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Extension > Youth Development Insight > The importance of being 'youth-centric in real life

Monday, February 5, 2018

The importance of being 'youth-centric in real life

Guest blogger Torie Weiston-Serdon will co-present our Feb. 19 youth work symposium, "Re-imagining youth work through an equity lens".

In the past year, I have traveled around the country speaking to organizations about critical mentoring. I'm passionate about youth work. I center much of my discussion in the concept of youth centrism, and it turns out to be the concept that people are most attracted to. While I'm elated at the fact that people want to center youth in their work, I'm not sure that people recognize the significance of this concept. Critical mentoring, and critical youth work in general, is rooted in a liberatory framework concerned with ensuring that the most marginalized youth have the opportunity and the tools required to "get free".

There is a tradition of youth voice, agency, and leadership in this country. The Black civil rights movement of the 1960s, for example, is a case of youth leadership that transformed the age-old discourse and ushered in a new era of Black activism in America. Stokely Carmichael, first as leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and then as a member of the Black Panther Party, was essential to capturing and voicing the youth perspective of the Black struggle for rights. He was 19 ​years old ​and a freshman at Howard University when he participated in his first freedom ride and is now heralded as one of the foremost Black thinkers. Appropriately, he is often credited for his role in the popularity of the rallying cry “Black power.” In a 1964 speech that he made to a crowd of onlookers in Greenwood, Mississippi, he began by proclaiming that he would “say a number of things that need to be said in this country”​​ (“Stokely Carmichael Videos,” n.d.).

The words were simple enough, but they signal the reason youth voice is importa​nt​. Youth will often say the very things that adults are too timid to say and do the things that adults are too afraid to do, and that is why our organizations need them. A year before Carmichael made the aforementioned “tell it all” declaration​,​ the civil rights movement ​ha​d a breakthrough with its Children’s Crusade, a concerted effort to include school-aged children in the nonviolent struggle against southern segregation. The approach was controversial but a direct response to the fact that it was difficult to engage adults who were entrenched in the systems being challenged because they depended on their reputations for economic necessity. In essence, their access to jobs and housing would have been impeded by clear association with the movement, and they were fearful of losing what little they had. Young people filled the void and embarked upon a campaign to “fill the jails,” bringing international attention to the civil rights struggle happening in Birmingham, Alabama.

Youth centrism is not meant to be what programs use to tokenize youth for their marketing and fundraising efforts. It is not meant to be a substitute for having difficult discussions about race, class, gender, and sexuality. It is not meant to displace the other tenets of critical mentoring at all. It is a process that amplifies the refrain of "nothing about us without us." It is a process that asks organizations to recognize that doing work with marginalized youth means recognizing a social and political disempowerment and voicelessness means programs and services often dictate to the community rather than including the community. It is a process that says we must be sure to include and elevate the voice of the traditionally voiceless. We must not forget that the concept of youth centrism is a radical one and paramount to doing critical youth work in real life.


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