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The Politics of Paternalism: Adult and Youth Perspectives on Youth Voice in Public Policy

by Jerusha Osberg Conner, C. Nathan Ober & Amanda S. Brown - 2016

Background/Context: Over the last two decades, youth involvement in policy advocacy has increased sharply, through youth councils, organizing coalitions, and new media forums. Currently 12 states and 140 American cities have youth councils or commissions established to advise policymakers on the impact of their legislation on youth. Despite their growing presence, we know little about what these councils do, how they are viewed, or how, if at all, they influence policy-making processes.

Purpose: This study explores manifestations of adultism during the first 4 years of the Ballou City Youth Commission (BCYC) from the perspectives of 22 youth members and adult allies.

Research Design: Though primarily interview-based, this study also draws on field notes collected during a BCYC meeting and a BCYC community forum and organizational artifacts to explore the nature and dynamics of adultism as they played out in BCYC.

Data Collection and Analysis: In-depth, individual interviews were conducted with 11 current and former youth commissioners and 11 adults who represented the target audience for BCYC’s work or who partnered with the commission on various initiatives. The theoretical framework of adultism guided the analysis, which included open and axial coding, memo writing, and the construction of matrices and charts to track emergent patterns.

Findings/Results: Using a critical theory lens, we find that adultism has played a prominent role in limiting BCYC from achieving the goals laid out in its charter. We identify a “roller coaster of adultism” that illustrates how weak initial structures coupled with deeply entrenched views of youths’ limited capacity adversely impacted the functioning of BCYC and propelled a cycle of externalized and internalized adultism.

Conclusions: The study adds to the scant literature on youth voice in public policy, raises six clear implications for policy and practice, and extends theory by illustrating the complex ways in which external and internalized forms of adultism interact with and reinforce each other.

Currently, 12 states and 140 American cities have youth councils or commissions charged with advising policymakers on the impact of their legislation on youth (Martin, Pittman, Ferber, & McMahon, 2007). City level youth commissions were established in the mid-1990s in such cities as San Francisco and Houston, and the first state level legislative youth council was created in Maine in 2001. The start of the 20122013 school year marked the first public convening of the National Council of Young Leaders, a group created to present youths perspectives and policy priorities to federal legislators. Despite their growing presence, we know little about what these councils do, how they are viewed, or how, if at all, they influence policy-making processes. This case study explores youth and adult stakeholders perceptions of the effectiveness of one particular youth commission, Ballou City Youth Commission (BCYC), over its first 4 years. This research adds to the scant literature on youth voice in public policy, helping to uncover the factors that both support and stymie youth having a legitimate, valued, and influential seat at the policy table and a say in the decisions that directly impact them.


The term student voice has gained in currency over the last two decades in both research and practice (Cook-Sather, 2006; Fielding, 2001; Mitra, 2008). Student voice can be defined as a strategy that engages students in sharing their views on their school or classroom experiences in order to promote meaningful change in educational practice or policy and alter the positioning of students in educational settings. Student voice activities might entail students serving as teaching consultants, offering feedback to or helping to train teachers; students acting as researchers, investigating an educational problem or issue and presenting their findings and recommendations to teachers and administrators; or students organizing for educational reform, developing campaigns around specific issues and making demands of policymakers.

Much of the research on student voice focuses on school-level impacts; however, recent studies show how students can organize to impact educational policy at city and state levels. For example, youth organizers in Philadelphia have been credited with playing an instrumental role in increasing state funding for education and blocking wide-scale privatization efforts in the School District of Philadelphia (Conner, Zaino, & Scarola, 2013). Elsewhere, youth organizers have led and won campaigns to save public vouchers that provide free transportation to and from school (HoSang, 2001; Moore, 2011); to reduce school overcrowding (Mediratta, Shah, & McAlister, 2009); and to increase access to college preparatory coursework (Ishihara, 2007; Shah, 2011).

Youth engagement in public policy has not been confined to reforming educational policy. Youth are becoming more involved in advocating for broader legislative priorities through a range of civic programs and opportunities. For example, youth organizers in San Bernardino and Riverside counties in Southern California have won increased citywide budgetary allocations for parks and for youth programming (Christens & Dolan, 2011), and youth in Nashville and Austin have shaped their citys civic agenda to reflect the interests, concerns, and priorities of young people (Zeldin, Petrokubi, & Camino, 2008). From San Francisco, California (Checkoway, Allison, & Montoya, 2005) to Michigan (Richards-Schuster & Checkoway, 2010) to Hampton, Virginia (Carlson, 2006; Sirianni, 2005), youth councils and youth commissions are engaging youth in policy deliberation. These initiatives exemplify youth voice rather than student voice, because they are not limited to educational concerns. The concept of youth voice, is defined as active, distinct, and concentrated ways young people represent themselves throughout society (Fletcher, 2006, p. 10). Other examples of youth voice include young peoples participation in youth summits (National League of Cities, 2002) and youth involvement in city planning in San Francisco, Seattle, and Salt Lake City (Mullahey, Susskind, & Checkoway, 1999). The Washington Youth Voice Directory lists numerous youth commissions and councils, as well as various other youth groups and initiatives (Fletcher, 2006).

Despite the distinction we draw between student voice and youth voice, the two fields share many features, including participation by both insiders and outsiders. In the literature on student voice, insider groups are defined as those that are located inside schools, while outsider organizations are those that exist outside school auspices (Mitra & Kirshner, 2012). Insider initiatives might be enacted at various levels of the education bureaucracy or under the guidance of teachers, administrators, central office personal, or other members of the educational system. Working from inside an institution may help students to build strong alliances with adults in positions of power and build internal legitimacy, but students can face limits based on how openly and aggressively they can challenge the institutions practices, as well as their potential to be used as tokens to advance other stakeholders agendas. Working from outside, alternatively, enables a different sort of pressure to be applied to an institution through open and unconstrained challenges that target the practices of an institution. Intermediary, community-based, and student-led nonprofit organizations fall into this category.

Among youth voice initiatives, the accomplishments of youth organizersworking outside the system to push for systemic reform in public policyhave attracted the attention of a growing number of researchers, while the impact of youth councils and youth commissionswhich are established inside the systemhas not been well-documented, with the exception of work chronicling the accomplishments of the San Francisco Youth Commission (Checkoway et al., 2005). One recent study found that youth activists, who organize outside of systems, view youth councils with skepticism, and tend to dismiss them as antidemocratic, elitist, and superficial (Taft & Gordon, 2013). A study of youth councils in the United Kingdom suggested that the youth participants themselves share some of these concerns, often chafing against the bureaucratic structures within which they must operate, feelings of powerlessness, and what they saw as the tendency of adults to co-opt and control their agendas; nonetheless, the youth in this study did cite some positive local outcomes they were able to bring about, such as reduced bus fares for youth and community activities designed to appeal to young people (Mathews, 2001). Missing from the scant literature on youth councils are the voices of the adults who work with or alongside them. How do adult stakeholders, particularly legislators, perceive these groups and their effects? More research is needed on these insider youth voice groups in the American context if we are to understand the extent to which they enable youth to effect actual change in their communities.


Despite the growing popularity of and political support for youth voice in public policy, considerable obstacles to participation remain (Bessant, 2004). One often overlooked but formidable barrier is adultism. Adultism refers to attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, and ideas that are based upon the notion that adults are better than young people, and therefore, are entitled to make decisions for young people without their consent (Bell, 1995). It is marked by a lack of respect for the needs, competence, and potential of youth (Tate & Copas, 2003). Adultism permeates youthadult interactions and is reinforced in social structure, law, schools, and families (Bell, 1995; Checkoway, 2011; Delgado & Staples, 2008; Tate & Copas, 2003). Fletcher (2006) argues that adultism serves as the premise of every youth voice activity, whether explicitly acknowledged or not, making even the most youth-friendly adults susceptible to acting in adultist ways and using adultist language (p. 15). As a result, adultism can derail even the most well-intentioned youth voice and youth participation efforts.  

According to Delgado and Staples (2008), adultism can occur in both rhetoric and in action and can display itself in overt or covert ways. Statements such as You are so smart for your age, and You are not old enough to understand fail to acknowledge the intellectual capacity of young people (Delgado & Staples, 2008, p. 32).  Dysfunctional rescuing, in which adults reach out to assist youth in ways that inhibit their autonomy and agency, is another example of adultist actions. Adultism can also be manifest through attitudes, such as a failure to recognize and dismantle systemic obstacles facing youth, while at the same time blaming youth for failing to overcome these obstacles. For example, adults who criticize young people for hanging out in the summer and not doing something more constructive with their time demonstrate adultism when they do not acknowledge how few opportunities for either gainful employment or affordable summer programming may exist for youth  in their community. Another such example occurs when adults accuse youth who offer articulate, smart analyses as having been coached by adults, but then dismiss less articulate sounding analyses as naïve or uninformed. Beyond individual adultist beliefs and actions, the National Youth Rights Association (2003) identifies three manifestations of adultism at the systemic level: youth inequality resulting in stereotypes or discrimination, lack of youth power, and repression of youth culture.

Adultism, like racism, is an external phenomenon, communicated through actions and words and ensconced in social structures and practices, which can also become internalized by both youth and adults. In youth, internalized adultism causes internalized subordination, which can be expressed as learned helplessness, difficulty making independent decisions, not trusting ones own judgment, becoming dependent on adults, and maintaining the cycle of powerlessness (Adams, Bell, & Griffin, 1997). Adults demonstrate internalized domination when they act patronizingly towards youth, do not allow young people to make decisions that affect their lives, refuse to grant legal rights to youth, and act as if adults know best (Adams et al., 1997).

Although it does not use the term adultism, Adam Fletchers (2011) ladder of youth voice, illustrates the intersection of adultism with youth voice (see Figure 1). Roger Hart (1992), who originally developed the model, intended the bottom three rungs of the ladder to reflect non-participation. These rungs include youth being manipulated by adults, youth being used as decoration by adults, and youth being tokenized by adults. Rungs four and five, youth inform adults and youth are consulted by adults, permit youth to share their perspectives with adults; however, these rungs do not guarantee that adults will listen. Together, these five rungs reflect adultist assumptions and arrangements. It is not until rung six that adultism begins to be challenged. At this rung, which Fletcher labels youth/adult equality, youth and adults share equal authority, obligation, and commitment. Rung seven reflects youth-led, youth-driven activities, where adults assume a passive, supportive role (if any), and at rung eight, youth-adult equity is achieved. At this rung, authority may not be split equally between youth and adults; however, both are recognized for their impact and ownership of outcomes (Fletcher, 2011). By examining our data through the lens of adultism, we seek to understand how a youth council whose charter positions it at rung four is experienced by its members and perceived by the adults who interact with it, and how those experiences and perceptions shape its effectiveness.

