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December 22, 2004

Exploration: Worldview of the Youth power Movement

[NOTE: This document was added to the blog on May 16, 2005]

From W 09.29.04:

"The point of this essay is that it is not an essay; it is an "exploration". I don't have any outline going into this, and it's not meant to end up as something that other people will read. This is where I'll sort through my thoughts. It's like note-taking -- but in sentences and paragraphs, rather than in fragments. The idea is to just keep going forward, and not become recursive, trying to edit what I still haven't even thought through. I think I can trust that by writing "explorations" such as this one, outlines will naturally emerge -- if it turns out that I even have adequate material for an essay. [Discovering that I really don't have adequate material for an essay would be valuable in itself!]"

1. Youth Liberation in General

Before I get into talking about the Youth Power movement, there are some introductory comments to be made.

Youth Liberation is a subvariety of the Children's Rights movement. Its most important feature is the inclusion of youth activists and youths' own opinions in its work. Other branches of the Children's Rights movement are engaged in work that is putatively for the benefit of young people, but is entirely adult led, and often lacking any significant input from youth themselves. Youth Liberation is at its most basic level, Children's Rights work that is actually inclusive of youth -- that in some sense derives from the opinions and perspectives of youth themselves.

There are differences of philosophy within Youth Liberation itself.

One key issue on which YL groups vary is the inclusion of adults. Some YL groups take a radical "by youth, for youth" approach that excludes adult participation entirely. Other groups have youth and adults working on an equal footing, and others still have adults doing all of the actual work, but guided by input from a youth constituency.

A second key issue on which YL groups vary is how they envision the political goals of the movement. I argue elsewhere that there are three main branches within Youth Liberation: Youth Equality (AKA Youth Rights), Youth Power, and Youth Culture. Youth Equality focuses upon winning civil rights for youth identical to those of adults. Youth Power focuses on creating safe ways to exit harmful situations and on getting youth authority to participate in decision-making processes that affect them. Youth Culture focuses on defending youths' natural ways of being, and on creating alternative spaces where youth can be themselves.

[My own allegiance is to the philosophy of Youth Power -- but I see value in all three paths, and hope to help foster greater understanding between them.]

"Youth Liberation" is not a universally accepted umbrella term; the term "Youth Rights" has some popularity. I choose to use the term "Youth Liberation" in part because of its historical value. The organization Youth Liberation of Ann Arbor was very influential in this movement during the early seventies. This group, in addition to the seminal work of adult authors John Holt (Escape from Childhood) and Richard Farson (Birthrights), is a common point of departure for the various branches of YL.

While there is no single political agenda that all YL activists have agreed upon, Youth Liberation of Ann Arbor, Holt, and Farson all put forth their own Bill of Rights -style documents, and these documents each show a great deal of overlap. The most distinguishing feature of a consensus YL agenda is the belief that youth should be allowed to vote in elections. Support of this point alone is probably enough to brand a person or group as a supporter of YL. Belief that youth should be allowed a great deal more self-determination over their lives is also at the core of all YL philosophies.

From a strict semantic point of view the term "Youth Liberation" implies a particular framework of beliefs that was in vogue during the late 1960s and early 70s. "Liberation" is contrasted with "oppression", which implies the presence of two groups: one that actively oppresses, and one that is oppressed. This framework persists in a variety of social justice / social change movements that talk about "oppressions" or "isms" such as racism, sexism, classism, ableism, ageism, etc. The word "liberation", however is dated, and has become somewhat passé.

...While it is valuable to discuss how an oppression/liberation framework differs from a civil rights/equality framework, I choose to ignore the implications of the word "liberation" in YL here, for the sake of having a useful umbrella term for this movement's various branches. I see no point in attempting to delegitimize the work of activist groups solely because of differing terminology -- e.g. by denouncing a group because it is not "liberating" or alternatively because its focus is not on "rights". The interests of our sub-movements are too similar; in this context we should work to understand each others peculiarities, or at least tolerate them.

That said, neither should we shy away from discussing the fact that there are philosophical differences between YL groups -- at least not amongst ourselves. Groups that are separatist and groups that are integrated -- Youth Equality, Youth Power, and Youth Culture groups -- we can only gain from a sincere, yet tolerant, intellectual exchange.

2. Worldview of the Youth Power Movement

[Note that I am using the word "movement" here loosely. I am not certain what critical masse of activist goings on would constitute a historical movement -- but I am fairly certain that we have not achieved it yet. There are small outcroppings of activists at work that share a common philosophy. Given the physical distances that separate them, and the lack of a recognizable hub of interaction (e.g. an annual conference), I am reticent to call these people a "subculture". So, I use the word "movement" instead, but with this acknowledgement that it is still not quite the right term.]

