- A Rightful Place:Expanding the Role of Young People in a Democratic Society
I remember special occasions at my grandmother's house. Amidst the hustle, bustle and preparation, we children were invited to contribute in two ways: we could stay out of the kitchen and we could set the table. The second task we relished. The table sat in the center of the tiny dining room; it was small, maybe four feet by six. But with company coming, the table could be expanded by adding "leaves" — sixteen inch-wide inserts that fit into the center. The more company, the more leaves were added, and soon the table would magically expand to fill the room. This was an exciting concept for the kids — the bigger the table, the more people were coming. And most importantly, instead of that separate small table usually set up for children, we would get to sit at the big table.
I share this story not to contrast the role of children in the 1950s (although we certainly have come a long way from being seen, not heard and serving as "good little helpers"). My purpose is to talk about the expanding table. Over the past decade I have witnessed my community's "table" grow, first to accommodate, then welcome, more and more of its citizens. Young people, initially the most disenfranchised group, have gone from being relegated to the "kids' table" to becoming active participants in policy and planning. This journey has been a challenging one, a true shift of paradigm and a stretch of everyone's (both youth and adults) capacity to create and tolerate real change.
In this paper I will trace the expansion of the role of youth as planners in Hampton — the strategies we employed along the way and the roles young people played as they became central to the civic life of the community. The "leaves" inserted to make our table grow are rich with lessons we have learned and would like to share with others.
First, a more recent story. In 1996 the historic Aberdeen neighborhood in Hampton faced a crossroads. A year into their neighborhood planning process, the community was divided on decisions regarding their most strategic investments — repairing the decaying infrastructure of an aging neighborhood, investing in beautification to attract new business and home ownership, or supporting a proposal for a recreation center for youth promoted by a vocal faction of residents. Enter the Aberdeen Leadership Group, local teens with a similar passion to make their neighborhood a better place. Trained in communication and problem-solving skills, they were anxious to share ideas with their adult neighbors. Through the ensuing dialogue it became clear to the adult residents and city staff that the young people didn't support the recreation center proposal. Their vision of community involved lower cost options such as a neighborhood gathering place and intergenerational unity events. The resulting neighborhood plan built on the youth's vision and potentially saved the city countless resources from an underutilized facility. The neighborhood adults were introduced to a powerful new resource, and city government staff learned a valuable lesson on how investment in youth involvement pays.
The Emerging Role
"Across the country civic activists, community builders and youth advocates are sounding the call to realign and re-envision the roles of youth in society . . . The new call goes far beyond appeals for youth to be given narrowly crafted roles inside youth organizations and schools and far beyond calls for more volunteering opportunities. Young people are stepping outside the clubhouses into their communities and they are engaging in more significant types of action — organizing, advocacy, sustained service — that yields more visible, more powerful results for their communities."(Forum for Youth Investment, 2001)
Over the years we have witnessed a growing movement, both locally and across the country, that engages young people as active contributors to their communities. Terms such as "community youth development" (Hughes & Curnan, 2000), "youth organizing" (Funders Collaborative on Youth Organizing, 2000), "youth civic engagement" (Skelton, Boyte, Leonard, 2002), "youth infusion" (Lesko, 2001) and youth participation have gained considerable currency. These researchers and practitioners have documented and articulated the growing field and forged a...