The Way I Speak About Youth Matters
Submitted by Liz Clift on April 11, 2014 Blogs and Articles:
When I speak about the youth I work with, I often struggle to find ways to talk about them that aren’t problematic. I find myself saying, “one of my more challenging youth,” or “my most headstrong youth” or “my youth who has impulse control issues” to describe exactly the same person. I try to remember that I could also describe him as “one of my brightest youth,” “my youth who steps outside to regain emotional control,” or “my youth who can build whole Lego cities.”
The phrasing I choose depends on what experience I’m trying to convey, and also how much tolerance I’m feeling for him that day—how much he has tried my patience and my ability to creatively solve problems within a system that wants to jail young black men who have already been kicked out of multiple schools.
When I go home and talk about my day, what I choose to say matters. It matters because it affects the way I’ll see this young man the next day and the way I’ll interact with other youth who will remind me of him in the future. It affects the way I represent “under-resourced” youth to others, and the expectations I convey to the larger community as a person who works with them.
I am especially aware of why the way I speak about youth matters when I hear people say, “Working with those youth must exhaust you!” and “How do you have the patience to work with those kids?” and “It’s a noble thing you’re doing.” This has happened more times than I can count.
I must remember that the same fears I have about negatively influencing others also apply to myself—that if I speak about the youth negatively, I might start to believe it. I might stop seeing their potential, stop viewing them as developing people who are allowed to make mistakes and find their way.
I know that it takes more than just sympathy (or empathy) to change the circumstances of under-resourced youth who live in a community ripped apart by street violence. Our staff works to empower these youth through leadership and discussion groups, by attending their sporting events and by refusing to do things for them that they can do for themselves. Speaking about them respectfully is one more way we can try to make their worlds less hostile and change the negative mythology surrounding their identities. One more way we can try to prevent them from being written off before they even get out of elementary school.
Clift works in an after-school program for youth and is the communications intern for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.