Adults Pay Close Attention to Their Youth Allies

This citywide network functions more like “a family” which deserves special attention. Why? Because community activists as well as parent organizations are not always successful in building a coalition that also includes the primary stakeholders–students themselves.

482Forward is a collective of neighborhood organizations, parents, and students who attend Detroit charter and public schools. 482 is the prefix for zip codes in Wayne County, populated by many ethnicities, languages, religions, etc.

This citywide network functions more like “a family” which deserves special attention. Why? Because community activists as well as parent organizations are not always successful in building a coalition that also includes the primary stakeholders–students themselves.

The structure provides some clues about this effective intergenerational engine for education justice. Each member organization has a youth organizing hub and an adult ally. These student reps form the 482Forward Youth Collective which has the advantage of students working more autonomously on issues they deem most important and also, students can determine their own pace which can pose a conflict if adults are moving too slowly or perhaps too fast.

Ongoing Adult Openness

The Youth Organizing Director describes this enlightened adult mindset.

Adults are open to learning and changing with youth, for example, there’s an instant desire to get it right with they/them pronouns. They are constantly asking what do youth want to do…Is this in line with what youth are doing?

This attentiveness to 482Forward student leaders was evident following the murder of George Floyd. While some adults wanted to take to the streets, the youth wanted to protest the school-to-prison pipeline that overwhelmingly impacts black and brown students inside their own schools. What began to emerge was the idea of a campaign to defund the Detroit Public Schools’s own Police Department which includes security officers, private security, cameras, alarms, metal detectors, etc. and to reallocate this $33 million policing budget for mental health, including to trauma-trained staff.


Intergenerational Research in Action

In keeping with 482Forward deliberative process for developing a long-term strategy, a research team was composed mainly of students from the 482Forward Youth Organizing Collective along with two adult allies.

  • Survey – Youth developed questions to gauge both students’ and parents’ views. (COVID and the prospective reopening of schools, mental health support during virtual learning, safety in schools, interactions with school police officers, and what an improved school experience would look like).
  • Focus Groups – 800 participated in youth-led listening sessions or completed the survey over two months.
  • Data Analysis – Together the youth and adult team conducted a thematic analysis of the qualitative data and disaggregated it from the quantitative data to see detect overlaps in responses from the survey and listening sessions.

The data generated specific Invest/Divest demands including using the school police budget for more counselors, social workers, nurses, de-escalation training, restorative justice, conflict resolution training, etc. At this juncture, students, supported by parents and community supporters, organized protests at the Board of Education and Superintendent’s Office.

One concrete win is the Detroit Board of Education agreed to create a Police Oversight Committee to investigate public complaints about its Police Department and officers. This interim decision strengthens the resolve of the Invest/Divest organizers and this intergenerational teamwork.

The commitment from our elders to the engagement and support of the youth has never once wavered, which is what makes the foundation of this network so unique. Our slogan “Nothing About Us Without Us” reflects that sentiment perfectly. The youth are the key players in this game, and we can’t take any steps forward without their consent, leadership and partnership. 

– Dillon Cathro, 482Forward Director of Youth Organizing

Another success factor to note is this very diverse coalition makes certain its budget has the funds to compensate the student leaders for their time.

Can you recommend other organizations like 482Forward that we can profile and highlight the secrets and structures that produce genuine youth-adult collaboration? 

WITH = New Word of the Year

Like a tiger ready to pounce, several dozen youth-run organizations are demanding the Biden-Harris administration ditch tokenistic efforts of the past and build deep relationships WITH the rising generations–precisely what we call Youth Infusion.

Like a tiger ready to pounce, several dozen youth-run organizations are demanding the Biden-Harris administration ditch tokenistic efforts of the past and build deep relationships WITH the rising generations precisely what we call Youth Infusion. 

The YouthinGov proposal outlines succinctly: 

The Problem: “The systemic lack of sustained, youth-specific roles and Young Americans across the federal government limits young people’s agency…It was found that the consistency of youth-inclusive programming across departments has been largely dependent upon individuals and subject to turnover.”  

