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For a moment, close your eyes and imagine a time in your youth when you felt either engaged or disengaged in your community.
What factors led you to feel that way?
I spent my youth in a small town in the northeast part of South Dakota. I remember a time of feeling engaged in my community when I was a junior in high school. Residents of my rural school district were going to choose whether they would consolidate and close the school or keep the school open. Keeping the school open was something I and many of my peers were very passionate about, because it was a place we loved. So we took action.
We wrote letters to the editor. We went to school board meetings. We worked with elementary students to create artful posters placed around the community. We wore shirts in our school colors of purple and gold saying SOS – Save Our School. We were youth deeply engaged in our community.
Today I live in the town of Lyons, Nebraska. Some of my work includes youth engagement, one such project called Community Studio. In their senior government class, students have one class period per week to work on a project of their choice, so long as it benefits the Decatur or Lyons communities in some way.
It could be a tangible product, or a process. Students have created such things as a remodeled home driveway and sidewalk space for disabled residents; a mobile food pantry; a literary night at the Lyons library (as shown above); a cookbook of favorite local recipes; a frisbee golf course in the Lyons park.
Youth have great capacity to be involved in their communities. And working in different rural communities, I hear adults saying they want youth to be engaged in their community. So where are we getting stuck?
If we don’t have youth engagement, why not? And what would it look like to get there?
I want to talk with you about one sticking point, and two mediums artists can use to bring about youth engagement for their communities.
I recently asked a group of local youth how they think adults view them or act around them. Some of what they said included:
“They don’t trust us.”
“They don’t recognize we can grow and change.”
“They think they’re right, we’re wrong.”
“They don’t listen.”
What they’re saying relates to power dynamics in our communities.
Power is about exerting control over others. Its existence depends on some having it and others not having it. And its nuances are often better understood by those on the opposite end of power.
Youth understand power.
Power can be one place where we get stuck.
So what does it mean to truly engage youth? To me, when we want youth engagement, I believe that where we need to start is actually around youth empowerment.
Empowerment is about the ability to embrace one’s own agency. Empowerment is made possible or prevented by a community’s structures and systems. One of those systems is culture. And culture is something we build together.
In this way, artists have a unique position to transform a power culture into a culture of empowerment.
What might that look like in artistic practice? I’d like to share two beautiful mediums for shaping a culture of empowerment.
The first is dialogue. Being intentional about dialogue means crafting conversations with care.
It also means listening to youth over talking at youth, and authentically involving them in conversations about the community, stepping back so that their ideas can start to shape the future.
There is a city utilities superintendent in town whom we’ve invited to visit our class over the years. He talks to students about what is needed should they wish to do a project on city land. And before he leaves, one beautiful thing he says, is, “There is a space for you here. You are wanted here.”
How often do we welcome the youth of our community to our community?
Intentional dialogue is not only about painting a picture that helps youth see a space for themselves in our rural communities. When we’re authentically involving youth in dialogue, they gain the agency to shape their own narrative.
Dialogue is a medium that opens possibility. It’s a way of collaboratively and inclusively dreaming a future into existence. Changing how youth engage in our community starts with how we tell our community’s story to our youth and how we involve youth in shaping that story.
Physical spaces are another medium that shape culture. The physical and ideological spaces we create determine who is seen, who can participate, and who makes decisions.
In Community Studio, we recently asked students to consider what would be different about our classroom if we were all equal collaborators. A couple things they said included, “We would all sit in a circle,” and to me and the teacher they said, “You wouldn’t be standing when we’re sitting.”
How do we create environments in our community that exemplify what it looks like for empowered citizens to practice together?
This image is from a project I co-created called Senior Spotlight. One night per year, senior students and senior citizens have conversations together on Main Street, with the public, about the senior citizen’s life. This project is a way of providing space for two generations who are often at the periphery of society to be seen, in a very public way. It is a method of changing the function of a space into one of culture building, of listening, and celebrating.
Utilizing space intentionally is about seeing community spaces – a parking lot, an isle of a grocery store, an unused building – as potential catalysts for a culture shift.
Back to my junior year of high school: a majority voted to close and consolidate the school. But I want to tell you about the night before the vote. Another student and I created a letter, signed by other students, that we worked to send to every home in the district. That evening was a bitterly cold, northern South Dakota night. We went door-to-door, trying not to slip and fall as we delivered the last letters and asked our neighbors to vote to keep the school operating. It was numbingly cold as we worked, but I felt alive being engaged in something that mattered, that I cared deeply about.
We had adults around us who encouraged us in dialogue, who made space for us to strategize with them in their hardware store headquarters. That culture of empowerment was vital to our engagement as youth.
We can use mediums of dialogue and space to build a culture of empowerment in our rural places. It’s critical for our youth and anyone on the opposite end of power. And it’s crucial for inclusively building our future rural communities.
I presented this talk at the 2019 Rural Arts & Culture Summit in Grand Rapids, MN and organized by Springboard for the Arts. If you haven’t been to this biennial conference for rural practitioners, I highly recommend attending – and if you’re an artist, offering something to present!