Community listening sessions and summits held by policymakers can provide valuable clues about systemic problems and generate pragmatic remedies. If ideas receive a perfunctory thank you and no followup discussion occurs, the lack of response can cement cynicism.
“Youth voice” is today’s mantra for encouraging teens to speak up but this high school student expresses deep frustration felt by many aspiring change agents.
“I think the biggest challenge we face is not being heard. I have encountered adults who ask us what is wrong or what do you need, and they say ‘I hear you.’ But they don’t do anything. It’s a fake presence. It’s fake love. ‘I’m here for you,’ but not really”. – Keyon Williams, Anacostia High SchoolSource: Whose responsible for D.C. violence? Ask the youths closest to it. Courtland Milloy, Washington Post 1/17/23
Decision makers have a tough job being responsive to the multitude of grievances and solutions offered by people from all walks of life. The powers-that-be have to go the extra mile to keep the dialogue going with people under age 18 because most of these non-voters don’t see the value in sharing their insights because their ideas are not valued.
Intentional commitments and accountability are essential to replace performative acts of youth engagement. This is new and not easy. We are watching events unfold in Rhode Island with the hope that this time serious and sustained collaboration with public school students happens. Specific advice is noted below that is relevant to any adult-run organization that is ready to engage in radical inclusion with those most impacted and furthest from power.
- The newly elected Mayor Brett Smiley pledged to address the ongoing crisis of the Providence Public School District that continues to be under state control. During his first week in office, he held a three-hour education listening session. This forum can be seen on the UPriseRI channel.
- Smiley’s opening remarks thanked parents, teachers, advocates and many policymakers for participating in this event. Make sure to mention the primary stakeholders – those who spend 35 hours a week in the classroom.
- Following breakout sessions, each group reported highlights of their discussion. Often at many public hearings where decision makers look at their cell phones, engage in side conversations or leave the room. Mayor Smiley appeared attentive during the presentations by Jayliana and Kim, two high school students pictured above.
MENTAL HEALTH – redirect the funds earmarked for police in schools to provide more support for counselors
ADA – install ramps in schools and do not require a doctor’s note for a student to use an elevator
AFTER SCHOOL LEARNING – provide stipends and advertise these opportunities
DISTRICT-WIDE STUDENT COUNCIL – identify and address disparities and “center youth voices, reach out to youth and tell them that we’re here to listen”
- The friendly MC for this first event held by the Mayor praised the students for sticking to the time limit and urged the other breakout groups to follow their example. Not a single word was uttered by anyone on stage about the substance of the issues they raised. Decision makers have to go out of their way to prove they are listening and hearing what young people are saying and then they must promise to wrestle with those ideas. Students, who decide to invest their time and expertise, have to be met with genuine respect and open minds.
- Prior to this Education Workshop, the Mayor received a letter of demands by the Providence Student Union. One might think this youth-led advocacy organization would have given up on the powers-that-be and they even use the words “multi-generational collaboration.”
We at the Providence Student Union believe in multi-generational collaboration. Improving our school system cannot come at the expense of those currently attending these spaces every day and cannot happen without working together with those who hold various roles in our community.Providence Student Union letter to Mayor Brett Smiley
Will the Mayor and his administration commit to a timetable?
Will he announce concrete steps to put in place a structure in response to these two specific proposals for a district-wide student council and a working group with all stakeholders?
Will students be involved in designing how these groups will operate?
Will there be dedicated staff to communicate and convene regularly with these groups?
Will there be workshops where the adults and students create norms that ensure everyone shares the mic and is on an equal footing?
Heed the advice of this recent Providence Public School District graduate who is one of my best teachers:
Why do adults ask us to be open-minded when they don’t rethink what they believe? – Milly Asherov, Classical High School Class of 2022 and long-term leader with the Providence Student Union