Figure 1.



The present study uses in-depth interviews to explore stakeholder perceptions of and experiences with Ballou City Youth Commission (BCYC). This site was selected purposefully because while outsider student voice efforts in Ballou City have attracted considerable attention from researchers, less is known about the activities and accomplishments of insider youth voice groups in this city. Before comparisons can be drawn across insider and outsider models in the same context, detailed data on each model must be collected. This study was designed to fill the void in the research base on insider models, by focusing closely on one specific case of insider youth voice operating within Ballou Citys city government.


Created through an initiative on the 2007 Ballou City elections ballot, which received 75% of the public vote, the Ballou City Youth Commission exemplifies youth voice and youth participation at the local policy level. The Commission is composed of up to 21 members, each of whom must be between the ages of 12 and 23 and must be a resident of the city at the time of appointment. Each of the 17 city councilmembers may appoint one commissioner, and the mayor may appoint four. Commissioners serve for 1-year terms, face no term-limits, and are intended to represent the diversity of Ballou Citys youth.

In Chapter 12 of the Ballou City Charter, the Powers and Duties section stipulates the following:

The Youth Commission shall advise and comment to the Council, the Mayor, agencies and departments of the City on proposed ordinances, other legislative matters and policies which are of concern to the children and youth of the City and shall exercise such other powers and duties that Council may, from time to time, vest in it by ordinance.

In 2007, a link on the city governments website was established to recruit members for the Commission. The link explained, Youth commissioners will not be able to vote on legislation. They will have the opportunity to write legislation, which can only be introduced or sponsored by a city councilperson. The link also indicated that the Commission would meet once a month and that each commissioner would meet monthly with his or her appointing councilmember or the mayors staff. No other documents identify expectations or stipulate goals for the Commission.

The idea for the Ballou City Youth Commission was introduced by a student attending a university in Ballou City, who had served on the San Francisco Youth Commission. The work of the youth advocacy group Ballou City Advocates for Children and Youth (BCACY), combined with the backing of a key city councilmember, led to the Commissions creation. These supporters wanted young people to offer official testimony on city legislation from a youth perspective and wanted youth to become more engaged citizens. BCACY was responsible for forming the Working Group, a collection of youth from across the city who met regularly to devise the structure of the Commission and to garner support for the ballot initiative. According to BCACYs Director, the groups two biggest concerns for the Commission were that it be representative of the diversity of the citys youth and that it not be controlled by anyone other than its youth members. The slogan that united both BCACY and members of the city council in support of the initiative was, No decision about us, without us!

Since 2007, BCYC has never had the full complement of 21 members that it is allowed; nonetheless, it has worked on campaigns in the following issue areas: the city budget; health (sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy); summer employment for youth; education and violence prevention; tax credit for internships; and voter registration. Youth commissioners have testified in front of City Council about various initiatives, such as the benefits of youth courts, and they have partnered with city agencies, as well as local and national coalitions, to draw attention to issues facing youth. They have not yet proposed, written, or worked to amend legislation. In 2009, the city government did approve a $100,000 budget for the Commission, approximately $40,000 of which was earmarked to pay the salary of an executive director.


Data sources for this study include 22 individual, in-depth interviews with youth and adult stakeholders, as well as field notes taken during a BCYC meeting and a community meeting organized by BCYC. Artifacts were also collected for analysis. These artifacts included the Youth Commissions by-laws, strategic plan, recruitment materials, and website, as well as local newspaper articles that mentioned the Commission.

All interviews followed a semistructured protocol, tended to last about an hour in length, and were conducted by the second author. With the exception of three interviews conducted online, interviews were conducted in person at a site chosen by the respondent. One participant also responded to follow-up questions for further clarification by email. The youth commissioner interviews were designed to gauge the participants views about their current level of involvement in the citys policy-making process, what type of impact they think BCYC currently has on policy, and how they would like to see their involvement in policy formation altered, if at all. Adult interview questions focused on adult perceptions of BCYCs presence in city government, the groups impact on policy, and suggestions to improve the Commission. Sample protocols can be found in the appendix. Since the theme of adultism was not the initial focus of the study, none of the questions on either protocol mentioned this topic.

Field notes were collected by the second author as verbatim transcriptions taken during non-participant observations of two separate one and a half hour meetings. The field notes were later thickened by the observer with descriptions of the setting, tone of voice, body language, and interactions based on jottings made during the first-hand observations.


Eleven current and former youth commissioners and 11 adults participated in interviews over a 2-month period. Adults were contacted by phone or email and were asked if they were willing to be interviewed for a study on the Ballou City Youth Commission. They were told that they would be asked to share their perspective on and experiences with BCYC. Adults invited to participate included representatives from Ballou City youth advocacy organizations and youth organizing groups, members of the Ballou City city council, and staff members within the mayors office. These adults were interviewed because they were often the target audience for BCYCs youth voice or because BCYC partnered with them on various initiatives. All 17 city councilor offices were contacted by phone or email to request an interview with either the councilor or a staff member. Two city councilors and four staff members from five offices agreed to be interviewed. One city councilor and one staff member were from the same office.

A snowball sampling technique was used to identify and recruit youth commissioners for this study. Using a key informant youth commissioner, who was known to the first author from a previous study, we were able to obtain the names and contact information for six other youth commissioners. After each subsequent interview, the interviewer solicited the contact information for additional commissioners. This process yielded a total of 15 former and current commissioners, all of whom were contacted by phone or email and asked if they would be willing to be interviewed for a study on the Ballou City Youth Commission. Eleven commissioners responded affirmatively and were interviewed for the study. Because the Youth Commissions website was outdated and did not list a current roster of youth commissioners, and because the Youth Commissions executive director did not provide a roster of current youth commissioners, snowball sampling was the best method available. Table 1 includes demographic information for all 22 interview respondents and identifies the professional position of the adult respondents.

Table 1. Participants Demographic and Professional Background










Educational Status

     Graduated College or University


     Attending College or University


     Attending High School


Race or Ethnicity

     White or European-American

      Black or African-American

      Hispanic or Latino/a












Profession or Title

     Youth Commissions Executive Director


     City Councilmember


     City Council Staff


     City Administration


     Youth Advocacy Group Member


     Youth Organizing Group Member


Race or Ethnicity

     White or European-American

      Black or African-American

      Hispanic or Latino/a






*No commissioners indicated that they had received their appointment to the commission through personal connections or patronage.


Data analysis followed an iterative process. Following the transcription of each interview, the second author wrote both descriptive and analytic memoranda. These memos helped to generate initial categories of meaning, which were then used by all three researchers to code the data sources. These initial codes took the data at face value and categorized the accomplishments that participants credited to BCYC as well as factors that have limited or facilitated its effectiveness. Next, the three researchers met to discuss our interpretations of both the raw and coded data, based on multiple readings of both. Although we initially did not set out to examine adultism in this study, the construct surfaced as a prominent theme in our interpretations of the coded data. At this point, we began to wonder about the manifestations of adultism in our data, and we shifted our inquiry to explore how the dynamics of adultism played out in BCYC. Over the course of several meetings, we developed, tested, and refined a new coding schema based on the theory of adultism, using three randomly selected interviews. This coding schema included the following main codes: barriers other than adultism; adultism as a barrier (with subcodes of adulist interactions with authority figures; feeling dismissed; adultism demonstrated by E.D.; and adultist policy engagement); internalized adultism (with subcodes of dependency on the E.D.; self-dismissals; and replicating patterns of status); and adultism (with subcodes of dismissing the group; favoring the E.D.; tokenizing youth; and setting a low bar). The first code was applied to all interviews, while the second two codes were used in the youth interviews, and the last code was applied only to interviews with adult respondents. After developing a high level of comfort and consistency with the new coding schema, all three researchers independently coded each of the remaining 19 interviews. During this time, we continued to meet regularly to compare codes, to check the consistency with which we applied the codes, to reconcile disagreements, to examine outliers, and to formulate propositions. Finally all coded chunks of data were scrutinized: counted, compared, taken apart, and reassembled, following the conventions of grounded theory (Charmaz, 1983; Glaser & Strauss, 1967). The appendix includes examples of raw data, coded according to both our initial open schema and our later adultism-focused schema. This table, which includes a large quantity of data that is not featured in the analysis below, offers readers a chance to see how their interpretations of the text align with our own, per the recommendations of Schoenfeld (1992) and Hammer and Berland (2014).  

To enhance the trustworthiness of our claims, we engaged four additional analytic strategies recommended for improving the credibility of qualitative findings. First, we openly discussed and remained mindful of our own subjectivity (Peshkin, 1988). We took care to examine how our researcher positionalities, as two students and an adult, combined with our collective desire to champion youth voice, influenced our interpretations of the data. Second, we paid close attention to examples of outliers in our data and we attempted to account for them in our theorizing. Third, following the principle of triangulation, we applied the coding schema to our observation data to gauge the extent to which the interview and observation data told similar stories. Although we only had two sets of field notes, we did find evidence that some of the themes identified in interviews emerged in the observational data as well; we did not find disconfirming evidence. Finally, we used a member-checking technique (Lincoln & Guba, 1985), sharing initial drafts of this paper with two youth participants, whom we identified as key informants, and two adults, who were not interviewed for the study but who had a strong knowledge of BCYC. These readers clarified and complicated some minor points, while affirming that the overall findings rang true.  

Despite these efforts, our study is not without limitations. Our samples sizes were small and not necessarily representative of all the youth who participate or the adults who interact with BCYC. Indeed, we tended to attract more involved and informed respondents. Certainly, our sampling approach might have had a skewing effect on our data; however, because our respondents tended to be key informants, rather than peripheral participants, we believe they provided us with a more robust picture of BCYC than a larger sample of less involved actors could have. We did find that we had enough participants to reach a point of data saturation, wherein we were not learning anything new or different from later respondents; however, had we had more youth commissioner participants, we might have been able to explore patterns by race and gender as well as age, as these dynamics unfolded within youth commissioner interactions and deliberations.

