book titled "How To Fight With Your Parents And Win". The trouble is that odds are so stacked against youth, they lose every time -- if the parent's being unreasonable. Tips for how young people can better deal with living in their own family are painfully absent here.
Instead, I pin my hopes on a long-term approach: shift what's considered normal, so adults won't be as casual about throwing their weight around. It's hard to leverage a parent with activism; they're pretty much off on their own, the "king of their castle", ruling however they want. Even so, they are restrained, somewhat, by their perception of mainstream public opinion. If public opinion is swayed toward the ideals of Youth Liberation, then after long enough people will simply be brought up believing that it's what's right. The outcome of challenging norms with activism is uncertain; but for the sake of justice, it must be tried.
-- to be continued --
March 7, 2003
Posted by Sven at 05:11 PM
March 05, 2003
Chapter 1: About This Book - part 8
III. Audience -- Who This Book Is For
Adult opponents of Youth Liberation may well feel that I haven't proved youth deserve liberation. This book is not meant to convince them. If youth can themselves demand better treatment and expanded rights, I view that as sufficient proof of their intelligence and humanity. ...Going forward and acting on the ideas of Youth Liberation does not require adult approval.
I am writing for people who already support Youth Liberation, and for skeptics who suspect that they might agree with the idea, if only it were spelled out for them.
Foremost, I want to speak to actual youth activists. I've spent ten years studying how adultism works and how it might be fought. My hope is that the ideas I've come up with will be useful: helping youth see adultism, challenge it, and defend against counter-attacks.
Writing that's unnecessarily complex and uses "big words" excludes youth. As my writing style has developed, I've always tried to be as plain as possible, replacing technical terms (like "hegemony") with more simple ones (like "command / obey relationship"). Nonetheless, I know that I frequently fail. I'm college-educated and think in those terms. If you don't understand, it's my fault; I apologize.
[In earlier stages of writing, I had the good fortune to find teens willing to review my writing. Hopefully I'll be able to connect with more youth readers before this is published to a wider audience.]
Among adults, I most want to address persons who are going to work within Youth Liberation organizations. Special responsibilities fall upon allies. It's a humbling experience. You need to learn how to invite criticism; how to suppress the urge to assert your "right" way of doing things; and how to abide by the activist dictum "Do nothing about us without us." I think that I can make this difficult work easier.
I also want to reach adult activists of the Progressive Left. Because of their commitment to fighting other oppressions, I believe they are predisposed to becoming allies. I think activists have a moral obligation to become educated about the various oppressions, and to lend assistance to other people's movements when possible. The Left could be a great support to Youth Liberation: supplying training, meeting space, and political credibility.
Having an academic background, there's a degree to which I'd like this work to be read in colleges and universities (particularly psychology, sociology, and political science departments). I want the theory herein to stand up to at least moderate scrutiny from scholars. It's more a standard that I set for myself than a crucial audience, I suppose. It would be nice if my work inspires further research on adultism -- but if that research doesn't connect with activists, what good is it?
Obviously there are many other people that may read this work. Parents will want to know more about the implications for raising children. Teachers may wonder what good they can do in their current positions (without risking their jobs). College students -- with most of the legal privileges of adulthood, but much of the social stigma of youth -- will want to know where they stand. Whole books could be devoted to each of these concerns -- and I hope that someone writes them. The scope of this book, however, must be limited to what directly helps the activism of minors. I offer parents, teachers, and college students brief suggestions; but discussion always returns to what they can do to support youth-led groups.
...I'm in an odd position, writing this book when I'm now an adult myself. I criticize adults as a group and advocate that youth be seen as the experts on adultism. By my own principles, I must not speak in their place -- yet, at present I know of no one else prepared to write a book like this. How do I reconcile the contradiction?
I reconcile it by naming youth as the legitimate critics of my work, instead of adults. I've worked hard to make something that is accurate and useful -- but youth can take it or leave it as they see fit. It's offered as a tool. If they praise it, then I will feel validated. If they discard it, I'm OK with that too. Adults -- while I'm interested in their in their criticisms -- don't get to be the final judges here.