[I suppose I should also say up front that the following "worldview" is not based on consensus. I am constructing it myself. One might criticize me for projecting my own beliefs onto a population that exists only in my own imagination. While I can't deny that there would be something to this criticism, I also don't think that that's the whole story.

The framework that I am articulating here is distilled from the political philosophies of other social change movements (particularly Feminism and Marxism). In a sense, I am translating those philosophies for use by YL activists. My sense is that this philosophy is a logical possibility simply waiting to exist. I sense that there are others who intuit its existence, and operate on its principles -- it just hasn't been articulated yet. It is as if there's a pantheon of social groups (blacks, women, gays/lesbians, poor, and disabled people) who have all employed a _____-power strategy; but there's a gap there in the line, waiting to be filled, where youth should be standing.]

The Youth Power movement is not defined purely by the goals that it wishes to achieve, nor by the methods that it advocates using to accomplish them. The movement is also defined by it's worldview: how it understands the initial situation that it is attempting to change. This worldview is not limited to merely the relationship between youth and adults -- it also includes beliefs about human nature, the nature of justice, and how social change occurs in general.

(A) Youth as Property

The Youth Power movement recognizes that human beings have selfish motives. This is not to say that people's only motive is self-interest. Acting out of interest for the common good, or altruistically for the welfare of another, or in obedience to authority, or unthinkingly out of habit -- all these motives undeniably exist. However, in addition there is also this thread of self-interest: that people will often, if not most of the time, do that which will in some way benefit them personally.

One thing that profoundly serves self-interest is to be in a command-obey relationship as the person who gives orders. When a person feels that they have the right to tell another person what to do, they get to have things the way that they want them. Getting to have your way is pleasant! On a basic, human level, it is desirable to get to spend your time how you want, go where you want, when you want -- and to not have to do work that's unappealing, to not be forced to cater to other people's needs and schedules when you'd rather be doing something else.

Parents are in an ideal position for having a command-obey relationship with their children. In terms of property rights, a person is generally seen as having natural ownership over a thing that they create (e.g. a piece of art). Having biologically generated a new human being from the material of their own bodies, there is a strong instinct for parents to view their offspring as property.

A person essentially has a command-obey relationship with their inanimate property. It belongs to them, and they get to do with it what they want -- using it, altering it, destroying it, giving it to others, or preventing others from interacting with it. Parents, as human beings who have created something, intuitively believe that they have these same rights over their offspring.

The command-obey relationship is the essence of slavery. During the past two centuries, slavery has become seen as morally unacceptable. However, most people's understanding of slavery is very limited -- it is typically identified with the experience of Africans who were brought to the USA to do labor in Southern plantations. [It is also perhaps identified by some with enslavement by the Egyptians, as described in the Bible.] If we strip away the inflammatory word "slavery", then we begin to see that there is a continuum of slave-like states, which includes imprisonment, shanghaiing, indentured servitude, and the obedience demanded of wives previously in the USA and still in some nations.

Youth Power is part of a continuing effort to end the practice of treating people as property. This is how Youth Power sees itself participating in a greater historical context, contributing to the larger goal of human rights and dignity.

(B) Self-Determination

The right of self-ownership is seen as self-evident. A person is nobody's property but their own. The rights that Youth Power seeks to protect are essentially property rights -- and the most fundamental property is one's body. As with any other property they own, a person should naturally have the right to use their body, alter it, destroy it, give it to others, or prevent others from interacting with it. Taken together, control over these aspects of one's person constitutes "self-determination", which is one of the goals of all Youth Liberation branches.

[Basing personal, civil, and human rights on ownership of the body, of course becomes more complicated when you start having to deal with shared space. Once you put people together in a room or open space, their boundaries begin overlapping. This is a more difficult area of theory, but still workable, I believe.]

When a youth's -- or any other person's -- right to do what they want with their own body (so long as it is not infringing upon others) is violated, that violation is unethical. Laws or other forms of rules that deprive youth of such freedom are inherently illegitimate. There is no ethical obligation that should compel a youth to abide by an invalid law or rule, regardless of what authority figure has created it. When an authority -- even one who comes by their power via legitimate means -- makes bad rules, a youth is free to ignore those rules.