The Solution: “Young Americans are important stakeholders for every issue —and the need for formalized youth engagement work across agencies is pivotal to ensure the authentic engagement and advancement of the nation’s youngest constituency.”

Specific demands include the appointment of a Director of Youth Engagement, preferably a member of Generation Z, to oversee the Office for Young Americans and also sit on the Domestic Policy Council and engage with the National Security Council. 

This detailed blueprint is buttressed by a complementary proposal seeking institutional partnership WITH the U.S. Department of Education authored by the national nonprofit, Student Voice.  (Watch powerful 2/8/21 press conference.)

We really recommend reading these two carefully constructed and comprehensive documents. WITH needs to replace doing “to” and “for” citizens, constituents, clients, consumers, etc.  

Never has the preposition WITH been emphasized both by young people as well as elder statesmen like David Mathews, who served as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare in the 1970s. He knows the individual and institutional dilemmas of bureaucrats collaborating with ordinary citizens but believes in “essential symbiosis.” In WITH the People, Mathews does not focus on any age group but he zeroes in on relationships which certainly are crucial when working WITH young people.

“And opening doors may have more to do with the character of relationships between citizens and institutions and the spirit in which collaboration occurs than it does with changes in organizational structure.”

Unlike efforts in prior administrations, these #YouthinGov represent a more diverse constituency, have experience dealing WITH bureaucrats, and can sniff out fake youth engagement. Will the White House and federal agencies respond to this call to embed young people throughout government?

This is why we believe…

A new operating system is necessary–especially when collaborating WITH minors. Even the involvement of young adults will demand a seismic shift in the minds of policy experts and other professionals.

Note: We want to share this comment we received by David Mathews, author of WITH the People and President & CEO of the Kettering Foundation: I am pleased to see that you’ve chosen WITH as your word of the year. The strategy of government working with the people—young people in this case—is important, not because it’s a nice thing to do, but because young people can do and make things that will allow government to do its work more effectively. When young people join forces to work together, they generate power. And that kind of power isn’t power over, it’s power with.

Our Youth Infusion workshop covers all aspects of achieving WITH. We hope you will contact us about our professional development training and consulting for government agencies and non-governmental organizations.

Youth in Day-to-Day Operations

These public health professionals respected and relied on the wisdom of teens. They knew firsthand the unique influence and power of youth not only with their peers but parents, policymakers, politicians, and the press.

“I don’t interact with youth much at all.”

This is a common refrain we hear from seasoned professionals and veteran advocates, especially those who concentrate on issues that directly impact children and adolescents.

Imagine an organization where the primary stakeholders join the adults in day-to-day operations. It has happened!

Youth Impact on Organizational Culture

In the case of one high impact nonprofit, more than half the paid staff were under 18. The staff ratio: usually hovering around 10 adults to 25 teen employees, most from historically marginalized communities.  Youth staff were not relegated to limited roles but infused in all aspects of this nonprofit:

  • researching issue areas;
  • helping conceptualize and write grant proposals;
  • developing advocacy strategies for local or statewide initiatives;
  • creating social media campaigns;
  • leading process to recruit, interview and hire new youth; and
  • participating in interviews for prospective adult staff.

In the main office of Youth Empowered Solutions! (YES!) in Raleigh, North Carolina, I saw worn bean bag chairs, unframed posters, and other evidence where young staff ‘lived’ several days a week after school.

During my roundtable discussion, the lively atmosphere and banter contrasted with the thousands of meetings I’ve experienced. I felt like the adult staff at YES! were imbued with dare I say… JOY.

My experience and intuition would lead me to conclude this job satisfaction and spirit are linked to their close collaboration with their young colleagues. This mindset is described by Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas:

 “We discovered that every one of our geezers who continues to play a leadership role has one quality of overriding importance: neoteny. Neoteny is the retention of all those wonderful qualities that we associate with youth: curiosity, playfulness, eagerness, fearlessness, warmth, energy…Neoteny is a metaphor for the quality-the gift-that keeps the fortunate of whatever age focused on all the marvelous undiscovered things to come.”