In addition to our sampling strategy, our data collection efforts were limited insofar as adultism was not an initial focus of our inquiry. We do not know what data we might have generated had we asked more directly about the topic. Certainly, social desirability pressures might then have mounted a strong threat to validity with respect to the adult respondents. As it was, there is still the possibility that our adult respondents might have wanted to downplay or avoid appearing adultist; however, our critical reading of these data, coupled with the fact that we did not ask about adultism directly, may have helped mitigate the effects of social desirability. Finally, we did not set out to, nor do we intend to generalize from this case study to all youth commissions or councils. The particulars of the city charter that created BCYC as well as the contextual features of Ballou City make this case, and the ways in which adultism manifest itself therein, unique, and the findings should be read with that caveat in mind. Nonetheless, case studies are generalizable to theoretical propositions and can be useful in formulating or expanding theory (Yin, 2003, p. 10). To the extent that they are derived from the theoretical understandings this study yields, the implications this study raises for practice and policy may prove generative or useful in other contexts.

The analysis presented in this paper emerges from adult and youth stakeholders critiques of BCYC as they reflected on why it has not been as effective a body as they hoped it would be. Our intent is to use these critiques to illuminate the insidious nature of adultism, to show how it works and why it remains intractable. We recognize, however, that in developing and applying our coding schema, we are making one set of claims about the data (Hammer & Berland, 2014); certainly, it is possible to use the raw data to tell other stories. We are also sensitive to the fact that some of the claims we make may seem critical of those involved; however, we do not mean to criticize either the youth or adults who have been part of BCYCs story. Indeed, all of our respondents expressed good intentions with respect to BCYC, and we were grateful for their candor and thoughtfulness in the interviews. In order to clarify the mechanisms and processes of adultism, however, we must look beneath good will and good intentions and examine underlying anxieties and uncertainties, frustrations, tensions, and contradictions.


When viewed through the theoretical framework of adultism, the data provide insight into how both external and internalized adultism limited the effectiveness of BCYC. We conceptualize this phenomenon as the rollercoaster of adultism (see Figure 2.) The top of the figure indicates that from the moment youth enter the adult-dominated world of public policy, they are strapped into this rollercoaster, exposed to adultist practices and beliefs. As they continue to interact with and encounter a world that acts upon them to reinforce adultist ideas, youth begin to internalize adultism. This internalized loop of adultism leads to youth actions and outcomes that further reinforce adultist practices and beliefs and thereby serve to perpetuate the external practices of adultism.

Figure 2. The Rollercoaster of Adultism


We have added bumps to Figure 2 to demonstrate how this rollercoaster of adultism plays out in BCYC. The bumps on the exterior of the figure indicate the external adultist practices exerted upon the youth commissioners, while the bumps on the inside loop denote expressions of internalized adultism on the part of the youth commissioners. The output of externalized adultism (deficit policy work) coupled with the output of internalized adultism (decorative programming) reinforce externalized adultist practices and propel the rollercoaster anew. In what follows, we discuss each of these bumps in more depth.


Externalized adultist practices took four forms: a hands-off approach to the planning and implementation of BCYC, which undermined the groups efficacy from the start; explicit adultist interactions experienced by youth commissioners as they engaged with adults in government; an adultist and self-serving executive director; and government officials efforts to tokenize and manipulate the youth commissioners. These four bumps of externalized adultism all hampered BCYC and compromised its effectiveness.

Set up for Failure

After beginning service in January of 2008, the newly appointed youth commissioners faced several barriers to establish themselves. Specifically, the new body lacked any organizing structure. Once the city charter was amended to officially create the Youth Commission, no one in city government was tasked with ensuring the successful setup and implementation of the Commission, and no money was earmarked for these purposes. As a result, four commissioners who were appointed as part of the Commissions inaugural class recalled feeling overwhelmed and neglected from the start. As one recounted, When we were all high school sophomores, juniors, seniors, we had to set up a government department on our own. We didnt have any help, and that was a lot to ask. Two adults and one commissioner cited the commissioners lack of training around policy and political structures as a major deficiency, and four commissioners also voiced their frustration at the absence of written guidelines detailing the Commissions internal structure as well as its place in city government. The city charter that codified the Commission assigned the youth an advisory role in city government, withholding voting power and prompting the youth to feel, as one commissioner said, that we dont really have authority over anything. Begun as a powerless entity with no budget or staff, the Commission was at a disadvantage from the start.

The Commissions legitimacy and efficacy were further undercut by vacant Commission seats. One veteran commissioner said the group had to lobby councilmembers to fill the members own unassigned Commission seats, while another said that some city councilmembers never appointed a youth commissioner. One officialwho even cited vacant seats as a major barrier for the Commissionadmitted that her office had not filled its open Commission seat for months. At the time of the study, only 11 of the 21 Commission seats were filled.

Even when adult officials did work with the Commission early on, the potential for patronage appointments weakened the Commission further. Of the six commissioners who specifically cited problems with the appointment process, three said that many of the councilmembers who did appoint commissioners initially made appointments based on nepotism or as favors for other adults. One veteran commissioner said, Theres definitely been a whole lot of: this person is my niece or [chuckle] this person is my finance directors little brother. So, theres a whole lot of patronage. Commissioners said these appointees tended to quit or disengage. Commissioners also said appointments sometimes occur without other commissioners knowing about them, and that some offices do not meet regularly with their appointees. In fact, two officials we interviewed for this study did not know the name of their offices current appointees. While two commissioners indicated that the appointment process had improved recently, the city charter reads that councilmembers and the mayor can appoint any young person between the ages of 12 and 23, making patronage appointments and nepotism a constant threat for the Commission.

Due to these early struggles to establish a credible presence, the Youth Commission was not taken seriously by many stakeholders, and all respondents described it as ineffective or failing to live up to its charge. In fact, the commissioners repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of their group and gave credence to adults tendencies to want to dismiss them. For example, one of the first commissioners recalled that the process of integrating the Commission into the citys system took almost 2 years, which initially prevented the Commission from pursuing its function as a policy advisor. As a result, another veteran commissioner observed that Councilmembers got the impression that the Commission was a joke and were just generally unresponsive to us. Two other commissioners and five adults confirmed this initial impression. According to two city council staffers, the Youth Commission was not particularly effective at responding to pending legislation in its first several years of existence. One city councilmember even accused it of being an unnecessary expenditure of city resources at a city budget hearing. This same official acknowledged his view of the Commission had improved since that budget hearing, but he still tended to dismiss the group: Its a valuable perspective to have, even if we dont listen to it [chuckle] all the time. One city council staffer questioned the Commissions independence since the members technically work for the mayor as a part of the city administration. Two adults outside of city government also expressed skepticism from the beginning. One of them called the Youth Commission a cherry-picked and tokenized group of young people. Both questioned the Commissions authority as a non-voting entity and doubted the youth commissioners ability to hold accountable the same officials who had appointed them. While seven adult respondents said that their perception of the Commission had improved after its first 2 years of existence as it has become more established and organized, many of the initial barriers they cited remained in place, and continued to provide both commissioners and adults with reasons to discount or discredit the group.

Explicit Adultist Interactions

Every commissioner identified interactions with adults that were explicitly adultist, ranging from indifference to disrespect, tokenization, and active resistance. Five commissioners said that city officials were just generally unresponsive to us, and that a lot of times city government still leaves us out. One respondent reflected, Some councilmembers pick a commissioner and just forget about them. Three commissioners said they were not taken seriously and faced disrespect and a patronizing tone. For example, one commissioner identified old school politicians who:

have been schooled in the notion that young people have to pay their dues before they can really say anything, like they have to remain quiet and they have to be docile, and they have to listen to what the adults say until they grow and they can make the decisions.  

Another commissioner recalled that people treated us like kids and didnt think that we should even be in a city hall meeting, or have an office space in the first place. A third veteran commissioner recounted his lobbying effort at the state level for a bill that would have significantly expanded the number of eligible young voters across the state. Despite securing more than enough cosponsors to pass, the bill was killed in committee by a state representative who opposed increasing the number of youth voters. The commissioner explained:

There are certain people that just think the Youth Commissions a bad idea. Like that state representative I was talking about who I was having trouble with [when I was trying to get the bill passed]. So I learned were gonna face roadblocks from people who dont want to listen to what a 17 year old has to say.

While two commissioners acknowledged their relationships with city officials had improved lately and every commissioner indicated that they had received support at some point from an adult or adults in city government, seven indicated that they are still not treated with respect by all in city government.

Favoring an Adultist Executive Director

In addition to feeling dismissed and shut out by some of the adults in positions of power within city government, many of the commissioners felt hampered by the actions of their executive director (E.D.), Harold, a paid adult staff-person, who had served in this position for 1 year at the time of the study. All but one of the youth respondents complained about their E.D.s management approach, saying he goes off and does a lot of things on his own and doesnt tell anyone. In addition, some voiced concern that the E.D. does not listen to the commissioners ideas or thoughts. He also frequently tries to discredit the opinions of the commissioners. The lines of communication between the E.D. and the commissioners had become frayed and there was a strong sense among many of the commissioners that their E.D. neither trusted nor respected them.

The commissioners offered different explanations for the behavior of their E.D.. Three felt that he was using them and the BCYC to advance his own career interests. They speculated that he was building relationships within city government more for his own personal gain than for the good of the Commission. One commissioner mused that the position of E.D. only attracts applicants who are interested in running for office one day, so the only people the BCYC has been able to hire tend to view this as a stepping stone for their careers. Others wondered if the E.D. was simply asserting his authority as an adult. One veteran commissioner explained,

We are supposed to be in charge, but its difficult for executive directors to take orders, in a sense from, teenagers. So the question is whos the boss: us or the E.D.? Legally we are, but our E.D. doesnt see it that way.

Another commissioner, who complained that the current E.D. was trying to take too much into his own hands, speculated that the E.D. justified such initiative by saying to himself, You know, Im here 9:00 to 5:00. I see what goes on all the time. Theyre students. I know more than them, so Im gonna start taking matters into my own hands. The commissioner resented this adultist perspective and felt that it undermined the point of the Commission. Indeed, three commissioners and two adults expressed such disquiet with respect to the E.D.: They felt it was problematic that the E.D. is the face of the Commission, [instead of] the commissioners, who are [supposed to be] the face of the Commission. Nearly every commissioner interviewed appreciated that the efforts of the E.D. enhanced the visibility of the BCYC and agreed that the addition of the E.D. position has been invaluable in lending structure to the group, but nine wished that the E.D. would work to beam the spotlight on them, rather than focusing it so brightly on himself.

