June 26, 2008

Youth: The Miner's Canary?

The other day I got a chance to sit down with an emerging scholar in the field of service-learning research. Tom Pineros Shields shares about his ideas and exploration of youth initiatives and organizing in a world plagued with “adultism.”

“I’ve been interested in youth organizing for a while, referring to these initiatives where young people are involved in political action as organizers, and to find ways for young people to affect politics. There’s this growing literature around youth organizing, and it’s also tied to this changing literature around how we understand young people as assets and contributors and sources of decision-making power, as well as parts of the community rather than future contributors. There are two main questions I’ve been playing with which I will explain. First, there are a number of programs that are youth led, which is youth as a separate group leading their own program and then there are intergenerational programs with both youth and adults working for a common cause. I’m also looking at the degree to which the programs tend to focus on community or policy out comes –“wins”- vs. initiatives that focus on developing and educating young people that are involved, the participants. So these two dimensions - youth led vs. intergenerational and participant development vs. policy or community “wins” – is what I’ve been interested in exploring. But I came to realize that so much of this research looks at young people as if they are under a magnifying glass - asking “Did you or did you not have this outcome,” “Have you demonstrated civic efficacy and knowledge,” even within the civic literature – and we don’t ask the same kind of questions of adults participating in the political process. It seems that it is largely focused on youth as if they are in this Petri dish or something. So I was really uncomfortable with that aspect of it, as a method and as pedagogy.

One argument that comes up a lot is that the reason that we want to have youth organizing is because adults see young people as all risk and problems and what we need is show alternatives, like “Look! Here is an example of alternative way, and young people are positive and have assets,” and we create these programs because adults still have these beliefs. Unfortunately when you look at the data, adults will resists any kind of alternative information about young people – they can be told consistently that the crime rates for youth have gone down, yet they will still believe that the crime rates for youth are still up, because they see young people through this “frame” that just eats the data, and resists change. What I would like to do is shift the microscope from the young people to the adults, by asking, “Are the adults changing their opinions of young people in the face of what is almost uncontroversial evidence that young people can be civic actors, can make a difference?” Seeing that, do the adults who work with them closely, or are change agents, actually change their minds about young people, or do they view those specific young people as exceptional youth, and the rest of them are just doomed? I really want to know if and how adult’s opinions of youth change with exposure to youth initiatives and organizing. I think that what we really need to do is look at adults more carefully, because they are the ones creating these toxic environments.

There’s this metaphor that is sometimes used for race, and I think it applies largely to this work. It is explained in a book called The Miner’s Canary, by Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres. They talk about how historically miners would take a canary in a cage down in the mine with them, and if there were toxins that made the mine poisonous in some way, the canary would die – and they would get out because there was poison in the mine! And when you think about it young people, as well as other oppressed and marginalized groups in society, have been the miner’s canary in many ways. They are signaling that they are facing all sorts of obstacles and problems, and like the canary they are struggling for breath, and unfortunately, the rest of us are saying “This canary’s not performing well enough, this canary needs to be measured, we need to track the progress of this canary;” instead of saying “Huh, I think there’s a problem with the mine!” I think that our democracy is struggling, and so the canary should be a signal that there is a problem with our society and equity, and instead we are blaming the canary, saying, “What is wrong with you, canary? Oh, its just hormones, it is socially alienated. You get that canary together with other canaries and they just spell trouble.”
Of course, as with all metaphors, this metaphor begins to fall short of explaining the whole story because the canaries, the young people that I’m looking at – they’re not being quiet, they are breaking out of the iron cage that they’ve been put in, they’re challenging that oppression and finding their voices. There are so many examples, like your Youth Advisory Board, that counter the idea that young people are just dying on the vine, dead canaries.”

Tom Pineros Shields is a Research Associate at Brandeis University, in Waltham, Massachusetts, working on his doctorate degree in Sociology and Social Policy.

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