Lazy, obnoxious, incompetent, disinterested – these are some of the traditional stereotypes that drive how adults interact with or consider youth. Because of these beliefs, youth are rarely invited in as partners, co-creators or leaders into the spaces they frequent. In their families, parents rarely allow children to be a part of important decisions even though they may be major stakeholders. In a majority of schools, youth are led through a narrow path of achievement, with little choice or voice and as a result little investment. In after school programs, adults lead and facilitate programs for youth, but seldom with youth. And in our broader community, youth are rarely asked to play a role in solving our most acute civic, health or equity challenges even though these areas disproportionately impact them.
As adults, we wonder why our youth fail to meet our expectations or ideals; and yet too often we miss the opportunity to support them to rise as contributors or leaders in their most frequented environments. We miss critical opportunities to build youth confidence and support them to develop self efficacy, agency and to thrive. For even though we don’t mean it, we create systems that squash youths’ healthy development and success. We create the conditions which feed youth disinvestment and uphold the negative stereotypes society has about them. As a society we erode the practice necessary for youth to be or become democratic citizens.
What would happen if adults embraced a different approach to support their everyday interactions with youth? What would happen if we invited youth to have a real voice in the places they inhabit including family, school, and the community at large? What other skills could we foster in youth through a new approach to their education, out of school time programming and civic participation? How would our society change if youth were considered competent and engaged community contributors and leaders?
Ingredients to Neutral Zone’s Youth Driven Spaces Secret Sauce
For the past seven years the Neutral Zone has developed and disseminated its unique Youth-Driven Spaces (YDS) approach to a diverse range of settings that serve older youth including community-based centers, libraries, adolescent health centers, municipal groups, high schools and human service organizations. YDS is based on a simple innovation—involving youth in meaningful roles running their own programs and serving the organizations that uphold those programs. A “youth driven space” is an environment in which teens are involved in program and organizational decisions. In a youth driven space, adults provide opportunities for youth to lead activities, to establish and run advisory boards, and to be involved in organizational decisions, policy making and governance.
In reflecting on the YDS framework, we believe 4 “ingredients” drive our success. Our secret sauce includes:
Giving young people voice, choice and decision-making opportunities is critical to support their healthy development and life success. They need to make decisions, act on their intentions and work collaboratively whether it is in school, after-school programs, communities or in their families. Providing these opportunities before they become full adults is critical if we want them to have the best chance at success in their personal, educational, civic and work lives. Moreover, we all benefit by building a civil society whose youth are civically engaged and prepared to be active participants in a democratic society.