Working with youth is really an art and a calling: not just a career choice. Youth bring so much joy to my life, along with the anger at social injustice, the frustration, the sadness, but always joy and laughter and surprises.
Like the workshop I was doing last week in a High School where somehow a discussion of art and social issues turned into a sex ed discussion. Suddenly I find myself explaining about how there is sperm in precum and so yes, the girl can get pregnant if you pull out.
Curriculum or not, if the youth are open enough and trusting enough to bring up real life questions I am ethically and morally compelled to address them.
Another class turned into a discussion of systemic oppression when students were clowning on their white teacher and I had to try not to laugh too hard at her “dang miss that must be a white thing coz we don’t do it like that!” Badass latino youth speaking out. Fuck. Yeah.
It takes something special to work with youth successfully. A combination of resilience, humor, flexibility, compassion and a youthful spirit. Aside from all the grand sounding and genuine reasons for my love of working with youth– social justice, empowerment, investment in community, etc., there’s the fact that I just love to play. I love to laugh. And they sure make me laugh my ass off on a regular basis. I love to learn and they teach me all kinds of unexpected stuff. I love to think and, when I’m doing it right, they consistently challenge me to think. I love to kick it and have the discussions on a REAL level and strip away the distance created by academic discourse by bringing it home to a young person who is trying to make sense of some of the fuckery of the world and how it plays out in their lives.
I know two youth workers that I particularly admire. One of them can be described by an icebreaker she did with a group where everyone had to do a dance move with their introduction and she did the robot and was captured on cell phone video for everyone’s enjoyment. Not only does she work with teenage youth but she also mentors twentysomething youth. And she’s such a joy to be around. Creative and genuine and FUN! The other one plays rockband with the youth on a regular basis, has an office filled with youth and with evidence of their presence: artwork they share with her, random action figures with significance, jewelry they’ve made, stuffed animals, notes, and a door covered in butcher paper so youth can express themselves. Or the less savory evidence like a hotdog left over by the youth who were cleaning after one of their Friday feasts. She gives them ownership of the program and empowers them to do for themselves without needing an adult authority figure to boss ’em around. Radical I know.
And what happens when people who work with youth get together and hang out is fun to watch too. Of course I’m talking all poc so that’s also a factor. Invariably we are too loud. Whether it be sitting in the parking lot eating pizza on a break from program and talking about life or at a restaurant sharing a meal. We are just too damn loud. We joke and tease. And we laugh till we cry. And sometimes we do cry when we talk about the challenges and frustrations. We are intense.
I’m blessed to be able to participate in a few youth groups right now. I volunteer for an LGBTQ youth group, which sounds noble of me but sometimes it means I just show up and kick it with them and play video games. I also work for a program doing workshops in schools (yes the ones that led to sex ed last week). And I’m starting a new job working with Elementary School children and doing program development, evaluation and outreach. And I can honestly say that I love what I do. There are days when administrative, bureaucratic, policy or political issues just piss me off but then I kick it with the youth and it’s all good. They are real.
In one of my sessions last week we were talking about police harassing young people for suspecting they are taggers or gang bangers. After walking them through a critical examination we identified ageism and racism as factors. They would get harassed as young Latino males, I would not be likely to get harassed as an *ahem* adult Latina female. Then we got to talking about the value that society places on the young. The fear that young people evoke in adults, how they are perceived as a threat. And hopefully part of what sunk in was the fact that some of us do value their opinions, their leadership, their thoughts, and some of us get a great deal of hope and encouragement from them and learn from them. People talk shit about youth and what is this world coming to and they are not capable leaders, there’s a leadership vaccum who will take over for us, blah blah blah. Me, I can’t wait for them to take over! I’ll be there with pompoms doing the robot too!