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July 30, 2003

The Role of Adults within Youth Liberation

When adults and youth work together for Youth Liberation causes, there is always a danger that the adults will bring adultism with them, getting in the way of the youths' work or taking over entirely.

I believe it's important to articulate a code of conduct for "adult allies". Adults need to understand this Ally Framework to avoid inappropriate behavior -- but it's also valuable for youth. It's good to have a standard for what to expect from adults; it makes it easier to identify internal problems when they come up; and it helps youth prepare for when they become adults themselves.

[NOTE: Not all Youth Liberation work is done by organizations. Individuals can do good work fighting adultism. Groups of individuals can come together to address an issue without setting up rules, formal roles, or long-range plans. Still, my focus here is going to be on organizations. Because they have explicit structure, and are intended to last for some time, it's easier to discuss their internal dynamics.]


The Ally Framework is meant to help prevent inappropriate adult behavior within Youth Liberation organizations. Before going on to describe the solution, though, let's take a closer look at the kind of problems that come up, so that they're fresh in our minds.

When adults and youth sit in a circle having discussion, adults have several bad tendencies. They talk too often and for too long, taking up time that could be spent hearing from youth. They interrupt youth who are speaking. They address the other adults in the room instead of everyone, sometimes acting even as if the youth aren't really there. When youth make a point, the adults sometimes act as if they didn't hear it -- going on with their own train of thought, instead of responding to what's been said. Youth in the room can be in consensus, but the adults continue to make objections and try to put a stop to the young people's plans.

When adults participate in the upkeep of a Youth Liberation organization, they sometimes seize control. If the adults can vote, situations arise where they out-vote the will of the youth in the group. If they have keys to the building where the group meets, they can deny access, or just get in the way of youth meeting by being unavailable to open the door. If they control the budget, they can decide that they don't want to fund the youths' initiatives. It's common for the adults to be getting paid, and for there to be no paid positions for youth. Particularly if adults are securing money from grants, they can suddenly decide to change the group's name, or put up a sign for their "parent" organization on the front of the building.

Where public appearances are being made, adults can set themselves up as spokespersons for youth, not letting youth speak for themselves. If there's a TV camera involved, an adult member of the group may feel that they are most articulate. They may feel that the young people don't look normal enough, or will come across as too radical. If there's a panel presentation, it's often an adult who plays the role of facilitator -- introducing the event and the youth on the panel, giving the impression that the youth are cute puppets being trotted out. Adults organizing panels also often stretch the concept of youth to include anyone younger than themselves; 30-year-olds should not be on youth panels. When ballot measures are being fought over, adults are prone to pay a polling service to help set the campaign's message, youth falling out of the decision-making process almost entirely.

When youth attempt to confront the offending behavior of adults in their group, the adults may respond poorly. They may become angry and defensive, making themselves scary people to try to raise concerns with in the future. They may refuse to listen to criticism because the youth are angry (because of how they've been treated) and don't sound respectful / deferential enough for the adults' taste. They may try to out-reason youth, sticking with the rightness of their opinions and actions until youth just give up out of exhaustion. They may agree that their behavior must change, but then conveniently forget, and just keep on behaving as they did before.


One of the most important things that a Youth Liberation organization can do to combat internal adultism is to choose an appropriate group structure, particularly in terms of the balance of power between adults and youth. Here are the five essential options:

1. Youth only, no adults involved

2. Youth lead, adults follow and support their decisions

3. Youth and adults are equal participants

4. Adults lead, youth follow and support their decisions

5. Adults only, no youth involved

Personally, I think that adult-only organizations are adultist by definition. Even if they address issues that youth care about, like ending violence against minors, the means for achieving that end cannot be considered Youth Liberationist. Whether or not that invalidates the group's accomplishments is a matter for debate.

A lot of people like the idea of groups where adults and youth are equal participants (sometimes called "intergenerational" or "multi-generational" organizations). The problem I see with this kind of group is that they don't usually seem to talk about adultism. If you're not talking about it, how can you avoid it? I get the impression that most multi-generational groups slide into the typical "adults lead, youth obey" pattern.

People tend to have strong feelings about the idea of youth-only organizations. I think that they get a bad rap. A truly separatist organization has the benefit of completely avoiding the danger of adult take-overs from within. In my opinion, a group of youth, taking a stand and speaking out, is the very ideal of what Youth Liberation is about.

The trouble with youth separatism is really all about practical things: the difficulty of finding meeting space, learning activist techniques, reinventing ideas that youth-now-adults have already tried. A reasonable compromise, I think, is the "by youth, for youth" model -- where adults help out inside the Youth Liberation organization, but willingly limit the ways in which they participate.