Young people's situation is similar to that of a people in a nation that has been invaded and conquered. The conquering people claims the right to make rules as they see fit; the conquered people do not necessarily recognize the conquerors' right to make rules. In this sense, adults cannot "give" youth rights or freedom. Youth are free at present. For instance, at any moment, a young person in a high school class could decide to stand up and walk out of the building. The difficulty with freedom in this context is that the adult authorities in this youth's life are likely to impose consequences. Thus, youth freedom is not a matter of passing ten or twenty or a hundred laws; it is a matter of adults getting out of the way of young people who want to exercise the freedoms that are theirs to begin with. [Denying youth access to opportunities that should be open to them can be seen in a similar way.]

(C) The Organization of Adults

Because the US Constitution excludes youth from direct participation in government -- specifically prohibiting being a president, senator, representative, or voting in elections -- it is accurate to say that the US political system is an "adultarchy", that is, government by adults. A government that is explicitly by adults, is implicitly for the interests of adults.

From an age perspective, the government was installed by parents; it is run by them, and its laws reflect their collective will. For the most part, the laws of the adultarchy simply attempt to legitimate parents private ownership of their children-as-property. [E.g. by articulating the right to use physical pain for "discipline", and by prohibiting youth from running away.]

However, there is also a transcendence of private ownership, wherein all children are seen to be the collective property of all adults. Minors' status as citizens in the nation thus echoes the command-obey relationship of the home, but on a public level: as voters, all adults get to tell all youth what to do; as youth have curfews at home, so too they have curfews at the city-level.

This collective ownership of youth sometimes creates what looks like a conflict between parents and the government, e.g. when Child Welfare services remove a child from his or her parents. However, the situation is not per se that the government is siding with the child -- after all, the child may have little or no voice in the decision to be removed. Rather, adults as a collective are interested in regulating the behavior of their constituent members. The principle that youth are owned property is maintained.

Adulthood is essentially a membership based organization. Members receive privileges; there is a dividing line between members and non-members; the prohibitions placed upon non-members are literally policed and enforced; identification cards are distributed; there's even something of an informal dress code. The dividing line between adults and youth varies somewhat between different laws; however, most laws revolve around the age of 18 -- which I believe is intended to echo the line between parents and children, when minors have historically left home and moved toward becoming parents themselves. Adulthood is an unusual institution, but I do not think that inconsistency in the dividing line(s) between members and non-members alters modern adulthood's fundamentally organizational nature.

Another fairly unique aspect of adulthood as an organization is that non-members are ultimately, universally inducted -- without having to make a choice, without having to formally embrace doctrine. ...If the transition from childhood to adulthood were like a traditional political conversion, one would expect a requirement that one renounce one's previous affiliation. However, childhood is so effectively stigmatized, that most people spend their entire youth attempting to dissociate themselves from young people as a group. Most youth are so eager to join the adultarchy, that there's no solidarity with other young people to betray.

This constant struggle for status -- not associating with people younger than you, doing "adult" things like smoking or drinking, putting other youth down for being "childish", emphasizing other prestige-giving identities (like maleness), bullying other kids, simply denying that one is "a child", and refusing to look back at the past -- these strategies make organizing youth for activist efforts a more difficult task.

(D) Adults' Conflict of Interests re Child Protection

Youth must not depend on the organization of adults to police itself.

On the level of the family, parents' "right" to control their children-as-property is nearly absolute. Adult government has placed some obligations upon its members: to provide food and shelter at a level that does not constitute "neglect", to provide education. Parents are charged with controlling their children by whatever means necessary -- so long as they don't cause physical injury.

At the societal level, however, adults' power is absolute. There is no limit on what freedoms adult law makers may abridge (e.g. night and daytime curfews), or what requirements they may make of youth's labor (e.g. up to twelve years of compulsory schooling). Without the formal power of voting or being able to elect youth legislators, youths' only recourse against such laws is to appeal to law makers' consciences and hope for the best -- or to willfully flout the laws they make.

The saying "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" (Lord Acton) has relevance. Contemporary sensibilities want to trust that all except aberrational parents have their children's best interests at heart, and govern their private spheres fairly, because they know what's best for their kids. While it's probably true that most family situations are tolerable, parents aren't necessarily the best judge of what's fair and right in dealing with youth. Parents have a vested interest in getting things the way that they want them, in maintaining the command-obey relationship. Making commands or rules selfishly may not break bones -- but neither should the commonness of petty, casual tyranny be condoned.

