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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Adults Devote Serious Support to Youth Police Reformers

Policymakers and other adult-led initiatives that are serious about collaborating with youth movements and community-based coalitions must reckon with how full-time staff and organizations need to commit the resources to ensure ‘Youth Voices’ is not just a feel-good slogan. 

How do you actually hear youth? A growing number of organizations pay lip service to ‘youth voices’ but never get past mottos and one-off events. We are learning how organizations actually listen and respond to perspectives, grievances, and solutions of the rising generation. This article explores how adults are making certain that ‘youth voices’ are front and center in the raging debates about policing on the streets and in the schools.

Policing Youth

The two initiatives featured here illustrate the monetary and pro bono support that resulted in real outcomes.

RESOURCES RESULTS
» City provided over $500,000 to garner experiences and proposed remedies from youth of all backgrounds.» Proposals by youth became the top recommendation by the city-appointed task force on police reforms.
» Adult volunteers and graduate students contributed over 100 hours to complete a comprehensive student police-free schools.
» School Board recommended to the Education Commissioner and Governor to enact the student coalition school safety plan.

Central Youth Role: Police + School Security Policies

The city of Oakland, California established the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force responsible for reallocating 50% of the $150 million Police Department budget. The 17-members included youth members, Ivan Garcia and Losaline Moa. Together with two key adult allies, they advocated successfully for extra Task Force funding of  $532,200 for a “citywide youth leadership strategy that authentically partners youth to participate and engage with decision makers at the highest level.” 

IMPACT:  Surveys, listening sessions, the “Black Youth Thought Wall,” and other outreach required money and staff support (Reimagining Public Safety Final Report and Recommendations see pages 61-63). This structured ‘youth voice’ process had a decisive influence that is evident in the Task Force Tier One Recommendations (see page 12) that include reallocating money for alternatives to criminalization, mental health services, etc. The City Council voted unanimously but has yet to fully fund all these proposals.

In Rhode Island, several youth-led nonprofits have been relentless in their Counselors Not Cops campaigns. To get more traction, five of these organizations formed a coalition, boosted by crucial support from a cadre of researchers at Brown University and other allies including the Center for Justice.

Recently released is the Providence Alliance for Student Safety Plan. Their comprehensive proposal, enhanced by testimonials by students and educators, calls for the elimination of all school resource officers and maps out a $8million to $9million line-by-line budget for social workers, psychologists and other positions at each Providence high school

IMPACT: In response to this long-term advocacy, the Providence Board of Education recommended to the Governor and Education Commissioner to eliminate all school resource officers from the largest school system in Rhode Island. More student walkouts are expected to pressure the Governor who publicly opposes police-free schools. 


Real Reform No More Token Gestures

Both reports deserve a deep read but one fundamental shift is the Providence Alliance for School Safety explicitly rejects the typical role of students having the proverbial ‘Seat at the Table.’ Instead students, especially those impacted by the school-to-prison pipeline and under-represented, need to be deciding ‘What’s on the Menu.’  

We Deserve and Demand Student Voices at the Lead — We propose that the District vest control over student safety and accountability in a committee of Youth Advocates and community allies, selected by youth. This youth-led committee will have control over school safety–abolishing punitive disciplinary policies, defining the actions schools will take to address disciplinary issues without the intervention of police, and guiding the design and implementation of transformative justice policies.

Providence Alliance School Safety Plan

Milly Asherov, a rising senior who works at the Providence Student Union as the Leadership Co-Director, is still exhausted from the coalition’s weekly Zoom meetings. She recognizes one major success factor of this four-month marathon project is symbiosis. 

  • Students provided concrete insider knowledge that contrast the impact of campuses with school resource officers and those operating with school safety teams as well as trauma-trained mental health professionals. 
  • Graduate students devoted their research skills to scouring programs in other school districts, collecting stats, generating a budget with baseline salaries for counselors, restorative justice specialists, etc.
  • Adult allies dedicated over 100 pro bono hours compiling the information and intense writing with weekly Zoom meetings and ongoing consulting with students every step of the way.

“Youth were present in all interviews with partnerships that could contribute solutions to school safety and all decided by youth. The adults were always checking with us to make sure every section of the report reflected our voices and understood our role in this plan was not just to edit grammar in the report.”

Milly Asherov, Classical High School Class of 2022

Adults Are Allies + Accomplices

Adults in California who advocated for significant resources ensured the two youth members were not token representatives on the 17-member Reimagining Public Safety Task Force. Half a million dollars resulted in very substantive input from young people across the city that paid for facilitators, stipends for participants, and staff who worked the youth members in similar fashion to those city employees who assisted the 15 other Task Force members. 

In Rhode Island, the hours of research and writing required to generate the Providence Alliance for School Safety plan depended on the intense involvement of dedicated adults. The hardcore reality is even students with superb time management skills rarely have enough free hours or flexible schedules to take such a behemoth project with significant support.

Policymakers and other adult-led initiatives that are serious about collaborating with youth movements and community-based coalitions must reckon with how full-time staff and organizations need to commit the resources to ensure ‘Youth Voices’ is not just a feel-good slogan. 


Contact us to explore how your organization or agency make youth exclusion a relic of the past!

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