A two-part feature on the voices of youth ...
On the day Penny Parry took on the job of Children's Advocate in Vancouver, she was in a meeting with young people in care. One young girl, pointing at her, said “So if you’re the Advocate, what are you gonna do for us?”
Penny replied: “Well, 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, she was given the basics of the model of advocacy she tried to follow in her work. “So,” says Penny “Here it is for the sheer price of reading through this article ... “
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:
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:
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, nonobtrusive 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:
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:
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 strategy 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 rulebreaking 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:
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 1995 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.
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!
This feature: Parry, Penny. (1998). Listening to young people. Child and Youth Care, 16, 2. pp. 19-20.
Youngsters in a secure detention facility talk about the kind of staff they would like to work with them
The best type of counsellor is the type that will work with you all the way. Here at Log Cabin, the counsellors are cool. Most of them will work with you and give you a chance. If I was a counsellor I would be different. I would help the residents leave this place. I don’t think I would be taking points, but instead, if they do something wrong I would make them do exercises.
If I were a counsellor I would treat the kids the same way they are. Unlike some counsellors who treat kids like dogs. They put us up (in our rooms) every time we do some petty stuff. They’re lucky we’re not in their shoes – cause I’d treat them the same way they treat us. But now I’m in Co-Ed and they treat you like you their child. I mostly give props to Ms. Jackson and Mr. Woods, Nelson, and Mr Cee.Those are the counsellors that don’t treat you like dogs and cats, they treat you like their kids.
Some people’s idea of an ideal counsellor would be someone who’s hella cool with you or down with you and can understand where you’re coming from. A perfect counsellor would be someone who you could talk to without them writing your business in a file or telling your P.O. Someone who actually cares, who’s not just plain nosey, makes a good counsellor. Some are just worried about their paper. I think half the staff here needs to be re-evaluated to find out what they’re really here for.
If I was a counsellor I’d put myself in the detainees' shoes and see things from a locked up person's point of view. Then I’d try to realize the stress most youngster’s go through while in the hall. And show a little bit more love just because I’d be able to feel “em.
My ideal counsellor is Joe Tanner. He’s cool. He lets me work sometimes when I ain’t got no roommates to keep me occupied. Sometimes he lets me make bed rolls. The second is Bover. He’s big and lazy, but he’s cool. He do the same and just try, at least try, to keep me out of my cell when I’m bored and worried. If I was a counsellor, I would be a little similar to what they do.
The ideal counsellor in my eyes is a very unique one. He has to be one of a kind. He has to be one that you see, but not too often. He has to be very considerate of others' feelings. Not to a ridiculous point, but respectable. He has to be more than willing to help someone who’s in need. He has to think about situations from both sides. For example: if a detainee gets in trouble, he has to do more than think about his or another counsellor’s feelings. He has to put himself in the detainee’s shoes, too. I also think he shouldn’t try to prove anything to anybody. He has to be his own man. Plus, he shouldn’t bring his problems from home to work. He should maintain a certain attitude for work and a certain attitude for home. He should already have a strong view that we are going through enough by being here than for him or anyone else to add on to it. Plus, he should give knowledge to anyone willing to listen as much as he can. That’s my opinion of a good counsellor.
My ideal counsellor would be someone who will listen to you and understand your problems. Most counsellors just come to work for the money and try to lecture you or take your points. My ideal counsellor would listen to you and talk to you not yell at you, or lecture you.
One quality that makes a good counsellor is not keeping detainees in their rooms all day. The counsellors don’t make my life easier, they make it harder. They say “do this” then the other one says “do that.” I don’t know which one to listen to. So I get roomtime. I don’t care about counsellors. Mr. Couglar is a cool counsellor and Tanner because they never give me much room time. They like giving people chances.
This feature: The Beat Within – A Weekly Newsletter of Writing and Art From the Inside