When I read British tabloids their messaging about young people is unmistakable, young people:
This is not just peculiar to the UK, this is a global phenomenon, and what’s more we have a long history of running down young people. Here’s proof:
SOCRATES (500BC) - ‘Our youth today now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect for older people. Children nowadays are tyrants, they no longer rise when elders enter the room, they contradict their parents, they chatter before company, gobble their food and tyrannise their teachers. They have terrible manners, flout authority, have no respect for their elders. What kind of awful creatures will they be when they grow up.’
ARISTOTLE, 300 BC) - ‘When I look at the younger generation, I despair for the future of civilisation.’
The very word ‘teenager’ which we often use to describe adolescents has negativity and judgement running through it: ‘teen’ is derived from the Latin word ‘teona’, which means ‘grief, strife and misery’. Self fulfilling prophesy or what?!
This deficit based thinking, labeling young people in such a way is asking for trouble. By contrast a strengths-based view of young people says they:
The antidote to thinking about young people as deviant is not instead to think of them as ‘deserving’ of for example charity. Defining young people solely by what they receive, fails to realise what children and teenagers need most, which is, to be needed. Meeting that need is about contribution not consumption.
Of course children need supports and certainly youth work provides essential youth supports in a person centred youth friendly way. But if we think about youth development only as building a bridge between marginalised young people and the centre of our youth programmes, we will be missing a trick. As well a providing such programmes and access to them, youth engagement must also concern itself with building a bridge between young people and the centre of their communities. The very same communities it has to be said, who all too often exile their most ‘needy’ young people to the margins. Communities, as well as families and youth programmes have a central role to play in raising power and connected children, which cannot be replaces by professional intervention no matter how well funded.
The further a child is from the centre of a caring community the more ‘at risk’ he becomes. By the same token, the closer a child is to the centre of a competent community that welcomes both her fallibility and giftedness, the closer she is to her promising present and compelling future.
Young people and older people are the most segregated groupings of modern society, and all too often they are segregated by age and dysfunction. Aggregating at risk youth does little in the long run to reduce the risk, and sometimes it serves to increase it.
But how do you build a bridge between young people perceived as deviant by their community, back into the very heart of that same community? By starting with two assumptions:
Looking at young people as ‘at promise’, instead of ‘at risk’, reframes the challenge before us. It then is no longer singularly about stopping harm being ‘done to’, or ‘done by’ young people, but about liberating the promise in young people to be productive and to connective with productive neighbours to grow a shared and compelling future. When that is our starting point, than accordingly risk reduces.
It is said that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, I think it is also true to say ‘it takes a child to raise a village’. In all my community building work around the world it is nearly also true to say that the great community builders are young people, when given the chance. It makes sense really, who has a greater stake in the future. The raw materials they use are strengths and capacities within their community. This is true across the life course from womb to tomb; we build our futures by using what we have to secure what we need, nothing of worth has ever been built on deviance, strife, and misery. Let’s start fresh by agreeing that our young people are ‘at promise’, not ‘at risk’, and do whatever we can to help them realise that promise- then watch the risk disappear….
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