Geeks & Geezers: How Era, Values and Defining Moments Shape Leaders (2002)

The co-founders of this nonprofit had extensive experience collaborating closely with teens, notably fighting Big Tobacco in North Carolina–the top state producer of this lethal product.

These public health professionals respected and relied on the wisdom of teens. They knew firsthand the unique influence and power of youth not only with their peers but parents, policymakers, politicians, and the press. 

Organization Outcomes

Over the past decade, Youth Empowered Solutions! has employed more than 100 young people from all across North Carolina, and empowered thousands of youth from 25 states. This intergenerational advocacy engine is credited with changing hundreds of policies and systems to address racial inequities and adolescent health disparities ranging from food deserts to dental care. As co-founder Katie Spears Warner describes:

The role of young people contributed to a more cohesive team, reduced burnout and attrition among adult staff. There was this sense of family and belonging and we were dedicated to the work and to one another. When you are supporting the growth and development of young people, while also committing to the humanity of people and racial equity-the experience is nurturing and healing in many ways.

I would make the assumption that is why many of the YES! founding adult staff stay for a decade and the youth staff stay connected well beyond high school years, through college or the workforce and into their adult livesoftentimes still connecting today to their former Adult Leads.
 

Now YES! has evolved into YES! for Equity and officially is operating as part of the Atlanta-based Partnership for Southern Equity. Learn more about this exciting organizational development from my long-term colleague Katie Warner (KWarner@psequity.org). 

Our workshop teaches the essential skills for adults to adapt to this new power dynamic which includes making it the norm to interact with the rising generation. For more details, please contact us!

Innovative Intergenerational Research Model

Our collaboration as teachers, parents, and students resulted in findings that were meaningful and actionable–an impressive feat for non-professional researchers. I am excited to see additional community-based, co-design processes develop in the future and continue to prove their value.

Students usually are included with parents and teachers in the proverbial three-legged stool.

In reality these stakeholders, who represent 92 percent of the K-12 population, are excluded from deliberations on most every consequential education issue. One innovative intergenerational research model puts students on equal footing.  

“Intergen 9” is the revealing name chosen by the researchers who produced the revealing Coping with COVID Teacher and Family Study.

The age range of this racially diverse research team consisted of three parents, three teachers, and three students representing eight school districts across Kentucky. Additional support came from the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, including another trio of facilitators. 

Over 2,000 completed the survey and interviews were conducted with parents, grandparents, and teachers of children with special needs. The data led the “Intergen 9” to advocate for several policies such as “Create more internet hot spots, especially in rural areas that are under served.”

In the words of Garris Stroud, one of the “Intergen 9” teachers:  

Our collaboration as teachers, parents, and students resulted in findings that were meaningful and actionable–an impressive feat for non-professional researchers. I am excited to see additional community-based, co-design processes develop in the future and continue to prove their value. 

Another key point emphasized by Audrey Gilbert, one of the high school student researchers:

I think that what’s so excellent about this intergenerational model is that you had three groups of stakeholders that could’ve all disagreed on everything and advocated for only their side of the issue. Instead, we all came together to say these issues are an issue for all of us. If all these groups of stakeholders work together, we have a bigger impact than working separately.

School systems across the country will find relevance in the revelations and recommendations summarized in Coping with COVID. It is important to recognize that the research team, including the students, received compensation for their time and Seek Common Ground helps to establish this norm. Moreover, this participatory action research illustrates that the three-legged stool cannot stand up without these primary stakeholders.

It is time for young people who are contributing their time and expertise to be paid. This policy should be non-negotiable both by grantors and grantees. We are keen to hear your reaction about this intergenerational model and also the controversial issue of compensation. 

We also want to highlight equally significant research by the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team that was co-designed by students and adult research advisors. Coping with COVID Student-to-Student Study reflects data based on nearly 9,500 students from across the state.

Please share your comments below and/or contact us so we can continue the discussion together! 

Intergenerational Reciprocity

How often does the CEO and Co-Founder boast that his position stated on his employment contract is Executive Assistant to Generation Z?

How often does the CEO boast that his position stated on his employment contract is Executive Assistant to Generation Z? Josh Thompson of Civics Unplugged is unequivocal about his subordinate role in this youth-serving organization. 

