Empowerment is defined as “increasing the spiritual, political, social, or economic strength of individuals and communities”. Youth Empowerment, than, would specifically be the act of increasing the spiritual, political, social, and economic strength of young people. This can take a myriad different forms. From informal conversations on agism and adultism to formal workshops on how young people (and older people) are subject to subtle forms of oppression. It can take the form of skill sharing and providing free counseling services to engaging young people to become leaders in their community.
Another aspect of youth empowerment that is important to address is the intersectionality of identity and that empowering young people also means empowering the different parts of their identity. It is critical that we empower not only young people but also queer young people and young people of color. It is vital that we understand that empowering young people of color will look different then empowering white young people because of the history of oppression that surrounds people of color. We need to be aware that young people are not a monolith and that every young person needs something different in order to succeed.
Finally, its important to recognize that young people are the experts are their own experience. Its important to recognize that they are fully capable, intelligent people who need to be met at their level. Youth empowerment doesn’t work with the attitude of “I want to give them what I didn’t have.” This attitude doesn’t work because it just reinforces the paternalistic and adultist assumption that young people don’t know what they want or what is good for them. If we are to successfully empower young people we need enter with the attitude of ignorance and ask what they need and how we can help them. We need to admit that we don’t know what they need and ask.
In a lot of ways, educators and teachers are one of the principle providers of youth empowerment. Speaking from experience, I know that I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for several teachers that I met in high school and college. I wouldn’t have the skills and be as self-possessed as I am today were it not for the months and years I spent outside of class learning from my teachers, specifically my ninth grade biology teacher Robyn Moore. Her story and the story we share is for another post but suffice to say that I owe much of what I am to her.
Which is why I was appalled when I read this Color Lines article. The article details, in case you don’t want to read it, that a white first grade teacher (who teaches in a school of mostly Black and Latino/a students) posted on Facebook that she was “not a teacher – i’m a warden for future criminals”. This is reprehensible for so many reasons. Not the least of which that it criminalizes not only being a person of color but also being a young person. By automatically assuming that young people of color are going to grow up to be criminals you are condemning them to the cycle that keeps everyone oppressed. Young people of color need to be trusted and inspired to break beyond that cycle. Telling them, overtly or covertly, that they will only grow up to be criminals does not help.
This type of behavior speaks to the pandemic and endemic nature of the school-to-prison pipeline. It is spread by schools with limited resources to educate and inspire students which in turn creates apathy and listlessness among the students which in turn discourages the educators and makes them jaded and bitter. That in turn feeds the cycle of violence and students act out and are punished unfairly for it. Young people are imprisoned and killed because of this cycle. Of course there are educators here and there that fight against that, like Ms. Moore, but it is clearly not enough.
This is why places like Out Youth are so important. Not only because it gives young people a safe place to be but also because it empowers young people to be themselves and break out of the cycle of violence. Obviously Out Youth has a lot of work to do in that regard but the very fact that it exists is much better then not. It shows them that they don’t have to wait until adulthood to achieve their dreams.
In conclusion,Youth empowerment is important because it saves lives.
And if we are going to change this world for the better we need to let young people know that they not the future, they are the present. They are the change that they want to see today.