One of the Community Learning Exchange’s fundamental values is that youth and adults have equally important abilities, gifts and perspectives to bring to the table. Partnerships among leaders of all ages have always been a priority for the CLE, and participants from the most recent gathering -The Art(s) of Leadership: A CLE focused on Youth-Adult Partnerships in Texas - agree that this focus should continue to grow and evolve.
The youth-adult partnership CLE took place at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas, from July 25-28, 2013. Groups from national and regional organizations came together from all over the country - including New Mexico, California, Texas, Florida and Minnesota.
Participants film a video at the Texas CLE.
The Leaders of Today, Not Tomorrow
John A. Oliver, one of the organizers of the CLE and an assistant professor at Texas State University, said it’s important to understand that true youth-adult partnerships go beyond the traditional mentor/mentee relationship to form a collaboration that is more genuine and equal.
“It’s actually about utilizing the capacities and skills of both youth and adults for community change and leadership development,” said John. “The CLE was purposeful in how it went about that from the very beginning, incorporating both youth and adults in the planning of the gathering, the activities and the facilitation.”
The goal should shift from training youth as the “leaders of tomorrow” to recognizing youth as leaders and contributors to society right now, he said.
John A. Oliver works on plans the week before the CLE.
Matt and Dominic Militello, a father and son who are both evaluators for the CLE, echoed the same sentiment.
Matt, an associate professor at North Carolina State University, has been involved with the Kellogg Leadership for Community Change (KLCC) initiative and the CLE since 2003. Dominic, who is going into his junior year of high school, went to his first CLE gathering when he was in 8th grade and has attended about seven in total. At the San Marcos CLE, Dominic led a group of youth who were in charge of planning and conducting video interviews, then editing the footage into finished pieces.
“In the first [CLE], for me, it was more about learning,” said Dominic.
“My dad and Chris [Janson, an adult evaluator] would come up with questions and me and Emiliano [Guajardo, a youth evaluator] would go interview people and cut video. But at the most recent one, I led a group of youth evaluators, so we gave them each cameras and said, ‘Come up with a question and interview people over the course of the week and produce video or some kind of media from this.’”
Dominic Militello and Emiliano Guajardo work together as youth evaluators at a past CLE.
Matt added that when adults are in charge of the evaluation work, especially capturing participant voices and experiences through video, everything is viewed through an adult perspective.
“I think empowering both Emiliano and Dominic to take more of a leadership role - so that they need to do the analytics as well - has been really powerful so that stories that we want to capture about youth come through without us putting our own filters and lenses on it,” said Matt.
Dominic recounted the experience of working with another youth from California who wanted to make a video about youth-adult partnerships but didn’t have any experience filming or editing. The two worked together to interview other CLE participants, asking them what their greatest strengths and gifts were.
“We worked really hard to get this one done so we showed it at the end of the CLE,” said Dominic. “It was an example of - ‘this is what we want you guys to do when you go back home with all your footage.’”
“How Can I Use This When I Go Back Home?”
Youth and adults planned, facilitated and participated in activities throughout the CLE in San Marcos, including Gracious Space, the circle process and a “digi hunt” - a technology-based scavenger hunt teams completed on campus.
John Oliver said place-based learning was an essential element of the CLE, focusing on modeling the importance of place and answering the question, “How can I use this when I go back home?” Another powerful part of the weekend, he said, was witnessing the energy from adults and youth alike.
“At the opening some [young] people were kinda like, ‘OK, this is a little too good to be true. How can people be here from different places and not know each other and really be this genuine about what they’re doing and what they’re talking about?’” said John.
“In the beginning, one young man was like, ‘I’m tired of talking. All y’all adults do is talk about it.’ The catch phrase was, ‘Don’t talk about it; be about it.’ So that brought on new meaning not only for the young person but for the adults who heard it and realized, wow, we need to be purposeful about how we interact with young people. We can’t just plan, [we] need to take action. Seeing those young people to go from skepticism almost to optimism [was powerful]. And on the flip side, adults who have done this for years have a reinvigoration of their practice after short weekend with young people.”
Making a Commitment to Youth-Adult Partnerships
Youth are ready to step up to leadership roles, said John, but adults need to realize that they also face limitations, particularly when it comes to finances.
“Youth may not have the organization budgets or the university budgets to say, ‘Yes, I’ll go to this conference and that gathering,’” he said. “But they still have a willingness. [At] one of our planning meetings [the question] that came out was, ‘How are we going to get the youth here who want to come?’ We had been working with adults who already have their budgets and hadn’t considered it. So we pooled our resources for travel, scholarships, housing. It made a big difference.”
When youth and adults come together in intentional ways, their efforts can lead to great results, said Dominic.
“Seeing some of the projects that come out of youth and adult partnerships, they’re a lot better than if just one person was doing something,” he said. “Even just our projects, our videos. If it was just me doing it or just my dad doing it, it would look a lot different than the two of us working together. For the whole evaluation team, it’s more of a group effort than just one person.”
Youth involvement should be a fundamental part of the leadership process, not just an afterthought, said Matt.
“The next CLE that we have is going to be in North Carolina in October, and Dominic has been part of that planning team and helping with some of the aspects of that,” he said. “One of the really interesting things about this one is that one of the requirements is if you want to bring a team, you’re required to bring a youth with you. We’re looking for people to have the commitment to youth and adult partnerships.”