Here are some revealing highlights from Baratunde’s How To Citizen podcast with Executive Assistant Thompson and 17-year-old Civics Unplugged Steering Committee member Zoë Jenkins. This interview shows how adults with impressive credentials in education, law, business, etc. truly toss the reins to their younger colleagues. This unusual power shift results in dynamic intergenerational reciprocity.

  • ENGAGE IN RADICAL COLLEGIALITY: “There’s lots of wisdom. [Josh and other] Administrative Assistants give a lot of feedback, advice and help. All the Co-Founders are mentors but we also are just friends. Young people get to have that relationship where you rely on them and they rely on you. It’s been a really transformational experience.” – Zoë
  • REVERSE ROLES: “Other civic engagement work is kid-light advisory. We are kid-heavy. They cannot flip the switch and make that culture change organizationally overnight.” – Josh 
  • BELIEVE THERE’S NO MINIMUM AGE FOR IDEATION: “We don’t want to be treated like we are 30 because we’re not 30 but to be given the same value for our opinions and what we know. Obviously we don’t have the same wisdom as someone who has lived much longer but our ideas do not have less merit. It just means we may need more support from intergenerational partners to operationalize those ideas.” – Zoë
  • DEBATE BRAVELY: “[My] role at Civics Unplugged is to pick fights with the kids that I consistently lose. It’s one of the funnest things but that dialogue is super important. The launch of Civics 2030 was my first fight and made me roll my eyes. I’ve been in politics, government and public service and how many superintendents put out a 3-year strategy or 5-year turnaround plan. Here we go recreating a generation that ends up with a whitepaper on the shelf and get dusty…Nope, this is an actionable 10-year plan.”  – Josh
  • OVERCOME ‘MINOR’ OBSTACLES: “The real beauty of Josh and the rest of others Co-Founders is they have a lot of value but a huge value is they are over the age of 18 and they can sign contracts for us.” – Zoë
  • FIND THE MONEY: “Other nonprofits and political campaigns wanted access to our kids [Fellows]. They want them to be interns to run product, social media campaign, think about how to engage youth but that’s a leadership position not an internship. But [they say] we don’t have the budget and so we [Civics Unplugged] will chip in…We are investing capital directly into these projects.” – Josh 

Let us know how this multi-racial intergenerational organization inspires you. Contact us for details about our workshops and consulting on how to begin the pursuing systemic change at your organization.

P.S. Nominate high school students or encourage them to apply to the Civics Unplugged 2021 Fellowship @ https://www.civicsunplugged.org/apply

You Might Like…

Youth on Governing Boards

The pinnacle of power often centers on a nonprofit’s Board of Directors. The data show that only 21.4 percent of these key governing roles are held by people of color–not much change from the BoardSource’s survey way back in 1994. A commitment to representation that reflects our increasingly younger and more diverse population is one of the transformative shifts needed to replace White Supremacy.

Anecdotal evidence reveals that young people who serve on boards contribute in significant ways such as strategic planning and also change the culture. The CEO of one environmental education nonprofit claims the high school students, who are treated as equals on the Board, often surpass the adults in their serious attention to the Board of Directors handbook, their careful analysis of budgets along with penetrating questions. Another executive director credits young people not only making Board meetings more fun but causing older members to follow through. If you’re interested, you can learn more about youth as board members from the Freechild Institute »

One student position on a local school board remains an anomaly. Even then, these high school reps have only an advisory role. It took 38 years to get legislation through the Maryland Statehouse to allow the Student Member of the Montgomery County Board of Education to be able to vote on the hiring of the Superintendent, capital and operating budgets, collective bargaining, school closings, COVID re-openings, and boundaries. Montgomery County is the 16th largest school district in the country. It seems totally out of whack that the primary stakeholders–those in the classroom–are outnumbered. Imagine if AARP had eight trustees under 25 and only one over age 50.

“Students are the most valuable and least consulted education policy experts in America.”

Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids in the World

But most adults would not agree with Ripley as explained in typically colorful language by my colleague, Adam to Education Week last year: 

“Some adults talk to me about the inmates running the asylum. It’s this fear, this concern that kids don’t know what’s best for themselves, and as adults we have the best experience and knowledge.”