During one community meeting, an open forum on youth violence, organized by BCYC, Harold demonstrated the tendency to take control and self-promote. During the 90-minute forum, the youth commissioner present only spoke once and that was to introduce himself at the beginning of the meeting. Otherwise, Harold facilitated the entire forum, commenting after every single audience member spoke. Harold opened the meeting by asking for suggestions to take back, saying, I am taking this back to the Mayor, thereby claiming for himself any role the commissioners might have had in soliciting or sharing the participants feedback. By the end of the meeting, rather than soliciting youths perspectives and helping translate them into policy proposals, Harold offered to help solve participants individually expressed problems and needs: I have a friend who runs an engagement program to grab drop-out students. I can commit to help you with that. I can take you down to City Hall, and you can see what [kinds of jobs] you like. He even ended the meeting by saying, I can help you get into the Air Force; I can help you go to school with [city website resource]. I have a friend who does this, a friend who does that. I appreciate you taking the time to come out. Harold co-opted the meeting from the youth commissioners, drew attention to his own social capital, and transmogrified the purpose of the forum from engaging youth as problem solvers to responding to them as problems to be solved; in so doing, he demonstrated the adultist phenomenon of dysfunctional rescuing (Delgado & Staples, 2008).

Further validating the youth commissioners perception that the E.D. was getting all the credit for the work of BCYC, many adult respondents referred to the Commission as Harolds group and spoke about Harolds work when discussing its accomplishments and initiatives. In fact, with only one exception, every adult respondent mentioned Harolds name in conjunction with the work of the Commission. For example, when asked how she interacted with BCYC, a staff member in the Mayors Office explained, Harold makes sure hes involved with whatevers coming out of our office, so we know who Harold is and, we work together well. She did not appear to know any of the youth commissioners; however, she explained that whenever she organizes an event at which she needs youth, she can readily reach out to him to get youth. Similarly, a chief of staff commented, My understanding is that Harold certainly has the mayors ear and is a visible part of the administration. So I think everyone in council knows who Harold is. Although they all knew Harold, no adult respondent in city government could name more than one youth commissioner, and a couple could not name their own commissioners. All the adult respondents within city government appeared to put considerably more stock in Harold than they did in the youth.

Tokenizing and Using the Youth of BCYC

Our interview data suggested that it was not only Harold and his predecessor who used BCYC for their own advantage. Accounts in both youth and adult interviews provided evidence that policymakers and city agencies have also attempted to use BCYC to score political points, as one commissioner put it. Another explained, I think to the extent that they might want to put youth voice on, in front of something they are doing, when its in their interests, theyll be willing to use the Commission, but, I dont think they necessarily value our input. One commissioner shared that the Commission has been co-opted and added, I think weve pretty much become a puppet of the mayor and of city council at this point.

A striking example of tokenism that surfaced in interviews with six commissioners and the E.D. was BCYCs involvement with the Health Department to push forward a new tobacco bill. Harold recalled, Weve been able to secure some grant funding through the health department to do some work on tobacco with them, and that will help add additional staff, which will help us out. In exchange for this desperately needed funding and support, the E.D. invited a representative from the Health Department to attend a BCYC meeting, speak to the commissioners about a bill it was trying to pass that would increase the fines for vendors who sold tobacco to teens, and recruit a commissioner to testify before city council about this legislation. It worked; one commissioner explained, Our testimony on that issue helped the Health Department get the law that they were trying to get passed. After this success, the Health Department was quick to return to BCYC to ask for their support on another issue: the STD crisis among urban youth. Field notes from a Youth Commission meeting documented the Health Departments presentation and subsequent exchange with commissioners. After the representative from the Health Department concluded his discussion of the alarming statistics regarding infection rates, especially among Black male adolescents, showing how Ballou City leads the way with teens having sex, a commissioner asked, How can we get involved? The representative replied, The easiest thing to do is to like us [on Facebook] . . .Its helpful to us [if you] follow our tweets. The BCYC meeting concluded without either the commissioners or the Health Department representative articulating any further ideas for the Commissions more substantive involvement in the issue.

In addition to the Health Department, the mayor and city councilmembers sought out BCYC for their backing on pet policies. For example, a chief of staff recounted how her councilman brought a tax policy proposal to BCYC with the hope that they would sign on or cosponsor the legislation, and she speculated that he will want to brief the Commission on [his next] bill [which has to do with union contracts], why hes pursuing it, why he thinks its a good policy, and then see if they would be willing to come in and support it. When asked why he would go to them, she responded, You want to bring in as many supporters as you can. Of course, seeking additional backers for legislation, forging political alliances and negotiating quid pro quo arrangements are common political strategies; however, our data never demonstrated that the youth commissioners were in a position to dictate the terms of these negotiations. Instead, they were repeatedly on the receiving end of these political overtures. Rather than being viewed as political players, who would initiate their own policy proposals or critique existing legislation and pending bills, the youth commissioners seemed to be viewed by some governmental officials as political allies, who could be strategically used for political advantage.

Indeed, some of the nongovernmental adults interviewed for this study dismissed the legitimacy of BCYC for this very reason. One adult respondent expressed the concern that BCYC is a tokenized group of young people. Another explained that she is very cynical of bodies like that because the commissioners are tied to the politicians, so they dont have much freedom to make their own decisions. She explained that because the commissioners are appointed by a councilmember, they really become the mouth-pieces of the politicians. . . . The Youth Commission members couldnt really go out on their own. It would risk their position. Although these respondents questioned the agency and authority the BCYC members actually had, most of the commissioners as well as most of the governmental adults we interviewed regarded the policy work in which BCYC had engaged in a positive light and saw this engagement as an accomplishment.


Though commissioners and adults thought highly of the Commissions policy work, the legislation discussed by both groups reinforced an adultist view of youth. In fact, virtually all of the policy work in which the commissioners had been involved adopted a strong deficit perspective on youth, focusing on youths weaknesses, deficiencies, and problems. These policies constructed youth as deviants, who were engaged in self-destructive behavior and who required either to be protected from themselves or to be controlled. For example, BCYC was involved in a teen smoking law, which banned smoking from all recreation centers in Ballou City and increased fines of vendors who sold tobacco to minors; a health department initiative to address the STD crisis among urban youth; issues of bullying and youth violence; the issue of underage binge drinking; and finally a teen curfew, with stiff penalties for offending teens and their parents. Whether they were smoking, engaging in unprotected sexual activity, hurting one another, drinking excessively, or loitering on the street corner at night, youth in these policy formulations were up to no good. While it may be the case that the policy issues they worked to address highlighted legitimate problems, worthy of governments attention and investment, it is notable that none of the policies BCCY supported or advanced sought to improve conditions for youth in Ballou City.

Both adults and youth proved adept at observing the first two bumps on the rollercoaster (set up for failure and adultist interactions); however, the subsequent bumps, particularly tokenizing youth and engagement in deficit-based policy, proved less visible to respondents. Thus, the label of deficit-based policy engagement is our own, not our respondents; however, one adult respondent did draw our attention to this framing when she explained that of all the youth organizations that had joined a coalition to promote nonviolence in the city, BCYC was the only group to support the youth curfew that the mayor had recently imposed. Where the other groups saw the curfew as a policy that criminalized youth, BCYC members agreed with adult policymakers who saw it as a way of keeping youth off the streets and out of trouble after 9:00 p.m. Policies, like the teen curfew, that frame youth as deviants or dependents work against efforts to promote youth as powerful, positive agents of change. Thus, when BCYC commissioners engage in advocacy for policies that construct youth negatively, they undermine their own potential to showcase youth as good, productive citizens.   


As the youth in our study encountered these overt and covert instances of externalized adultism, they, in turn, exhibited symptoms of internalized adultism. This internalized adultism was exhibited in four ways: (1) feeling successful about their contributions to deficit policy proposals, (2) self-dismissals, (3) dependence on the executive director, and (4) replicating patterns of power and privilege among their peers. Of course, not all the participants demonstrated internalized adultism all of the time, but our data help us to understand how this complex phenomenon works, especially in relation to the overt adultism with which so many participants took issue.

Deficit-Based Policy Success

Internalized adultism was evident in the youth responses to their (deficit-based) policy involvement, in which they lauded their efforts on bills and initiatives without considering the negative ways in which these policies framed youth. When asked about the major policy accomplishments of the Youth Commission, the youth most commonly referred to the following: the smoking bill (which increased fines for selling tobacco to minors), a partnership with the Health Department (which was working to reduce STDs and teen pregnancies in the city, in addition to the smoking law), and a school bullying policy (following a major incident at a large neighborhood high school that brought national attention to the issue in Ballou City). Although less connected to policy, commissioners also spoke about their work to get young people to vote and to get them connected to jobs so they could stay out of trouble. Each of these tasks takes a deficit view of youth, positioning youth as deviant, potentially self-destructive, or disengaged. Whether they were framed as potential smokers, disease transmitters, teen moms, bullies, or flash mob participants who, as one commissioner explained, just have nothing else to do in their free time, youth were constructed negatively in these policy initiatives, as potential problems to be managed and as threats to themselves and others. Youth commissioners demonstrated internalized adultism to the extent that they simply accepted these constructions of youth without interrogating the structurally oppressive forces that might be at the root of the problems facing the youth of the city.

Although nearly every commissioner thought that they could have been more effective in their policy work, only one commissioner noted problems with the policies BCYC had pursued:

Our schools are in poor condition; our recreation centers have broken glass on the ground. I dont think that, you know, up-ing the fine for selling cigarettes to kids necessarily reflects what young people care about and what they see on a daily basis.

He concluded that BCYC had fallen short of its mission and had not yet addressed or translated into any sort of legislation . . . the real concerns of young people. The majority of the youth respondents, however, felt proud of their involvement to further policy proposals aimed at reforming or redirecting youth, and in so doing they unwittingly perpetuated adultist policy framings of youth.


