Town Hall Meetings Empower Youth

Providing a forum for candid communication helps young people believe their voices are worth hearing.

I recently introduced the concept of a “town hall meeting” to the fourth- and fifth-graders I work with in my afterschool program. In these town hall meetings, the youth have an opportunity to express their ideas and opinions on a subject and to have those ideas and opinions validated—by their peers and me.

Before we start each town hall meeting, my class and I talk through a few basic ground rules:

  1. Youth can say whatever words they want, as long as they are not derogatory toward another person and as long as swearing is not excessive. If they’re uncomfortable saying something, they can share it with a friend or write it on a piece of paper and hand it to me to share with the group.
  2. What’s said in the group stays in the group (otherwise known as The Vegas Rule).
  3. Respect one another’s voices. The youth decided this meant only one person talking at a time, not having side conversations and not making fun of what someone has to say. We also talked about how youth can use the concept of “move forward, move back” to make room for others if they’ve been talking a lot.
  4. If you’re uncomfortable with a topic, you can ask to be excused to another group. My co-teacher or I will walk the youth to a new group leader, where the youth will be expected to act as a helper to the younger kids, work on homework or read/write.

My initial aim was to use these meetings as a forum for youth to talk about bullying and being bullied, and to eventually build this small community up to the point that they can identify problems within their larger communities and work to make change.

By speaking about bullying—something all youth experience, either as a perpetrator, witness or target (and sometimes all three)—the group established a rapport. The youth wanted to act out what it looks like to be bullied and to bully, so we set aside time for role-playing. When youth wanted to write down things bullies say or have called them, we quickly filled the large sheet of butcher paper I’d taped to the wall. When the youth tired of talking about bullying experiences (at least for the time being; they’ve come back to this topic again and again), we problem-solved ways to address bullying while still keeping oneself safe. We’ve talked about what to do if an adult bullies you and about different forms bullying can take. I asked each youth to choose three bullying words they can eliminate from their vocabularies. By choosing these words publicly, the youth have been able to hold each other accountable.

Each time we meet, I ask the youth what topic they’d like to discuss. If they don’t have something pressing they’d like to address, I pull out my notebook that has a list of ideas they’ve generated in the past, and remind them of things they said they wanted to talk about. In addition to bullying, we’ve talked about:

  • The phrase “children should be seen and not heard.” This was our first topic and provided a chance for youth to think about messages they receive from adults and the valuable messages youth have to share. The goal was to help them understand that I want to hear their voices and opinions and that what they have to say is always important.
  • Stranger Danger. This meeting addressed myths and perceptions and ways youth can attempt to discern if a stranger is a danger or just someone they don’t (yet) know.
  • Harassment by peers. This occurred during a group with just the girls in my class (my male co-teacher worked with the boys), and the focus was on boys touching girls in ways that made them uncomfortable.

Upcoming youth-generated topics include:

  • What it means to be someone others can trust
  • Homelessness
  • Incarceration / incarcerated parents or siblings
  • Trash in the local park (that is adjacent to their school)
  • What it means to be a friend

As youth leaders emerge in the group, I hope to train youth mentors who will facilitate these discussions. My hope is that by cultivating youth leaders and ceding the power I hold, these young people will eventually believe that their voices are worth hearing and that they have ability to enact social change. They will take ownership of the topics discussed and the ways that these topics are addressed within our afterschool community—and within their broader community.

Clift works in an after-school program for youth in a community that historically and currently struggles with high rates of crime, and as the Communications Intern for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

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