-- to be continued --
March 5, 2003
Posted by Sven at 07:12 PM
Chapter 1: About This Book - part 7
II. Goals (Continued)
(5) Support Youth Liberation activists.
The most important goal of this book is to support actual Youth Liberation activists. I want to offer them new ideas about how adultism works and how to fight it.
You don't need a book in order to do Youth Liberation activism. All you need is a sense of injustice and the courage to speak out. Still, knowledge can help you be more effective. How you understand a problem determines what actions you'll choose in trying to solve it.
I believe adultism is basically a problem of adults misusing power. Adult power is not inherently bad; but being nearly absolute, there's great potential for abuse. ...And adults *do* abuse it -- often and casually. Anti-youth prejudices contribute to the problem -- but rather than seeing them as a root cause, I view them more as convenient excuses for adults who like getting what they want and seeing themselves as better than youth.
Being a problem of power, I think it's useful to look carefully at the structure of society: What institutions govern the lives of youth?; Which specific individuals get authority to make decisions about youth?; What tools do they have for making youth obey their will? The answers to these questions dictate the solution: activist groups led by youth, for youth, against adult oppression -- specifically targeting the individuals who have decision-making power over what youth want -- mainly more ability to leave harmful / demeaning situations at will.
If the problem were primarily one of prejudice, emphasis might be put on challenging media defamation (also useful work). Instead, this book focuses on leveraging legislators, city councils, school officials, child protection agencies, and other adult authorities. Stopping these persons' abuse of power means limiting what they get to control. This can be done by making sure that youth are included in all decision-making processes that affect them, by taking away some of the adults' authority, and by giving youth more freedom to get out from under them (e.g. by lifting curfews, making public transit free, building more youth shelters / hostels). These changes will need to be pushed for by youth -- adults, even friendly ones, are unlikely to give up control voluntarily. Youth should work in groups for mutual support. Speaking together, they will be taken more seriously than they would speaking alone.
Besides teaching youth about oppression theory and the tools of activism, a fairly direct way to support Youth Liberation is by training adults to be better allies. Doing so puts more resources behind youth leadership; it also helps prevent adults from getting in the way. But this material isn't for adults alone. Having a clear idea about how allies should be expected to act makes a youth better able to confront adult takeovers within their organization. Furthermore, it prepares youth for the day when they become adults, when their role in the movement abruptly shifts.
Spreading these ideas and tools, hopefully, will be a significant help to the Youth Liberation movement -- making it more effective in its aims, and better able to defend itself against problems from within.
-- to be continued --
March 5, 2003
Posted by Sven at 02:32 PM
March 04, 2003
Chapter 1: About This Book - part 6
II. Goals (Continued)
(4) Add Youth Liberation to the Progressive Left's agenda.
I want the Progressive Left to embrace Youth Liberation. In order to explain what that might look like, I need to briefly explain the reality of how movements associated with the Left connect with one another. Next, I'll touch on a few of the practical issues that come up when you try to integrate concern for an outside minority into your own group. I'll finish by summarizing the ethical arguments for paying attention to Youth Liberation issues.
a) How Movements Connect with One Another
Minority groups that face social oppression (e.g. blacks, women, gays, Jews, the poor) often come under attack from the same conservative forces. Despite this, oppressed minorities have many times found themselves pitted against one another. [This is sometimes referred to as "horizontal oppression".] However, in the Progressive Left there is a train of thought that tries to build alliances between the movements. "Oppression" and "liberation" is language used in trying to draw out the similarities of circumstances that they share.
There is no massive, centralized body in the Left that could set an authoritative agenda. Building connections is an ongoing effort, typically between just two or a few groups at a time. To the extent that a sort of shared agenda *does* exist, it emerges from the concerns and values of many individual organizations choosing -- independently or together -- to work for similar goals.
Some activists argue that we should try to build a single unified front -- turn all the little groups into one big force. They see our movement's splinteredness as a significant problem. I don't agree with this view. For the most part, I see diversity of groups as a very positive thing.
When people argue for creating one ten- or twenty-point agenda that everyone can get behind, too often some group is told that their issues should take a back seat -- that they should shut up for the greater cause. Having many specific minority advocate groups allows each to be an expert on its own constituency's needs and historical perspective. I suspect it would be near impossible to gather and coordinate all this intelligence within a one-size-fits all structure.