Another manifestation of internalized adultism was self-defeating or self-dismissive remarks. Six of the youth interviewed made self-disparaging comments regarding their limited abilities due to age, while all of the youth attributed the Youth Commissions ineffectiveness to the simple fact that it is run by youth. Self-dismissive comments, such as, I was pretty young. So I didnt really know what to expect and Im still a minor, and theres only so much I can do demonstrate internalized adultism as the youth dismiss their knowledge and agency simply because of their age. In addition, many commissioners denied their own ability to contribute to city policy. One commissioner commented,

Councilmen meet with us. They say, you know, Do you have any like big ideas? Well do it. But its hard to think of like a, a good solution for, for problems and its just been much harder to figure out issues than I thought.


Well, if there was some new grand idea, it, I mean, if there was a great idea to fix things, it probably would have been thought of already. Um, its just difficult coming up with original, new ideas that that theyre looking for.

Here, the commissioner defers to the adult policymakersindicating that the youth perspective has nothing new to add to policy debatesand he questions the capacity of youth to contribute original, valuable ideas. Another commissioner echoed: Generally [youth] wont be as knowledgeable as a professional, so its good to give, its good for adults to give kids more background knowledge to fully understand a situation better. Not only does he refer to himself and his fellow commissioners as kids but he also indicates that youth are incapable of fully understanding the issues surrounding a policy without the help from an adult. We do not mean to dispute the potential role adults can play in supporting and educating youth; however, we do see these comments as indicative of internalized adultism insofar as they reflect learned helplessness and dependence on adults.

Other manifestations of self-dismissals came in the form of low expectations for the group. As one founding commissioner reflected, I cant underscore the significance of a rag-tag group of teenagers, creating an entire government department while being in school. Although establishing the Commission was indeed a major accomplishment, particularly given the lack of support discussed above, this commissioners quote reveals the insidious nature of internalized adultism. Government departments run by adults are expected to achieve outcomes, yet for this youth commissioner, the mere creation of a BCYC as a department was enough to be seen as a signature accomplishment. This youth is holding himself and BCYC to a lower standard than what was set for BCYC in its charter.  

Dependence on the Executive Director

Internalized adultism can also take the form of youth reliance or dependency on adults. Similar to self-dismissals, this sign of internalized adultism is demonstrated when youth believe they cannot be successful on their own without the support of an adult, in this case, without the support of Harold, their E.D. Although commissioners consistently complained about how Harold inhibited their success by doing things all on his own, nearly every commissioner interviewed also discussed his or her reliance on Harold as critical. The commissioners looked to him for leadership, rather than owning the Commission and its work themselves. One commissioner explained, The person who is the executive director makes a huge differencetheyre basically the person who is supposed to be organizing the entire Commission and what the Commission does. Others attributed the Commissions accomplishments to Harold. When asked to what the Commissions success can be attributed, one youth responded,

I would credit the success to two things, to Harold, the executive director, whos really, hes really the spearhead. Even though we have the different Committees, the Committee Chairs, Harold really spearheads all the initiatives, and hes there at all the meetings doing the work and making sure that things get done that need to get done, and um, he also keeps us on track a lot of times. You know, without him wed, everyone would just be throwing out their ideas, but he can kind of focus everybody and get everybody together and really concentrate our effort. That would be the first thing. The second thing would be the ability of the Commission, as a whole, to co-operate with one another.

In this example, the youth commissioner attributes all of the work of the Commission to Harold, reducing the youths impact on the success of the Commission to simply being nice to each other. In so doing, this respondent diminishes the intellectual contributions of the youth commissioners and indicates a strong dependency on Harold, the adult figure. Other youth commissioners described relying on Harold to inform them of the initiatives being introduced in City Hall; to network with councilmembers, businesses, and other youth organizing groups in the city; to run their interview process for new commissioners; to reach out to and go into schools to advertise the Youth Commission; and to plan their programming efforts. Though some of the youth commissioners felt that they would have been capable of performing any and all of these tasks, their deference to Harold to complete these functions reflects internalized adultism.

Replicating Patterns of Power and Privilege

An additional manifestation of internalized adultism came in the form of youth replicating systems of power and privilege within the commission. In BCYC, this replication was seen in three ways: youth choosing to act as individuals rather than as a collective; ageism; and the creation of an inner circle of the powerful commissioners.

Individual efforts. Almost all of the policy successes described by the youth were not attributed to the collective efforts of BCYC commissioners, but rather to the industry and initiative of Harold or an individual commissioner who worked in tandem with adult supporters in the city government. One commissioner spoke extensively about his pet project for the Commission, which was to give 17 year olds, who would be 18 by the time of the general election, the ability to vote in the primary. When asked about Commission successes, he referred to his work on this bill, yet no other youth interviewed mentioned this project because they were not involved in it. Similarly, the two commissioners who exclusively lobbied for an internship tax credit bill were the only ones to mention the bills passage as an accomplishment. Although six commissioners referenced the tobacco bill as a success of the Commission, four of them also acknowledged that pretty much one commissioner, Rachelle deserved all of the credit for working on this piece of legislation. Thus, in many cases, it seemed the Commission has become a forum for individual pet projects rather than a collective effort to represent the youth of Ballou City.

Ageism. Eight of the youth commissioners interviewed demonstrated ageism, awarding more credit and weight to the opinions and actions of older commissioners; two respondents even referred to these older commissioners as adult commissioners. The commissioners who were in college often downplayed the abilities of the high school aged commissioners; as one shared, Theyre just young. I mean a decent number of them were young [and] just, didnt, you know, didnt uh, werent mature enough to handle the responsibility . . . Its just not something they were really fit to help out with. Another college student, when asked how he would grade the efforts of the Youth Commission, responded,

Maybe a C - um because making a political difference requires effort, determination, and political skill, something that youre not gonna get from a lot of people under the age of 21, which is what we have. Like, technically we can take anyone from 12 to 23, and we had a 13 year olda 13 year old has no idea what to do in this, in political situations.

Clearly this commissioner attributes the weaknesses of the Commission to the age of some of the commissioners, a feeling expressed by several of the other commissioner respondents.

The one commissioner interviewed who was in high school discussed her experience with ageism. On the one hand, she explained that she leaves the leadership positions to the older people (acting on adultist beliefs herself); on the other hand, she shared how she felt frustrated with this replication of power based on age. She said, They [the adult commissioners] should make it a goal and a priority to work with me, being the . . . youngest member out of the group. This complex replication of ageism causes some commissioners to dismiss the younger students, who, at some level allow this to happen, but who, at the same time desire training and acceptance as a legitimate part of the group. This process mirrors the Youth Commissions desire for training and acceptance as a legitimate government agency among the adults in City Hall.

The inner circle. Further replicating patterns of power and privilege, the older youth created what commissioners referred to as the inner circle of people who have the strongest pull in the organization. As one commissioner explained,

All the real power players would go to that Qdoba right down the street and thats where everything would get done. . . . Theres kind of, theres always been kind of like an inner circle, as there usually is in politics. . . . Um, and people that dont, you know, didnt go to Qdoba, missed out on more productivity than what happened in 3 months of meetings in City Hall.

This inner circle of commissioners were identified both by commissioners inside that group, and those outside. One of the younger commissioners even used the same language of circle when discussing his struggles on the Commission: I guess everything is done kind of behind the scenes. . . . Im not, Im not in a circle, like Im not always around the older commissioners, so I dont really know exactly everything thats going on. This inner circle replicated patterns of privilege in ways that favor certain commissioners due to their age, just as the inner circle in the city council largely excluded BCYC from its work.

Some commissioners justified the use of the inner circle by critiquing commissioners outside the circle. When commissioners discussed the factors that prohibited their effectiveness, seven cited a lack of commitment from their fellow commissioners. This lack of commitment manifested itself in poor meeting attendance and low participation in the Commissions initiatives. Six commissioners cited the young age and the lack of maturity, professionalism, and political savvy of other less committed commissioners. Yet the inner circle may itself be reason for the perceived lack of commitment by the younger members, who feel as if they arent a part of the behind the scenes work that happens at Qdoba; feeling as though they have no agency, these younger members may disengage. Rather than addressing the issue of a lack of commitment through training and mentoring in order to dismantle the inner circle, the power players in the group perpetuated adultism by excluding the younger members from meaningful meetings.


Internalized adultism among the youth led to Youth Commission outputs that were far from the expectation that commissioners introduce, testify on, and advocate for legislation. Most of the achievements of the Youth Commission that were discussed in interviews were programmatic in nature rather than legislative. We refer to these programmatic efforts as decorative achievements, as they contribute to the community and publicize the name of the Youth Commission without actually engaging in the legislative process, thereby failing to do what Commission was created to do. We borrow the term decorative from Fletchers (2011) student voice rubric, in which the decorative stage is denoted by the simple presence of youth and indicates that adults may be thinking about youth voice, but fail to actively listen to, validate, or incorporate youth opinions into their work. In work on student voice, researchers are careful to distinguish student involvement in activities like planning prom from true student voice in school or district-level policies (McMahon, 2012; Mitra, 2008; Pautsch, 2010). Similarly, here, we wish to argue that these decorative programs, while beneficial to the community, are not valid indicators of youth voice in city government. Furthermore, they may reinforce the adultist perception of young people as incapable of creating and enacting legislative change, thereby feeding the roller coaster of adultism.

Every youth commissioner interviewed discussed the Commissions role in organizing these decorative events, ranging from voter registrations and job fairs to community movie nights and fundraising events. The youth commissioners themselves seemed to be conflicted about their involvement in these efforts. Five commissioners felt that they should not be spending so much time on programming. One commissioner expressed his frustration, The Commission has become more of a programming, event coordinating, and meeting organization. I cannot recall the last time we have formulated policy, a resolution, hearing at a committee hearing, or been part of the legislative process. Another commissioner echoed these concerns, but also recognized the benefit of programming for publicity, sharing,

Yea, uh some people wanted to focus more on programming, which I didnt think we had the capacity to do, and I also felt it didnt really fit within our mission, but yea I realize that some programming is good just to get our name out there and to, you know you can kind of slide that into connecting kids with government.

Here, the decorative piece of these programs is apparent as these programs may bring youth in contact with government, but there is no response from adults to gain youth insight and incorporate it into city policies.

