We know what we need help with.

Black text on pink background "We know what we need help with" Why centralizing youth voice matters.

-by Timothy (Tim) Grivois, Ed.D.

I interviewed my first podcast guest last week. Victoria Anne Tullercash is the Youth Engagement Specialist for Youth on Their Own, a Tucson-based nonprofit that supports high school youth experiencing homelessness as they work towards graduation.

Victoria’s experience is vital because she explains what adultism is and how adultism affects her access to education.

Adultism is when someone older assumes that they understand the needs of the youth better than the youth themselves. This shows up in schools, nonprofits, and systemically within society when adults develop policy, programs, and interventions for youth without centralizing youth voice and experience. Some examples are:

  • Asking youth to participate in task forces and committees without compensation or incorporating their input.
  • Inviting youth to share their stories at fundraising dinners and compensating them with dinner instead of money.
  • Assuming a teenager’s sadness after a breakup is less significant than an adult’s sadness would be.
  • Taking an adult’s side in a disagreement for no other reason than the other person involved is younger than them.

When adults marginalize youth voices, youth suffer. In the interview, Victoria Anne shares an example of adultism regarding McKinney-Vento, a Federal law well-known to all school leaders in the United States that requires schools to remove barriers to registration for homeless students by providing free food and transportation to school. Victoria Anne describes how they were sleeping on a friend’s couch, unaware that support was available. Not until they were in college did they know what McKinney-Vento even was and that all they needed to do was ask.

This happened because schools target their messaging regarding McKinney-Vento to adults, never explaining to students what McKinney-Vento is, who qualifies, and how to ask for help. This failure to consider the experience of our youth left Victoria Anne—and every student like them—without needed support.

“We know exactly what we need help with,” shares Victoria Anne. Finding opportunities to centralize youth voice is neither frivolous nor fuzzy. What school leaders and youth-serving nonprofits should take away from Victoria Anne’s experience is that students should know as much about McKinney-Vento as they do about how to sign up for the football team. Also, we (adults) don’t know what we are doing unless and until we include youth voice.

True Colors United has developed an outstanding Youth Collaboration Toolkit that you can download here. I encourage all school leaders and leaders of youth-serving organizations to read it from beginning to end as a starting point for elevating the quality of youth partnership in their organizations.

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