(Kelley Thompson is a Program Specialist in FLOC’s Scholars Program.)
I spent the past week with about 30 other DC youth workers in a training on Advancing Youth Development. During the training we explored a number of topics related to youth development and effective youth work. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to engage in challenging and eye-opening dialogue with other DC youth workers. While the entire training was informative and interesting, we explored one topic that made all of us think and reflect on the work of our respective organizations and on our own interactions with youth. The topic: Adultism.
In his article Understanding Adultism, John Bell, Director of Leadership Development at YouthBuild USA, writes that “adultism refers to behaviors and attitudes based on the assumption that adults are better than young people, and entitled to act upon young people without their agreement. This mistreatment is reinforced by social institutions, laws, customs, and attitudes” (http://www.freechild.org/bell.htm).
Working from the premise that many American institutions, laws, customs and attitudes are adultist, I asked myself a series of questions. How would I feel if I was told everyday when to be active and when to be still? Or what is best for me? Or with whom it’s acceptable to associate? Or when to sleep? Or when to be home? What if others around me had the power to punish me for norms I wasn’t involved in establishing? Or if these people reserved the right to usurp my privileges on a whim? Or if I had no real voice to defend myself?
Upon reflection, this seems quite oppressive. I am not interested in relinquishing my powers to ‘be.’ I want to be free to make informed decisions that affect my life, to be free to speak my thoughts and opinions without fear of losing my rights and privileges and to be free to express myself without the threat of being reprimanded.
Young people think similarly. They, too, want to be free to think, learn, explore and express themselves. But if you consider the experiences that American youth have on the whole (see above questions), it is quite clear that young people are amongst the most controlled populations in the United States.
This control stems from a way of thinking/being that privileges adults and gives them an unearned power over young people. This is adultism. Adultism, like other ‘isms’—such as heterosexism, classism, racism, ageism, etc—is dangerous in that it relegates one segment of the population (youth) to second class citizenship.
With this concept of adultism fresh in my mind, I re-entered the FLOC building with a better understanding of youth and was heartened by what I saw happening around me. It is apparent that FLOC staff and volunteers aim to rise above adultism, to create a culture in which young people’s thoughts and opinions are considered, valued and integrated into organizational function.
FLOC youth workers do this by actively listening to the students involved in programming; by asking them about their lives and what’s important to them; by equipping them with the essential skills and knowledge to be change agents and then giving them opportunities to be organizational decision makers; by allowing them to direct their own learning; by respecting and valuing their ideas and thoughts; by having high expectations for them; and by turning their ‘mistakes’ or ‘misteps’ into teachable moments and learning experiences.
That FLOC is committed to creating the type of culture I just described means that the young people who walk through our doors encounter a space that combats adultism in favor of positive youth development.