Transitioning to Teaching Online – Contemporary Issues in Youth Development, Chapter 3: The Politics of Youth Development

This is another post in my series on developing my Adolescent and Youth Development for Youthworkers class as an online course for this fall. The series begins with Part 1.

This is “Chapter” 3 of the interactive and experiential OER I will develop with my students this fall. This will likely be module 3 / week 3 of the course.

Chapter Overview: The category of “youth” is regularly deployed by political actors to accomplish certain ends. The concept of the “moral panic” describes how young people are often blamed for perceived social ills, with government policies that follow to control them. The concept of “damage” – as in, this young person is a failure in X or Y way – is used by both well- and ill-intentioned folks to try to limit young people’s self-conception and the conception of adults about who youth are and what they can do. BIPOC and other minority youth are often seen as lacking in certain forms of “wealth” – whether financial, cultural, political, or social – but is that true? This “chapter” tries to understand the ways young people are seen politically – and the impacts of those ways of seeing them!

Learning Aims: As a result of participating in this “chapter”, participants will be able to:

  • Know a few of the ways the category of “youth” is politicized: moral panics, damage-based frameworks, and social capital.
  • Understand that moral panics have a lasting impact on the ways societies see and understand youth; that “damage” is a frame that frames almost all ways of thinking about youth; that economic and social capital are only two of many forms of capital important to youth/youth development.
  • Connect political framings of youth to your own experiences of growing up and/or to present social issues (COVID-19, police brutality, etc.)
  • Apply these lenses to their own thoughts and behaviors, and by extension, their work with young people.

Part 1: “Youth” is a Political Category

When we are first taught “politics,” it is often in the form of electoral politics. In the U.S., this is Democrats vs. Republicans at the state and national level. We learn about the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches. We learn about how elections work and maybe even how laws get passed. I like to think of this as “Big P” Politics.

However, the politics we are talking about today are “Small P” politics – the politics written into the everyday fabric of our lives. These kinds of politics answer questions like: why isn’t my neighborhood more racially diverse? Why is toxic masculinity acceptable in our society? Why, on average, do women get paid less than men? Why are the police more violent toward black people than white people? And “Small P” politics go even deeper, because they define the categories we belong to – for example, what it means to be Asian, Irish, Italian or Jewish in New York has changed significantly over the last hundred and fifty years (for example, check out this summary of How the Irish Became White). We could even say that this kind of politics defines how we think and move through the world (check out Michel Foucault’s work in Discipline and Punish or The History of Sexuality for example).

So it’s fair to assume that “Small P” politics also creates the category we call “youth.” This category is not singular in meaning – ask any two people for the definition of “youth” and you will probably get three different answers. But, as Gill Jones writes in Youth, the idea of youth is “an evolving concept, layered upon layers with values which reflect contemporary moral, political, and social concerns” (1). So how do we understand those layers of values, themselves of a reflection of those moral, political, and social concerns? While there are many ways to do so (and folks like Jones provide excellent maps of this intellectual landscape), I’d like to present 3 to you here. I chose these because I believe they are effective at helping us understand how the concept of youth has evolved (in the case of moral panics) and because they help us break out of our often negative understandings of youth and young people (Parts III and IV).

Part II: The Moral Panic

Read: Moral Panic: Who Benefits from Public Fear by Scott Bonn

Jamboard: Bonn outlines the ways moral panics are believed to work and discusses some of the social problems he sees as moral panics, which included, “youth gangs, school violence, child abuse, Satanism, youth wilding, flag burning, illegal immigration and the Iraq war.”

What are the moral panics you see around you – especially those impacting young people?

Discussion: Claim one of the moral panics in the Jamboard. In a Google Document, take note of the ways you think this moral panic might have impacted young people or the category of “youth”. Think especially in terms of:

  • How young people are seen / portrayed
  • How young people are treated by adults
  • How young people are treated in public policy
  • What we believe about youth development

Think: Do moral panics have positive impacts? Can you think of one that seems like it made the world a better, more just place?

Key Takeaways:

  • Just because we call an issue a moral panic doesn’t mean there isn’t something about that issue that matches up with reality! Are there youth gangs? Of course. But the idea we have in mind about what constitutes a youth gang and about the extent of the danger it poses to others is probably not in line with the degree of societal panic about these issues.
  • However, regardless of the real impact of issues like youth gangs, when there is a moral panic, a response is demanded – which, because it is only ever somewhat connected to reality, is often out of proportion or misguided. For example, in the case of youth gangs, law enforcement crackdowns should probably not be the main strategy for creating change – they lose sight of the many (and even perhaps legitimate) reasons that young people might join a “gang” and begin to mistake any group of the “wrong” young people as a “gang”.

