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A Critique of the Youth Service Movement

Written by Alex Koroknay-Palicz Feb 14, 2006

Over on the Freechild Blog, Adam writes about this awesome Gandhi quote, then quickly goes off on a tangent about Laura Bush:

For instance, Mr. Bush’s wife Laura has spent the last two years being concerned about America’s youth. From the beginning, her initiative focused on the problems young people face. In a rather traditional and completely conservative fashion, the program, “Helping America’s Youth”, has identified young people as broken objects in need of being helped, instead of seeing them as complete people who are ready to help others. This type of deficit model is really tricky, primarily because it decieves a large number of adults into justifying their own patriarchial, top-down models of youth development and education.

I agree completely that seeing youth as broken objects that need to be fixed is the problem we are facing. That impression of youth is what we are up against and it can be found in individuals of all political leanings and all positions in society. But since I always think simply agreeing with someone is boring, I’ll look for something I disagree with Adam about instead of all the stuff I agree about.

My central point involves how Adam says we should see youth “as complete people who are ready to help others”. Without question this is a far better view of youth than what he credits Laura Bush as espousing, no debate there. However is it the best possible view of youth?

I see this kind of language thrown around a lot by proto-youth rights people in the “youth voice” or “youth involvement” movements, and it always irks me. Typically I don’t say anything because its better than the alternative, but it being Valentines Day and me being bitter I’m going to speak to it.

I am irked by this drive for community service because at some level it still feels like using youth. Lets expend all our energy on pushing or enabling youth to work for others. Lets get young people to pick up parks, feed homeless people, wash windows, etc. All good things, without question, but if young people spend all their time helping other people, who helps youth?

That youth service advocates couch their work in youth empowerment language makes me hesitant to speak out too much since a lot of these people are starting to understand ageism, and starting to realize how youth are invalidated and patronized. So I certainly don’t want to make enemies out of people who are on the cusp of “getting it”. So consider this a friendly nudge in the direction of “getting it”. (For the record, Adam already gets it, he just inspired this post)

However because these folks almost get it, it becomes more frustrating on where they have placed their goals. They talk as if youth have a right to pick up litter and shine shoes. As if the path to respect in this society involves serving adults. Adults get to use young people’s free labor to take care of their problems, while youth get some menial busy work to do to take their minds off of their own problems.

Ok, before this turns into another disorganized rant, let me briefly outline my main concerns:

1. Youth service uses youth by putting them to work helping adults.
2. It fills youth with the false notion that if they behave really well, and help others, and prove their worth that they will be granted equal respect.
3. It distracts youth from fixing their own problems and agitating for their own rights directly.

Basically, as I see it, youth service takes the Booker T. Washington approach to youth rights, yet even worse. Washington had blacks keep their heads down, not challenge the status-quo and become successful doctors, lawyers and professionals to show the world that they are worthy of rights. I am strongly of the opinion that that doesn’t work. As Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Not only is the Washington approach ill-advised in my opinion, the youth service approach is even worse. Instead of quietly building the economic power of an oppressed and disadvantaged class by telling them to have successful professional careers, youth service has youth picking up litter as our path to salvation. As if Martin Luther King would come on the scene and tell blacks to shine shoes, pick up trash, and bring groceries to white folks as the path to empowerment. Heck no. That’s exactly what the white supremacists wanted. Perhaps youth service is exactly what the adult supremacists want too.

Do I have a problem with volunteering or charity work? Heck no. We should all be looking out for each other and helping each other. There are so many problems out there that need fixing, and I applaud Youth Service America or America’s Promise or whatever else is out there for doing good work to help people. But why use youth? Why use a group that needs help the most? Let the middle-aged, middle-class do all the work, they’ve got all the power and respect of society, they are the ones who have benefited most from society, they should be the ones giving back. Why put it on youth’s shoulders?

I think its time for youth to help youth. Contrary to what media reports say, I think youth are too generous and selfless. There are millions of young people out there who put in time helping out hundreds of good causes. They help out oppressed people around the globe. Yet they don’t help out each other.

Teenagers got arrested and beaten trying to register blacks to vote in the south, but did teens get the right to vote? No. Teens marched for an end to Jim Crow laws so they could enter businesses and ride buses free from discrimination, but can teens do that? No. Students in high schools across the country form Gay-Straight Alliances to confront negative stereotypes and bigotry against homosexuals, but are youth free from bigotry? No.

So if youth are pushed to help others and not themselves, who out there is gonna help youth? I know exactly who will ‘help’ them. Those patronizing, paternalists that Adam identified. Except their idea of help doesn’t help, it hurts.

Its time for youth to help youth, its time for youth to stand up and make a demand for their rights and stop pretending that serving adults will earn them respect or rights.

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