Kids have it all

Awhile ago, I found myself driving behind schedule to the my hometown on East Coast of Florida to take on a huge schedule of social and faith-based activities. I ended up in a tight spot that made me learn, again, some very core principles about how to build community in my life and how to treat youth in a way that’s satisfying and fun for me and for them, and which builds community in a sustainable, non-hierarchical way.

One of the activities on my plate that weekend was a “Sayonara Party” celebrating my old high school friend Kate’s upcoming trip to Japan. The party was Japanese-themed and the best costume would win a prize. I’m a huge fan of dress-up, so my heart sunk when, while talking with my mom on my drive over, it hit me that I was out of time to gather dress-up materials. Hope returned, however, when Mom suggested, “Let the girls dress you up!” (the girls = my 9-year-old nieces Ariahna and Kendra.)

The next day at my brother’s (home to Ariahna and Kendra, time had flown. I was running late for the party. Assessing the situation, time seemed way too short to attempt a costume–but when I proposed the idea, the energy exploded. I was swept up in a whirlwind of delightful talent and creativity in action. In an amazingly short span of time, they gathered together the perfect materials and had me whipped together as a geisha. (pictured above)

The costume was a hit at the party. I didn’t win the costume contest, but I’m convinced it’s just because I left the party before it ended. I had to smile when, having failed to report this to my nieces, I got a very pointed phone message a few days later when I was back in Sarasota. “Auntie April, this is Ariahna. We want to know: Did you win the contest? And if you did, what was the prize? And if you didn’t, who did win, and what were THEY wearing?”

Apart from being a lot of fun, this experience it brought me home to me a few principles from my favorite community-building philosophy, Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD):

First, when you think you’re deficient, you’re usually not. I had apparently no time, no energy to spend on thinking this thing up, and no dress-up materials. But when I looked around (with Mom’s help) and invited the gifts of others into the picture, I learned I actually have abundance.

Second, getting creative about finding and inviting the gifts in others pays off… especially when it involves young people. It builds equality and creates that intangible richness that is relationships built upon mutual appreciation and shared creation.

I actually have a lot of trouble knowing how to connect with my nieces, and often feel like I’m torturing them over the phone when I try to ‘go deeper’ by asking what they’re up to, how they like school, etc. When I needed them, everything changed. It was genuine and it had none of the ickiness I have come to associate with token ‘engagement’ of youth that’s based on the assumption that adults have more to teach and give to children than children do to adults.

My first ‘aha’ on this theme came when I heard John McKnight‘s story of watching an adult friend get more and more frustrated with her daughter constantly ‘bugging’ her to let her do something in the kitchen. The girl wanted to help, but the mother was too occupied trying to get it done herself. “Can I help you mix?” No. “Can I help with that?” No. Like all of us, the thing kids “need” most of all is to be “needed” – not to have more stuff or have stuff done for them, or even to just play at being productive. This is a trap we fall into so easily as adults and I see it as a core barrier to really making headway on what people like to call the ‘youth problem.’

My favorite resource is ABCD-founder Jody Kretzman’s Ten Commandments for Involving Youth in Community-Building. I particularly like:

1. Always start with the gifts, talents, knowledge and skills of young people – never with their needs and problems.

5. Fight, in every way you can, age segregation. Work to overcome the isolation of young people.

10. In every way possible, amplify this message to young people: “We need you! Our community cannot be strong and complete without you.”

In my personal life it’s also not easy to shift out of “adult-doer, child-receiver” mode… until I’m up against a wall like i was that weekend.

What about you?  Where have you found or built spaces where adults and youth can act co-producers, or kids can take the lead as main “doers”?

In closing, here are a couple more links to this theme are:

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