Part III: Youthhood as Damage

For the most part, our understanding of youth and young people has been shaped to see them as in some way broken, or at best, incomplete. Let’s take these two ideas up separately. First, how are young people broken? Exhibit A, check out this Google search:

Yikes! Youth are terrible! If we took up Google’s search autocomplete about the motivations of youth, the only message is that young people are morally problematic. This is the brokenness of youth – in this way, we see young people only as their problems. Don’t get me wrong – young people have problems. Lots of problems. But so do adults! And perhaps more importantly, many of these problems are not problems of their own making (as the Google search would suggest). For example, check out this video by NYC youth research group Polling for Justice.

Watch: Polling for Justice – Circuits of Dispossession

These youth aren’t “broken” – in fact, they are exceptional in nearly every way! But the world sees them as broken because, rather than seeing a young person trying to navigate a world filled with challenges, they see a young person who is: late, breaking the law, not invested in school, and so on. In the eyes of an adult world, this is a failing youth. But in our (more empathetic and wiser) eyes, this young person is being framed! We’ve just decided as a society that these frames that make young people out to be bad are somehow acceptable… and worse, perfectly normal.

The second negative way we shape young people is as incomplete. As we discussed in the module on Adolescent Development, when we see youth development as a series of sequential stages, the inevitable byproduct is that we see young people as incomplete until they reach the “final” stage. Typically, this means a young person is of limited capabilities until they reach adulthood (assuming they do so successfully and in the ways we’d like them to). Recapitulation Theory, which G. Stanley Hall (remember him) extended to apply to childhood, states that the individual rises up through a series of stages that closely echo (recapitulate) the development of civilizations. A civilization moves from “savagery” (his word) to “civilization” – which, in his mind represents the white man in modernity. Of course, when it comes to civilizations, we now think of this as extremely racist and thus, problematic. But for some reason, we are willing to accept that this developmental trajectory for youth is real and right! But if we accept this (and nearly all adolescent development theories fall in this category of ideas), it means that we believe that young people are not fully human until they reach a certain sort of adulthood (one that looks a lot like cisgender white male). Thus, a young person is damaged until they reach this ideal – which for some (perhaps even most), means we are all “damaged!”

Indigenous education scholar Eve Tuck summarizes this in her essay Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities. I strongly suggest you read it – it is powerful and important. In the article she discusses the ways that indigenous communities have been framed as “broken” – often, in more recent years, with good intentions! For example, to get grant money and other resources, researchers and activists will often discuss challenges like alcoholism. As she states, “In a damage-centered framework, pain and loss are documented in order to obtain particular political or material gains” (413). But Tuck is worried about this. She writes,

For many of us, the research on our communities has historically been damage centered, intent on portraying our neighborhoods and tribes as defeated and broken (412).

Though sometimes much-needed resources have come from these portrayals, there are serious problems with seeing these communities as damaged. She continues,

Although, as I have noted, damage-centered research involves social and historical contexts at the outset, the significance of these contexts is regularly submerged. Without the context of racism and colonization, all we’re left with is the damage, and this makes our stories vulnerable to pathologizing analyses (Kelley, 1997). Our evidence of ongoing colonization by research—absent a context in which we acknowledge that colonization—is relegated to our own bodies, our own families, our own social networks, our own leadership. After the research team leaves, after the town meeting, after the news cameras have gone away, all we are left with is the damage.

(415)

In other words, the only ways outsiders can see a community is as its damages. And just as bad (or perhaps worse), a community learns to see itself as the damage.

I don’t interpret Tuck as saying there isn’t “damage” in some ways. But, just like in the Circuits of Dispossession video, the frame of damage misses a lot of things, including the challenges that individuals and communities face. It also misses the complexity of a person. If a person is only seen as their various “damages,” we lose all the other things that make up that person. If we think of someone as a drug user, or as ADHD, what about all the other things that make them them: their interests, passions, excitements, hobbies, desires, skills, and so on? It’s this sort of multidimensionality that Tuck wants to bring to our frame for understanding people – and of particular interest to us, young people. Further, Tuck wants us to understand that people contain many things, including internal contradictions! She uses the example: we are environmental activists and want the newest Jordans. For many with an alcohol addiction – the addiction is not the only thing they want (even if it is, in some way, sometimes, what they want)! In the words of Walt Whitman, “I contain multitudes!”

Write:

  • What are some ways you see that young people (perhaps even yourself) become unidimensional? What happens (say in a program, or classroom) when we view a young person this way?
  • In what ways were you seen as unidimensional (positive or negative)? Choose one of the ways you listed and write about the multidimensionality that was there.

