Friday, March 22, 2019

Book Review - Igniting Young Minds and Spirits: Youth Governance

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If you look, there are always examples of young people being active in their community, in politics, and in advocacy. They want their voices to be heard. One of the best recent examples that comes to my mind is the way Parkland Florida students got organized and rallied for gun control in the United States. As Barack Obama noted, youth will ask tough questions and insist on real answers; they aren't satisfied with bureaucratic non-answers or other platitudes. They see an issue and are eager to help resolve it. When we do see activism like this, there is also often a sort of voyeurism associated, almost as if adults lean in with bowls of popcorn and watch to see what's going to happen. Thankfully, not all adults respond this way.

It is with this in mind that we visit our reference library for a look at Wayne Wiens' Igniting Young Minds and Spirits, published by the Muttart Foundation in 2000. While a few of the studies and statistics are now dated, the overall content of this little resource is still very relevant and valuable to museums and non-profits in general.

When I finished reading this book, I thought to myself how great it was that Wiens didn't hold back from criticizing organizations that use youth in "token" roles or as "decoration". I've attended a number of conference sessions on youth involvement and more often than not, these advocate for a "youth representative", which can easily become a token role or misunderstood as the rep sharing the same ideas and ideals as all other youth. So to me, the straightforward way in which Wiens discusses this topic, and the range of models and ideas was very welcome. Wiens has a clear understanding of mindsets and barriers to youth participation and is able to clearly outline the benefits and reasons to include youth in community governance work. A lot of these lessons also translate to how we think about our summer students. Yes they alleviate pressure from other workers, but they (and the associated funding programs) aren't there to just babysit the museum and collection and greet visitors. If that's how you're using your students, you should read this book and think about all the youth relationships you could be cultivating.

Wiens' list of reasons to include youth are many and varied, but a few of them really jumped out at me for museums; making and implementing decisions for the whole community, building skills and self-confidence, and showing youth how to work together for common goals. He continues by taking a look at youth involvement from a philosophical standpoint. He reminds the reader that just like adults, youth have different skills and abilities, and that their involvement will not happen in isolation, but that they will bring along family, connections, and fresh perspectives. If the youth truly believe that they are respected and their input valued, they will be empowered to contribute and make a difference in their community, and this will go a long way in helping the museum deliver relevant services and address community issues. Everybody wins.

Wiens cautions that some organizations will need to change to really enable youth involvement, whether this is through by-laws, policies, or other guiding documents. Youth need to have a clear understanding and outline of the organization and their potential role. As one youth put it, "we're not stupid. We need to know what we're getting into first. We need the facts. We need information." Doesn't that sound like an unfiltered version of what potential board or committee members might say?

The term "youth development model" is used in explaining the recommended approach to youth involvement, and Wiens succinctly outlines what leaders must do in order to adopt this model and use it to rebuild communities and address issues. This includes identifying how the organization can serve youth, coming up with strategies to involve youth, and promoting personal growth among all staff and volunteers - learning and growing is good for everyone! Wiens proceeds to discuss strategies in rebuilding communities and organizing youth development campaigns, and then gets to the depressing list of barriers to youth involvement. Some of these may sound familiar; poor communications between youth and adults, resistance to change, and false assumptions about youth's abilities. He also outlined specific challenges such as transportation, resources to cover expenses, and eliminating patronizing attitudes.

As I noted earlier, Wiens definitely did his homework and knows his subject. He reviews 8 models of youth participation and they run the gamut from full youth involvement and sharing decisions with adults, to what he calls "manipulation", ie "adults pretend youth are involved" but don't actually have any real input or understanding or opportunity for feedback. He takes this opportunity to remind the reader that history (recent and distant) includes many examples of young leaders and trailblazers, from Joan of Arc to Albert Einstein to Craig Kielburger, and calls on organizations to help cultivate the leaders of tomorrow.

I'll let the author sum things up for himself.
"There is overwhelming evidence that youth involvement offers solutions to fragmented and fractured societies. Not through tokenism or patronizing lip-service on the part of adults, but with genuine interest, concern, and effort to understand each other, adults and youth can create equal partnerships to build stronger, more supportive, and more dynamic societies in which youthful members have a vital role. When young people see their efforts and involvement making a real difference, their commitment to themselves, to their communities, and to the future will grow stronger. Without doubt, youth will bring positive change."