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New Richmond, WI
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Empowering Youth - Commit to the Process - January 2002

A school or community that truly seeks to empower youth has an entirely different feel from one that does not. When youth are seen as partners in decision-making and implementation of programs that impact them, they are truly part owners in that initiative.

Young people benefit from this type of environment because they are allowed to challenge themselves and spread their wings in a way that is not possible in a totally adult-led environment. Adults benefit by an end result that perhaps they never would have thought of in an "adult" committee. Youth see the world in a different way than adults, both in terms of what needs exist and in terms of how those needs can be fulfilled. The best environment mixes the two, valuing the reality and experiential base of the adult and the creative optimism of the young person.

As a guidance counselor at New Richmond High School in Wisconsin, I discovered very quickly that the school has nurtured this type of environment for many years. Starting with Marilyn Peplau's groundbreaking work with Student-to-Student (STS) peer helpers in the 1980's, New Richmond High School staff continued to seek more ways to utilize youth as the powerful resources they are.

Now there are numerous youth organizations that have a significant impact on our school and community because of the resources they provide. STS, S.P.A.R.K. Peer Tutoring, Arrive Alive, Student Association, FFA, FCCLA, FBLA,VICA, Art Club, National Honor Society, and Swarthy Greeks improvisation are just a few of the organizational opportunities available to students at New Richmond High School.

Typically, the programs and service projects implemented by these clubs are initiated by and facilitated by the youth members. In addition, the "empowering youth paradigm" is integrated throughout the framework of the school. Students participate in staff interviews, serve as representatives on the school board, organize pep fests and facilitate significant programming in the school.

But learning to mesh the two sets of strengths in an organization can be a complicated process. Here are a few suggestions:
  • Having established boundaries is important. Let youth and adults know what to expect - who will facilitate, who will participate, what roles everyone plays. Youth who are not accustomed to being empowered will accept the "student" role unless encouraged to lead, and adults not used to youth being utilized as resources, will fall right into a "teacher role". You need strong facilitators who will challenge youth and adults to work as a team and break through the traditional roles.

  • Give adults opportunities to witness the strength of empowered youth. If adults are first introduced to the concept of "youth as resources" by observing youth experiencing success in leadership roles, then in the future they will be more likely to trust that ability when they have the opportunity to use youth as resources themselves.

  • Perhaps the greatest barrier is adults learning to let go of the reins, allowing their project to take a different shape than planned, feeling the loss of control. To get around this, adults need gentle encouragement to learn to take a passenger seat once in a while -- a very challenging role for many educators. The secret is for adults to learn to trust students to do the best job they can. Even if the product is not perfect, it is a learning experience and that is what education is all about. Encourage the brainstorming process, which does not allow for criticism in the primary stages. The "reality check" that might be a necessary step in planning a project, can come later in the brainstorming process.

  • Finally, perhaps the most important message to clearly send is the "PROCESS" is more important than "PRODUCT". It is better to genuinely ask for youth input and end up veering off the planned route, than to play it safe and never take that step. You may run the risk of an end result that is flawed in some ways, but the greater likelihood is that the product will be more effective with both youth and adults.
Empowering Youth - Commit to the Process
©2002 Kelly Curtis, www.empowering-youth.com


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