The Diversity of Youth Voice

By Adam Fletcher




Communities across the United States and around the world are growing and changing everyday. The diversity of young people isn’t obvious just from looking across the room. Each of the following considerations explore why Youth Voice matters throughout many of the diverse identities young people have. The concept of acknowledging diversity was introduced in the first chapter; here it is spelled out. Each of the following sections explores the role diversity plays in Youth Voice. The examples provided clearly illustrate that Youth Voice is not just for middle-class white teens; rather, they show that Youth Voice is for all young people, with particular regard for their identity. 

Youth Voice is for Youth from Distinct Cultures.

Many different ethnic and cultural communities have different ways of engaging young people. In mainstream American culture youth are seen as a commodity: shoes, soda, music, clothes, sports, movies, cars, and even lifestyles are marketed using the ideal of Youth as a selling point. By contrast some American Indian communities see the period of being a youth as an important passageway to responsibility – but not as the end goal. Many communities of color and immigrant communities have a long history of promoting Youth Voice.

Youth Voice is for Disengaged Youth.

Young people who appear disengaged from youth programs or classes often want very much for their voices to be heard. Successful Youth Voice programs for disengaged youth usually focus on the direct experiences in these young peoples’ lives, such as improving disengaging teaching methods or developing conflict meditation skills. Youth Voice is for Highly Motivated Youth. Providing engaging and sustainable activities for students who are academically and socially successful is challenging to the most experienced teacher and youth workers. By giving these young people opportunities to lead “cascading voice” experiences – where students encourage Youth Voice from younger students – is a particularly successful strategy for these young people.

Youth Voice is for Young Women.

There are few opportunities for young women to make their unique experiences, voices, and actions heard throughout our society. Deliberately engaging young women strengthens their voices and engages their communities in powerful change. Resources on Young Women's Youth Voice

Youth Voice is for Migrant Youth.

Students who move to different areas of the country or continent throughout the school year face particular challenges that can benefit from Youth Voice. Their constant movement, which may follow the farm season or other economic cycles, may conflict with the intentions of adults who work with them. Teachers may feel pressure to “catch up” migrant students to regular classroom learning goals, and youth program workers might feel discouraged at what they perceive as their inability to support these students.

Youth Voice is for Elementary Students.

Youth Voice is often seen as the domain of teenagers, thus the name Youth Voice. Young children are sometimes seen as incapable of informing, making, challenging, or reflecting on what is routinely done to them, without their input. However, the phrase “Youth Voice” applies to the energy of children by encapsulating the potential of their roles as active, meaningful, and significant contributors in their lives. Everyday elementary-age students contribute Youth Voice in service learning activities. Elementary students begin to associate their families within their larger communities, and can strengthen their own voices by mapping their influence and authority in their community.

Youth Voice is for Middle School-Age Students.

When working with young students, Youth Voice seems like a great idea that inherently feels good. However, perhaps more than any other age group, positive experiences with Youth Voice are essential to middle school students. Youth development relies on identity and belonging during these years, and Youth Voice is central to strengthening those traits. Positive experiences with Youth Voice can help young people feel empowered and purposeful, and create a pathway for action throughout their teens. For others, Youth Voice can make difficult experiences less challenging, and make difficult adults less alienating. In middle school young people can strengthen their sense of community-belonging through youth councils and advisory committees that guide decision-making and improve services.

Youth Voice is for High School-Age Students.

In high school there are a lot of opportunities to connect young people to change. That can mean opening the doors of service learning, media-making, political action, and other methods. In some communities that means making new doors where none exist. Youth Voice makes sense for high school-age students as a learning tool, a community connection, and a lifelong influence. High school students can conduct broad examinations of social, educational, political, legal, or cultural bias against young people, and develop specific and concrete projects that respond to their observations.

Youth Voice is for Alternative School Students.

Students in alternative schools across the state may be at these schools because it is their “last stop” before dropping out or being expelled. They may also see their schools as a “last chance” to graduate on-time. They generally have a high need for ownership over their learning and belonging to a community. By engaging young people in alternative schools adults can foster and support feelings of ownership, belonging, purpose, and empowerment among students who desperately need – and want – those experiences. Students can create classes, evaluate their own performance, teach peers and train teachers, as well as make decisions about every facet of learning.

Youth Voice is for Youth from Diverse Socio-Economic Backgrounds.

Class and economic backgrounds make important differences in Youth Voice. Many young people today are sedated by mass media, culled into believing that the brands they wear and the soda they drink are the most important ways their voices can be heard. In many middle class communities it has become a cultural norm for young people to be habitually disengaged from the decision-making that affects them most. Similarly, young people in low-income areas may feel routinely distrustful and angry towards adults, as their interactions are regularly marked by negativity. Young people from affluent areas may feel overly influential and controlling of the situations in which they are engaged. Each of these differences is important to acknowledge.

