A vision for youth engagement

Malana Rogers-Bursen
September 9, 2013
East Hartford, Connecticut

Women  sitting around a table talkingIf youth had a voice in public life, how would it look? Would Arizona Public Schools still be facing cuts to ethnic studies? Would students of color face higher school suspension rates for minor infractions?

Young people, especially those of color, are not given a voice in decisions that affect their lives. There are many examples of young people organizing through protests and social media. This has been important, but it often lacks the power to create long-term sustainable change.

Traditionally, older generations hold the decision-making power. As the younger generations become increasingly diverse, we are seeing the racial divide in decision-making expand as well. It is not uncommon for older white adults to make decisions for youth of color. When we do not address this racial and age gap in our work, it can be a barrier to inclusive community change.

Despite young people having little access to power, they have still been able to create significant change in institutions and in their communities. College campuses were a hotbed for resistance during the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam War Movement. More recently, many of the faces we saw in the Occupy Movement were of young people and young adults. Currently, youth across the country are organizing to create a National Student Bill of Rights that would serve as a platform for youth organizing.

Even though youth can organize and mobilize on national issues on their own, most still do not have a voice in decision-making in their own communities. Think about it: Do you see people under 25 regularly at your town hall meetings? At the voting booth? On community and school boards? We need to take time to think about how we can involve young people as active participants in local democracy.  

Youth engagement has become trendy in the last twenty years, but including young people isn’t always easy. We need to create strategies that address barriers to youth engagement such as transportation, schedules, and a lack of positions set aside for young people. We need to make sure we create our meetings and events so that they work for people of all ages. And, once young people are in the room, we need to  create a structure that encourages meaningful contribution from youth.

We need young people and adults to work in partnership with each other. Let’s start creating meaningful youth-adult partnerships to enable sustainable and inclusive community change.


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