Still, individual activists within all these groups should strive to become as knowledgeable about other movements as possible. They should attend each other's meetings, creating diplomatic ties through personal acquaintance. And when asked, they should strongly consider giving assistance for a specific project.
b) Practical Coalition Work
I once heard a useful distinction made between coalitions and alliances. A coalition is two or more groups coming together for the sake of a common short-term goal. The groups may come from radically different philosophies -- but they both want the same thing right now, so they're willing to put those differences aside. An alliance is more of a long-term partnership; it's between two or more groups that are philosophically aligned and want to support each other's broader aims. An alliance relationship may continue to exist even in the absence of a current shared project.
I think most people's notion of what "coalition work" means is pretty fuzzy -- just the idea of being mutually supportive. Consequently, they may be enthusiastic about the concept without at all understanding what it requires. It's easy to give an endorsement -- but it takes a lot more energy to help stage a protest or collect testimonies for a public hearing. *Meaningful* coalition projects have a cost. Even if the drain on money and material resources isn't bad, an organization's five or ten core activists only have so much energy. Signing-on to too many outside projects leads to exhaustion and neglecting the issues that the group was originally formed to address. The decision to enter into a coalition shouldn't be taken lightly.
That said, it takes relatively few resources to begin laying down the groundwork for an *alliance*. The first step is just to become more aware of another group's issues.
One way to start the process is by inviting in guest speakers. This benefits both parties: the speakers further their goal of public education, and the host group's organizers get to sit back (for a change) and let someone else fill meeting time. Activists often say that going to workshops and learning new ideas helps keep them inspired and energized. Meeting people from an unfamiliar minority also tends to be popular among audiences.
After hosting a workshop, it's much less difficult to start challenging oppressive attitudes within one's own group. Increasing participation of people from this other minority group, however, is another thing.
Organizers often bemoan the absence of blacks or women or youth in their meetings. Generally the problem stems from wanting these outsiders to **come to them**. I mean this in both the physical and the psychological sense. Let me use race as an example... White organizers are often attached to a meeting space that's located in a predominantly white section of town. They fail to advertise or host meetings on black turf. Even when a black person does manage to walk through the door, organizers frequently turn them off to the group by not being savvy about what issues matter in the black community. It's as if they want African-Americans to support their pet cause without having to give anything back. If you want more blacks in your predominantly white group, realize that a demographic shift will also mean shifting the group's priorities to better match those of the new members.
If you genuinely want to bring African-Americans in, here's what to do: go volunteer for a black organization. Doing so, you learn the community's issues as seen from the inside; you make new connections with people on their own turf, instead of your own; and you develop reputation and credibility by showing willingness to put your labor behind their leadership. Rolling up your sleeves and shedding some sweat is far more meaningful that nice words alone.
The principles that I've described hold equally true for working with youth. Coalition work is demanding; most adult-run Progressive Left organizations won't choose to actively collaborate with youth activists, not if the youth are choosing the issues. However, in a city or an organization where youth are raising their voices, adults have an obligation to become more knowledgeable. A good first step is inviting youth activists to speak. If the adults really get serious about bringing more youth participation into their groups, then they'll need to change the very nature of their organizations. Advertising and meetings will have to happen on youth turf: schools, all-ages clubs, hang-outs where food is cheap and the staff is youth-tolerant. Which issues the group takes on have to shift to better reflect what's important to youth. ...And ideally, youth will be integrated into the board of directors, and be hired for staff positions.
This is what it would look like for the Progressive Left to embrace Youth Liberation.
c) Ethical Arguments
I believe groups that share the oppression / liberation framework are morally obligated to integrate awareness of adultism into their activities. I see three key reasons why they should be concerned:
First, youth are already part of their constituencies. Among African-Americans, black youth suffer a special, additional prejudice that's directed at hip-hop culture and clothing thought to associate one with a gang. For Feminist abortion defenders, parental consent laws have been one part of a conservative agenda to slowly chip away access for all women. Among gay, lesbian, bi, and transsexual persons, some of the most intense harassment tends to be experienced during the high school years. Embracing youth issues just means serving a larger portion of the people in one's own community.
