When people talk about “youth leadership” their meaning isn’t always clear. For many adults, “youth leadership” involves giving teens the appearance of leadership without the substance. An example of that might be a school’s student council, where there are elections and debates but the students can ultimately make few if any decisions (and those decisions are, of course, subject to veto by the administration). No wonder many students look at student council as a joke, or at best good for a paragraph on a college application. Other examples are programs where leadership skills are taught through lecture and discussion – but no real opportunity to lead exists.
Even in BBYO, “youth leadership” is sometimes more catch-phrase than reality. Member’s decisions are, of course, limited by policy – but those policies are interpreted by staff. In cases where staff respects and defends (even demands) youth leadership, BBYO members can truly exercise real authority and carry real responsibility. But it’s not all that uncommon for staff to make decisions that are arguably more appropriate for the youth to make. And it’s not just staff – sometimes regional board will make decisions that should actually be made at the chapter level.
It’s easy to blame the adults or senior leaders for overstepping their bounds, but the truth is not so simple. The greater problem is actually the indifference of those whose leadership opportunities are being reduced. “I can’t make a difference” or “There’s nothing I can do about it” are phrases I hear far too often. For a youth led organization to work, the youth must demand the opportunity to lead, they must take responsibility and deliver on it, and must insist on getting real authority and use it responsibly. You won’t always succeed at this; in fact, complete success will probably be rare. But you have to try – and you’ll gain much from the attempt.
To be a leader is to take responsibility and take action.
This is the unspoken truth of “youth leadership”. Nobody can make a teen into a leader. Nobody can give you leadership experience. Leadership is something you choose. And the opportunity to lead is something you have to grab and work for – it isn’t easy.
Tonight I was watching Barak Obama on the Daily Show. He was talking about the volunteers who are working for his campaign and that, along with Jon Stewart’s piece on experience, reminded me how critical the forthcoming election is to the future of our country (if not the world). I don’t care which candidate you choose to support – but I do hope you’ll choose to support some candidate. Anyone, even teens, are welcome in election campaigns, and you can make a difference and, believe it or not, gain real leadership experience in the process.