Three easy ways to challenge oppressive youth-adult power dynamics
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We live in a world that oppresses young people, where youth are treated as property, as incapable of conscious thought or of reflective action. In the name of “protection,” youth are robbed of autonomy, robbed of humanity.
I have worked with youth for many years, and trained and supported hundreds of adults who work with youth. And even smart, well-meaning and skilled adults who want to challenge this power dynamic often still fall into patterns that assert their oppressive power over youth—either implicitly or explicitly.
I, too, can find it hard not to use the oppressive tools handed to me by an adultist society, but I try by using some simple practices that, in my experience, help subvert power dynamics and can support youth in becoming agents in their learning.
The info below is for adults who work with youth and are seeking a few additional tools in their work to address and combat oppressive youth-adult power dynamics.
To truly try to address oppression with youth, it’s important to be transparent of the role(s) you hold, of your place(s) within an institution and a system of power, and how this impacts how you all interact together. If you’re facilitating a process with youth—a class, community group, project—it’s good to share with youth the direction you plan on taking. Why did you make the decisions you made? Where are you going together?
Sharing your process doesn’t necessarily mean you have to open everything up to group agreement. But by being transparent, you’re letting the youth know that you are aware of your role as an adult in the space, and give them the opportunity to bring this into focus as well.
We all make mistakes. It’s okay. But how often are we encouraged to openly acknowledge and own up to the mistakes we make? When you are open and accountable to your mistakes with youth, they can learn that there’s power in admitting where we’re wrong, and in seeking to grow. If you’re in a role where you are expected to tell youth when they’re wrong, admitting mistakes shows that you’re not above this practice as well. When we all admit and learn from our mistakes we all grow.
Society tells us to be in power we must control our emotions, which is code for not displaying emotions associated with weakness (i.e. sadness, hurt, longing, love, etc.). Youth learn this quickly, and often practice power as cold, relentless and unfeeling. This creates barriers to empathy.
I encourage adults to be more open about their feelings in spaces with youth, especially if your work involves asking young people about their feelings. It opens up dialogue, asks youth to consider their own feelings and how their actions impact others. It also models that power doesn’t have to be cold and unfeeling.