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What's the connection between youth development and protest?

By Kathryn Sharpe

Photo: Maricruz Lozano
On Wed. Jan. 20, just two days after we commemorated Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy, hundreds of middle school and high school students in the Twin Cities took part in a walkout called, “Mi Familia No/Not My Family”. They were protesting recent raids and deportations by Immigration and Customs Enforcement targeting Central American migrants, many of them families with children who came to the U.S. fleeing violence in their home countries. The remarkable aspect of this protest was that it was initiated and planned entirely by high school students, and they mobilized youth from every background and experience, both those directly impacted by this issue and allies.

Two of the three key organizers of the walkout were youth I have known for years, alumni of an Urban 4-H club focused on youth engagement for positive change. As I stood in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Park in Minneapolis, youth converged in the snowy cold to share donated food, hot drinks, and their personal immigration stories and perspectives through an open mic. I watched the two young women I knew become radiantly alive, wielding bullhorns to direct the crowd and convening their planning team to make collective decisions. I wondered, “What is the connection between youth development and this kind of protest experience?”

Researchers have probed this question about the role of youth empowerment in youth development. They found that the experience of exerting sociopolitical control in their world has important positive outcomes for youth, such as promoting positive mental health and reducing risky behaviors. When they are confident about influencing a problematic issue, it can significantly reduce the negative impact that situation has on them and their behavior. Their ability to develop this sense of self-efficacy within larger systems, however, may depend on the support they receive from caring adults in their community. The researchers concluded that rather than shielding youth from negative community or political issues, youth development programs should support active engagement in community change processes because young people’s sociopolitical development is key to their overall well being and success.

In reflecting upon these remarkable young leaders, we can see that their own inner fire motivated them but they were also calling upon the skills, confidence and sense of self-efficacy they have developed through experiences and supportive relationships throughout their lives, including in 4-H. They inspire me to help other youth and adults stoke their inner fires, as well.

As we in youth work strive to equip young people to learn and lead in a global society, how can we best prepare them to tackle the thorny sociopolitical issues that impact their lives and to effect change in their communities? As we train volunteers to be caring and supportive adults, how can we encourage them to support young people’s empowerment, as well?

-- Kathryn Sharpe, Extension educator

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  1. What a thought provoking post, Kathryn. Thank you! I am struck by your last question and think it is particularly important when youth are tackling thorny issues and thinking about them in ways that differ from the ways the supportive adults and/or volunteers in their lives are thinking about those same issues. How can we train volunteers and ensure that we as supportive adults continue that support through disagreements and political thoughts that don't reflect our personal take on the issue? Listening to young people and encouraging their agency is vital whether we agree with them completely or not. Helping young people think through issues without demanding they think like us and providing space for diverse thought is an important tool for encouraging youth agency and empowerment.

    1. Thank you for your bringing in this critical question, Betsy. I absolutely agree that the real measure of our true engagement of youth is when we respect them enough to allow them space to disagree with us, and to support them even if we disagree with them. This of course raises the question of how can we supportive if we see them potentially choosing a harmful path? I think this brings us to examine how we would relate to a group of our peers who we powerfully disagreed with--we would raise a convincing argument, assemble evidence, and work to sway them to our opinion. Yet what do you see as our unique responsibilities if we are a trusted adult to youth who are organizing?

  2. Thank you for your reflections Kathryn. In response to your initial question, I feel that memory is an important factor in the connection between youth development and protest. For many (multiply) marginalized people the connection between biography and social justice work or academic scholarship cannot be divorced. The compelling testimonials given by so many courageous youth during the walkout suggests that their lived experiences are inextricably linked to their organizing efforts. I believe it’s critical to encourage youth to always remember the way in which their lived experiences hardships and successes inform their work. Institutions, especially systems of higher education, convince many folks to forget the struggles from which we come from by constructing as “exceptional ______.” We are often told that we occupy a very “privileged” position in what I prefer to call the anti-ebony tower. I believe it is important for underrepresented students across the country to begin to question their “privileged” positions in academia. Such gestures often serve as silencing tactics used to invoke an unconditional sense of gratitude that paralyzes many underrepresented students from questioning the status quo and mobilizing actions like the student walkout.

    Like Kathryn, I also have the privilege of knowing and having worked with two of the organizers of the walkout. I am confident that they will never forget the communities from which they come from as they enter higher education. Most of us know that we are not “exceptional” members of our community. We’re the beneficiaries of different opportunity structures. There are plenty of leaders without extra initials behind their name- B.A., M.A., PhD – who come from similar places we come from. However, we are often trained to forget these faces and spaces when we begin our career in higher education. As I consider ways to prepare youth to tackle some of the most seemingly intractable issues of our time, I intend to encourage them to practice a politics of remembering, which requires an abiding commitment to community. While this may seem like a suggestion mostly aimed at “college-bound” youth, I believe that a politics of remembering is a healthy exercise for any person from a marginalized background whose acceptance into privileged spaces (e.g. job, school) requires their consent to be constructed as an exceptional member of their community.

    In thinking about how to train volunteers, I feel it is vital to help adults appreciate that youth are often light years ahead of what we are trying to do. For example, I was just in a meeting on Monday night where some folks were discussing ways to institutionalize ethnic studies courses in Twin Cities public schools. I couldn’t help but think about the work of the two organizers of the walkout who also led an amazing panel about the need for Chicanx and Latinx students to reclaim their histories, narratives and knowledges in their schools. Light years ahead!

    1. Rahsaan, thank you so much for your reply, and for helping us consider how this theme in youth development translates across higher education. Your suggestion of helping youth create a politics of remembering--self, identity, struggles, strength--ties in powerfully with youth development, as well. Gisela Konopka made a strong argument about the basic needs of youth, including the need to be rooted in a web of relationships, and the ability to explore differences of opinion and discover their own. These seem to me the foundations upon which a young person with a (multiply) marginalized identity can sink their roots deep into remembering who they are and from whence they come, and that knowledge can strengthen them to push the academy around them to acknowledge the fullness of who they are. I think this kind of sociopolitical protest helps teens prepare themselves to be proactive and engaged future participants in academia. And we are well advised to listen when they seek to teach us. How might we translate these lessons to professors and other adults at the university level so they, too, can be receptive?

  3. LOVE THIS!!! super thought provoking! I sooo appreciate the final question of how do we empower.

  4. Thank you for your appreciative feedback, Katie. Do you have ideas about ways that we might empower adults to be effective supporters of youth engagement in this arena? It strikes me that often we as adults get nervous about young people's ideas because they challenge our own conceptions of what is possible...and they challenge us to be bigger and bolder than we might consider ourselves to be. How might we encourage caring adults to become comfortable with the discomfort and the stretching this entails?

    - Kathryn Sharpe

  5. Imagine what a difference it will make to the world to have youth, who understand the difference they can make in the world, who know that they can speak and act and be heard, who grow into engaged adults, still committed to speaking truth to power and acting to make the world a more just, fair, and life-giving place for all! I want to live in a world shaped by them and their engagement. My resolve for this year is to listen more intently to children and adults. Thank you, Kathryn, for raising up their voices.

  6. Indeed, that is precisely the difference that we seek to make. Youth development at its heart is about believing that youth are whole, have intrinsic strength and value, and have an important contribution to make in our world. It seems a logical extension that this belief would extend to us supporting them to impact our social and political systems, as well. Thanks for sharing your own commitment!


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