Youth Today: Responsibilities and Reasons

By Karen Pittman, November 2000

Rights. By international standards, U.S. youth advocates don’t talk much about rights. There are recurring discussions of lapses in children’s rights. There are discussions of youth problems, many of which stem from basic injustices grounded in race and poverty. There are groups that have worked with young people to create versions of Children’s Rights or Youth Rights Bill (e.g., Girls Inc., the National Children’s Rights Alliance, the Children’s Defense Fund). There is a concern that young people do not exercise their right to vote. But there is relatively little discussion about participation as a right.

Don’t get me wrong: There are increasingly loud and animated conversations about youth participation. The U.S. has a growing lexicon: Youth action, youth activism, youth service, youth-adult partnerships, youth governance, youth organizing, youth leadership, youth voice.
Undoubtedly, many of these forms of youth participation lead to and are even sparked by young people’s realization that they have rights and that those rights are being violated. But it is interesting that, again in comparison with other countries, adults who work with youth do not lead with a rights analysis, and the adults who advocate for youth do not lead with an overall rights agenda.

Discussions of youth participation that I have been privy to emphasize the instrumental value of participation - the impact that it has on youth development or on the community — not on participation as a basic human right. There is a fundamental disconnect between rights and participation.

Why? Some obvious answers come to mind. The U.S. does not have a deep and current discourse about human rights from which discussions of youth rights might flow. The U.S. does have a history of ethnic and class struggles, but they are no longer fueled by blatant, life-shaping differences in legal rights. The time between the acknowledgement of injustices and their legal resolution is marked in decades, not centuries. And compared to many struggling countries, legal rights are frequently accompanied by funded entitlements. Many would argue that we have resolved our rights issues and do not have urgent need for the language.

Nonetheless, there is much to learn from the rights movements here and elsewhere that position participation both as a means to an end (e.g., equal pay, equal access) and an end in itself. We need to build a human rights analysis into action strategies, to find and strengthen the links between rights, participation and problem-prevention.

Young people need to exercise the legal rights they have been given by law or tradition (e.g., rights to education, due process and voting). They need to access the basic services opportunities (such as safety and shelter) that are afforded them as legal rights (such as safety from abuse) or a societal obligation (for example, access to the labor market).

Young people’s willingness and ability to exercise their rights, however, hinge on the quality of participation afforded them. Access to services and opportunities (like education) is necessary but not sufficient.

Young people’s rights are effectively curtailed when young people are afforded access without agency - the opportunity to be valued, heard and engaged in real work. Denied agency, young people are more likely to drop our or opt out, or are locked out of key systems, structures and processes.

Without pressure and feedback, the systems and processes that are supposed to support and involve young people are much less likely to align and adjust to meet the full range of youth needs or use the full range of youths’ skills.

Too often, discussions of youth participation are separate from discussions of rights (read as access to the tools for preparation, protection and problem reduction). And they are distant from discussions about opportunity creation and systems change. There are many valid reasons for not leading with a human rights argument. But I cannot think of reasons not to include it in our analysis and in our work with young people.

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Pittman, K. (2000, November). "Responsibilities and Reasons." Washington, DC: The Forum for Youth Investment. A version of this article appears in Youth Today.

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment.

Publishing Date: 
November 1, 2000
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