Youth as Renovators - Thoughts on International Youth Day

I hate kitchen remodeling. It’s the worst.  My wife and I dove into this dangerous, dangerous world a little over a year ago when we decided to renovate the kitchen in our century old house. 
 
One of my biggest challenges in the beginning was imagining what the new kitchen could or should look like. I knew the functionality of the old was insufficient for our needs, but I couldn’t get beyond the structure and layout that I was so used to working in. 
 
To help us get outside our creative boxes and limitations, we brought in some carpenters and builders to hear their opinions. Within 5 minutes, I was looking at my old run down kitchen with completely new eyes. The carpenters were not bound by the things I was bound by.  Where I saw walls, they saw possibilities to add doors, windows, and other open spaces without compromising the structural integrity of the house. Things like the sink, oven, and dishwasher could go almost anywhere we wanted because the builders were not confined to the current location of plumbing and electrical fixtures. I quickly realized that while there were some limitations, there was far more potential for a creative, cool, and usable kitchen than what I had imagined.
 
As I reflect on International Youth Day today, I’m realizing more and more that many of the institutions we have created are not adequately able to address the growing needs of youth around the world. Institutions of all types, whether they are political, religious, educational, etc., seem to be having difficulty engaging youth in ways that are meaningful, beneficial, and hopeful.
 
Some seem to believe that youth are the problem and therefore have committed their lives to forming youth into their own adult image; desperately trying to indoctrinate youth with their moral codes, political views, religious beliefs, and educational values. Even if the intentions are good, this doesn’t seem to be working.
 
Others see the institutions as the problem and the only solution is to tear down the current structures (or let them die) and start from scratch. As a leader of an organization that partners with public schools, I can tell you that there is no shortage of cynics who think we need to start over with the entire public education system. Unfortunately, creating something different or better that can reach nearly 50 million young people seems a bit unrealistic in our current economic and political environment.
 
Although I don’t believe we need to destroy everything and rebuild, I do believe we need to renovate and remodel. And, it seems the only way to make sure it is relevant, helpful, and functional for youth, is to include them in the renovation process. I’m interested in what happens when we allow youth to come into our institutions and help us see things through a different lens. What if we ask them to be builders? Where we see walls do they see doorways into other spaces and possibilities? How have we as leaders and owners of our institutions, bound by years of existing in them, become institutionalized ourselves. Youth have an incredible capacity to get us out of our creative boxes and limited thinking if we are willing to listen. It may mean we have to tear some things apart, restructure, and move things we thought were immovable.  The project may take longer and cost more than we had planned. However, these young builders will one day own the house. Are we willing to do the work to ensure that they have something they can live with and live in? I believe we can.
 
Stefan Van Voorst

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