Graduate Research Corner, Interviews

Graduate Research Corner: Keri DeJong on “Youth Oppression” [Part I]

Interview conducted by Matthew P. Ferrari, GSS Publicity & Outreach Coordinator.

I sat down with Keri DeJong (doctoral candidate in Social Justice Education) to discuss her innovative dissertation project, “On Being and Becoming: An Exploration of Young People’s Perspectives on Status and Power in Childhood,” which considers childhood as a socially constructed category, and might also be understood as a form of colonization or oppression. DeJong conducted her qualitative fieldwork in local (Western, MA) public school settings and other forums, seeking to explore understandings and constructions of childhood from the perspective of youth themselves, as distinct from the category of “youth” predominantly constructed through the lens of adulthood. She states, “a critique of childhood as a colonizing discursive practice provides a view of how young people’s lives and experiences are impacted by dominant developmental perspectives that have been produced and maintained by adults.” As a parent myself, I took a particular interest in the challenges of balancing youth discipline and parental expectations with youth individuality and autonomy.

DeJong’s work aims to remedy a lack of grounded research in the field of Education addressing the concept of “adultism” as a form of youth oppression that privileges adults. DeJong submits that: “young people enact agency and power in ways that have yet to be adequately described in Social Justice Education literature.” For me, one of the more profound aspects of this theoretical perspective is starting from the view that an adult-centered perspective on youth serves to “limit our ability to understand young people as complete human beings because they represent young people as incomplete, on the way to becoming ‘complete’ as adults.” I was left questioning my own complicity -as both parent and educator- in a system which privileges a view of our youth as partial or incomplete humans, and what knowledge and depth of experience is lost therein. How might society as a whole benefit from such a re-framing of the category of “youth?”

Q: How did you arrive at this research topic on youth oppression?

A: For starters, my topic being youth oppression and constructions of childhood, I definitely experienced youth oppression. I can think back and I had an awareness, maybe even an analysis, about some of those dynamics that were present in my life as a young person. I had a lot to say; I would’ve loved someone to ask me the interview questions that I’ve put together for my research. Then I came to the Social Justice Education program (at UMass) –and learning about oppression, racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc.– in some of our conceptual frameworks, age is one of identities connected to oppression. My advisor had really thought a lot about adultism, and about how our experiences as young people set the stage for us to learn the roles of an oppressive society. So we learn the roles of dominant and subordinate as young people. And that was really fascinating to me, to think about, well, what did I learn in school, at home, out in the community that teaches us how to exist in an oppressive society, but also to maintain an oppressive society?

Q: How did you find your research site, decide which age group, the school, and so forth?

A: I wanted to work with every age group. I would love to have done an enormous study –the possibilities are so wide open for this kind of research! But, I have been involved in inter-group dialogue and the format is conducive to people sharing their stories, so I wanted to see if I could get connected to a place where people had this kind of dialogue, and there was the experience of being able to share your stories, or share your vulnerability with a group of people. The way I organized my research was first do focus groups, thinking that there was a power in numbers, that people would be able to work together and spark each other’s thought processes. Then I wanted to do follow-up interviews, but didn’t want to do one-on-one interviews because I felt like that might be a little intense, so I had people choose a pair. I asked the to choose someone in the focus group, and people generally had someone that they were connected to, and then I would do the interviews with the pairs. I ended up working with a local high school, and the administration was very supportive and really values dialogue. And then for the other site I wanted to do something that wasn’t in a school. I had some challenges trying to get in with a couple of different organizations that I wasn’t able to connect with, or it wasn’t going to fit in my research time-frame. So there was a fourteen year old I know who said, “I want to organize a focus group,” and the second site was at someone’s home with a group of young people that he brought together.

Q: The idea of childhood as a category that becomes oppressive is really fascinating, and the problem of thinking of it as a fixed category. I don’t do much in my own research with qualitative methods, but one of the things about it that has always troubled me is the established notion of “naturally occurring behavior.” By observing things –by putting the microphone there– you change the dynamic and affect the performances, the result. One of the things that is so interesting about the category of childhood is that it is what it is because of a certain lack of self-awareness about where you are as a child. It’s sort of only after the fact as an adult that you fully understand what that was. So how do you go about accessing something they might not fully understand or be aware of?

A: So your question has an assumption in it, that young people don’t have an analysis or a theory about what’s going on in childhood and I really found that not to be true. If I were just to say, “theorize childhood for me,” that might be hard. But in asking people, “what does a day look like for you?” Or, “what kind of possibilities can you create throughout the day?” Or, “where do you feel powerful? What kinds of decisions do you get to make?” Through those kinds of questions I start to get a piece of their analysis of their lives and what the possibilities are for them.

Q: One of the problems you talk about is the idea of “othering,” and how young people and the category “youth” becomes the binary “other” to adults. So I’m wondering what kinds of “othering” are necessary, or that we can’t avoid? Because isn’t it also a category we use to make sense of something? And yet it’s also a continuum, that line between youth and adult is not a clear thing, but that line has some positive role to play, right?

