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My latest early reviewer book from LibraryThing was the 20th anniversary edition of Allan Creighton and Paul Kivel’s Helping Teens Stop Violence, Build Community, and Stand for Justice (Alameda, CA: Hunter House, 2011). The authors have worked together in the field of violence prevention and social justice activism since the mid-1970s. This book is a workbook for adults seeking to work with young people, specifically teenagers, to identify and combat the various types of institutional and cultural injustice they encounter in their lives. “Professional literature about adolescents, social-service priorities, and funding trends all [emphasize] programs that [build] self-esteem,” the authors observe. “Many youth workers convey to young people that if they just had higher self-esteem, they could overcome any obstacle and succeed at anything they set out to do,” ignoring the institutionalized, systemic injustices young people as well as adults face in securing life necessities and building a satisfying life for themselves and their families (60). We do a grave disservice to youth, the authors argue, by implying that if they are struggling it is largely because of personal failure when, in fact, the problem is an imbalance of power:

Our problem [when we were young people ourselves] was not based on low self-esteem or any of the other psychologically defined problems. Rather, we had no real power over our lives. Without power to protect ourselves, we were constantly restricted, disrespected, and abused by adults. Everywhere we went, adults had the authority to decide how we should dress, where we could be, and who we could be with. They decided our future through daily decisions including discipline, records, diagnoses, arrests, report cards, evaluations, and allowences, or just by ignoring, interrupting, or neglecting us.(60-61)

The imbalance, of course, is not just one of age but also intersects with many other inequalities from which adults also suffer: poverty, sexism, racism, religious bigotry, discrimination based on disability and sexual orientation or gender identity … the list is a long and familiar one. Creighton and Kivel call on adult allies to work with youth in identifying these power imbalances and combat them. Those who benefit from inequality seek to divide the attention and alliances of those who are struggling to get by under oppressive systems. By forging networks of support among ourselves at the bottom of the inequality pyramid, the authors suggest, we can more effectively enact lasting social change as well as survive in present day far-less-than-optimal conditions.

Since the book is designed primarily as a workbook for group trainings, those who are reading Helping Teens Stop Violence outside of that context may find themselves skimming a bit and taking note of various exercises for later usefulness, rather than reading in a straightforward manner. I found myself skipping around quite a bit, once I’d read the introduction and gathered the gist of the authors’ perspective and approach. Some general impressions:

  • The authors have made an effort throughout to discuss the ways in which different types of injustice overlap and interact, so that even though (for example) a given chapter may be about “class” the exercises continually push us to think about how things like race, sexual orientation, immigrant status, etc., shape our class identities and economic opportunities.
  • As someone who is continually frustrated with the invisibility of ageism in our culture — even among groups of people willing to discuss and dismantle other “isms” such as sexism and racism, or address homophobia and access issues for folks with disabilities — I was really excited to see the first few chapters devoted to age-based discrimination, and exercises designed to get adults remembering their own teenage years and the lack of agency they had as young people in a world controlled by adults.
  • The authors emphasize the fluidity of what they call “target” and “non-target” categories (i.e. various types of social privilege), reminding us that our social status and agency is highly dependent on context and can change as the context changes — so that each of us have experienced both being part of a target group and being part of a non-target (privileged) group at various points in our lives.
  • Even without using this book as a workbook with a group, as it was intended, the various exercises often contain useful suggestions for how to intervene in situations where you see oppression happening in order to name it and (hopefully) stop the cycle of violence from continuing.
  • They also offer some good guidelines for having constructive and saf(er) discussions about difficult topics, recognizing that “we have all been hurt in various ways and have had lots of experience of not being listened to well, so we have developed a billion ways to protect ourselves from getting close to each other and becoming vulnerable to further hurt” (170). By structuring discussions in ways that may seem a bit stilted at first, groups can build enough trust by which they can have productive conversations about prejudice, violence, and institutionalized inequality.

Helping Teens Stop Violence will obviously be most useful to those who have immediate practical application for its suggested exercises and the resources listed in the back of the book (though I found their resource lists a rather odd mix, with curious gaps — particularly when it comes to the available literature on violence in education and violence against youth). However, it’s a worthwhile read for anyone who is interested in the practical aspects of social justice work at the grassroots level, and who is interested in thinking a bit more deeply about the way in which our culture has institutionalized ageism and systematically disenfranchises young people and children.