Adam Fletcher, June 11, 2019

Minors and young adults serving as reps or directors signal an institutional shift that has the potential to accelerate the snail’s pace of achieving diversity on nonprofit boards. 

P.S. To build a truly multi-racial intergenerational organization, youth also need to be involved not on a monthly or quarterly basis but interacting regularly with staff, otherwise known as Youth Infusion.

Do you agree with Adam about “the inmates”? We are eager to hear your reactions – please share them in the comments section!

Infuse ‘Y’ in DEI

It’s time to embed young people in these organizations to actually increase diversity, to actually practice inclusion and the most challenging, to actually share power to achieve equity.

The National Council of Nonprofits drives home the question: “Does your nonprofit create opportunities to listen to the voices directly from community, grassroots, or young leaders in low-income, under-served and/or marginalized populations within its community?” The answer often falls to a vice-president or team charged with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). Apart from token engagement, youth-serving institutions do not practice what they preach given the exclusion of this entire age group. 

It’s time to embed young people in these organizations to actually increase diversity, to actually practice inclusion and the most challenging, to actually share power to achieve equity. This is distinct from a youth advisory committee or an internship program. As we all know, it is an unfair burden and an impossible task to ask a few young people to represent their generation—the most diverse in history.

Expanding DEI

  • Diversity – representing many young people of color and multiple identities
  • Equity – redistributing power and engaging in real shared decision-making
  • Inclusion – respecting a broad range of perspectives by youth of many racial and socio-economic backgrounds

This process of infusing the ‘Y’ in DEI does not and should never happen overnight. Serious organizational commitment to create an intergenerational culture by senior staff and the board is a prerequisite. Just as those in charge of DEI trainings for the entire staff—especially to address systemic racism—workshops also need to pull back the curtain and interrupt individual and institutional biases about youth as well as confront adultist attitudes.

Youth don’t have the academic or professional credentials but by virtue of their station in life and firsthand knowledge about their peers, rarely are young people privy to the circle of strategizing and decision making. Equitable inclusion of diverse youth seems only just. In fact, ‘justice’ is being added to DEI which, as Richard Leong with Act to Change suggests, could translate into a more catchy acronym: JEDI.

What do you think about incorporating both the ‘J’ and ‘Y’ in DEI? Please reach out to us to learn more.

Graphic: League of Women Voters of Delaware

Internships v. Youth Infusion

Instead of one lone intern, the new model is a cohort of young people embedded in a community-based organization, advocacy group, coalition, foundation, or government agencies.

Service-learning as been the dominant civic engagement opportunity for the last two decades. Student volunteers may move from a potentially seminal experience such as helping at a women’s shelter and then analyze the root cause. Rarely, though, is there a pathway for these passionate Gen Zers to deepen their involvement and pursue remedies.

  • Internships adhere to a one-sided model where the intern gains valuable skills, perhaps plans a conference or writes a report, and then exits after a few months. 
  • One reason why internships rarely evolve into youth infusion is the organization does not have stated commitment to graduate to a new level of intergenerational teamwork. 

Instead of one lone intern, the new model is a cohort of young people embedded in a community-based organization, advocacy group, coalition, foundation, or government agencies. Serious preparation for all involved is essential. Many young people will walk into an adult-run organization full of apprehension and awkwardness when interacting with people typically viewed as authority figures, who either have had the final say or fail to pay attention to their ideas. 

Many adults, who frequently do not interact with the very people their organization serves, will revert to roles as parents, teachers or mentors which reinforce the habits and stereotypes that aggravate the generation gap. Adult attitudes are shifting, recognizing that young people have a lot to offer now–not just in the future. 

As a young person, I am very excited about the world, my future and the endless possibilities both offer. I want to make a positive difference. The adults I am drawn to are those who have not completely forgotten their adolescence and its open-mindedness. They believe in me and my abilities and encourage me to attain my goals. Some adults surprise and inspire me.” 

Think back to when you were a young adult. Did you feel intimidated or distrustful of those over 30? How would you try to welcome young colleagues—rather than interns–into your organization?

