On the morning of December 7, 2013, twelve youth participants demonstrated that young people occupy a leading role in the efforts to support racial equity in this country. Toward the beginning of the For Youth, By Youth Structural Racism 101 training at School’s Out Washington, participants developed group agreements envisioning a space for openness, respect, honesty, anger and risk-taking, which were not forgotten over the course of the day. This air of productivity touched on various questions and topics, laced together by a common thread: change needs to happen.
With a range of perspectives coming into the training, the modest number of attendees provided an intimate atmosphere to effectively discuss the topic of structural racism. Four prepared youth trainers facilitated the 4.5 hour session, and engaged participants through small group discussions, self-reflection pieces, video clips and role playing. Some participants expressed feelings of pain and were overwhelmed by the complex topic, while many were surprised to hear the differences and similarities between personal experiences in different local Seattle neighborhoods. Several had not realized how or if race had ever affected them.
Prior to the training, the youth trainers identified topics that explore these perceptions of race, which would be most applicable to this group. Privilege and disadvantage are firmly entrenched in the job market, schools, social media and communities, where young people are so impacted today. The youth trainers chose these spaces to explore and dissect relevant issues of race.
The participants demonstrated self-awareness and the fearless acknowledgement that Race and Racism are multifarious topics. This should not be overlooked. This self-awareness then translated into self-advocacy. Near the end of the session the adults left the room and together, the youth articulated what they can do to address racism, and what adults should know and do in tandem with these goals. For example, a snippet of their discussion reveals propositions such as implementing workshops for youth and adults in the school and work settings according to the group. Arguably, this is a common suggestion amongst adults when talking about racism and youth development.
Another challenge is that youth do notice when and how adults and other authority figures use prejudice or stereotypes, whether this is identified as racism or not. And they are aware that it is often a struggle to get adults to listen. This training was one important step toward embracing the indispensable voice of youth in current racial equity discourse. I am personally very grateful that this was one of the first events I had to opportunity to be involved with as a VISTA at SOWA. As I step further into the field of youth development, my perspectives on YD and Youth Empowerment will be flexible and challenged.