But our passions can get derailed by politics. It might be a power struggle between passionate volunteers, or the meddling of an influentially connected parent, or the fickleness of a funder attracted to another cause.
Politics can kill your passion for youth work, making it feel more exhausting than empowering.
How can we turn these situations around to create forward momentum? It can be done. In fact, you can use power struggles to demonstrate effective leadership with youth.
High-quality youth development programs have democratic features embedded into their frameworks: active engagement, encouragement, and collaboration, to name a few. We often limit our thinking around program quality to how these attributes will effect youth, but what if we applied it to the political climates where conflicting ideas live?
In his book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, author Parker Palmer focuses on issues in education and leadership and pursues the relationship between “work of the heart” and democracy. He defines five habits of the heart that, when applied together, have a crucial effect on sustaining democracy, and can lead to a positive political climate. These habits mirror the levels of the program quality pyramid.
According to Palmer, we must:
- Understand that we are all in this together. Create a sense of belonging and togetherness. Consider asking members of your committee to “break bread together” by sharing personal perspectives at your next high-stakes meeting. With each person providing a piece of the pie, a richer sense of unity will materialize.
- Develop an appreciation of the value of “otherness.” Palmer says, “The more you know about another person’s story, the less possible it is to see that person as your enemy.” This entails creating a safe environment where emotional safety is considered and respected. A “potluck” approach (each person bringing something to the table) can be used as a tool to create space for shared storytelling, which may provide clarity towards common ground.
- Cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways. Create a supportive environment that’s conducive to contradictory views and provides time to re-frame conflict. Palmer asks, “How do we resolve dilemmas that force us to choose either this or that and instead hold the tension long enough to allow a ‘third thing’ to emerge?” Use tension as a positive force that sparks the formation of a creative alternative that everyone supports.
- Generate a sense of personal voice and agency. Provide explicit opportunities for planning, decision making, and reflection, and ensure that engagement is occurring. As a leader, take intentional time to consider your own motivations and objections, and be open to sharing your rational.
- Strengthen our capacity to create community. According to Palmer, “without community, it is nearly impossible to achieve voice.” Politics are a breeding ground for both disengagement and collaboration, but collaboration is the only action that provides voice. Interact with your friends and foes to gain knowledge and understanding, strengthening your ability to create forward momentum.
What do you think of this approach to politics in youth programs? What strategies have you used to control political fires within your youth work experiences? How can we share our voices in a productive, empowering way?
-- Amber Shanahan, Extension educator
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