Here are the 3 reactions we get when we tell people we work with teens:
- Teens?! Awesome!
- Teens?! Eewwww. They’re so mean! They’re so difficult to work with!
- Teens?! Ugh. I HATED high school.
Collectively, we have been working with young people for 26 years, and over time, we have come to love many many things about this work. All teenagers are different from each other, just as adults are, but there are some particular patterns about youth work that have impacted us.
We hope we can convince more people that teens are awesome.
Here’s a list of 8 things we most love about working with young people:
1. It’s forced us to confront our own teenage experiences.
In Western Christian culture, time is often described as linear, only moving forward. In that view, once you’re done being a teenager, those days are in the past and are unrelated to adult life. For some youth workers, taking a job with teens might be their first experience in revisiting that time period. We love working with youth because we get to remember and reprocess memories from high school all the time. It’s helped us see how those experiences have shaped us and how we’re both the same and different as we were then. And processing those experiences has helped us see teens as their own people – separate from us – and hold back from projecting our own losses, preferences, insecurities, or unresolved memories on to them. Self knowledge helps us feel powerful and generous and helps us do better work with youth.
2. Young people often help us remember to keep things fun.
Young people have lived in oppression for fewer years than we have. White supremacist culture hurts people of all ages, but young people are not as practiced as adults are at conforming to the dominant culture. Because of that, when we work with young people it often reminds us of our full humanness: our need to laugh and goof, to snack, to take breaks, to be close to people. We have been so grateful for that lifeline to our inner knowledge of what feels good and what’s important.
3. We have had to confront our own feelings of adultism.
Adultism is the system of oppression that denigrates young people. It impacts youth differently based on their identities, but it touches everyone. When we were young, we had many people who loved us, but we also had adults who treated us like we were stupid, disrespected us, humiliated us, and minimized our feelings and ideas. Now that we are the adults, we get to fight to respect youth and to experience the healing of treating young people as we wish we’d been treated. We also get to notice the places where we have internalized adultist beliefs: where we disrespect ourselves, where we still subconsciously disrespect youth. This is the work of liberation.
Here’s an example: when I (Talia) was in high school, I had a lot of ideas about what a better education system could look like. I was in the unique situation of having attended both a public school and one semester of boarding school. The stark contrast between the two gave me a clear picture of at least some of the things wrong with our education system. I knew that a redistribution of wealth was necessary because if one school couldn’t afford to exterminate rats, while another could afford to hire a skywriter, something had to change. I had several adults who encouraged me to speak out. But other adults dismissed my ideas as too young and idealistic. Now as an adult, it is important for me to rid myself of those old adultist messages so that I don’t hold my own self back from having bold ideas, and so that I don’t project this onto the youth I work with, who are also full of exciting thoughts about their own lives and communities.
4. Youth work is a crucial part of activist work today – it’s not just for the future.
We often hear adults say: “I do youth work because youth are the future!” and “Teens are going to be the ones to change the world.” We refuse to be more adults who put all our hope on the next generation. We need youth in the movement now, not in the future, and we all have a role to play in ending oppression. Intergenerational work is essential because each person has a different point of view. Young people can offer perspectives that can be harder for adults to see, so they are key collaborators. And so are we!
5. Youth work can be hopeful.
One example is that when we were growing up, we couldn’t picture a world where trans visibility was mainstream. Many young people we know are growing up familiar with the idea that gender is a spectrum! This doesn’t indicate to us that oppression has ended, or that liberation is inevitable without effort. But it reminds us of the potential of all humans to keep learning and growing and for things to change, even when it might seem impossible. When we see a gap between the norms we grew up with and what youth report as new norms, it challenges us to have hope around the places where oppression seems entrenched.
6. Youth work reminds us about how many different kinds of real and lasting relationships we can have in this life.
As we grow up, many of us are taught to be wary of new people, or to guard our hearts. It’s part of white supremacist culture that “professionalism” is unemotional, that “politeness” is small talk, and that revealing ourselves openly is rude. We often see young people open to loving one another in a way that all of us were born knowing how to do and that many of us have trained ourselves to withhold in white supremacy.
It is also part of white dominant culture to start narrowing down the number of relationships and the kinds of relationships people are supposed to have as they get older. An example of this is pressure in dominant culture for people to stop wanting the widespread closeness they seek out as young people and to switch their focus to building a nuclear family. Young people often remind us that relationships can be plentiful, not just because of the example they set by having many kinds of relationships, but because they sometimes reach out to be close to us as well, modeling what it looks like to openly show affection. It also reminds us of our own capacity to love people – we see the evidence that this ability is still alive in us when we remember how much we still love the friends we made as teens and how much we still love friendship in adulthood. Both of us have also had the experience of being close with people in their teen years who now in adulthood are comrades and friends.
7. Youth are people.
We often hear things like, “Teens are so mean!” We disagree – teens are each different, just like adults! In working with young people, we get to know more about human variation and to be close to people who shape our lives in different ways: youth who are funny, youth who are wise, youth who think like encyclopedias, who are visionaries, who are healers, who are observers, who can get a crowd amped up, who can calm a group down, who love reading, who love singing, who love their families, who know how to survive on their own. Youth are all kinds of people. Getting to work with youth means getting to know more about human experiences.
8. Youth work helps us grow older.
Sometimes, we hear the myth that youth-work is awesome because “it keeps us young.”
We don’t agree. To us that sounds like the ageist belief that there is something wrong with getting older, and the adultist belief that there is something ideal or romantic about being young. The reality is that it is great to age while supporting other people at different stages in the aging process. Working with youth helps us see what’s unique and new for us about the age that we are, to love the particularities of our life paths, and to see that we are changing every day. Working with youth does not keep us young – it helps us love growing older and to process what we gain and lose at each stage.
Thanks for reading our list!
We feel very happy to have gotten to do this work for so long. Working with teenagers has helped us reflect on oppression, identity, closeness, and tough questions about how to build youth power with respect. We’ve gotten to show love to young people, show love to one another, and to collaborate with a wide world of people who care about youth.
To the people who hate young people: our wish is that you get to heal around the experiences that are holding you back from loving them. And also that you don’t take any youth work jobs until you do.
Youth work is not easy or hard, not good or bad. There are many ways that it is exactly the same as other group work, and there are some ways that the features of being young are like nothing else.
Our wish is for the world to be a place where all people experience a lifetime of respect and humanization. Where young people get what they need to grow up safely and be close with a community. Where adult people get to age safely and feel meaning and connection at each phase. A world that has figured out how to care for young people is a world that is better for all of us.
To the young people who have impacted us: thank you for being people in our lives who have taught us about human experience.
Talia Cooper is the former program director of Ma’yan and the former executive director of Jewish Youth for Community Action. She is currently an anti-oppression trainer and body positive coach. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on writings, trainings and coaching. She can also be found playing music on Facebook and YouTube.
Independent consultant and speaker Pippi Kessler has trained thousands of educators and parents across the country to use their power for good. As an ongoing consultant and educator with ImmerseNYC, Ma’yan, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, she designs feminist leadership programs for teens, conducts professional training seminars, and creates innovative curricula and workshops. She is also the Director of Rowe Young People’s Camp, a summer program for 8-11-year-olds in western Massachusetts, and leads conferences for parents and educators about the ethics of working with young people. She is currently completing her Masters Degree in Social-Organizational Psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University. For more information about Pippi’s work or to book a workshop, visit PippiKessler.org, follow her on Twitter @PippiKessler, or email her at email@example.com.