Give youngsters a place at the table

08/15/2008 12:00 AM

08/15/2008 6:11 AM

I am perpetually in awe of people like Barbara Ferguson, who commit considerable time and resources to helping young people achieve and become all they can be. A community benefits more than it knows from their boundless energy and passion.

On Tuesday, we met and talked about a number of things including ADAPT, a program that kind of rose from the ashes of the Afro-American Children's Theatre she founded several years ago.

ADAPT stands for African Diaspora Arts Program and Theatre. ADAPT is winding up a summer camp at the Charlotte Museum of History. I'm a fan. The program, coordinated by Leisha Kilpatrick, offers kids who might not get the opportunity a chance to express themselves and to learn about history through music, art and dance.

But for many of the young people involved – those who run it and those who participate in it – the program is about much more. It's about leadership development.

Ferguson knows something about leading at a young age. As a high school student in Asheville, she was a leader in desegregating some of the businesses there. That's how she met James Ferguson, who would become her husband and a noted civil rights attorney.

She was empowered by adults who helped her and other youngsters play a valuable role in shaping her community. That's the role she plays now for many youngsters in this community.

“I believe in young people,” she said. “They are the ones who are going to make a difference.”

Empower young people

She's right. More adults need to empower young people to make wise choices and get involved. Ferguson says these young people need to “learn to sit at the table” and not be shunted aside as too young or too inexperienced to tackle important ideas, situations or problems. “If they don't sit at the table, they won't know what to do,” she notes.

I'm with her on that.

But some adults disagree. I hear from them from time to time about the Young Voices forum I coordinate for the editorial page. Some expressed their concerns this week about a question we asked about whether John Edwards' affair should have any impact on his political career. Some asked why we would pose such a question to an 11-year-old, whose answer was among the responses. Some don't think young students have worthwhile things to say. They want the forum restricted to older students. Some say the questions posed aren't always “student-appropriate.”

All are fair concerns. My response probably won't ease them. But it may help readers better understand the purpose of the forum.

This week's question was posed by the 11-year-old who was quoted. He uses the e-mail address of his mother, who is aware of his participation. Participants are encouraged to submit questions. We want to discuss issues they want to discuss as well as issues we think are important to youngsters.

Begun in 2002, Young Voices is designed for students “college age and younger.” From the start, we got responses from elementary school students on up. Classes, scout troops, even churches have taken part. Parents tell me the questions become points of discussion for their families.

Students don't have to answer each question. Adult supervisors can decide against a question for their student(s) for whatever reason.

Finding their voice

But the purpose of the forum is to invite young people into the discussion of issues, not keep them out. Even the youngest can bring interesting insights. Yes, some responses are naive, and some are grammatically clumsy. And some students undoubtedly parrot the views of their parents or peers. We adults do that to a certain extent whether we acknowledge it or not.

But hundreds of Young Voices responses later, I am gratified to hear that this forum has helped many youngsters find their voice and have confidence in sharing their views at home and at school.

It's important for adults to hear young people, and to start involving them in decision making. The forum is a way of “seating them at the table,” as Barbara Ferguson might say.

We adults benefit by doing so. Soon enough, these youngsters will be deciding our future.

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