One of the most powerful questions a caring and concerned adult can ask a young person is: “What do you need in order to thrive and be successful—in school and in life?”
Too often the needs and experiences of students are not considered when adults design solutions to address what we think they need. Consider, for example, how many times adults gather together to talk about young people without a young person being included in the convening. At the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, we prioritize the experiences of students. The Initiative produces two signature events—the AfAmEdSummit and Teach-In, which are designed to ensure that the needs, assets and experiences of youth inform strategies to support their cognitive, social and emotional development. At both the AfAmEdSummit and Teach-In, the experts who are celebrated and centered are the students themselves. At these signature events we ask students the following question: what do you need in order to thrive and be successful—in school and in life? The responses of youth participants have been honest, reflective, and informative:
“We need to learn comprehensive sex education.” – youth from White House Summit for African American LGBTQ Youth.
“We want to feel included.” – youth from White House Summit on African American Youth with Disabilities.
“We need for adults to not act like reality is not happening, we need to talk more about the truth surrounding what’s happening and why.” – youth from the White House Summit on African American Educational Excellence at Harris-Stowe State University.
In its most basic form, adding the voices of youths provide opportunities for adults to support them by first listening and then, after listening, to respond to these young people with care, concern, and love.
Although the practice of centering youth voice is related to and emerged from educational research on developing “student voice” in the classroom; the act of centering youth voice is not just for educators. Families, faith and community leaders, politicians, law enforcement, mentors, and other concerned and caring adults must incorporate youth voice when working with and for young people. Commonly referred to as the ‘‘ABC’s’’ of youth development, these are steps that adults can take to encourage youth to have a voice and to promote agency, increase inclusion, and facilitate opportunities to support learning and development.
Empowering youth to be agents of their own learning, development, and life goals is not an inherent skill. Young people, like most adults, often feel insecure about lots of things: what they know, who they are, and how they can contribute to the world. When adults provide opportunities for youth to speak, to voice their concerns, and to contribute to problem-solving, they sharpen skills and contribute to impactful change at home, in schools, and communities throughout the world.
Encouraging young people to use their skills and experiences and to facilitate their own learning and development, despite the complex environments and circumstances that surround them, is not just an exercise in strengthening grit or resilience, it’s essential to supporting them in improving the spaces they move through—in changing hearts and challenging minds. Teaching youth to act independently and to make choices about their identities, their learning, and their likes and dislikes better prepares young people to address and confront barriers—structural or personal—that may limit their decision-making or challenge their thinking. When young people learn how to confront these barriers, they are much more equipped with the skills—and agency— to take action and make real changes in their communities.
Among the most powerful moments at the AfAmEd Summit on LGBTQ Youth happened when Ron Ford Jr., brought the room to tears while talking about attempts to support his five year-old transgender daughter. Mr. Ford reflected on the efforts that he and his wife Vanessa took to ensure their daughter feels secure in her identity—that she feels loved and knows she belongs to communities that will support her when she faces the challenges that all students face. Ford talked about the important work of DC’s public school system and the efforts of teachers and leaders to create safe and inclusive spaces. All students deserve to be supported by a community they feel they belong to.
Centering youth voice is essential to promoting safe and academically engaging schools and communities. Many students face alienation as a result of overcrowded schools, bullying, discrimination, discipline practices, or differences in physical or cognitive abilities. Schools and educators can reinforce alienation when youth are not provided opportunities to speak, voice their concerns, and contribute to meaningful solutions.
Beyond asking what students need to thrive, in order to create safe, inclusive, and enriching environments, adults must also implement programs, practices, and policies that affirm the experiences and assets of youth, facilitate youth engagement in decision-making, and focus on improving communities.
Centering youth voice allows young people to articulate their strengths and to express what they need so adults can respond in meaningful ways. By centering the experience of youth, caring and concerned adults can ensure that theoretical approaches to supporting students and improving conditions are aligned with the realities faced by those working together to support children.
Finding meaningful opportunities to incorporate and center youth voice must be accompanied by youth-driven policies, practices, and programs that affirm and advantage youth. Of course, there are lots of positive interventions concerned and caring adults can take to ensure that youth voice is at the center of the work related to and for youth, but the Initiative believes a simple, uncomplicated strategy is to start by asking youth directly— what do you need in order to thrive and be successful?
We encourage everyone to center youth voice to support the learning and development of all children, youth, and young adults.
Please visit www.ed.gov/afameducation for additional information and sources of support.
David J. Johns is the executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. Andrene Jones-Castro is a graduate intern at the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans and is a doctoral student studying education policy at the University of Texas at Austin.