Avoiding Rubber Stamp Syndrome

Is this how young people feel when collaborating with adults? When asked for their ideas and input, do they feel is it too late? Do they sense there is little room to add new material or start from scratch?

I experienced a smidgen of what a young person might feel when collaborating with elders. Following my abbreviated summary, I’ll offer a few reflections on how to avoid the Rubber Stamp Syndrome where one feels as though they need to go along to get along. Spoiler alert: Don’t jump to the end.

Here’s what happened.

On short notice, I agreed to help facilitate an online workshop about how young people can participate in the public policy arena. I had no previous interaction with my co-presenter but knew they was not a novice. After only a minute or two sharing about our relevant experience, backgrounds, they shared their set of Google slides. My initial reaction was appreciation that they had done the heavy lifting. 

  • I had been preoccupied with a deadline and their initiative saved me time in developing an outline together. 
  • Another benefit: they knew the audience better than me. 
  • Their confidence and competence encouraged me to assume the role as backup singer rather than sharing the mic. 

Then my attitude shifted. 

Everything from the sequence of slides to the font size seemed set. They assured me we could change anything but that would bring into question their expertise. Teamwork and flexibility are in my DNA but I began to withdraw. It would be awkward for me to raise alternative or additional topics and this process could mean another 30-minute discussion. Rather than offer other suggestions, I expressed my appreciation that they serve as the lead presenter. Even though I wanted this subordinate role, the absence of a co-creative process actually bothered me. 

Is this how young people feel when collaborating with adult(s)? When asked for their ideas and input, do they feel is it too late? Do they sense there is little room to add new material or start from scratch? 

Guaranteeing Genuine Collaboration 

The presentation went smoothly. I chimed in a handful of times and tried not to interrupt their flow. Now for the part I left out: My workshop partner was 16 years old. This experience proved to be a superb reminder about the illusion of intergenerational collaboration.

Is it possible to avoid the Rubber Stamp Syndrome? Our interactive workshop dives deep into this chronic problem but here are just a few opening rounds to set the stage for equal footing in the co-creation process.

  1. Rapport – Start talking about something fun, weird, topical or newsworthy (less contrived than an icebreaker). Hopefully something you hear will spark your curiosity that keeps the two-way conversation relaxed.

2. Profiles – Share a few interesting and relevant highlights about your professional background but make sure not to drown out or intimidate. Without sounding like an interrogator, follow up with questions about their experiences and what sparked initial interest in this cause and/or organization.

3. Background – Give a brief rundown on the organization’s priority, goal, current situation, issue at hand, etc. and ask the preferred media for sharing more info (IG, Twitter, video, webinar, infographic, annual report, etc.).

4. Brainstorm – Introduce a future project or perhaps a dilemma and then volunteer that you don’t know have the answer or know how best to proceed. Ask for any immediate thoughts and then figure out together next steps and when to continue the discussion. 

Contact us about our Youth Infusion workshop that includes role plays and teaches strategies to achieve genuine collegiality that can result in a win-win for everyone and your organization.

“Radical Inclusion” in Action

This organization’s principled process of Radical Inclusion is explicit: “expansively modifying boundaries in a way which creates a difference in the possibilities for engagement, as well as creating spaces that are more accessible, welcoming and inclusive of BIPOC youth and adults.”

Every youth-serving organization can learn critical lessons from UP for Learning where Youth Infusion is embedded in its culture and organizational structure.

Usually in the education sector, school administrators and teachers seek input from a handpicked cadre of students. The ideas and grievances expressed are noted but routinely discarded.

This statewide organization may have cracked the code. Executive Director Lindsey Halman is not exaggerating when she emphasizes UP for Learning’s commitment to “Radical Inclusion.” The traditional hierarchy has been replaced – teens and teachers are conspiring together to transform their archaic education system. In the words of a principal and team member: 

 

I had many opportunities to listen to youth; they reflected such a high level of introspection and passion. My takeaway was simple – no longer can change occur in education without youth-adult partnership.    

                            

UP for Learning’s involvement at 95 percent of high schools across Vermont is moving the needle where students are recognized as experts and yes, equals. They sure know the difference! 

At my school, no one is asked what we think and when adults ask questions, they seem rhetorical.Maisie Franke, 10th grade

As the student rep, I never felt belittled by the school board but the structure isn’t there whereas on the UP Board of Directors, I never feel adult dominance. Galen Reese, 11th grade 

The UP Board of Directors is welcoming and super open, even if it is something negative. Alex Smart, 12th grade

It was only six months into my senior year that I ever spoke with any school decision maker. Now I meet regularly with the School District Leadership Board, the Vermont Equity Practitioners Network, and Rooted Organizing Communities. I SEE WE ARE PEERS.  Evelyn Monje, 12th grade 

Inclusive Representation

The organization’s principled process of “Radical Inclusion” is explicit: “expansively modifying boundaries in a way which creates a difference in the possibilities for engagement, as well as creating spaces that are more accessible, welcoming and inclusive of BIPOC youth and adults.”

UP’s commitment to diversity in a state with a population that is 94 percent white provides additional lessons.

  • Recruitment. Reduce barriers (i.e., waive grade and attendance eligibility requirements, offer additional transportation, make extra efforts to collect signed permission forms for youth in foster care or unstable living situations)
  • Multi-lingual. Provide translators, recruit and compensate young bilingual co-facilitators, produce fliers in numerous languages, etc. 

Another secret that reveals Youth Infusion is how teens and teachers actually take turns at the steering wheel. The foundation is solid enough that its “full partnership” model is flexible. High school senior Alex Smart explains that sometimes it makes more sense for adults to approach school administrators and other times, full-time UP staff step back during student-centered forums. 

Measurable Outcomes

In addition to the intangible benefits resulting from intergenerational collaboration, here are a few examples of UP for Learning’s impact.

  • 2 new questions added to the Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey
  • 40 youth-adult teams engaged in yearlong Participatory Action Research projects
  • 7 monthly virtual racial justice dialogues between students in Vermont and Mississippi 
  • 1 hr/month the Winooski School Board meeting is devoted entirely to K-12 equity and antiracism work with youth facilitating these sessions

Youth Infusion continues to grow deeper roots in this organization. Student leaders have always been compensated for their work doing community outreach, analyzing survey data, etc. Now high school senior Evelyn Monje is the first part-time employee at UP for Learning. In my interview, it’s fair to say she does not sugarcoat anything so her statement carries extra credibility: “Youth-adult partnerships is the answer. There is so much growth and creativity and adults value this experience.”  

A teacher shares how transformative this experience has been.

Participating on this team was the BEST part of my school year. I began the year, quite literally, in August, during our first few days of inservice thinking – I don’t want to be a teacher any more, this system is too broken. I think I need to quit my job. I thought this a lot as the year continued. I am ending the year knowing that I want to keep working with youth, largely because of this team and seeing a new way to do it, and I want to explore my teaching role and explore special education or alternative education as a new career pathway.

Part of the reason I stuck with it and didn’t quit teaching was my commitment to this group and youth-adult partnership, which I found very healing and important. Thank you to everyone for making this possible.


Watch for a future blog about the groundbreaking intergenerational work in one Vermont school district to actualize 8 Antiracism Demands that, by the way, are translated in Swahili, Nepali and Somali.

Contact us to learn more about this and other organizations that live and breathe Youth Infusion and be the change you want to be!

Photo credit UP for Learning

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!

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

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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