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