The Power of Youth Voice
Perhaps it’s because my then-7-year-old-daughter, with no prompting, took it upon herself to write a letter chastising the editor of Highlights magazine for publishing a child’s plagiarized Shel Silverstein poem as her own, or maybe it’s because I’ve had the honor to work with so many amazing, focused and inspiring children and youth, that it comes as no surprise that the youth from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are so powerfully vocal and organized.
And they are not the exception; they are just finally being heard. In New Orleans we have many such strong youth voices. For example, there’s VAYLA New Orleans, an organization where the youth played a lead role in stopping the dumping of toxic waste in a landfill close to Village de l’Est, or Rethink, where youth “rethink” their experiences in their school community and take action to make improvements.
Kathleen Whalen, owner of Strategies for Youth Development, understands the power of youth voice. Her business provides program design, program evaluation, strategic planning, staff coaching and on-site support. She consults with such organizations as the national Up2Us Sports, the City of New Orleans Health Department and NET Charter Schools
Whalen started her business three years ago because she saw a need to help agencies and programs better align with positive youth development.
“Many do not fully understand or appreciate youth voice and the strength and intelligence youth can bring to the table,” she says.
Rather than using an emphasis of trying to correct what is "wrong" with children's behavior or development, positive youth development empathizes what’s “right” with the children.
“I want to show adults how they can better help and guide children in a way that allows the children to develop and honors their experiences and intelligence.”
Whalen has 30 years of experience working in New Orleans public schools as a teacher and as a social worker. She also worked for four years as the school system’s liaison to Juvenile Court. After Hurricane Katrina, Whalen worked with Save the Children and was the director of professional development for the now-defunct but once brilliant Partnership for Youth Development.
“What the kids in Florida are saying is nothing new,” she says. “Our children, here in New Orleans, have been talking about violence and guns for years. I think the Parkland students just have the opportunity to elevate the conversation and reach more people.”
Whalen is currently working at Tulane University on a National Institute of Justice School Safety grant, which looks at the effects of the trauma-informed approach to education. Whalen states that one out of every four children attending school has been exposed to some kind of traumatic event, such as bullying, divorce, homelessness or violence in their neighborhoods.
“That kind of stress can affect learning and/or behavior,” she says. “In a trauma-informed school, the adults in the school community are prepared to recognize and respond to those who have been touched by traumatic stress. The goal is to not only provide tools to cope with extreme situations but to create an underlying culture of respect and support. We are looking at how the effects of childhood trauma on children can have an effect on these children’s cognition and behaviors.”
Whalen says she wants to help children feel safe and supported so that they can develop and flourish, with an end result of reducing suspensions and expulsions from school.
“Kids can, and do, think for themselves,” she says. “It’s just hard sometimes to get adults to listen.”
Strategies for Youth Development