Lower Voting Age to 16

Extending suffrage to minors will signal a major shift in how local elected officials pay attention to demands and dreams of “kids.”

A broad community coalition in San Francisco had the audacity to try again to extend voting rights to minors. The Vote16 ballot measure in the 16th largest US city, earned more than 205,000 votes but finished at 49.2%, just short of the 50% threshold needed to pass. This Charter Amendment won 30,000 more total votes and a higher percentage than the first try in 2016.

The shift is coming in how local elected officials pay attention to demands and dreams of “kids.” What does it say the the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and Board of Education members agreed unanimously to put this measure on the ballot? I still am as optimistic about Vote16 campaigns across the country and abroad since my TEDTalk. The testimony by two San Francisco teens still sticks with me: 

As a child of an incarcerated adult, my dad doesn’t have the right to vote…I would love to vote on issues that affect my family.

I’m art of the one-third of SF immigrant community, I’m the only one in my household who can have a potential vote.

In neighboring Oakland, a ballot measure to extend voting rights to 16- and 17-years olds for all Board of Education candidates won by a whopping 67 percent. As this coalition website exclaims:

Thanks to the amazing leadership of students across Oakland, youth have won the right to vote in School Board elections!! Thank you to all of you who supported the young people’s movement to center youth power and strengthen democracy!

Extending suffrage to minors will have a ripple effect. Not only will elected officials have reason to listen and respond to this new constituency, but this new found respect will spill over to community leaders, government agencies, etc. which will set in motion more acceptance of youth infusion. Neuroscientific research confirms brain circuitry necessary for cold cognition is mature by mid-adolescence and 16-year-olds are just as capable as adults at “making informed and reasonable political decisions.” 

Similar Vote16 campaigns are underway across the cities across the country.

If you have the opportunity to vote for a similar proposal where you live, please share whether you would vote yea or nay!

Student Election Poll Workers

More than half the states have lowered the age to 16 for poll workers. Opening up these paid positions certainly signals an attitudinal shift.

November 3, 2020 is guaranteed to be a historic election. COVID has thrown a wrench into the entire system of voting. Even prior to the pandemic, election officials foresaw a crisis. Staffing polling sites has been increasingly difficult and now an estimated 250K workers are needed. The shortage is predictable with 60% who are 61 or older. One solution gaining traction is to widen the pipeline by relying on those not yet old enough to vote. 

More than half the states–34–have lowered the age to 16 for poll workers. Opening up these paid positions certainly signals an attitudinal shift. Teens can be trusted for this serious work as election judges. Most states pay minimum wage to cover hours spent for both prior training and election day. Bottom line: demographics demand it. 

It is not only the graying of America that necessitates engaging high school students but their digital skills fill a real need at polling stations. This trend is an example of multigenerational collaboration but if state and county board of election officials applied our Youth Infusion process, this opportunity to participate in our democracy could be dramatically different by intentionally engaging the most marginalized and underrepresented. 

NOW IMAGINE REAL YOUTH INPUT

Let’s imagine how a group of young consultants could have contributed if they had been involved at the very start in weighing numerous decisions that could result in a broader pool of student poll workers who could have this rare civic leadership experience. A few hypothetical examples: 

  1. Eligibility requirements range from 2.5 GPA, 3.0 in other states, to “exemplary academic standing.” Would these grades deny too many deserving students this opportunity?
  2. High School Poll Worker recruitment flyer details about time commitment and compensation. Would youth emphasize other information and pick other photos?
  3. Application questions like Utah’s include “Are you comfortable working with electronic equipment and entering voter information on a tablet/computer?” Would they reword this requirement?

In this case, young people can be enlisted to flag and circumvent potential barriers that could prevent their peers from applying, for example, having to print out the document and have postage stamps. In addition to inside knowledge of Generation Z, collaborating with a cohort of teens begins to pull down the wall of age segregation. We envision structural organizational change where boards of elections would intentionally recruit young people to expand those involved on the frontlines not only on Nov 3rd but every election day.

What’s your reaction about this trend of trusting teens with this responsibility? We are eager to hear your opinion!