Abstract: The empowerment of youth, and advocacy on their behalf, requires the practitioner to listen to those youth. In this article a youth advocate shows how listening to youth has influenced her work as an advocate.
"And how many hours a day did you do lessons?” said
“Ten hours the first day, “said the Mock Turtle, “nine the next, and so on.”
“What a curious plan!” exclaimed Alice.
“That’s the reason they’re called lessons,” the Gryphon remarked, “because they lessen from day to day.”
Lewis Carroll Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865
This article is about one very important lesson I have tried to live up to over the past three years. However, unlike the creatures with whom Alice is speaking, my lessons do not lessen – as I seem to need all the time I can get to continue learning!
It all started three years ago in the middle of May when I took on the job of child and youth advocate for the City of Vancouver. I began my job not in Vancouver and not in my office in Vancouver. Rather, I began my job – the very few first minutes and hours of it – in a room full of youth-in-care in another city.
This group of young people were preparing to present their views to a community panel who were to make recommendations to government on changing the child welfare legislation in this province. There were a few “adults” there, and we were there on the understanding that we would be proverbial “specks on the wall.” Soon, however, a whisper roamed the room “The child and youth advocate is here ... the child and youth advocate is here ... Vancouver’s advocate is here.” I sank into my chair, staring intently into my blank page of notes. Finally, one young person I know said, “Yah, and I know who she is.” Pointing right at me, she challenged, “So; if you’re the advocate, what are you gonna do for us?” “Well,” I said, “I’ve only been the advocate for about half an hour, so you've got me while I’m still raw and unset in my ways. What do you think a good advocate would do?” [One of the best questions I ever asked!]
With that, I was given the basics of the model of advocacy I have tried to follow over the past three years. This model sells like hotcakes to all ages of folks! So, here it is for the sheer price of reading through this article. If you like it, I suggest you send your thoughts to be B.C. Federation of Youth-in-Care Networks, or to any young person you know – as I believe it comes from the common spirit of all these young people.
Like any real worthwhile piece of advice, it’s simple to remember and difficult to put into practice. Like any real worthwhile piece of advice, it’s not new. . . it rings true to some basic child and youth care principles such as:
respecting another’s point of view
being of assistance so that worth and learning occur rather than simply being part of controlling a situation
believing that those who are experiencing a difficulty are the most important resources for solving the problem
the importance of modelling as a way of learning and the responsibility I hold as an adult that my every action or failure to act constitutes a modelling of something to those around me.
Well, here it is! There are only five things an effective youth advocate has to do. What the young people said that day was:
1. Never presume to know what is “in a youth’s best interests”. . . never presume to know what our issue is.
In practice, this has meant: Be sure to listen first! Notice who you listen to! Here are a couple of examples from my experience: Prior to that day when I was given the gift of this model, I had indeed had this part of the lesson from another much younger child many years ago. A nine-year-old girl with a severe learning disability was asked what she wanted to learn while she was at the learning centre where I worked. Parents, teachers, psychiatrists, speech therapists, and social workers all had their opinions, such as: learning to read at grade level, having better self-esteem, being happy, overcoming her depression, and so on. She said she wanted to “skip bubble buch” [skip double dutch]. Well, it turned out that by learning to play this game, she became accepted into her school group [boy, that old clinical depression just seemed to die off!], she smiled [hmm ... that old self-esteem shot up!] and no, she never did learn to read easily, but she learned ways around it. Well, you get the lesson?
Then there was the time I worked in a residential centre. The night staff were quite disturbed by a pattern that was developing. A particular young boy would create a disturbance every night just around bedtime and would end up in the locked “seclusion room.” Much time and care was spent trying to figure out what was going on. Was there a particular trigger that set him off? Was it some sort of seizure disorder that everyone was missing? What was the cause of this unprovoked anger? Then, someone suggested that a staff ask the boy how we could help stop this pattern? By listening (instead of trying to outguess him), we learned that he felt very unsafe in the dorm where the doors to all the rooms except the seclusion room were unlocked. In his life, asking for something usually had no effect. So he did what usually worked for him: created a disturbance. And, for a while, we did what we thought was best: tried to figure out the disturbance without trying to listen first!
2. Assist young people to understand, to get a handle on whatever situation they are in, and don’t make them feel stupid for asking you to help them understand.
In practice, this has meant I have had to have a lot of information at my fingertips, and/or I have had to know where to get that information fast! I must truly believe that asking for help is not stupid.
Here are a few examples of the range of information young people expect Vancouver’s child and youth advocate to know:
I am a 16-year-old temporary ward of the court. I am going to get an abortion. Do my natural parents have to know?
How many children in Vancouver live in poverty? (This one was difficult, as the young person asking needed the information for a school project which was due after lunch – it was of course eleven o'clock during a spare at school.)
What do we have to do to make sure the piece of land we want for our youth drop-in is OK to use ... like are there any city rules about this?
My daughter is going through a very rough divorce. My three year-old granddaughter is in the middle the child is pulling out her fingernails. Who can I turn to?
Does this letter to the Minister of Social Services sound too sucky?
