By Dana Stuehling, IPN Outreach Coordinator
Lately I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be an effective ally to and for youth. I work with youth every day and genuinely believe that they are intelligent and creative and energetic and deserve to have a voice. When I was younger, I had adult friends and family members constantly supporting my decisions and choices, believing that even though I was still a minor, I had the right to make many decisions for myself. This belief has been engrained in my value system and I believe it to be true for the youth around me.
While at the National Gathering of GSA Networks in Louisville, KY, I was surrounded by incredible high school activists and staff from GSA organizations all around the country. I attended with Ella, an Iowa Pride Network Leadership Team Member and GSA leader, and had an amazing time. Six months later, though, I’m still hung up about a conversation I had in Kentucky.
As we were headed to dinner one night, I asked a young man that I recognized from my workshop earlier in the day where his staff was – youth couldn’t leave the hotel without a staff person present– and he laughed and told me that he was the staff. Horrified, I apologized profusely and turned beet red. I’m sure I made some remark about hating when people confused me for a high school or college student (it happens quite often, and understandably so), apologized again, and left it at that.
Driving the ten hours from Louisville to Des Moines, Ella and I had great conversations ranging from her post-graduation plans to battling racism to GSA planning. Somehow, we got to talking about adultism and I brought up the fact that my response to the young man was actually pretty adultist. Why should we feel offended or embarrassed when “adults” are mistaken for youth? Why should we (especially as young adults) try to distance ourselves from looking or acting too “young”? It saddens and upsets me when straight people become angry or offended when they are mistaken as gay or lesbian – how is this any different? I look young. Many young adults look young. There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, I’m more successful in my job because I look young – working informally with middle school and high school students is much easier when they realize that I’m not a “real” adult. I relish this; it means I can act young and be fun and still have effective working relationships with teens and pre-teens. So why do I get upset when other adults mistake me for being younger than I am?
Society tells us that youth are reckless, immature, selfish, less intelligent, and irresponsible and that they should be talked down to. Clearly, I don’t want others to think that of me. But as a youth ally, I should instead see them as they are: as creative, energetic, open-minded, passionate, intelligent, mature, and thoughtful young people. Sure, some are impulsive and make bad decisions, but so do adults. Those negative traits are not specific to youth, and in order to be a better ally, I need to work on not automatically equating “young” with a lack of intellect and responsibility.
I have such respect and love for the youth with whom I work; I don’t equate their worth or value to the number of birthdays they’ve had, and I am constantly in awe of their brilliance and passion. So the next time someone asks me where I go to college or to take my hat off in the high school hallway, instead of being offended, I will try to laugh and say thank you.
Dana Stuehling is a 2011 graduate of Smith College where she studied Sociology focusing on race, gender and sexuality. As Outreach Coordinator with Iowa Pride Network, she works to support hundreds of LGBT and straight allied youth in Iowa. In her free time, Dana is playing with puppies, eating lots of garlic, thinking about privilege and oppression, examining her biracial identity, or drinking coffee.
You can reach her at email@example.com or 515-471-8063.