When you were in school, did you feel like your voice mattered? At what age did it feel like adults took you seriously? Were you allowed to move freely or make decisions for yourself? Did you have input in the decisions that affected you most?
Youth power is the central tenet of my work at The Food Trust and of my professional life. I believe that young people are powerful and capable of making thoughtful decisions for themselves and their communities. I believe that the world we dream of, the world we desperately need is only possible if we follow the leadership of young people, and create movements that center their voices.
Unfortunately, I often find in my work that schools, non-profits, governments, and businesses are unaccustomed to asking young people what they think, or leaving any space for them to be involved in critical planning and decision making processes. In fact, I often observe extreme mistrust and condescension from adults toward teenagers and young people, especially when they are from poor neighborhoods, are students of color, are gender non-conforming, or are unwilling to unquestioningly obey adult authority.
That is why I see my work at two-fold. One aspect of my work is to remove barriers to decision-making processes and spaces for young people. If someone at my work is going to meet with a city counselor or state representative, can they take a young person with them? Can we lobby collectively to have student representatives with voting power on the board of education? Can the boards of our organizations have youth liaisons or youth advisory councils that advise them? Can we schedule important community meetings outside of school time? Can we pay a stipend to our interns and encourage others to do the same so that young people who need to earn some money to support their families or their dreams can still be interns?
The second part is actively creating a space where youth are driving the work. We may not make a youth seat on city council any time soon, and even if we did, it would hardly be a youth driven space. In our own programming, however, we can create a space that allows us to imagine how other spaces might work in the future. We co-facilitate meetings with the young people in our program. We create space to work on a policy and advocacy project, and go through a communal decision-making process with our youth participants to decide on our topic. We help young people learn how to make a plan of action, and how to analyze who to target to make their ambitions into reality. In trying to create a world that respects and values the leadership of young people, we start in our own work, and learn as we go how to be better allies to our young folks.
I am lucky to get to do this work at The Food Trust, and to work with other adults and young people who share my hunger for youth-driven change. I hope that all adults who work with young people can consider how they can better share power with young people in their spaces, and support young people’s leadership in their communities.
Annie Want is a second-year FAO Fellow at The Food Trust in Philadelphia.
Featured image taken by Melvin Epps.