Second, groups concerned with oppression should be committed to not oppressing others. It's a simple matter of observing the same principles that you ask others to live by. For example, if you're asking people to stop using language that denigrates your community, then you should also take it upon yourself to learn what feels offensive to other groups. [To some extent this can be done with common sense; however, even long-time activists need education to become aware of more subtle, group-specific issues.] Or, perhaps your group has historically been excluded from power, suffering laws and policies that were created without its input... Maybe you're trying to rectify this by insisting that authorities listen to your community's concerns. Shouldn't you then go out of your way to make sure that you don't also play the excluding authority figure for someone else -- such as youth? [As the activist saying goes, "Do nothing about me without me."]
Third, so long as adultism remains intact, it will help preserve other oppressions. A historical complaint of both white women and black men is that they've been treated "like children", e.g. being called "girl" and "boy" as adults. Of course it's disrespectful -- but doesn't the fact that it's offensive to treat adults "like children" also suggest that there's something fundamentally demeaning about how adults treat actual youth? If human beings keep on learning to treat young people in this way, then they will always have a model of oppressive behavior that can be translated over to some other group.
...An argument can be made that adultism, being such and early and universal experience, is really the seed from which all other oppressions spring. Personally I think this position is flawed; racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, etc. are interrelated, but each has a unique history -- there is no "mother of all" oppressions. Nonetheless, the hyperbole at least serves to suggest that adultism is *not* unimportant among the ranks of "isms".
To summarize: Organizations of the Progressive Left should be concerned with fighting adultism -- for the sake of serving their entire constituencies, avoiding hypocrisy, and eliminating all models for oppressive behavior. Minimally, they should invite youth activist speakers to come and do educational events; more ambitious organizations should work collaboratively with Youth Liberation groups, and even consider changing their own internal structures. Once many individual groups have taken these actions, then it will be appropriate to say that the Progressive Left has finally embraced Youth Liberation as part of its agenda.
-- to be continued --
March 4, 2003
Posted by Sven at 08:15 PM
March 03, 2003
Chapter 1: About This Book - part 5
II. Goals (Continued)
(3) Promote youth-led activism within the Children's Rights movement.
Adopting an oppression / liberation framework forces well-intentioned adults to reevaluate their role in protecting youths' well being.
The traditional model of child rights / welfare / protection pits "good" adults against "bad" ones (who are abusive, neglectful, or incompetent), or against simple accidents of circumstance -- such as poverty, hunger, or lack of resources. Young people's role in this model is essentially passive: harm is defined by an adult-run organization; intervention is set in motion when some other adults identify a problem situation; and the ultimate outcome is determined by an adult service provider -- or by resolving a conflict between the agency and a youth's parents. If the youth's input is solicited at all, it is simply to confirm what the adults already believe is the case.
Within the oppression / liberation framework, this exclusion of youth is seen as oppressive in itself, and thus unethical. "Oppression" is primarily defined by the power and control that one group wields over another; strong emphasis is put on examining who holds final decision-making power. Ethically speaking, if something's going to affect a youth, the youth must have a say. **Excluding youth from a decision-making process that affects them is an act of oppression.** This remains so regardless of how well-intentioned an adult is, or how positive the outcome they engineer; regardless of whether the exclusion was intentional or just an oversight.
This is not to suggest that all existing child welfare / protection efforts are entirely without value. There are *some* roles that adults can play independently and still be considered ethical. Generally a blanket, or a belly full of food, or an escape route out of immediate danger is a positive thing -- no matter where it comes from. However, this is most true when suffering is extreme and clear-cut. Unilateral provision of "help" is not designed to address more subtle social dynamics between youth and adults. Adults don't necessarily know what feels most important to youth. They can fail to perceive attacks on young people's dignity, or not address these issues as aggressively as the ones that seem significant to *them*.
Because youth and adults have different standpoints in society, there is potential for a conflict of interests. For instance, adults have made child abuse a criminal act -- but spanking / physical disciplining a child or teen is legally protected. Adults, even those actively working for youths' welfare, have a vested interest in maintaining control over the young people in their lives. The right to inflict pain is a tool that can be used to that end. Youth, by contrast, are in a position to argue that corporal punishment and child abuse are both forms of assault, and that these acts should not be condoned, regardless of the victim's age.