Part IV: Youth’s Capital

Eve Tuck offers us a multidimensional frame for understanding youth – one that tries to carry us outside of seeing them as damaged. Tara Yosso, in her article Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth, tries another way of broadening the kinds of perspectives we can have of young people. She believes we’ve set up too narrow a framework for understanding who has “wealth.” Another word for wealth, used often in sociology and economics, is “capital.” In economics, capital refers to money, but in sociology capital often refers to “social capital.” This also includes political, cultural, and other ways of thinking about capital. These forms of capital are unevenly, and many would argue unjustly, divided amongst people. Thus, people with less of these forms of capital have a deficit. Yosso writes,

one of the most prevalent forms of contemporary racism in US schools is deficit thinking. Deficit thinking takes the position that minority students and families are at fault for poor academic performance because: (a) students enter school without the normative cultural knowledge and skills; and (b) parents neither value nor support their child’s education. These racialized assumptions about Communities of Color most often leads schools to default to the banking method of education critiqued by Paulo Freire (1973). As a result, schooling efforts usually aim to fill up supposedly passive students with forms of cultural knowledge deemed valuable by dominant society. Scholars Shernaz García and Patricia Guerra (2004) find that such deficit approaches to schooling begin with overgeneralizations about family background and are exacerbated by a limited framework to interpret how individual views about educational success are shaped by personal ‘sociocultural and linguistic experiences and assumptions about appropriate cultural outcomes’ (p. 163). Educators most often assume that schools work and that students, parents and community need to change to conform to this already effective and equitable system.

Yosso – Whose Cultural Has Capital – 75, emphasis is mine

What Tuck calls damage, Yosso calls deficit thinking. In both, individuals and families are at fault and the system is working more or less as it should. Of course, we know this is wrong (and if that part isn’t clear, let’s talk about it)! So then what? Yosso makes it clear that the problem isn’t actually a deficit in young people (of color), but the (political) frame we are bringing to understanding these young people. Yosso then argues that schools (and I’d argue any institution) need to learn to see young people for with a lens that is more inclusive of the many forms of capital they do bring. Yosso shifts the lens…

…away from a deficit view of Communities of Color as places full of cultural poverty disadvantages, and instead focuses on and learns from the array of cultural knowledge, skills, abilities and contacts possessed by socially marginalized groups that often go unrecognized and unacknowledged. Various forms of capital nurtured through cultural wealth include aspirational, navigational, social, linguistic, familial and resistant capital.

Yosso – Whose Culture Has Capital – 69

Collective Jamboard:

  • Open Yosso’s article Whose Culture Has Capital and read pages 77 through 81 where she describes these 6 forms of community cultural capital.
  • In this Jamboard, choose a couple of these forms of community cultural capital and use sticky notes or pictures to post some examples.
  • On the second slide of the Jamboard, use sticky notes to tell a story about what a school or youthworker would need to do to recognize these forms of capital.

Part V: Our Own Politicized Experiences of Youth

Perhaps the most important take-away (at least for me) is that frames like these have real impacts. They aren’t just a neutral “way of seeing.” They quite literally define how the world (and institutions like schools and individuals like teachers, parents, and youthworkers) responds to young people (and thinking intersectionally, young people of color, queer youth, etc.).

Is it a duck or a rabbit? How we see has real impacts and is shaped by many messages and political forces around us.

In Chapter 1, you read about some of the ways that messages shape who we are and how we tell stories about ourselves. In this chapter, we can see that those messages are far from neutral – whether intentionally created or not (and often they were intentionally created), these messages about who young people are and who they are capable of becoming are quietly shaping the world in which young people grow up. As people who think about and work with young people, this poses some serious conundrums for us!

  • How did damage- and deficit-based frames for young people show up in our own childhood and youthhood? How do they still impact how we see ourselves?
  • How do the damage- and deficit-based frames for young people show up in our own default thoughts and behaviors (for example, when kids are “out of line” or “breaking rules” or labeled with a mental health diagnosis) around young people?
  • How do we take on the damage- and deficit-based frames for young people within ourselves?
  • How do we take on the damage- and deficit-based frames for young people that they carry for themselves and each other? (“Sometimes I’m so stupid” or “I’m not good at math” and so on…)
  • When we work in an organization that uses damage- or deficit-based frames for young people, how do we respond?
  • How can our work challenge damage- or deficit-based frames for young people more broadly?

Experiment: Over the course of the week, take on ONE of these questions and try to make a change. For example, if you regularly find yourself belittling yourself internally, try to change that behavior over the course of the week. If you regularly find yourself complaining about the youth you work with, see if you can find a different language to express your frustration that doesn’t blame young people.

Take some notes while you do this – it helps me to keep a little notebook or even a folded slip of paper near me at all times. At the end of the week, write and share a brief reflection about what you tried.

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