When a group starts talking about adopting the "by youth, for youth" model, there's typically a heated discussion. It's difficult to do justice to both sides of the argument -- but trying to be fair, here are a few of the more common objections I've heard:

• It discriminates against adults. It's wrong to not treat everyone exactly the same.

• Adults have valuable ideas and information to share.

• Not all youth are Youth Liberationists... Adults can be more knowledgeable about the movement than the youth are.

• It doesn't matter who helps in the cause. All that matters is winning the fight at hand.

• Focus on internal processing distracts from the real work.

´┐ŻAnd here are a few counter-arguments on the "pro" side:

• Even well-meaning adults bring adultism with them, which can derail or destroy youths' efforts.

• If the point of our work is to eliminate adultism, how does it make sense to ignore the bad behavior of supposed "allies"? Any adult that truly wants to be an ally will invite criticism, so they can better learn how not to be adultist.

• The movement is for youths' sake. For better or worse, they should get to be in control of their destiny.

• It's not discrimination if adults voluntarily limit their use of power. If they don't want to play by the rules set by the youth, they can go back to the rest of the world, where adults are in charge.

• Adults don't have a right to be involved in Youth Liberation work... It is a privilege to be allowed to assist in youths' movement.


The essence of being an adult ally is to let youth leaders make all the decisions, and to support their choices with your time, sweat, and money. It's generally valid to offer a service if the youth are free to turn it down -- and anything goes if the youth specifically ask it of you -- but otherwise, you should be vigilant about not determining the direction that a youth group takes. Toward that goal, here's a list suggesting practical ways in which you can limit your influence...

1. Let youth decide if you're an ally.

Aspire to be helpful to youth, but be agnostic about your success. It should be up to youth to decide whether or not you're actually their friend. One way to support this is by saying that you're "pro" youth liberation, rather than a youth liberationist yourself.

2. Limit how long and how often you speak in discussions.

When there are group discussions, pay attention to how often the adults are talking. If the adults are talking too much, you may need to let go of the really-important-thing that you want to say. If you have a piece of paper in front of you, it can be useful to keep a running count: How many adult comments? How many youth comments?

3. Don't vote.

If you're invited to participate in a discussion, then feel free to share your opinions. But when it comes time for a real decision, gracefully bow out, and let the youth alone cast their votes.

4. Encourage post-discussion processing time.

It's a good practice to set aside a period of time after regular meetings for processing. One of my favorite formats is to give oppressed minorities (youth, people of color, queers, etc.) time to talk about anything that felt oppressive during the meeting; members of the majority group listen without responding. The point is not to punish any particular individual, but to educate the group about the everyday "stings" that go unnoticed.

5. Don't be in charge of the group's money, space, or resources.

There may be practical reasons why this is not possible. Still, if you can pull it off, make sure that the youth have keys to the building, the financial records, constant access to the photocopier and paper supply, etc.

6. Don't get paid.

Money that goes to you is money being kept out of the hands of youth. If the youth group is associated with a drop-in center, there may be legal reasons why there must be an adult staff person. In an ideal world, the youth center would sever itself from any "parent" service providers, thus allowing it to restructure. Do what you can to make sure that there are paid youth staff positions.

7. Don't get in front of TV cameras.

Avoid presenting the appearance that you're in charge of the youth in the group. Make certain that youth get to be their own spokespersons. If a reporter wants to talk to you, refer them to a youth instead.

8. Be cautious about participating in panels on Youth Liberation.

The facilitator has the appearance of being in power. Avoid being a facilitator -- or if the youth ask you, then be sure to make the audience understand that you are serving, not leading. If adults invite you to speak on a panel about youth, find an actual youth to do it instead.

9. "Nothing about us without us."

If you're talking with other adults about hosting a conference on youth-related topics, or if you are considering responding to a political issue that affects youth, don't even start the work until youth are at the table to give their input.


It's challenging to just be supportive about an issue that you really care about. You have to let go of a lot of ego and humble yourself. I want to conclude with some thoughts about the emotional aspects of trying to be an ally...

Don't invest yourself in being "one of the good ones". Instead of thinking that you have nothing in common with adult supremacists, "those monsters", look for the ghost of their beliefs in yourself. If you can talk about what you still find yourself struggling with, it makes you better able to bring other adults toward the light.