Youth Liberation suggests that in order to be non-oppressive and avoid conflicts of interest, groups claiming to act on behalf of youth must actively involve youth in steering their organizations' work. It does not stop there, though. Youth Liberation further argues that youth should have ultimate power in such organizations, and that adults should play a subordinate role, limited to supporting the leadership decisions of the youth. In essence, this is about the *means* matching the *ends*. If the core issue behind young people's oppression is exclusive adult control, then the solution to this problem must involve youth being in control of the effort to make change.
Simply involving youth more in organizational planning has substantial benefits -- even without the further step of reversing power roles. Youth have insider knowledge. They, better than anyone else, understand the realities of their problems: only they experience them first hand. Studying youth from afar or trying to look at the world from their standpoint can be useful; but inevitably there are aspects of the real experience that could not be predicted by an outsider. Youth can identify problems that adults were unaware of, and ways in which service programs are failing to connect with their intended audience.
Direct participation of youth in children's rights, welfare, and protection work also gives these endeavors a greater appearance of legitimacy. If youth are permitted to speak for themselves and they bless the project, that says more than any number of adult endorsements could. The trick of it is that in soliciting youth input, you might discover that they're *not* entirely satisfied -- which would commit you to having to change how the organization currently operates, which may be very difficult indeed.
For adults to take that additional step, of becoming the servants of youth leadership, requires a major change of perspective. It requires well-intentioned adults to see themselves as part of the problem.
All adults are members of the oppressor group. This is not to say that they are bad persons, but rather that they personally benefit from their position in a legal and social structure. It's not something to feel guilty or ashamed about. You're not responsible for having created the situation; but as a beneficiary, you are responsible for helping to change it. There's no way to simply wash your hands; you can't voluntarily revoke the privilege you've been given. What you can do is strive to be an ally to youth in their own efforts to become free. [Whether you succeed or not in this aim is for them to decide.]
The ideal Youth Liberation organization would be fully separatist, run by youth with no adult participation whatsoever. In reality however, the benefits of limited adult involvement usually outweighs the problems: adults can teach the tools of activism; they can supply meeting space, labor and financial / material resources; and they can lend credibility when adult authorities are disinclined to listen to youth alone.
But the problems involved are also significant. Foremost is the fact that adults are so used to being in charge that they tend to take over. When youth and adults sit in a circle, the adults monopolize the conversation: they speak longer and more often than the youth; they speak and respond to each other instead of to the whole group; and they steamroll the youths' opinions, or fail to even hear and remember what they've said -- they don't pay attention.
For these reasons, it is important in Youth Liberation organizations to put explicit limits on adult participation. Adults may be prohibited from voting; they may only be allowed to speak a certain number of times during the meeting; there may be a period at the end of the meeting when only youth get to speak, and they discuss moments in the conversation that "stung", so the adults can learn.
**Adults must learn how to invite and receive criticism from youth.** This is the foundation of being a good ally, of improving existing youth rights / welfare / protection agencies, and -- in the broadest sense -- making society a more positive place for youth.
On a personal level, you have to disinvest yourself from always being right. It's easy to feel like you're a good person because you "never" (seldom) hurt anyone. But that idea can lead to a defensiveness that makes youth feel unsafe to criticize you. Criticism is how you learn. It is a gift to receive criticism from an oppressed person; it takes courage on their part to risk telling you how your actions affected them. Shift your self-esteem over to how you respond *after* doing harm. Instead of being the person who never does wrong, be the person who welcomes becoming more self-aware of their actions. Find pride in being the person who follows through and keeps their word when they say they'll change.
The more that adults adopt this attitude -- of being *accountable to* youth instead of *responsible for* youth -- the better society will become. To improve, organizations and communities must open themselves up to learning when something is wrong. That means opening up the floodgates to youth criticism. Only when youth have a voice, welcomed and heard --in *everything* that affects them -- will ending their oppression become a real possibility.
-- to be continued --
March 3, 2003
Posted by Sven at 05:35 PM