The worst abuse of youth is an outgrowth of normal parenting values. Contrary to the notion that there are good parents and bad parents, I assert that there is a continuum between how most parents govern their children -- guiding, supervising, controlling -- and how the worst do. Parents are, by law, mandated to control their children; inflicting physical pain is a legal method for doing so. Even among "normal" parents, violence is a means to an ends: obtaining obedience. Furthermore, parental authority is seen as an end in itself; insubordination or lack of respect is a punishable offense. In this relationship, it's not surprising that some parents would use violence to the point of injury. Nor is it surprising that youth would resist such treatment -- and that this resistance, clinging to ones dignity, might spurn further, escalating abuse.

From a youth perspective, the adult government does not prohibit violence -- it regulates it. The Child Welfare system is widely understood to be understaffed for handling the amount of child abuse cases it receives -- and it is undercut by the legality of actions that would be considered assault when done to an adult. The legislature, being staffed largely by parents with a self-interest in maintaining their own command-obey relationships at home (as well as that of their constituencies) are not going to be quick to prohibit violence against minors. ...Yet, this is the system that youth are asked to entrust themselves to. If you are a young person being abused, you are supposed to tell a "good" adult, who will help you get into the system, wherein you still will not be your own property -- but rather now the property of the state. If you suffer from not being permitted to control your own life, violence merely being one tool of that agenda, what about entering the Child Welfare system sounds appealing?

[Still, this is not to say that the Child Welfare system should not exist! It helps ameliorate a bad situation, even if hamstrung -- and is of particular service to the very young, and to infants. However, it should be reformed to deal with some of youths' concerns, and augmented with youth-led initiatives.]

Violence is not the only issue that Youth Power is concerned with -- but it epitomizes the degree to which adult control can harm youth. It lays naked the core dynamic (maintaining the command-obey relationship between youth and adults) that manifests in the public sphere, and in so many laws.

(E) Need for Activism

For the most part, the interests of children and parents are viewed as one and the same. As one author put it, the child is the "dependent half of a two-person unit". The notion is that parents will take care of children, and so parents must be given the resources to do so. However, this erases youths' separateness, confusing their needs with those of "the family". [Coverture is, of course, founded on a parent owning their child as property.]

With no separate existence in the eyes of society, youth have no basis for complaining about their treatment. In order to criticize the command-obey relationship, youth must first be seen to exist! Each party within the family is separate, and has its own interests. The interests of the parents is in maintaining the convenience and pleasure of a command-obey relationship. If adults are expected to at the same time think of the best interests of their children, then they have a conflict of interests.

Rather than depend solely upon adults, youth must become their own advocates. Youth are poorly educated about how to defend themselves against mistreatment (it's not in adult's interest to do so!). For the most part, they simply aren't told how to access a system that will redress their complaints. This puts them in the position of having to wait to be "discovered" by an outside adult, who will escort them into the Child Protection system. If they youth are told anything about how to protect themselves, they're generally directed to tell their story to another adult. But this doesn't account for other adults seeing the offending parent as being in the right, or not taking the youth seriously! [What's missing in this entire system is any point at which a youth can command an adult, demand that their complaints be aired in a public setting.]

On a personal level, youth have every right to self-defense. They are justified in hitting back, running away, or temporarily safe-housing each other as a means of escape.

However, youth should not have to live with these options alone. Youth should work to create improved means of exiting harmful situations. They should have the right to voluntarily "divorce" their parents, to voluntarily seek foster parents; they should have greater ability to emancipate themselves, and to access the welfare system, as well as special scholarships for higher learning; there should be more places to stay overnight, including hostels, recreation halls, and shelters -- and freedom to travel in public at any time of the day or night, ideally with access to public transit.

While adults may at some point see the worthiness of these changes to public policy, youth should not stake their lives on that eventuality. Together youth are stronger than alone; they have the ability to press for change via youth-led activism. Youth speaking out for themselves will simultaneously be more easily dismissed than adult advocates -- and also more compelling, because their complaints are being made directly. Youth may try to compel adult legislators through reason and friendly discussion -- or they may adopt a more confrontational, adversarial pose, essentially trying to make it too uncomfortable for adults not to change. Because adults have violated youth's self-ownership, both approaches are equally valid -- there is no trusting relationship that should be honored. [To what extent the violation of youths' rights justifies violating the boundaries of adults, e.g. via destruction of their property, is a matter for debate.]

Ultimately, youth should not remain outsiders to the system. If change happens, it will happen because youth demand it. But youth should not have to make their demands from the side wings -- they should be seated at the negotiation table to make their demands heard directly. Youth, minimally, should have a voice in all decision-making processes that affect them. This means, in the context of schools, participating in hiring, firing, funding, and curriculum decisions -- and at the level of government, being allowed to vote in city, county, state, and federal elections, as well as being allowed to at least run in all elections for public office.

