Participatory leadership, “brave spaces” and the bridging role of young adults

Looking for a vision for how to navigate the 21st century’s coming disruptions and transitions? Look no further than Jermaine Henry and many others like him.

Jermaine Henry at a recent speaking event. Photo credit: YouthREX

My friend and co-conspirator Jermaine Henry recently gave an interview for the Youth Research and Evaluation eXchange (YouthREX) at York University, where he had all sorts of profound truths to share about why and how to bring freedom, expression and identity into our work with young people who are vulnerable to a system that wasn’t designed for or by them.

“Brave spaces are spaces where people can really be authentic and honest and vulnerable in their experiences so that we can push forward and effectively collaborate.”

Jermaine is just one of the many young adults who are creating the conditions for everyone to claim their unique and birthright forms of leadership, which then become offerings for their community’s collective betterment. He introduces the idea of “brave space” that he’s been bringing into some innovative work he and others are doing with the Youth Social Infrastructure (YSI) Collaborative.

Brave spaces are spaces where people can really be authentic and honest and vulnerable in their experiences so that we can push forward and effectively collaborate… Through brave space we were able to realize shared leadership and shared power. People were able to be their authentic selves.

That grounding in authenticity and vulnerability is what makes true collaboration possible. As Jermaine says:

We need a society of participatory leaders, not just one person that we look to. Every single person has a valuable story, a valuable perspective, and I think we need to create spaces where we can be courageous enough to show that.
Some thoughts captured from the YSI Spirit Circle. Photo credit: http://ysispiritcircles.tumblr.com/

This is a profoundly different way of working than most organizations led by professionals are used to. And many “adults”, through conditioning, have forgot that this vulnerable, participatory form of leadership is even possible. That’s why, Jermaine says:

youth work should actively involve young adults, people my age 25–35, who have just come out of adolescence but are still connected to it. That’s when people are able to really shine and be intentional in the work. We can collectively agree to be in this space and be ourselves. Then we can agree to move forward together. This is something I learned through my work with the Grassroots Youth Collaborative.

Why is it important that we adopt this different mindset for leadership and how we gather together? Because that is what allows us to tap into the real issues that get left out of the room when we gather as one-dimensional professionals working within systems that were mostly created to serve people with middle class and white privilege. Jermaine hints at this when he gives an example of the system-shifting work that this new form of leadership makes possible:

This summer I worked with the Children’s Peace Theatre and we did a production called ‘Raising Revolution’. Using theatre we were are able to unpack issues and address topics that schools are unable to tackle, things like immigration laws, white privilege, sexuality, and the Black Lives Matter movement. As leaders we facilitated conversations rather than telling the youth what to do. The experience offers the young people really valuable skills like working in a group, critical thinking and communicating a meaningful message. They can apply these skills to their learning at their school.

Jermaine paints a picture of a radically different model of making change inside and in collaboration with schools and other institutions. What’s more, this is a shift that is going to require the equitable involvement—especially, I would add, paid involvement—of young adults — especially, I would add, those who identify as women, trans*, indigenous and of colour — to serve as the bridge between these old and new ways of working.

“We need a society of participatory leaders, not just one person that we look to. Every single person has a valuable story and perspective. We need to create spaces where we can be courageous enough to show that.”

If you are looking for a vision statement for how to navigate the 21st century’s coming disruptions and transitions — in a way that works for those most affected by the last century’s failures — look no further than Jermaine.