Young People Deserve a Seat At The Table

To welcome teens to participate in organizations and policy-making, adults have to reduce the barriers to their participation.
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CBS News recently proclaimed that “kids in the U.S. and around the world are in crisis.” Self-harm among youth is on the rise, and enduring problems like bullying and sexual assault continue to wreak havoc. Young people feel the impending doom of climate change and await the day when their school is assaulted by an active shooter.   

These crises are exacerbated by decisions made by adults. In Florida, local and state legislators threaten and criminalize classroom conversations about gender and race. In Mississippi, voter restrictions create barriers for young voters. And dozens of states across the country have banned or are considering bans on gender-affirming health care for trans youth. Although young people are cited as the beneficiaries of some of these decisions, they play no role in making them. It’s about time that we invite teens to the table.  

Jack Flasher coined the term “adultism” to describe adults’ attitudes and behaviors of superiority towards youth. Adultism shows up, for example, in stereotypes that young people, when left to their own devices, are reckless, short-sighted and selfish. At its most extreme, adultism can look like manipulation and abuse. How can we, as adults, address these tendencies and reconsider what young people have to offer? 

Participatory approaches turn adultism on its head by including youth in decision making with adults. They are founded on a belief that teens have the right to be present when and where their education, health and well-being are being discussed. 

In community organizing, participatory methods bring youth voices into important conversations where they are typically absent: on educationwithin nonprofit organizations, even with policymakers. These methods center young people’s interests and skills while acknowledging that youth are already agents of change in their communities.  

Decisions to involve youth as leaders are most often local, like a nonprofit rape crisis center that starts a youth advisory group, a university administrator that creates a peer education and support group on drug and alcohol use or a newspaper that gathers teen perspectives on the dangers of social media. But the impacts of participatory models expand beyond the local scale.  

The youth advisory group improves the reach of care and services for teen sexual violence survivors across an entire county. The peer education and support group allows hundreds of undergraduates to talk about addiction and prevention. Young people’s experiences with social media reflect a wide-reaching distaste for bans and a desire for education; this intel suggests the “solutions” presented by adults might not be as effective. 

To welcome teens to the table, adults have to reduce barriers to their participation: offer lunch, bus passes or to host meetings at safe and easily accessed locations. Compensate youth for their time and labor. And most importantly, when young people voice their ideas, concerns or questions, listen and respond with action, not defensiveness. Start today by challenging your assumptions about what young people know and what they can contribute. 

The myriad crises we collectively face demand innovative and collaborative solutions. It is time for the expertise of teens and young adults to take center stage. Our future depends on it.

This column was produced for Progressive Perspectives, a project of The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.

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Picture of Linnea Hjelm

Linnea Hjelm

Linnea Hjelm is a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin School of Human Ecology. She has worked in violence prevention in high schools, colleges, and nonprofit organizations with youth and adult leaders.

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