An Intergenerational Partnership Focuses on Dismantling Adultism in New Orleans
“New Orleans is a city where the self-expression, leadership, creativity, and culture of all children and youth comes together to create a true community where everyone succeeds.”
In 2020, the city of New Orleans adopted this vision statement, crafted by nearly 100 young people from across the city as part of a daylong event, Flip the Script, to challenge the dominant narrative of New Orleans youth. This vision is guiding the city’s Youth Master Plan, and its crosscutting work to improve the lives of all local children and youth – by working directly with children and young people.
The city of New Orleans has worked hard to transform its city from working on behalf of young people to co-working alongside youth, empowering them along the way. One product of this youth-centered approach is the New Orleans Youth Master Plan. Launched in 2020, the plan spans ten years and provides the city with a comprehensive roadmap to build youth leadership and for "creating and sustaining a positive, youth-development focused, results-oriented New Orleans that works for all young people."
One of the tools embedded in this plan is the Dismantling Adultism Toolkit on How to Build and Maintain a Youth-Centered Organization, led and authored by the young members of the New Orlean's Children Youth Planning Board (CYPB). The Planning Board supports the coordination and alignment of systems and services to improve outcomes for children, youth, and families. It is made up of up to 25 community members and 19 youth and young adults between the ages of 14 to 24.
The Dismantling Adultism Toolkit is designed for organizations and groups that engage and serve youth. It starts with an overview of what adultism is and what it means to be genuinely youth-centered, and then includes concrete tools such as an organizational self-assessment, tips to support power-sharing between young people and adults, and a scorecard to map current strengths and areas for growth, and an action template to help prioritize tangible goals for improvement.
The CYPB is hoping that lessons from its journey will help other localities authentically share power with young leaders, and work in partnership with youth to shape the future of their communities.
It is a journey that has not been without bumps. Karen Evans, Executive Director of CYPB, join CYPB in 2016, the first staff person hired to lead the board. During her interview, she asked the members of selection committee where the youth and young adults were in the hiring process? The answer: they did not have that in place yet.
Five years later, thanks to several factors—Evans’ leadership, an open-minded board, the support of youth engagement partners such as Public Allies, and dedicated youth-serving staff like Maggie Hermann, the Projects & Planning Coordinator—CYPB has turned a corner. At first, there was just one youth seat on the CYPB; now 19 young people sit on the Board. The Board has also adopted a truly youth-centered approach, creating a Youth Advisory Board, producing a Dismantling Adultism Toolkit, and launching a youth-led Master Plan. Members are now publicly advocating for implementation of the Youth Master Plan across the city.
For Karen Evans, the preservation of this power-sharing between youth and adults is essential for the future of the CYPB, and the city it serves. Says Evans: "[We worked hard] to institutionalize the presence of this Board in the law so there would never be a time when a Children Youth Planning Board existed, where there was not a Youth Advisory Board and youth seats that help to drive the direction of the CYPB."
Addressing Adultism Around and Within Us
The Dismantling Adultism Toolkit was designed to help organizations continuously improve upon their ability to dismantle adultism to reap the benefits of centering youth voice and insights. It is designed to help adults with all experience levels, and in any position, start the conversation, undertake self-reflection about ways of working and engaging with youth, and hold themselves and others accountable.
Adultism—the implicit or explicit idea that adults are superior to young people, that they “know better”—stands directly in the way of an organization's ability to reap the benefits of being youth-centered.
For this to be effective, however, adults must understand that critical feedback is vital to improving the organizations' overall mission and service. They must be willing and able to respond to feedback.
Lavonte Lucas, 21-year-old CYPB Youth Advisory Board and co-author of the toolkit, says that the power of partnership means being open to the process. "The real idea is we want to work together, so this is how we do it,” says Lucas. "I don't ever want this toolkit to feel like it's holding anyone back. I want them to understand and respect [that] this toolkit was made by professional youth for [adults]—not against them but for them."
The Toolkit assumes a desire to work authentically with youth, and be open tackling barriers, even if they are internal. That’s because adultism can come in many forms, even among adults with good intentions and a commitment to positive youth development.
Adultism—the implicit or explicit idea that adults are superior to young people, that they “know better”—maybe rooted in ego, implicit bias, doubt, or any number of factors. It often stands directly in the way of an organization's ability to reap the benefits of being youth centered.
"Adultism isn't just this one linear thing, it's really a system that impacts young people in all different aspects," says Abigail Hu, CYPB Youth Advisory Board member.
