It is a freshly minted question for me. Is youth engagement impeded by the pressure of older adults wanting to leave a legacy or the need to get it right?
The question began fermenting for me during the Art of Community Building training for African Nova Scotian facilitators in June of this year (2013). It was an Open Space question posed by the (now) late Rocky Jones: how to engage the youth? I used the Law of Two Feet to find my way to that conversation and listened in for a few minutes, trying to understand more about a question that is asked all the time in all kinds of situations.
I wondered out loud, if they really knew what the youth wanted? That’s what they were trying to find out, they told me. You know those moments when you feel that vague stirring in your soul because something is not connecting but you’re not sure what or why? I was in one of those moments, feeling that there was a point that was wanting to emerge – in my own mind anyway – but none of us in the conversation were hitting on it. It was a vague sense of somehow missing the mark and it kept stirring for me.
Later at dinner, the hosting team and a few others of us continued the conversation. Rocky and Roshanda Cummings, a young leader and apprentice host on our team who came from San Francisco to co-host with us, got into a beautifully intense conversation about the role of elders, about Roe wondering where her elders were, with Rocky listening intently as she poured her heart out about what it was like to be a young black woman in the places she lived and traveled.
I thought about how Roe had been invited into this work – not with the question of “how do I engage you” but with the open hearted invitation of “what can we do together and I would LOVE you to come to Nova Scotia to do this work with me!”
I began to wonder how many conversations around youth engagement (or engagement generally) come from a place (unintentionally of course) of fear, regret, reproach or judgment. Reproach and judgment because youth are not meeting some standard of engagement or community participation that may no longer even be relevant or of interest to youth. Fear and regret that elders may have let youth down, let themselves down in the process, worried about what kind of legacy they are leaving youth and community.
And then I wondered, “What if a conversation with youth about how to engage them had a totally different starting point?” Inspired by Mary Oliver, for instance, and her great question: “Tell me what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life!” What if a question like that was the invitation to a conversation where we really listened to each other instead of suppositioned? What if everything about the conversation said, “I care about you and what you care about,” if engagement came from the place of how do I support you in that which calls you from the soul, and what could we do together and learn together if we jumped into engagement from that point?
Just sensing into these two approaches, the energy shifts shape from one of burden and how do I get someone else, in this case youth, to do something they don’t seem to be particularly interested in doing to one of curiosity and eagerness as I anticipate listening in to what makes someone else come alive and imagining with them how they could do more of that! And maybe I could do it with them!