Youth Empowerment’s Spotty Gains

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For today's youth activists the era of considering teens as primarily passive recipients of adult guidance may seem like life from another eon. Yet it was just a third of a century ago that youth work undertook, in earnest, the still-far-from-complete task of reorienting itself into the youth-centered field it has inexorably become.

Not so long ago, a typical youth participation event organized by service providers featured an angry teen who upbraided the adult audience, for whom no comment, complaint or claim was too foolish or outlandish. If it came from a teen, be it profound or inane, then all must applaud - hardly a prescription for candid dialogue.

Now most teens, even if chafing in regimented schools, have taken to heart a world view in which they, too, are due basic rights and respect along with commensurate responsibility.

Nowhere is this changing social climate more noticeable than in the sphere of youth participation in youth-serving organizations and community life. The contemporary landscape of the youth field is delightfully cluttered with myriad groups promoting youth empowerment, practicing youth participation and championing causes like combating child labor abuses, opposing regressive juvenile justice policies or solving contentious community problems.

Take, for example, outfits such as the Community Partnerships with Youth in Ft. Wayne, Ind., Youth on Board in Somerville, Mass., the Youth in Action Campaign in D.C. and California, Global Kids in New York, the Activism 2000 Project in Maryland, and the Alliance for Justice's Co/Motion in D.C. Each works throughout the nation on modest budgets to assist teens in becoming powerful voices and real decisionmakers in institutions that shape, even dictate, young lives.

Some of these groups have banded together to promote At the Table, coordinated by 24-year-old Amy Weisenbach at the National 4-H Council (not coincidently, a former teen journalist for Children's Express and a board member of the Indian Youth Services Association). At the Table is becoming a vital national engine for further buildingmaking, and not just within youth-serving nonprofits

And consider the flowering of youth organizing, a dynamic area of youth work that barely existed 10 years ago. Its emergence is thanks a to a few risk-taking foundations and such hard-scrabble pioneers as the indefatigable Kim McGillicuddy of Youth Force, a Bronx-based, teen-run social justice agency. Throughout the nation one finds new leaders such as Taj James, a youth worker at San Francisco's Coleman Advocates for Children, who has helped organize the city's teens into a serious political constituency, and Ben Quinto of Tucson, Ariz., who is using the Internet to organize support for an official Youth Assembly at the United Nations.

Some national youth-serving organizations, ranging from the Future Farmers of America to the Network for Youth, have heavily incorporated youth into most levels of decision-making. Even the U.S. government, which wrote the multi-chaptered book on how not to do youth empowerment, is trying its hand again through an Office of Juvenile Justice-funded National Youth Network of 14- to 21-year-olds selected by national youth organizations.

But real youth empowerment is no peaceful stroll down a high school corridor under the watchful eye of cops and cameras. The kind of politically alert youth that are engaged by these emerging empowerment opportunities may be pliant to adult direction early on. But in some instances, once organized around and committed to an important issue, they can quickly push beyond the designated boundaries that their adult sponsors had in mind.

One current example playing out on the national stage will be to learn the mettle of the 100 "spokesteens" assembled by the anti-smoking American Legacy Foundation. Will they stand up to a board of directors loaded with elected public officials who precipitously and unilaterally scrapped part of a $300 million youth-crafted advertising campaign, dubbed "thetruth," because it was deemed to be, well, just too truthful about the tobacco industry?

Sadly, all of these efforts pale when compared to the cumulative effect of the prevailing adult recipes for youthful socialization and civic participation. From curfews, zero tolerance and trying more juveniles as adults, to mandatory drug testing and community service requirements,  public officials routinely opt to tighten their control over kids while escalating the penalties for miscreants, rather than broadly expanding youth opportunities.

The result is the spread of a "one strike and you're out" adult mindset about teens. With the trends of the youth service field and the policies of society at-large on a collision course, America may soon revisit the intergenerational conflicts of the Johnson/Nixon era.