My daughter is supposed to appear in court to testify in an abuse case. She said she would do so but now she is scared – she hasn’t eaten in two days and is lying in her bed in a fetal position. Crown council is calling me saying I have to get her to court or else she’s their star witness. I don’t think anyone is caring about my child. What can I do?
More recently, I was in a group meeting: lots of business going on with people trying to get agreements about what to work on, what’s important and how to do it. There were about 25 young people and three “adult resource persons.” One young man kept getting up and down, got handfuls of small creamers, with high drama poured several small creamers into a glass, scrunched each one into the next and then slammed the whole bunch down on the table, yawned loudly every once in awhile, and asked what seemed to be off-topic “clown” questions. He didn’t verbally ask for help but his body did, so I moved over and started “reading the material” for him. He just needed assistance – in a quiet, non-obtrusive way. (He couldn’t read – but damned if he’d let anyone know.)
Finally, just a word about the third practice requirement: believing that asking for help is not stupid. We may be in danger here today as we become busier and busier and don’t have the time to help someone at the pace they need. A rushed bit of advice can seem uncaring at best, or can be incomprehensible (and so make the person feel stupid) at worst! I must remember to slow down – be in the moment!
3. Assist young persons to express their viewpoint in their way, not yours.
In practice, this has meant being ready to offer:
Practical assistance such as taking notes on the flip chart or, when I had a vehicle, driving a youth to a meeting.
Emotional support such as just being there.
Skill development such as suggesting another way of saying something so others will be more likely to continue to listen to their comments.
This last part is quite tricky as I’ve had to constantly check that I am not just suggesting phrasing that sounds better [translation: sounds like a politically correct person has said it?] or has won points for me. I find this happens quite unconsciously to me if I’ve volunteered to take down the notes for a group who are brainstorming. Funny how there seems to be an editor between my ears and my fingers! Words and phrases change by the time they are taken down by me on a flip chart if I’m not careful! At the same time, I’ve had to step in on those situations where the phrasing chosen by the young person will get doors closed immediately. These are the phrases familiar to all of us, often extremely vivid and creative, and quite unprintable!
4. Make sure that if the young person has taken the time and trouble to understand their situation, and has had the courage to express their view, that they are expressing it to someone who can do something about it.
In practice, this has meant:
Developing contacts I can use to set up real opportunities for young people to give input.
Keeping my own faith that there are people who will do something as a result of hearing from youth.
Many years ago, a woman named Vicki Bruce, from whom I learned many child and youth care skills, told me that manipulation was a positive skill. This was a great relief to me as I have used my skill of manipulating, that is positively influencing and engaging people to help children and youth, to the hilt.
Keeping the faith definitely has required that I keep a close eye on my own mental health, that I stop to notice the blue sky, and that I spend time with young people and admit that they are my energy source.
Recently, I have had several opportunities to notice that, given the opportunity, young people have amazing powers to make an impression. Over the past year, I have been involved in developing a civic youth strat egy for the City of Vancouver. While some departments of civic government are already involved with youth (e.g., Parks and Recreation, Library, Police, Health)others do not have youth involvement directly in their mandate (e.g., Engineering, Finance, Permits and Licensing, Planning). As such, some departments were not intrinsically interested in a venture called the civic youth strategy. Well, inviting 100 youth to City Hall for a day during which many people had the opportunity to listen and mingle with these young people truly engaged the city government! Again, when it came time to go to Council and to the Board of Parks and Recreation for approval of the project, six young people spoke to the plan. Their presentations were the key selling feature as they provided the genuineness and playful rule-breaking in a normally formal atmosphere with a direct and heartfelt request for government to recognize and support its youth.
5. Encourage a co-operative spirit between our voices.
In practice, this has meant:
Seeing differences of opinion as a positive value of diverse perspectives and not falling into a “who’s got the right answer” attitude!
Modelling respect, especially when conflict arises.
I have had some recent painful experiences where we as adults did not model respectful dealing with conflict. I am not ready to share these with you yet – they are too raw.
On March 28th of this year, the City Council of Vancouver approved this model as the model to be followed by the City’s child and youth advocate. Since the position of child and youth advocate is a three-year term position, Council’s approval is particularly significant as it ensures that the model will outlast the current incumbent. In closing the circle, it was Robert Fricke, a young man from the B.C. Youth in Care Network, who sought and got Council approval.
"And what,” asked the Gryphon, “has the above article to do with the overall theme of this volume of the journal: the impact of everyday experiences on child and youth care?”
"I think,” said Alice somewhat carefully, as she knew that the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle were a rather cynical pair, – it shows that an unplanned ten minute “lesson” on the first day of a job has given direction to three years work!”
"And?” said the Mock Turtle.
"And the model isn’t just about the child and youth advocate’s job. It’s about everyday opportunities that happen to all who work with young people!”
Life After the Wonderland Adventures Fantasy
Conversations with Alice
Unwritten and unpublished, 1995
This feature: Parry, Penny (1995). One lesson that didn’t lessen, or the power of five simple actions. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 10, 2. pp.43-48.