(F) The Method of Activism

Youth, as a people, have a particular point of view. Not every youth is qualified to speak for youth as a group -- but every youth is qualified to tell the truth of their experience. Youth who have studied the history of youth liberation and/or spoken widely with other youth, hearing their stories directly, are qualified to speak about the interests of youth as a whole.

Adults who study the position of youth in history and voices of the YL movement are qualified to be allies, and even to talk somewhat about the YL movement. An adult speaking on behalf of youth, however, -- no matter how educated -- is not the same as a youth speaking out for themselves. A youth who speaks out is in the actual process of controlling their representation, which in itself is a defeat of the command-obey relationship. An adult who speaks on behalf of youth takes up listening space that could have been filled by an actual youth, and has the potential to replace youths' wishes with their own, not even realizing that their image of youth is flawed.

Because Youth Power is concerned with establishing youths' ability to control their own lives, it has an strong interest in how "ally" adults interact with youth within YL projects. There is a constant danger that adults will take over YL projects, overriding the will of the youth until the youth involved have no control over the work. An adult may strive to be an ally -- but it is for youth to say whether or not they are successful.

There is an etiquette for adults who work with Youth Power groups, which has to do with limiting (but not eliminating) participation and minimizing the amount of control one has. Conversationally, allies need to beware of taking over youth in discussion: talking longer than the youth, interrupting youth, directing their comments only to other adults in the room, and ignoring youth opinions. Power-wise, allies may participate in discussions -- but they should abstain from voting; if they are on a board of directors, youth should make up half or more of that body. Money-wise, adults should avoid (where possible) taking on paid positions, reserving pay for actual youth. Process-wise, adults should make themselves open to criticism, building in time for youth to talk about "stings" after each discussion, without adult response. Living by these rules of etiquette is humbling, frustrating when one's opinions don't win, and sometimes hurtful when one is confronted about oppressive behavior -- but the code also provides a sense of pride in one's ethics, and gives youth ample reason to trust your support.

Because youth is a time-limited identity, there is a constant turn-over in YL organizations -- or effectively a take-over by adults, when old leadership grows up but doesn't get out of the way. Adults, tweens (18-25), and minors each have somewhat different roles to play in a YL organization. Adults' role is to support the leadership of the youth, provide material resources, carry over knowledge to the next generation of activists, do research, and speak up for youth in situations where youth are prohibited from speaking or specifically ask the adult to speak. Tweens are often able to access college and university resources, they should stop voting in group decisions, and speak on panels only with explicit caveats that they are no longer youth. Minors, 18 and under, should be the actual voice of the movement.

3. Things I Forgot to Say Above

I forgot to talk about how a law is just a piece of paper. ...How a law does not actually protect your rights -- unless adults actually fear breaking it. A civil rights law is your access to a legal system. It's strength is in enforcement -- that armed police will arrest a person may plausibly use weapons, that prison might be involved, things that make paying a fine the lesser punishment. However, in order to get enforcement, you have to prove your case -- something that is not easy, because the standards for evidence tend to be high. What's more, a law that in your support doesn't do any good if you either don't know that you have a right, or know how to navigate the system that will enforce it for you. ...It's nice to have laws in place, and they say something about what a society values -- but true power is in the hands of individuals, not the law books. ...A person can hit, or run, or share food; these things are what's "real".

I could also see talking about the notion of "oppression", how that creates a common language that we can talk to other movements with -- but I think that may be superfluous here, now that I have a strong analysis of the command-obey relationship.

I sort of feel like I should have talked more about point of view, conflicts of interest, an adversarial relationship in politics, and escape freedom. I could possibly have talked about how social change happens: because it's demanded -- but that there's no revolution, rather, a permanent state of negotiations between social groups. Given what most people think "radical" means, that might be important. I want points-of-view to be represented at the table by the people who actually experience them -- not for some kind of violent overthrow to occur. ...I might also need to say something that explicitly contrasts my "etiquette" with a simple "don't trust anyone over thirty" sentiment.

I'm not sure if the final section about "method of activism" even needs to be there. Maybe that's my own gig, but doesn't relate to what is essential to Youth Power.

I'm also uncomfortable with how much I focused on the issue of violence, somewhat unintentionally. ...I kind of feel like I got into rehashing my whole philosophy again, without relating back to the key terms "world view" and "power" often enough.

I might add something about how opposition to youths' self-possession is very active, meaning that we must be concerned primarily with resistance -- forward progress is likely to be infrequent.

Posted by Sven at December 22, 2004 12:00 PM