Engaging Others

Post submitted by Anderson Williams, Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Tennessee College Access and Success Network. In addition to regional, national, and international training and consulting work, Williams co-authored “The Core Principles for Engaging Young People in Community Change” and “Youth Organizing for Educational Change” with the Forum for Youth Investment.

Part of the confusion and pressure of being a middle and high school student is not just that relatively new feeling of “otherness” (i.e. being different) but that this feeling charges our emotional and cognitive development in ways that can last a lifetime. These are truly formative years. Starting in our teens and carrying through the rest of our lives, we develop habits in response to our “otherness” in which we:

  1. conform and adapt so that we are included (eliminate otherness),
  2. isolate and look for proxies for positive social relationships (neutralize otherness), or
  3. develop the confidence to be who we are regardless of what others think (celebrate otherness)

The reality is that during the teenage years we move in and out of all of these responses quite frequently and without notice. This is kind of what defines the teenage years. It’s why adults think teens are weird! It is also what makes the teenage years such a critical time for inclusion and genuine engagement.

But, for many students with physical and intellectual disabilities, the option of “conforming” feels impossible in a traditional sense. They are so strongly considered “other” by peers and adults that the opportunity to just become one of the group is out of their hands. Similarly, they are often structurally isolated – both socially and physically – living parallel lives to their same-aged peers in their own wing of the school, with their own teachers, classrooms, and school and community activities.  And, as long as this is the case, as long as they are the “others”, inclusion and full engagement are impossibilities for everyone.

The fact is that every teen, every one of us actually, is “other”.

We are all different and we all need to have a say in our own development and the paths we choose. When otherness is allowed the space to be celebrated, inclusion, rather than isolation, becomes the norm. When everyone is understood as other then otherness as we know it no longer exists. And, when we engage others, we all engage our best selves.

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