Building and maintaining an approach that authentically centers youth and their power means that:
- adults commit to centering young people; they must make it known that all young people are welcomed, heard, acknowledged for their contributions, and compensated for their expertise; an
- adults make space for youth to hold positions of power, lead youth-focused projects, be trusted to make decisions, and be provided the necessary resources to turn their visions into reality and action.
It doesn’t end there. Engaging youth authentically means supporting them to make decisions and have input every step of the process. It also means committing to implementation: taking the resulting ideas outside of meeting rooms and putting them into practice. This process of transmuting ideas into action is where we see transformative change for all parties involved: youth, adults, systems, and communities.
Among the benefits of a youth-centered approach are that it brings different perspectives to viewing a problem, can halt unintended harmful practices or policies, and can bring new energy and passion into the work. It also leads to creative solutions from youth who understand what works best because they are closest to the problem.
"Young people are really, really good and clear at helping folks to see what could be different, where they could open their eyes, take off the shells and see what's really there," says Karen Evans, Executive Director, CYPB.
"Young people are really, really good and clear at helping folks to see what could be different, where they could open their eyes, take off the shells and see what's really there.”
- Karen Evans, Executive Director, CYPB
For 19-year-old Abigail Hu, being a member of the Youth Advisory Board and partnering with city decisionmakers on a Youth Master Plan and the toolkit was a new experience. She has participated in many of what she calls “performative” youth engagement activities in the past and can tell the difference between a one-time thing versus one that is part of a large vision.
"Being able to take part in the actual content in the Toolkit and being able to market it to other people, being able to be a part of the design [and distribution] process was really cool ... We've had countless meetings forming this Toolkit and really thinking through every single level in which we wanted our nonprofits to incorporate young people,” says Hu. “I felt unusually included in the conversation, so that was really refreshing for me.”
Cloud Benn, another Youth Advisory Board member, says this opportunity is exactly what she needed to invest her energy into during a year of global pandemic, social unrest, and climate disasters that deeply impacted her peers. “I was committed and determined to carry the whole thing through because it was my passion.... because without the youth, you're not really going to have a city. You're going to have a city full of tourists that are just giving you money.”
Seeing it Through
CYPB is working with the city council to implement the Youth Master Plan and encourage use of the Dismantling Adultism Toolkit across all five districts.
One key aspect of ensuring progress is to raise resources for additional training to provide young people with the skills to facilitate technical assistance aspects of implementing the Master Plan and the Toolkit.
The Youth Advisory Board hopes that its toolkit will reach decisionmakers at all levels, right up to the White House, to shift the approach toward deeper youth engagement in policymaking.
Advice on Partnering with Youth
Youth Advisory Board members Lavante Lucas, Abigail Hu and Cloud Benn, have some advice for adults and young people who are initiating a process to work together:
- First, and most importantly, is to keep an open mind. Look within and at external barriers to partnership. Be open to suggestions that may change the way you approach communication, ideation, or decision-making.
- Secondly, consider young people's schedules and commitments when setting up meetings, and creating workplans and timelines.
- Trust doesn’t happen overnight, and neither does transformational impact. This process takes time, don't be afraid if you don't see results right away; stick to it.
- Always compensate young people for their work and time. Treat this as a professional opportunity.
- Finally, it’s critical to be mindful of building young people’s social capital: open new doors for them, let them try new things.
Links and Resources
- Dismantling Adultism Toolkit: This toolkit is intended to promote action towards becoming and sustaining practices as a youth-centered organization. The information shared in this toolkit comes from a combination of youth experiences, best practices, and local and international resources. It was created by the Youth Advisory Board of the New Orleans Children and Youth Planning Board (CYPB), composed of 19 active youth members between the ages of 14 and 24, plus four alumni.
- NOLA Youth Master Plan: The Youth Master Plan sets a common, shared vision for children and youth of Orleans Parish. The Youth Master Plan is a youth-led and multi-year process that is a collective expression of the intent to create real, timely answers to unmet needs; restore hope in the possibility of a changed future with desirable opportunity; and deliver systems change to improve outcomes for children and youth. https://nolayouthmasterplan.org/
- New Orleans Children & Youth Planning Board (CYPB)
If you're interested in learning more, or partnering with or supporting the Children & Youth Planning Board, you can reach out to Karen Evans, Executive (email@example.com) and Maggie Hermann (firstname.lastname@example.org).