Five other commissioners were happy to discuss decorative programs, as these successes represented some concrete accomplishments that they could point to when rating their achievements. One commissioner shared,

The Commission has exceeded my expectations in areas such as finding [Ballou City]s youth jobs . . . in May we had a job opportunities fair that about 4-or-500 teenagers from all across the city came out to, and they really thanked us and we got great feedback from everyone, not a complaint from a single person about helping the citys kids find jobs.  

In explaining their work, another commissioner commented, Its kind of just whatever the mayor/city council throws at us at any given time. Like, Ooo. Were really interested in stopping flash mobs. Why dont you guys have a . . . do something about flash mobs? In response to this request, BCYC organized a bowling night for the citys youth. While connecting youth to job resources and providing fun, safe events for youth are worthwhile undertakings, these decorative successes are problematic because they take energy away from the mission of BCYC, and when viewed as successes, they may reinforce the low expectations that adults have for BCYC.


As BCYC continues to engage in this type of decorative programming, it feeds the cycle of adultism, returning us from the inside loop of internalized adultism back to the outside loop of external adultism. External adultism is reinforced by decorative programming in three ways: by enabling further tokenizing of the group, by encouraging adults to set a low bar for the Commission and by making it easier, then, for adults to continue to dismiss and disregard the group.

In some commissioners minds, the programming function also allowed the executive director to use the Commission to further his own career. One commissioner, for example, when discussing the Job Opportunities Fair, recalled telling Harold that he was interested and willing to help plan the event. He continued:

But I never heard back. And then, as the date grew closer to the Fair, he said Ooo. Its planned already. You can just . . . come and help out. And when we got there, all we did was sit at the entrance at a table, signing people in, so we would know how many people attended. . . . But I didnt feel like that was what I signed up for. . . . I didnt want to just be there to help. I wanted to be part of the planning process. So as of right now I feel like our E.D. is making commissioners like a symbolic figurehead.

This young man described feeling tokenized through the programming event. His exclusion from the planning, coupled with his symbolic placement at the table, made him feel simultaneously used and underutilized.

In addition to enabling further co-optation and tokenizing by the E.D., the programming work reinforced continued tokenizing of the group by other adults. Indeed, it is perhaps because BCYC had proven so responsive and compliant to whatever the mayor/city council throws at it that the mayor and city councilors continue to direct programmatic requests its way, rather than engaging commissioners in substantive policy discussions about how the city could become more responsive to youths needs. Because the commissioners are not actively writing or proposing their own legislation and seeking out councilmembers to back it, they continue to be seen by the adults as a group that either does not do much or simply does the bidding of those who ask.

Although all the adult respondents expressed disappointment in the work of BCYC and hoped that it would grow into its role, they also seemed to set and accept a low bar for the group and cut them some major slack because they are youth. When asked to identify any of BCYCs accomplishments in its first four years, adult respondents pointed to such basic functions as ramping up into existence, inviting interesting guest speakers [to their meetings] and hiring an executive director. One respondent admitted:

This may sound cheesy but I think the [monthly] Radio Show is the major achievement. I mean the fact that they can . . . get you know elected officials, decision-makers, thought-leaders on different topics to take part in a weekend morning radio show. Thats kind of major. Thats a major achievement and that really says something.

For the adult respondents, many of BCYCs successes were linked to winning adult attention or support. The group seemed to gain some legitimacy in the respondents eyes through its associations with adult figures, including the executive director, the guests on its radio show, and the speakers who presented at their meetings. In all three cases, the voices of youth are superseded by the voices of adult authorities, demonstrating how easily adultism becomes replicated and reinforced.

The commissioners internalized adultism, in conjunction with their engagement in decorative programming, led adults not only to dilute their expectations for the group, but also to dismiss them. The Opportunities Fair, the voter drive, the Radio Show, the bowling night, and the movie night in the park invited adults to see the Commission simply as a feel-good, fringe group, rather than as a political contender. Indeed, the rollercoaster begins and ends with these dismissals. As one commissioner explained,

I think theres a perception that, you know, young people dont understand what policy is. So its a double-edged sword. Yeah, a lot of them are uninformed and they dont really know what theyre doing, and adults think thats true, so they dont care what we say.

Given the disregard they feel from adults, youth resort to programming as a means of increasing their visibility and making a contribution, but their involvement in programming perpetuates the adult perception of them as superficially engaged, peripheral participants. This perception then causes adults to discount them or to forget to include them when it comes to serious, substantive issues. Adults may assume the commissioners are too busy with programming, theyre not capable of working on policy matters, theyre simply not interested in policy matters, or theyre waiting to be invited to comment. Whatever the reasons, adults dismissals of them serve only to perpetuate the rollercoaster, sending the youth around the bend once more.


Although we have sought to illustrate a clear rollercoaster of adultism, one which entails both externalized and internalized loops, our data were far from straightforward. There were plenty of outliers. For example, five adults indicated that they respected the youth, took their viewpoints seriously, and looked forward to the time when they would exert an even stronger influence on policy. Among our adult respondents there was considerable political will and public support for the Commission, and politicians seemed sincere in their desire to see it succeed. Even though they were much more critical of their work than the adults, youth commissioners, too, sometimes voiced the opinion that they had achieved significant victories through their work with the Commission; two even indicated that they had strong relationships with their appointing councilmembers. Respondents also offered caveats for their critical statements, such as, It has gotten better, and Things have improved since when we first started. These caveats spoke to the hope all respondents voiced for the eventual success of the Commission.

In addition to the outliers and qualifiers, interviews were riddled with contradictions and double-speak that were sometimes difficult to interpret. For example, three councilmembers and legislative aides who voiced ardent support for BCYC admitted elsewhere in their interview that they could not remember their commissioners names, never scheduled a meeting with their commissioner after the initial interview, or failed to make a new appointment when they knew their commissioner had resigned or retired. Sometimes, the interviews revealed disparities and disconnects between the respondents words and their actions.

The youth, too, struggled with the tensions of their work. Though many mentioned that they felt dismissed or excluded by adults in positions of power, they also asserted that the Youth Commission was widely valued by policymakers. For example, one commissioner, who explained that they were not taken as seriously as we would like to be because of their age, went on to say that his appointing councilmember was always really happy to see the work that we do and, and we always hear really good feedback from him and the other councilmembers as a whole. On the one hand, he felt BCYC was treated dismissively by adults in positions of power, but on the other hand, he felt that they were received well. Another commissioner who said I have a real issue with the notion that young people dont, arent firm enough in their beliefs to speak for themselves and who described his fellow commissioners as very politically savvy, socially aware, and assertive, later noted that BCYC had become co-opted by the system, and it now operated as a group that would simply do the bidding of the mayor or any councilmember who called its office. He clearly believes that youth can have a strong, independent voice; however, he also felt that BCYC had unwittingly become tokenized group. Although nine commissioners complained vociferously about the personal agenda exercised by their executive director, nearly every one also credited him with increasing the visibility of the Commission and building close ties that could only help advance the Commissions work going forward. One commissioner said the executive director was one of the most valuable additions to the Youth Commission and another commissioner said if we had to hire a director all over again I would hire Harold ten times and twice on Sunday. And even as they blasted Harold for going off on his own, some of these same youth pursued pet policy initiatives on their own, and engaged in the same sort of exclusionary power plays through their work in the inner circle that they condemned Harold and others in city government for using to exclude them.

A final irony we uncovered in the data was that the adults who were initially involved in spearheading the legislation to create the Youth Commission were so vehemently anti-adultist that they ensured that adults had little hand in providing training, developing an infrastructure for the group, or helping it to get off the ground once it was approved. As they watched it unfold, these adults expressed disappointment with some of the decisions of the BCYC and the course it was taking, but they did not intervene to offer their advice, guidance, or support. One reflected In the beginning, we were concerned that we not be over-bearing, and therefore we kind of stayed away. She continued:

The [commissioners] have involved themselves with some activities that they deem important, which may have distracted them from what we consider to be their main objective. Again, though, they should determine their own direction and determine their own priorities within the parameters of their city charter mandate.

This hands-off approach, while certainly anti-adultist, may have ironically, made the group all the more vulnerable to subsequent coercion and co-optation by adults.


Our data show how the rollercoaster of adultism picked up the youth we interviewed and sent them spiraling down hills and over bumps, so that they showed signs of internalized self-defeating adultist beliefs, further propelling the coaster of adultism around again. Our findings demonstrate what happens when a youth organization positioned at rung four of Fletchers (2011) Ladder of Youth Voice, youth inform adults, is faced with a lack of support, structure, and training. Although the Commission was designed to enable youth to inform and shape policy at the city level, adultist interactions, including the tendency to favor the adult figurehead, led to tokenizing the youth and to Commission involvement in policy that took a decidedly deficit view of young people. Faced with these barriers of external adultism, some of the youth demonstrated symptoms of internalized adultism, dismissing their creative and intellectual ability to contribute to legislation and to work effectively with adult politicians. The youth instead tended to rely on their E.D. to do much of the work and further demonstrated adultism by replicating patterns of power and privilege as they interacted with one another. Consequently, the commissioners played into the stereotypes and low expectations that adults had set for them, producing decorative programming rather than legislative wins, which further enabled adults to tokenize and dismiss the group, reinforcing, once again, the rollercoaster of adultism.

Of course, it is important to remember that our analysis offers one particular perspective on the data, filtered through the theoretical framework adultism. Were one to apply a different theoretical lens to our data, the story that emerges might be quite different from the story we tell here. Other readings might highlight alternative barriers to participation that impacted the efficacy of BCYC, such as constraints in the youths schedules. They might celebrate the policy accomplishments of BCYC as meaningful and positive contributions; and they might describe politicians overtures to commissioners not as efforts to manipulate or coopt youth, but as the way politics works. Our point, however, in viewing the data through the framework of adultism was to help illuminate the complex dynamics of adultism at work, and in this way, advance theory, contribute to the research base, and raise implications for policy and practice.

