Under 18 = Emerging Leaders
Note: For this post, I am going to refer to Young People or Young Folks (because I’m from Georgia) as high school level, or 15-18 years old.
I’ve been known to love young folks and animals equally, in no particular order. This causes me to shout out when neither are present in spaces. Animals because my self-care is important. Young folks because they are smarter than me. Young folks are constantly challenging my work, language, and whole self. Luckily, most of my days and evenings are spent hanging out with young folks. Conversely, I am found in many meeting rooms with adults talking about them, as if they are not fit to lead until “proper age” and we must be the ones to save the “at-risk” and raise them to adulthood.
Our society has created a narrative that says we must either keep young people safe from themselves (censorship), or we must keep others safe from young people (a group a young folks sitting under a park gazebo must be up to no good). These thoughts create a deficit model approach. Why is this the default when the assets young people possess are plenty? All that is needed is space for growth. We adults cannot build the outline, write in all the parameters, then say “Ok, Youth! Create Something!” To truly engage young people from the beginning, they must be at the table when the outlines are created—and PLEASE, not through a simple post-survey. Their full bodies and selves need to be a part of planning and development spaces.
There are many ways arts organizations have started to engage young folks within the operations of the organization. If you are going to start somewhere, I recommend these two:
What I hear: It’s hard for young people to sit on a board, due to money needs and complications of their fiduciary roles.
I understand why one may think a board-ask should be high—the belief in the scarcity model is real. We speak of collaborations and partnerships during conference sessions, but some folks still cling to their resources when they get back to their desk. So, the belief is the board-ask or give-get must be high and must be in dollars. What about social capital? What about having your board represent the folks you serve? Parents/guardians, young folks, artists, etc. The person whose best friend runs the local Family Foundation may have deep pockets, but you may find the waters of their social, cultural, human, and creative capital shallow. Young people are smart, vocal, and forward thinking. They deserve to sit on your board, especially if the organization serves their peers.
What I see: The creation of a theatrical season and events without young folks in the planning process.
Doing this is a waste of time. Creating a new program with a title you think is clever, at a spot you think is on fleek, may get you bodies in the door, but it’s not going to last. You can see your idea fading in the young participants’ uncomfortable stance, and lack of engagement. If you have high rapport with your young participants, you may get away with programming without them. However, if true mutual respect exists, young folks would have been deciding the title, location, and outlines from the very beginning.
Our company, Rising Youth Theatre, creates original plays around stories from young peoples’ perspectives. Last year, it felt fitting the co-founders (adults) would announce next season’s show to explore the lack of educational funding in the state of Arizona. Before this fifth season announcement, someone finally held us accountable: Why are the co-founders deciding the topic? Great question! The first company meeting was held with all youth and adult artists. From that, conversations around able-body-ism, racism, police brutality, immigration, sexuality, and religion came quickly to the surface. It was a beautiful and revolutionary moment for the company. Holding a company meeting with young people completely changed the season in a more fruitful way.
What I feel: The call for Emerging Leaders should start earlier.
We need to have more conversations around seeing young people under the age of 18 as Emerging Leaders. When we discuss equity, inclusion, management, staffing, and other topics, I would love to see the face of a 16-year-old at the table.
We have a young woman who is 16 and about to graduate high school as a sophomore. She is one of the kindest, most intelligent humans you will ever meet. From our downtown rehearsal space, she lives 21.6 miles and three bus stops away. She always makes it to rehearsal on time, early even. At night, my co-founders and I take turns driving her home. One day while driving her home, as we listened to “Dear Theodosia” from “Hamilton,” the refrain caught our attention:
“You will come of age with our young nation
We’ll bleed and fight for you, we’ll make it right for you
If we lay a strong enough foundation
We’ll pass it on to you, we’ll give the world to you
And you’ll blow us all away”
We discussed the mentors in our lives that made us stronger and the opportunities that made us ready for “adulthood.” No surprise, it all revolved around the arts. We as an arts community offer space for young people to creatively express who they are, find a voice, and explore their personal identity. Wouldn’t it be great if we also taught administration, programming leadership, educational advocacy with elected officials, and board governance and strategic planning before they were 18 years of age? Perhaps then, we can talk less about training emerging leaders (sidebar: what is this term? Who has emerged and how? When am I a whole leader?), and focus on the young folks who are already leading. We just have get out of their way.