Accept that you're going to accidentally say and do adultist things. We've all absorbed adultist thinking, and will almost inevitably hurt / offend someone without realizing it. If you want to believe that you never do wrong, then it's likely that you're going to be defensive -- which makes you a more dangerous person for youth to confront. Instead of being the person who never makes mistakes, invest your self-esteem in being the person who takes criticism well, and really follows through when they say they'll change.

Invite criticism. It's through being confronted about oppressive behavior that we learn to be better. Criticism is a gift; appreciate how scary it is to confront someone, how much courage and caring it takes to try to deal with the person that hurt / offended you. Do whatever you can to let people know that you welcome feedback about how you're doing as an ally.

Listen, even when the person who's confronting you is angry. It's unfair to ask oppressed persons to just put aside their anger when they've been hurt, to only listen if they're going to be calm and nice. If you can learn to listen to angry criticism, you have much greater opportunities to learn. Personally, I try to even listen through criticism that has swearing and name-calling (if it's coming from oppressed person). So long as I'm not physically endangered, so long as I can leave whenever I want, I try to set my standard for "verbal abuse" high. The more I can sit through, the more I can learn, the deeper the wounds that may be able to be healed.

Be prepared to lose arguments. When I'm in a discussion with a circle of youth, I can feel pretty passionately that my opinions are correct. I have to keep reminding myself that the decisions are theirs to make. Maybe their decisions will mean that the group folds. I have to be OK with that too. Youth get to choose, even if (in my opinion) they choose wrongly. And -- who knows? -- maybe I'll discover that I was wrong, and that there's more than one way to get Youth Liberation done.

-- END --

July 10, 2003

Posted by Sven at July 30, 2003 12:51 PM


I've always had these ideas in my mind, but am just getting started to figuring out what the movement is all about. Hell, I'm part of that 'adultism' already being 20.

I should say that I think it depends on the adult ally! We're all different... obviously a 60 year old is going to have a larger disconnect than myself as a 20 year old. Moreover, depending on the ideology and true respect for youth, they can be involved in any capacity and still not infringe upon the youth purity.

Posted by: Ben Donahower at December 13, 2003 06:32 PM

I think people of all ages have the potential to help the Youth Liberation movement. There's nothing about being 21 or 30 or 60 years old that makes a person inherently untrustable. The ally "etiquette" that I describe in this essay (and elsewhere) is not about punishing adults because they can't be trusted. The fundamental issue is control...

Minors (people under age 18) suffer most from adultist laws -- therefore they should have the greatest say over how to fight the oppression. People from age 18 - 25 suffer from some of the social aspects of adultism, and still from a few age-based laws; they should have some say, but should defer to the will of 0 - 18 year olds. Adults (people over age 25) should try to be of as much assistance as possible, offering resources and opinions -- but never get in the way or wrest control away from actual youth. Imagine a stoplight that tells you who should be in control: 0-18 green, 18-25 yellow, 25+ red.

Note that when I'm talking about adult participation here, I mean in the context of an organization. Outside of that, adults still need to pay attention to control issues -- but the "rules" may be more flexible.

...I should also emphasize that I do think adults should seek to help within the YL movement, rather than stay out of it entirely. Though possible, it is far more difficult to do YL activism without the assistance of adults.

These are the areas that I think adults should focus on: providing meeting spaces and material resources, training youth in activist skills, doing research on political opponents, and carrying the history of YL forward to the next generation.

Posted by: Sven at December 14, 2003 10:10 PM

Well as I mentioned before, I deffinately disagree with the youth-only model. I say turn the light to green for all age groups. I'd made the case against youth-only, but you've done a very good job of summing up the argument I'd make.

There are some other points worthy of making however. Namely continuity and time. If someone gets involved at 15 does that mean they only have 3 years to work for the cause before they age out and are pushed to the sidelines? All their experience is just regulated to an advisory role? I don't think so.

It would be very difficult to keep an organization going and on track when you have to start over every 2-3 years with new people. I think it is entirely foolish to just toss someone aside once they turn 18. They should stay active, stay involved, and even lead.

Also, a professional, active organization is gonna need full time staff. That's really hard to do as most youth under 18 are in school, I am gonna try very hard to get youth on NYRA's staff when the time comes, but I am not confident I'm gonna find a 14 year old able to work in the office fulltime.

Plus, as you noted, its a matter of experience. I'd much rather you, or Adam, or me to get up on TV or in front of an audience to make a case for youth rights than someone (of any age) who hasn't been as involved or attached to the issues and cause for as long.

I deffinately argue in favor of the third scenario you listed. Youth and adults are equal participants.

Posted by: KPalicz at February 21, 2004 08:22 AM