By viewing our data through the theoretical lens of adultism, our study makes important empirical and theoretical contributions to extant research. More than a decade has passed since Zeldin, Camino, and Calvert (2003) issued their call for more scholarship on youth involvement in community governance; nonetheless, the field remains thin. The few foundation reports that exist on the topic (Martin et al., 2007; National League of Cities, 2010; Zeldin, Petrokubi, & MacNeil, 2007); tend to have a promotional feel and focus on justifying the practice or outlining key steps for implementation, rather than acknowledging or addressing the challenges or barriers that might limit substantive youth participation. Case studies of the San Francisco Youth Commission (Checkoway et al., 2005), the Hampton Youth Commission (Carlson, 2006; Sirianni, 2005) and various youth councils across the state of Michigan (Richards-Schuster & Checkoway, 2010) have documented the contributions youth have made through their participation in these groups; however, the field remains substantially under-theorized and the elements that might contribute to successful inclusion of youth in city-level decision-making processes have yet to be unearthed. As Richards-Schuster and Checkoway (2010) conclude, There is [still] need for more knowledge of youth participation in public policy at the local level (p. 30). We continue to know little about the politics and practice of youth voice in the policy arena, successful or not. This study moves us a step closer to understanding these dynamics by illuminating how weak initial structures coupled with deeply entrenched views of youths limited capacity adversely impact the functioning of a youth council and fuel a cycle of externalized and internalized adultism. This paper extends the field by identifying several pitfalls of participation and by showing how easy it is to slip among the bottom five rungs of Fletchers (2011) Ladder of Youth Voice. Although a youth voice initiative may be designed to be situated at rung four, as was the BCYC, it can easily come to occupy the bottom three rungs, in which adults manipulate youth, tokenize them or use them as decoration. In exposing and illustrating these possibilities, this research raises clear implications for practice and policy.

As youth councils continue to proliferate in cities and states around the country (Martin et al., 2007), as more organizations and interest groups endorse youth participation (Zeldin et al., 2007), and as momentum builds for a National Youth Council (http://forumfyi.org/content/call-creation-national-youth-council) and a Presidential Youth Council (http://www.presidentialyouthcouncil.org), it is critical that such bodies are designed and implemented in ways that will maximize their likelihood of success. Scholars of youth voice have long argued that both adults and youth require training and ongoing support in order for youth voice to be impactful (ODonoghue, Kirshner, & McLaughlin, 2002). By revealing what happens absent such training, our study adds weight to these claims. Had the youth commissioners of BCYC received coaching in policy analysis, the political processes of city council, political advocacy, or constituent outreach and mobilization, they might have felt more empowered not just to comment on pending legislation but also to introduce new bills; to hold press conferences; to engage their constituents more deeply in political decision-making processes; to be the more public, more activist body their initial champions had hoped they would be. Similarly, had their appointing councilmembers, the mayor, and their executive director received training in youthadult partnerships (Camino, 2005), they might have been more prepared to share their power, to collaborate with and listen to the youth. Such training may be costly, both in time and financial expenditures; however, it may be a key investment to make if the city council wants to guard against an unnecessary expenditure of taxpayer money. Other less expensive considerations for practice and policy include establishing clear channels of communication and clear roles and responsibilities for an executive director and any other adult staff, particularly with regard to the extent to which he or she will have jurisdiction to act on behalf of the commissioners. We also caution youth commissions to avoid patronage appointments by establishing transparent processes by which commissioners are elected and clear procedures for replacing retiring commissioners; to beware of the programming trap; to be careful not to allow for the development of an exclusive inner circle; and to vigilantly guard against potential co-optation or manipulation, such as quid pro quo arrangements and command appearances.

In addition to extending the literature on youth councils and raising considerations for practice and policy, this paper adds to the scant theoretical literature on adultism, a relatively neglected area of critical theory (Delgado & Staples, 2008). It illustrates the complex ways in which external and internalized adultism interact with and reinforce each other. Our rollercoaster model validates some existing theoretical arguments. For example, as Adams, Bell, and Griffin (1997) suggest, we find that internalized adultism is manifest as learned helplessness, difficulty with making decisions, and dependence on adults. At the same time, our model identifies new manifestations of internalized adultism, such as the replication of patterns of power and privilege. Additionally, through the metaphor of the rollercoaster, our model exemplifies the fun and fast-paced, sometimes disorienting, sometimes disquieting nature of youth participation in public policy. We hope that future research will expose mechanisms by which youth can stop the rollercoaster and leave behind the amusement park version of youth voice in public policy in order to pursue more meaningful, authentic, and substantive experiences as systems-insiders.

When provided with a forum to do so, youth can, and have, powerfully participated in the decision-making processes that affect their lives (Christens & Dolan, 2011; Conner et al., 2013; Zeldin et al., 2008). Yet adultism exists as an oppressive force that often prevents this participation from happening. In order to allow for authentic youth engagement, the cycle of adultism must be recognized, named, and torn down; however, pulling down the structure will not be enough, for doing so would simply leave youth in the ruins of this rollercoaster. Adults and youth must work together to keep adultism, both in its external and internal forms, in check, so that we can create new structures positioned on the eighth rung of Fletchers Ladder (2001); structures that view youth and adults as equals and thereby empower and enable youth to take action on the policies and practices that affect their lives. This new model must place youth on a level playing field with adults and provide both sets of stakeholders with targeted training and support so that youth can not only speak up and share their voice, but also speak up and be heard by adults as they are given the power to effect real policy change. The politics of paternalism, evident in rollercoaster of adultism, must be confronted if we are to take seriously the call to action: No decision about us, without us!


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Youth Commissioner Interview Questions:




Can you please talk a little bit about yourself, such as where you are from, where you went to school, what you are doing now, etc.?


What issues in your community, in society, or in the world do you care about most?


Are you working to address these issues in any particular way?


In general, do you believe you will be more effective at creating the kind of change you wish to see (in your community or in the world) by working from inside or outside the system?


Why do you think this?


Contextualizing Involvement:


How long have you been involved with the Youth Commission?


How did you originally become involved?


What was the process for selection and induction?


Why did you become involved?


Organizational Culture:


How is the Youth Commission structured, and who structured it originally? Has the structure changed at all?


When you joined Youth Commission, what did you think its mission or goal was?


Has that turned out to be the mission or goal during your involvement?


What expectations did you have before you started with the Youth Commission?


In what way or ways has the Commission exceeded, fulfilled, or fallen short of these expectations?


Specific Involvement and Effectiveness:


What have your specific positions and responsibilities been on the Youth Commission?


What specific projects or initiatives for the Commission have you been involved with?


What was the goal of your specific project or initiative? To what extent was this goal consistent with the Commissions overall mission or goal?


How effective was your specific project or initiative in achieving its goal?


What factors, both internal and external, enabled the project or initiatives success or prohibited its success?


How effective has the Commission been as a whole at achieving its overall mission or goal?


What factors, both internal and external, have enabled the Commissions success or prohibited its success?




When, as a Commissioner, you voice your perspective or share an idea, who or what inspires it?


In government, it is often debated whether elected representatives should serve as delegates or trustees. A delegate acts according to what the people think is best, while a trustee acts according to what he or she thinks is best. What role do you identify with more, if either? Why? What about your fellow Commissioners?


How, or in what way, do you gauge the perspective or preferences of the youth of the city?


Organizational Relationships:


How have the Commissioners interacted with each other?


How have these specific interactions enabled or prohibited the success of the Commission?


How have the Commissioners interacted with adults, and how have adults interacted with the Commissioners?


How have these specific interactions enabled or prohibited the success of the Commission?


How has the Executive Director interacted with Commissioners, and how have Commissioners interacted with the Executive Director?


How has the relationship between the Executive Director and the Commission enabled or prohibited the success of the Youth Commission?


How have the Commissioners interacted with outside people, groups, or organizations?


How have these specific interactions enabled or prohibited the success of the Commissioners?


For the Future:


What limitations does the Youth Commission currently face?


What suggestions do you have to improve the Youth Commission?


Is there anything else I should have asked you about concerning your involvement with the Youth Commission? Is there anything else you would like to talk about?

Adult Interview Questions:




How long have you served in your current position? Why did you originally become involved?


What issues in your community, in society, or in the world do you care about most? And how are you working to address these issues?


In general, do you believe you will be more effective at creating the kind of change you wish to see (in your community or in the world) by working from inside or outside the system? And why do you think this?


Creating the Youth Commission:


Were you involved at all in the creation of the Youth Commission? If so, what role did you play?


Why was the Youth Commission created?


What in this city laid the groundwork for it?


What was your opinion toward the Youth Commission at first?


Has your opinion changed? Why or why not?


What was the intended mission, goal, or purpose of the Youth Commission?


Has this turned out to be the mission, goal, or purpose of the Youth Commission? Why?


How effective has the Youth Commission been at achieving its mission or goals?


What factors, both internal and external, have enabled or prohibited the effectiveness of the Youth Commission?


Office-Specific Interactions:


What interactions have you or your Office had with the Commissioners?


How often do you meet with Commissioners, and which ones do you meet with?


What interactions have you or your Office had with the Executive Director of the Commission?


How often do you meet with him?


How much of a factor, or how effective has the Youth Commission been at influencing policy discussions and decisions in your Office?


What work or specific projects or initiatives have you or your Office done with the Youth Commission?


How effective were these projects or initiatives?


How much of a factor, or how effective has the Youth Commission been at influencing policy discussions and decisions in City Government?


The Youth Commission as a Whole:


What do you see as some of the Youth Commissions major achievements?


What would you credit its success to?


What factors do you believe block the Youth Commission from achieving greater success?


Do you think the Youth Commission is representative of youth needs, opinions and perspectives from across the city? Why or why not?


Perception Among Policymakers:


How visible is the Youth Commission among policymakers and policy advisors?


How valued is the Youth Commission among policymakers and policy advisors?


How valued is the Youth Commission to you and your Office?


How do you think the other members of City Council and the Mayor feel about the Youth Commission?


Some people worry that the student-members in these groups are manipulated by the adult organizers, making them essentially pawns. Do you share in this concern?


If not, what would you say to those who do?


How do you think the Youth Commission could effectively counter this perception?


For the Future:


What limitations does the Youth Commission currently face?


What suggestions do you have to improve the Youth Commission?


Is there anything else I should have asked you about concerning your involvement with the Youth Commission? Is there anything else you would like to talk about?



Adult Respondent

Youth Respondent


-Um, I guess the biggest thing is that they have been able to stay together as an entity. They are... you know, you have some things that just sort of fall apart. You know, even Commissions that are set up that just never seem to be active, that seem to be totally dormant. I mean they do... Theres every indication they meet, you know? They have some active participants, that kind of thing. I would assume that its like any other group, even a City Council, you know? Some people [are] more active than others; some people, more vocal than others. But I think the fact that, you know, I guess its been what about 4 years now, 5 years, uh 4 years, that theyve been around, that they are staying together, you know? That kind of thing. I guess that would be the biggest thing

- There was a truancy law that, and, that we had something to do with. And we worked very hard enacting stricter laws regarding sale of tobacco to minors, and we got the fines raised on that. Those are some of the big ones there right off the top of my head.

