Review of Why Aren’t We Doing This

Review of Why Aren’t We Doing This

By Anthony Bernier | October 2023

Adults love writing so-called “non-fiction” books about young people. The most popular of these books indulge cliched and unsupported claims based on moral panics-of-the-week. This week’s panic is about “the teenage brain” and depression. The next week it’s about overindulging an energy drink, a new social network application, or teen mental health. Such moral panics historically reach back to the morally corrupting influence of AM radio.

In 2022, a popular example was You Are Your Own Best Teacher, by Claire Nader, claiming youth to be helpless apathetic victims to the always nefarious “tyranny of peer groups.” Authors of these titles receive lucrative, immediate, and un-scrutinized national notoriety. Few such authors’ claims or opinions percolate from anything more than a handful of instances – from psychologist or social worker caseloads or a journalist’s random field observations. Fewer still actually include young people in their assessments.

On the other hand, Why Aren’t We Doing This: Collaborating with Minors in Major Ways, pushes back on such books lining the nation’s library shelves, with the direct question of its title. Co-authored by the intergenerational team of 19-year-old youth advocate, Denise Webb, and veteran radical youth advocate, Wendy Schaetzel Lesko, they invert the legacy cliches found in conventional and popular non-fiction about today’s young people.

Scrutinizing over 80 interviews with a wide array of highly involved youth service providers and young people, Webb and Lesko present a vision of youth as something other than innocent & hapless victims or marauding criminals.

They answer their title’s question.

Webb and Lesko imagine young people as already capable, active, and contributing agents in many nonprofit organizations and governmental institutions. Their findings urge the rest of us to see young people this way, too, as intergenerational collaborators.

In an inspiringly accessible narrative voice, Why Aren’t We Doing This teaches the topics and addresses the concerns skeptics simply accept to justify why incorporating young people is just too hard.

Webb and Lesko illustrate how it’s not.

Their well laid-out Table of Contents usher readers through six logical arguments and strategies for disrupting legacies that exclude youth through inducting and infusing youth into the operational and strategic fabric of our organizations. Along the way Why Aren’t We Doing This shares real-world insights from their interviews as well as offers practical resources, such as the “Ladder of Real Vs. Token Youth Participation,” to help guide organizations away from superficial manipulations of young people through to genuine influence and power enhancing collaborations.

While Why Aren’t We Doing This inherently criticizes conventional “youth development” theory’s outdated indoctrinations and “colonialist” aspirations, something long overdue(!), this reader would like to have seen a more direct confrontation. This, however, perhaps says more about my own agenda than the authors’. I would also have appreciated a bibliography of the resources the authors drew from in mounting this important guide.

That said, as someone who teaches youth service professionals, I particularly appreciate the detailed content about appropriate on-boarding, coaching, and co-piloting techniques leading to authentic youth influence building.

Youth advocates, political activists and campaign strategists, social workers, teachers, and civic officials of all kinds will find Why Aren’t We Doing This an indispensable and practical guide to acknowledging how, as the Forward reads, young peoples’ lives “have value NOW.” [emphasis in original]

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