Youth Voice is for Out-of-School Youth.

Whether young people homeschool, “unschool,” or dropout of school, Youth Voice can provide an effective way to continue learning, engaging, and interacting with the communities they live in. By creating projects, leading programs, or evaluating their own life experiences, Youth Voice can become an expectation – not an exception – in daily life and learning.

Youth Voice is for Incarcerated Youth.

The situations that incarcerated youth face are clearly different from young people in the community – but their need to be heard, acknowledged, and empowered is just as vital. Youth Voice in juvenile justice programs can be realized through reflective writing that simply shares the stories of youth. By encouraging incarcerated youth to critically examine their experiences, adults can empower these young people to learn from their mistakes. Then, by working with supportive adults, incarcerated youth can be successful contributors to their future by creating a life plan based on their past experiences. Freechild Project Resources on Juvenile Injustice.

Youth Voice is for Young English Language Learners.

In many communities where English is not the primary language, Youth Voice can be a blurry phenomenon. Sometimes young people are the main English translators for their parents. This happens because parents do not have the time to learn English, because they cannot afford classes, or because schools or youth programs do not have the financial ability to hire a professional interpreter. The inevitable misunderstandings sometimes lead to a distrust of children and youth. Sometimes, the reverse happens: youth workers and teachers can sometimes mistake youth voice for the parents’ voice. Applying newly-learned English language skills to their daily lives through Youth Voice programs can help make English more purposeful, enjoyable, and meaningful. 

Youth Voice is for Homeless Youth.

Physical, mental, or emotional abuse, parental alcoholism, poverty, multi-generational homelessness, and myriad other factors drive children and youth onto the streets. Programs designed to meet the needs of these young people can actually do the greatest justice by acknowledging youth. Meaningful decision-making, skill-sharing, life planning, and reflection on their lives can lead homeless youth to reengage as community members. This sense of belonging has as many positive affects as there are factors that make youth homeless in the first place, if not more. Freechild Project resources on Homeless Youth and Social Change.

Youth Voice is for Foster Youth.

Growing up in unstable situations, sometimes being forcibly removed from family, being thrust into the lives of strangers… these aren’t ideal situations for engaging young people. However, when young people participate in the decision-making that affects them most, they consistently report feeling empowered, purposeful, and stronger. Research shows these experiences build resilience and belonging. Foster youth can be engaged in designing life plans, informing system operations, and consulting their learning and living situations, as well as many other ways. Freechild Project resources on Young People in Foster Care and Social Change.

Youth Voice is for Diverse Learners.

Another form of diversity comes in the different ways that people learn. Everyone has a different style of learning that allows them to learn best. In 1983, researcher Howard Gardner identified seven types of distinct learning styles he called “Multiple Intelligences” to show that different people learn in different ways. The best Youth Voice programs reach each type, and have young people identify where they are themselves. 

    Linguistic Intelligence – Learners focus on language and how it is used. They might remember names, places, and dates easily, and spell words quickly. Youth Voice programs can focus on words, sounds, and meanings, and spend a lot of time reading and writing. 

    Musical Intelligence – Learners focus on music, rhythm, and pitch. They concentrate more when music is played, sing to themselves a lot or make up songs to remember details. Youth Voice programs involve these learners in making music, analyzing music, and teaching other people music. 

    Logical-Mathematical Intelligence – Learners focus on patterns, numbers, and logical relationships. They are good at math problems, puzzles, and mental challenges. Youth Voice programs can use computers, graphic design, and logic activities. 

    Spatial Intelligence – Learners focus on shapes, locations, and distances. They are good designers and builders. Youth Voice programs can focus on community planning, building design, and creating charts and maps.  

    Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence – Learners focus on physical skills and movement. They are good actors, athletes, and craftspeople who do not like to sit still. Youth Voice programs teach these young people through constant activity. 

    Interpersonal Intelligence – Learners focus on understanding and dealing with other people. They are very social, often trying to understand peoples’ motives and feelings. Youth Voice programs can focus on communication, and give young people opportunities to organize their communities. 

    Intrapersonal Intelligence – Learners focus on understanding themselves. They are self-sufficient, confident, and opinionated, and do things on their own. Youth Voice programs can empower young people by giving them more control of their surroundings and through self-driven activities. 

There are many ways that young people identify themselves, and adults often miss the mark. Rather than simple categories or convenient definitions, trying seeing the complexity in some of the following ways youth identify themselves: 

  • Gender
  • Race
  • Culture
  • Language
  • “Street” smarts
  • Online identity
  • Peer reputation
  • Athletic involvement
  • Economics
  • Neighborhood
  • Grade level and school
  • Sexual orientation
  • Gangs and clubs
  • Music preference
  • Family make-up
  • Spiritual/religious beliefs



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