- I was able to speak at a press conference to represent the Commission when the Mayor signed an Executive Order to outlaw smoking in every part of a recreation center, so I was able to represent the youth during a press conference.

Contributing Factor

- I know they do a lot of work in the community which we dont necessarily have a full window on, so for instance you know Im, I follow [the E.D.] on Twitter, so I know how active he is, what hes doing. I know hes interacting with a lot of people on the Commission; hes doing a lot of that work, but dont, thats sort of just sliver or view into what hes doing.

-Theres always been a group of heavyweights that really do most of the work, and then other people that are rounding it out. [AND HOW HAVE THESE SPECIFIC INTERACTIONS ENABLED OR PROHIBITED THE SUCCESS OF THE BCYC?] I think you know they enabled the success in that it allows us to have informal and constant conversation which is how youth operate best. The only thing that people dont like about it, ... is some people feel left out of the inner circle.

Limiting Factor

-[WHAT FACTORS, INTERNAL OR EXTERNAL, HAVE PROHIBITED THE EFFECTIVENESS OF THE YOUTH COMMISSION?] There have been some vacancies, and sometimes some of the appointees have not been up to the challenge.   

- I think one thing that would probably be a limiting factor is that theyre students, you know? I think its a fairly large number of people to get together. . . . And I dont know about the age span, you know? If you get somebody who is 12 years old and somebody who is 23, you know? Im not sure how much weight you know those who are 12 get in the scheme of things.

- With respect to our interactions with adults, uh, you know that kind of lack of respect and you know, the patronizing tone that we get from a lot of the adults kind of makes our job a lot harder because we dont feel like what were saying is being taken seriously; its like were putting on a show for the adults to watch, um yea.

--We have eight people who are willing to be active. Now the question is how politically savvy are they, how articulate are they, and how well can they navigate the government circles? And most people [in BCYC] dont know how to do that.


Main Code and Subcodes


Barriers Other than Adultism

-The Commission is composed of people of all different parts of life so some people have full-time jobs or they are busy with school and theres just, its really hard for all the whole Commission to meet up together, um because some Commissioners um they dont have as much free time.

Adultism as a barrier (youth only)


Adultist interactions with authority (excluding the ED)

-[HOW ARE YOU TREATED BY ADULTS IN CITY HALL?] Generally good but were not treated as peers, um which I think is our ultimate goal, is to kind of be treated with the same respect that we would treat them; were kind of treated like we get a pat on the head, Ooo. Youre doing such a good job! Like, good for you. Its not like that level of respect that we would want.

Feeling dismissed

- I also thought it would be much easier to get meetings with a lot of the policy makers and decision-makers... City Council people and their staff, uh. Also there are other stakeholders, you know, decision-makers like the Work Force Investment Board, you know people at the School District who didnt think that the Youth Commission was a legitimate organization, a legitimate you know part of government, because you know, who, like why does a person, a City Council Person appoint, like what authority do they have to speak on these issues I guess was the prevailing uh you know thought with respect to meeting with Commissioners, like they dont, theyre not legitimate representatives of young people, theyre just political hacks. So people were like a little you know uh skeptical of us.

- With respect to our interactions with adults, uh, you know that kind of lack of respect and you know, the patronizing tone that we get from a lot of the adults kind of makes our job a lot harder because we dont feel like what were saying is being taken seriously; its like were putting on a show for the adults to watch, um yea.

- I think the perception of [BCYC] in City Government is probably Oh thats like some pet project; thats like a summer camp for kids. Like, I dont think we have any sway or any influence on anything, like if you talk to legislative aides and like Council.

Adultism demonstrated by E.D.

- Our current Executive Director goes off and does a lot of things on his own and doesnt tell anyone. So he can block off a time from 9 to 3 when no one can reach him when hes out probably doing productive stuff, but we dont know what it is, and he doesnt invite us to it. If he goes to speak to a, a high school, it shouldnt be him speaking; it should be him setting up a meeting for one of us to speak. But he doesnt like that.

- Theyll be a Council Person that calls us and tells us to do something about [some issue], and, the Executive Director will do it because he wants to build a relationship with that Council Person, but without consulting the Commission.

Adultist policy engagement

- I was able to speak at a press conference to represent the Commission when the Mayor signed an Executive Order to outlaw smoking in every part of a recreation center, so I was able to represent the youth during a press conference.

-- There was a truancy law that, and, that we had something to do with. And we worked very hard enacting stricter laws regarding sale of tobacco to minors, and we got the fines raised on that. Those are some of the big ones there right off the top of my head.

Internalized adultism (youth only)


Dependency on E.D.

-[SO HOW OFTEN DO YOU MEET WITH THE COUNCILMAN (WHO APPOINTED YOU)]? I only met with him one time, the time I was interviewed. I was discussing that with my other Commissioners, and they were telling me that all of them, you know I guess as you get older, Im not sure. But some of them are in contact with their, with their Councilman or whatever but Im not. But thats an issue that Im going to talk to [our E.D.] about, um try and figure out if its possible to talk with him or someone in his office.

- When I was appointed I was the only [specific minority representative] on the Commission so... when I first started talking to [our E.D.] about what my responsibilities would be he, he told me he would like to have more [specific ethnic] representation um, on the Commission, and I took that to mean I should get involved with the [specific ethnic] community in [Big City], but he, um, he hasnt really given me any support in achieving that goal.


-I try and attend as much as I can, but Im still a minor, and theres only so much I can do.

- We havent been as effective as I would have liked, and its frustrating for a lot of people. . . . This requires a lot of time that, and a lot of experience thats difficult to, to ask of us. Its difficult for us.

-We have eight people who are willing to be active. Now the question is how politically savvy are they, how articulate are they, and how well can they navigate the government circles? And most people [in BCYC] dont know how to do that.

Replicating patterns of status

- I just keep in contact with all the adult leaders, cause since Im the youngest in the group I cant really do as much as they can, cause Im still a minor . . . They [the other, older commissioners] meet in different places and things like that, and I cant go where they go.

-Theres always been a group of heavyweights that really do most of the work, and then other people that are rounding it out. [AND HOW HAVE THESE SPECIFIC INTERACTIONS ENABLED OR PROHIBITED THE SUCCESS OF THE BCYC?] I think you know they enabled the success in that it allows us to have informal and constant conversation which is how youth operate best. The only thing that people dont like about it, . . . is some people feel left out of the inner circle.

- We always had a core group of people, um, who knew exactly what we were doing, and uh we were hard working. It was me; it was Jerry, Marty, Jessica, um, Juan is becoming a part of that. Well, Juan not as much cause hes newer, but hes getting there.

Adultism (adult only)


Dismissing the group

-To be completely candid I dont think that people are going to vote for or against something because the Youth Commission is for or against it, um, you know, unless its something that is sort of noncontroversial anyway.

-I dont know exactly what they dobut maybe part of that is my fault because I dont really seek out to find out.

-Sometimes some of the appointees have not been up to the challenge.   

Favoring the E.D.

-I know they do a lot of work in the community which we dont necessarily have a full window on, so for instance you know Im, I follow [the E.D.] on Twitter, so I know how active he is, what hes doing. I know hes interacting with a lot of people on the Council; hes doing a lot of that work, but dont, thats sort of just sliver or view into what hes doing.

-I do get the sense that [the E.D.] is engaged in the Administration and is part of the conversation that the Administration is focusing on, um, so, that you know, the Administration. Theres a lot of policy that gets set by the Administration; theres also policy that is set through legislation and thats you know City Councils realm, um, but my sense is that hes involved; hes out there; hes sort of making you know making connections and trying to bring the Youth Commissions perspective to issues.

Tokenizing youth

- Thats a really significant opportunity for [the E.D.] to sort of impress upon the incoming [council members]and the Commission to impress on the incoming folks hey, were at your disposal; we represent youth in [Big City], we want to partner with you and work on you know your policy initiatives, youth related policy initiatives.

- The Youth Commission was very helpful when we working on crowd building for a press conference celebrating the ten year anniversary of the Fund for Children. 

Setting a low bar

-[IF YOU DO SEE ANY MAJOR ACHIEVEMENTS OF THE YOUTH COMMISSION WHAT WOULD THEY BE?] Um, I guess the biggest thing is that they have been able to stay together as an entity. They are . . . you know, you have some things that just sort of fall apart. You know, even Commissions that are set up that just never seem to be active, that seem to be totally dormant. I mean they do . . . Theres every indication they meet, you know? They have some active participants, that kind of thing. I would assume that its like any other group, even a City Council, you know? Some people [are] more active than others; some people, more vocal than others. But I think the fact that, you know, I guess its been what about 4 years now, 5 years, uh 4 years, that theyve been around, that they are staying together, you know? That kind of thing. I guess that would be the biggest thing.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 8, 2016, p. 1-48
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21134, Date Accessed: 2/15/2022 12:23:29 AM

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About the Author
  • Jerusha Conner
    Villanova University
    E-mail Author
    JERUSHA O. CONNER is an associate professor of education at Villanova University. Her research interests include student engagement and student voice in school reform and education policy. Recent publications include “Lessons that Last: Former Youth Organizers’ Reflections on What and How they Learned” in the Journal of the Learning Sciences and “Orchestrating Change: How Youth Organizing Influences Educational Policy” in the American Journal of Education.
  • C. Nathan Ober
    Aarhus University
    E-mail Author
    C. NATHAN OBER is currently a Fulbright student grantee at Aarhus University in Denmark, where he is researching the Danish welfare model. He graduated from Villanova University with a Bachelor of Arts in May 2013.
  • Amanda Brown
    Villanova University
    E-mail Author
    AMANDA S. BROWN holds a master’s degree in School Counseling from Villanova University. Her research interests include student voice, social networking, and adolescent mental health. Recent publications include “New Media and the Power of Youth Organizing” in Equity and Excellence in Education and a review of Value-added Measures in Education: What Every Educator Needs to Know for the National Educational Policy Center’s Education Review/ Reseñas Educativas.
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