A: Right, and adults control the line, determine when the line will change and for what purpose. But young people don’t generally have any say in that. So I’m looking at this normalization of adult power and adult supremacy, and I do think that’s problematic. I also recognize that there’s a particular relationship between adults and young people. When we’re born, we’re infants and unable to feed ourselves, and so on. So yes, there’s an absolute need for this caretaking relationship between adults and infants, but I think that this relationship is used to justify this prolonged subordination of young people way beyond the point where young people need us in that same way. I haven’t thought about it in a way that the “othering” can be useful, but I use that concept in a particular way to problematize the dynamic. Some of the historical research looks at childhood as a kind of invention –this construction of childhood being more of a modern invention where it wasn’t thought of as such a separate category at one point. For example, there was a study of paintings from an older era that showed very small people dressed in the same way as adults, portrayed in a way where young people were smaller adults, which is a very different perspective than we would see today. So I think it has been different, and it can be different.

Q: So is one of the goals of this research to find ways for adults to let youth exercise certain kinds of power more freely? And in general to have it be less of a dominant – subordinate relationship?

A: Well, one of the goals for this research was for me was to be in a space where I got to listen to young people talk about what it is like to be a young person; to be in their lives, at their age, in the places that they inhabit on a daily basis. That was really powerful for me. And then, the second piece is that there are so few accounts in the literature of those perspectives being represented. And so even though it’s not generalizable, it’s not a huge contingent of young people talking about their perspectives, there are some really common themes across the different groups that come up that don’t get acknowledged. So I think adding those voices to the literature that is available to people of all ages is, I’m hoping, transformative. And one of the things that I ask about is power; questions like “how do you experience power?” “Do you feel powerful?” “What does power look like?” And even if I didn’t ask that question, I hear them talking all through the interviews about how they feel disempowered, and also lots of stories about how people do enact power (but, it doesn’t feel that way…).

Q: Were you surprised by any of the feedback you received in the interviews?

A: I did hear a lot of really profound articulations of things, so I really am learning a lot. And I’m not surprised by that, but there are many things I hadn’t thought of that people were talking about that I don’t think has been represented in any of the literature I’ve read. I remember being 10 or 11 years old and just wishing so deeply that I could have some way out of the really intense state of every decision being made –there’s nothing that I could choose for myself—there’s no way that I could determine when I was done with something, or when I wanted to start something, or when I wanted to go somewhere, or who I wanted to talk to, if I wanted to be with someone that wasn’t one of my family members, having any of those choices would’ve been great. And I just longed for adulthood, because, I thought, that’s when I’ll get to be free, to be happy.

Q: That’s interesting, because I’ve definitely noticed my kids –and other kids– wanting to be older, and being excited about the power and privileges that come with age. That not being able to choose as a kid is oppressive. I recently read some literature on this new generation of kids raised with too many choices. But the issue is that these kids are given too many choices, and then almost paralyzed by it. So what you hear from some experts now is that you shouldn’t give kids so many choices because it overwhelms them, and that they should have those limits set, and you are doing them a disservice by giving them too many options. So it’s an interesting time to be asking some of these questions, and I wonder what you think about finding that balance?

A: One of the things I noticed a lot in the interviews were stories about these adults giving lots of choices, but determining what the choices are. And so, there were repeated stories and a general frustration about how this is basically a charade; it’s the illusion of choice. It’s, “here are your predetermined options. You have the choice of these options I’ve already determined for you.” It’s the ways that adults do that to placate them, so they feel that they’re getting to make choices. So there are these many things that add up to this real mistrust of adults, and the sense of feeling powerless. With the “helicopter parenting,” there’s a real disparaging discourse both about young people, with this idea that young people are spoiled, and the parents are to blame, so nobody’s ok in this situation. But for me, what all of this looks like, is that there’s not a lot of “doing with;” making decisions with young people, engaging in their thinking, listening to what young people are going through. Then I hear people say, “well, young people won’t do that.” But I had these focus groups and sat down and had this literature that said you need to keep it to 60 minutes because young people won’t be able to focus past that. My first focus group went two hours and people were asking to stay longer. So this is something that’s very pertinent to them, and an opportunity where they got to speak as the experts. We all feel good when we feel like we’re a contribution to something bigger; that’s something that is critical to people of all ages. That’s sort of what happens in K-12 school settings, [students say] “we go to school, we get up at 6 am, and we only have 5-6 minute breaks between class, we’re at school all day, then we have homework at night, and it’s like 10 hours of really intense focus that doesn’t get called work.” And it isn’t set up in a way where what they’re doing is a contribution to society. A large part of what young people do during the day is all about the future, so that you can be a contribution later. Because adults make contributions to the world, young people don’t make contribution to the world –this is what I heard young people saying.

Q: Right, when we talk about youth, we usually talk about them making a better world when they become adults. They’re the future, but not the present. So we’re shaping them so they can make a better future. But you think that this should be seen differently?

A: Yes, absolutely. What is it like to be told “you’re not in the real world right now. Your life isn’t real?” For example, young people have feelings, but we call that “puppy love.” But it’s actually real love, it’s intense, it feels big –there’s actually nothing unreal about it. So it’s a way of marginalizing young people from really being able to feel a sense of belonging in the larger [adult] community.

Stay tuned for Part II of this interview in the coming weeks.

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