Leading Thinkers Rely on Young Minds

Are you shifting your mindset and organizational culture to recognize “the wisdom of youth” instead of the appreciative but patronizing “creative energy of youth”?

Change is afoot. In my third decade of working with nonprofits and government agencies as well as collaborating closely with hundreds of teen activists across the country, I detect several exciting trends. Many individuals and institutions that engage youth typically describe the “creative energy” and “idealism.” Now I’m hearing a very different mindset that emphasizes the “wisdom of youth.

I need to build structures in my life where I am routinely channeling and getting feedback, ideas and spirit from younger people…There’s a particular wisdom of youth–this generation has a very practiced sense of how to shift social norms, not just social media but a deeper awareness of how to change hearts and minds.

Eric Lui, CEO, Citizen University 

OXYGENATE

I know young people propel my own neuroplasticity and also know firsthand that young people literally oxygenate organizations.

It is our mission at Youth Infusion to encourage adults, especially those at the helm of organizations, to practice adaptive leadership that extends to being open to listening and learning with the rising generation. 

My contention is intergenerational interdependence is a win-win not only in terms of youth development but lifelong human development…reawakening the adventurous [spirit] and plasticity. 

Ronald Heifetz, Author, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership

DIVERSIFY

Not long ago it was rare for women, people of color and those with disabilities to share power with White men. It is ironic that in most organization’s DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) initiatives, a quarter of the population continues to be excluded. 

Diversity needs to include diversity of age. I find people with fresh eyes, impatient eyes, angry eyes actually make you see things in ways that are very important. You need to be in constant touch with people who don’t think they belong…If you are isolating yourself from those with different energy you cannot be transformative in your work. 

– Angela Glover Blackwell, Founder, PolicyLink 

CURIOSITY

It is up to us–adults–to be genuinely curious so that young people believe we do not want adult clones but rely on them to ask the questions and explore solutions that most of us no longer dare ponder. 

The collective “we” need young people to be able to activate their imaginations…How does one keep an imagination firing off when we live in a nation that is constantly vacuuming it from them? And I think that the answer is, one must live a curious life. 

– Jason Reynolds, Author, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You

As with any paradigm shift, there is a need to examine current attitudes, weigh different approaches, engage in careful preparation, pursue innovation and expect recalibration. Our multi-racial intergenerational team is eager and ready to help you and your colleagues advance to this new level and realize the ROI of Youth Infusion. Some of these intentional strategies are outlined below using the popular activity commonly referred to as Rose (something positive), Thorn (something negative), and Bud (promising concept).

I. SHIFTING ADULT ATTITUDES

Outside of one’s family and classrooms, interactions between young people and adults, especially senior and middle management, are rare. Age apartheid can cement long-held and outdated attitudes. Racial segregation may be another reason why adults have a narrow lens, failing to recognize Generation Z as the most diverse ever. 

PREVAILING VIEWS ABOUT YOUTH 
  • Rose – Youth, who may act less defiant than their peers and know how to code switch with adults, will hear slogans like “youth are the leaders of tomorrow.” Traditional mentoring is the norm. Youth influence typically is seen as limited to their generation. 
  • Thorn – The hot cognition button in the teenage brain reinforces frightening images. Impulsive or violent behavior persist as dominant stereotypes even though the data reveal most risky adolescent behaviors are at historically low levels
CHANGING MINDSETS ABOUT YOUTH 
  • Thorn – Adults may be unconscious of their own adultism that can result in protective or controlling behaviors which maintain unequal power dynamics. Supervisors and co-workers may opt for token youth engagement and resist shared decision-making. 
  • Bud – There is greater recognition that young people influence not only their peers but also parents, policymakers, the press. As minors, they can play major roles now. Presumed competence, combined with mutual mentoring and collegiality, represent this adult attitude adjustment.

One could boil down this changing mindset to a single philosophical preposition: “WITH” replaces doing “FOR” or “TO” youth.

II. TRANSFORMING INSTITUTIONS

Instead of thinking “IF” young people could be collaborators, switch the question to “HOW.” Of course, young people don’t jump on board until there is organizational readiness including new policies as well as carefully designed orientations for the newcomers along with adult staff. Our trainings and technical assistance introduce numerous options and we co-facilitate an 8-Step Youth Infusion Process. Here are a few general guidelines to progress from conventional youth engagement to synergistic systems. 

STICKING WITH TRADITIONAL YOUTH ENGAGEMENT
  • Rose – Youth advisory councils are commonplace at youth-serving nonprofits and schools. Many cities and states have established youth commissions. The emphasis focuses on youth development and leadership skills. Typically these advisory boards plan community projects, conduct surveys and youth participatory action research that may lead to formal recommendations.
  • Thorn – A major challenge is these advisory councils fail to attract marginalized youth most impacted and furthest from power. Ongoing exchange and collegial rapport between youth reps and adults at sponsoring institutions are limited. Typically youth are not encouraged to pursue systemic change and policy advocacy. 
ADVANCING TOWARD INTERGENERATIONAL SYNERGY
  • Thorn – Inertia maintains the standard work week that conflicts with the inflexible schedules of youth. The organization fails to engage in radical inclusion and maintains conventional practices that keep youth on the sidelines. Staff turnover may result in reversing commitment to a multi-racial intergenerational organization. 
  • Bud – Adaptive leadership, combined with a culture of curiosity and innovation, considers numerous strategies for infusing youth ranging from several part-time youth on staff to a cohort of consultants. Organizations adopt youth-friendly policies and intentionally expand DEIJ in recruitment and retention of BIPOC youth.

This intergenerational approach provides opportunities in the real world where young people share power with adults by contributing their insights and ideas from co-creation to advocacy and evaluation of programs and policies. The result: they prove their strength to themselves and the larger community. In return, dedicated professionals derive energy as young collaborators fuel new thinking and remedies that may have become stale to the adult world.

Every week we are learning more effective strategies for how individuals are transforming their nonprofits and agencies. We hope you will contact us to explore how to realize the full “Rosebud” and increase the impact of your organization. 

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