Introducing Kyle: Empowering Youth: What Happens When Young People are at the Decision-Making Table?

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Over this past month working with the CENTER, a burning question has arisen for me centered around youth empowerment: how much decision making power should youth decision makers be given in the context of an organization like the CENTER whose role it is to empower youth decision makers?

This question is important to me because of my background working with Post 58, a youth-led outdoor education nonprofit in Portland. I have been involved with the Post for all four of my high school years, and have been on the student leadership committee for three. There are 133 students in the Post, representing 23 different high schools. Of that 133 students, 25 are on the student leadership committee. The goal of the Post is to provide access to the outdoors, particularly in the realms of rock climbing and mountaineering, to students who otherwise wouldn’t have access.

My involvement in the Post has increased over these three years. I was first in charge of managing the Post’s gear that we own in order to loan to students for trips. Last year, I was the climbing coordinator, which involved managing the logistics for our mountain climbing season (the busiest time of the year for us!). That process began with planning which climbs we would do, moved on to coordinating signups for trips, and finally involved making sure each trip ran smoothly throughout the summer. In short, I was given an opportunity to show that I could shoulder a large responsibility even though I am young and relatively inexperienced.

However, I was far from perfect in fulfilling every aspect of that role. I frequently had to enlist the help of others to get tasks done, such as when I had to communicate with all 80 students who signed up for trips at once. I was supposed to keep a watchful eye on each of the student leaders who were actually going on these climbs, but my watchful eye frequently missed a few beats. Despite my moments of failure, I was given another opportunity to grow as a student leader in my role as vice president of the Post this year.

Now, I am going to take a few steps back and zoom out from the details about my involvement with the Post. I used this anecdote in order to give you some idea of my background as a youth decision-maker, and to give context to why this question of youth empowerment is so important to me. However, even though I am doing my best to answer this question objectively, you should know that this experience has imparted a bias for me: I lean heavily towards giving youth more responsibility than they could possibly shoulder because I believe that creates the most productive, albeit ambitious, learning environment. In general, I believe that people will rise to the height at which the bar is set, so we should place it pretty damn high.

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There are times when youth couldn’t possibly be expected to cover all the bases. This is most often true on the logistical front, such as when students tasked with organizing event space or building partnerships with other organizations don’t know best practices for getting those jobs done. There are other times (and I see this with both the Post and the CENTER) when funding is somewhere on the decision-making table and the adults that work with the students to fulfill their visions have fiduciary responsibilities that require them to curb the risk the students are taking. It is in these cases that I see a need for the more experienced hand of the adult mentor to extend a little further.

On a whole, I see a need for our education institutions to need to be more confident in providing agency to youth. If those in charge of making the decisions for schools and other organizations that work with youth believe in experiential learning, then why are more youth not at the decision-making table? Even if experiential learning is not a core value at a given institution, I still believe that it would be beneficial to have students work with the adults as peers in some cases, not just as pupils. That means having students in the decision-making bureaucracy, with perhaps a few on every committee or working group.

Providing this sort agency is something that the CENTER does really well for its students. As a “coalition-led hub for child and youth creativity, education, and engagement,” the CENTER provides an open-ended platform for students act on their visions and create meaningful change. Anyone can take advantage of this resource, and, in doing so, know that their opinions and goals will be valued.

While there are adults that work to push forward the work of the CENTER, the time I have spent engaging with these folks has shown that they truly believe in empowering students by putting them on equal footing. In fact, the CENTER relies on its students to carry forward its work, which is a lot of trust on the part of the adults who have a responsibility to make sure the CENTER is living up to its goals. I admire this approach, and I believe that other education institutions could learn from it.

I have experienced this dynamic of working with adults as peers most readily in my experiences with the Post. We have volunteer adult advisors that come on our trainings and trips in order to provide their expertise, but their relationship to the students in Post is far more than just guide and student. I have been able to work alongside these adults to teach other students, plan trips, and even to make decisions relating to the groups safety out in the mountains. As a result, some of these adults are among those who know me best, and I firmly believe that, when you place youth on equal footing with the adults they are working with, the kind of learning that comes out of the experience is far more engaging and is something that young people will carry with them.

I realize that this rationale for giving our youth more decision-making power may seem to be derived from my own overly-privileged background. Indeed, I am lucky to have had this privilege of decision-making power in my youth. I also know that there are those who believe that providing this kind of power to all (or at least most) students would pose a danger to institutions who choose to move in such a direction. While giving students more agency would introduce new risk into the system, I think it is worth it. Often times, the adults who work in the education field are doing the work they are doing because they enjoy working with students. By putting these students at the decision-making table with those adults, the students don’t get to go running off in any direction they so choose. Instead, they would feel like they are an important part of the group of people who shape their educational experience.