Undoing Power Dynamics by Incorporating Youth and Community Voices
Hi there! Ashraf here. You might remember me from my past ARTSblog post, where I wrote about the impact that arts education has had on my life, particularly on my own terms with programs like Seattle’s TeenTix, a radical arts access & youth empowerment organization I helped run until very recently.
I’m writing today as Program Manager for Advocacy & Engagement at Urban Gateways, one of Chicago’s largest in- and out-of-school arts education providers. I’ve been describing my role here as somewhere in the intersection of arts access, civic engagement, youth voice, teen leadership, social justice, and cross-spectrum partnerships. I’m #blessed to be in a position where my values inform my work. Those values include deep collaboration, mutually beneficial relationships, accountability, transparency, cooperation, humility, power-sharing, striving for relevancy, and ever-adaptability.
As such, it shouldn’t be a surprise that creating arts education programs that are youth- and participant-driven is the bread and butter of my work. What I think people don’t necessarily realize is that such an act—incorporating the wants, needs, and desires of the community one is working for—is political.
Sure, you’ve heard that bold statement before—whether from Thomas Mann, Bob Marley, the second-wave feminism movement, or any number of other riffs from modern history. But to question (and ultimately shift the paradigm of) who has the power to make the decisions that affect one’s daily life, is overtly political.
That’s why I believe, when working with young people and/or communities outside of one’s own, the art of civics (defined here by Eric Liu as the study of power, who has it, and how to harness it to create change) should be inextricably linked to program design and implementation.
This idea has crystallized in my psyche from not only my work with TeenTix, where arts attendance IS civic engagement, but also in moonlighting with civic engagement organization Citizen University’s Youth Power Project, and most recently in working closely with Street-Level Youth Media, a free drop-in digital arts center and creative youth development site recently acquired by Urban Gateways. At Street-Level we actively ask youth what they want to see out of the space, and we give them agency to tell their stories through the space and its resources. Video creation, music recording, podcasting, blogging, and more are all available to them as storytelling devices; they take the lead on what they do with those devices.
Another way we are working to promoting youth agency at Urban Gateways is through the Teen Arts Pass (TAP) program we’ll be launching next year; this program, which takes inspiration from TeenTix, offers $5 tickets to Chicago performance venues for anyone age 13 to 19. Accessibility of artistic and cultural spaces is key, and so is teen agency: our Teen Council is helping lead the charge, taking ownership of an initiative that belongs to them—and giving us, as an organization, a chance to authentically engage with the communities we’re serving, asking with earnestness and humility how we can do better.
By wishing to incorporate youth and their communities in decision-making for initiatives that are intended to engage them and their peers, organizations and program managers are (knowingly or unknowingly) giving these young people a lesson on power dynamics, the power of organizing, and policy development via focus grouping, researching, and consulting with experts (aka themselves). By welcoming youth into the decision-making process, we can begin to show them how decisions—within our organizations and more broadly in society—could be made differently.
Let’s lean into it and, in fact, give these young folks more power over programs that are meant to be for them, particularly in organizations that have little or no history of incorporating young people in admin-level spaces. If done well, and with care, both sides learn how to speak each other's languages, which I believe is the first step in creating meaningful change.
When we do this, accountability, cooperation, (true) partnership, code-switching, humility, and responsiveness are learned. Other-ing, savior complexes, absolutism, and power-hoarding are unlearned.
Our audiences are always changing; for organizations that work directly with young people, even more so. With curiosity, communication, and collaboration, it’s our job to keep up with them, and to take it one step further, to inject civic responsibility into those expectations.
Moreover, those we serve are our greatest advocates. We must use that relationship to further the conversation in how our local/regional/state/federal representatives are, in turn, advocating for our organizations. By empowering and activating one’s constituency to be advocates for themselves and their values, our organizations set themselves up for sustainability and increased relevance.
Arts organizations should want to get political with their work, and to relate it to the real-life outcomes (hopefully victories!) that are shared between one’s organization, their audience, and those wielding power. If we do it right, the tables will turn and power will be disbursed equitably—though it’s up to us to keep at it. Let’s do it!