Power of Adultism

This article was written in partnership with Creative Generation and is cross-posted on their blog.

by Andre Solomon

Creative Generation embarks a venture that observes the Teaching Artists Guild (TAG), a member driven organization that supports teaching artists, and their newly constructed program entitled, Youth Right Now = Truth Right Now. From January to June, this series of BIPOC Youth Led Professional Development Workshops will give insight into what helps build a creative, nurturing and thriving environment for young artists.

While there are many professional development workshops for teaching artists (TAs) throughout the country, there are very few opportunities for TAs to learn from the young people they serve. By showcasing BIPOC youth leaders, TAG reiterates that centering the work means recognizing the injustices that have been built into our system.

TAG opened the series with a focused workshop on Adultism where the premise lay on having youth artists unpack the effects of adultist behaviors on their development while inviting participants/practitioners to reimagine and adopt new ways of engaging with youth. For this particular session, it was conducted by Victor Sawyer & Brittney Boyd Bullock with their youth leads, Andrea Dixon and Maya Ashe. 

Did you know that 85% of individuals have seen adultism greatly impact youth? Have you ever said the following statements to a young person? If so, you may be committing adultism….

  • You’re so smart for your age.
  • You don’t know anything about what I’m talking about because you’re too young.
  • You should ____ because I said so!

Andrea later explains that adultism generates biases where older counterparts inflict disrespect upon the basis that their opinions weigh more significant. Adults capture the upper hand within power differentials defining their heavy influence in the relationship. Many arts practitioners have tendencies to negatively focus instead conducting positive reinforcement towards growth. Therefore, when explanations by adults are not translated well to youth, it can produce poor experience that stains them. Childhood development is crucial because many mental health issues that develop as adults stem from youth experiences. Hence, a balance must incur where both parties are patient with one another in order to build healthy intergenerational relationships. At our core we are all masters and learners. 

Adultism has many shapes and forms, for example we have the School to Prison Pipeline, negative media portrayals and poor school curriculum that destroys fruitful advancement. Reflecting on her own experiences, Andrea remembers clearly being critiqued in an Visual Arts class where the teacher provided no rubric but vocalized judgement when students performed poorly in their eyes. The subject in question, a pink cat. 

Maya continues the conversation by adding her own personal reflections. For Maya, adultism favored her because she fit the mold, she acknowledged a role she played as a teacher’s pet. Sadly, most children are taught (directly or indirectly) that if their talents do not fit expectations, they do not matter. In these scenarios teachers nurtured class favors while inflicting scorn on others. For example, the teacher would point at kids manning their culture (vocal and physical characteristics), especially towards the black children’s dialect. They tried to reveal the truth, the administration (adults) paid no attention.

The offense remained unchecked, and more often than not a teacher abused their position as a nurturer and educator. 

With the above said, Adultism has the power to cultivate two types of youth: Those who require validation (follow adultism) and those who oppose authority (refuse adultism). With our many cultures that idolize age synonymous with wisdom, it seems almost default. However, does one blame an individual when the system is not working for them? Respect is a two way street, but we do not teach it as such. Thinking about the Theory of Evolution (for teaching): Initially teachers are heavily nurturing, yet where Middle School/High School arrives these same teachers warn students that the level of care will decrease. What a setup to adolescence…. 

There is merit investing a level of responsibility on younger individuals, but without care, generations will be cultivated cursing the world. So how do we combat adultism? Below are starting points: 

  • Have Honest Conversations
  • Analyze Your Relationship with Students; Can They Come to You?
  • Establish Mutual Respect in the Space
  • Understand Your Role as a Teacher 
  • Apologize, Take Responsibility, and Ask What Young Learners Need Moving Forward
  • Maintain a Balanced Practice of Rigor and Kindness
  • Realize the Internalized Hierarchy that Makes Adults Hold onto Power (which can derive from resentment of their own youth disempowerment)

At the end of the day nobody has all the answers but individuals must take the strides to understand a plethora of experience where one can step up but also step back.

This series was made possible by collaboration between the Teaching Artists Guild and Memphis Music Initiative and the funding of Panta Rhea Fund and the Fenwick Foundation.


Youth Facilitators

Maya Ashe is a senior at White Station High School and has been a part of Memphis Music Initiative for 3 years.

Andrea Dixon is a percussionist and a senior at Memphis Business Academy’s high school. She’s been with Memphis Music Initiative for almost a year.

Adult Mentors

Brittney Boyd Bullock (Memphis, Tennessee) has worked as Project Manager for the Urban Art Commission, managing Memphis’ largest public art archive, and as the Partnerships and Community Engagement Manager for Crosstown Concourse & Crosstown Arts overseeing a variety of collaborative creative programs and exhibitions. She now holds the position of Director of Youth Programs for the Memphis Music Initiative, helping to build sustainable relationships with Memphis’ youth while implementing youth-led and youth-driven programs. Her journey of cultivating trust and lasting relationships has contributed to naturally create opportunities for collaboration with various communities, organizations, and artists that invite participation from a broad range of backgrounds and expertise. As a mentor and former Fellow of the award-winning ArtUp Fellowship, her interests in community engagement and social change has led her to an art practice that invites redefining why to create, how to create, and for what purposes. As a visual artist, the intersections of ritual, psychology (the study of the human experience, particularly in the Black and African Diaspora), and (re)memory are explored in her work. The virtues of joy and rest and how we overlook and manifest them in our daily experiences are the most prominent themes. She uses memorabilia, color, and rituals – which are elevated routines, set with intention and repetition — as a process to create emotional and psychological safe-havens.

Victor Sawyer (Memphis, TN) is Co Chair of the Teaching Artists Guild National Advisory Committee. He also serves as a Fellowship Coach for the Memphis Music Initiative, working with a team of teaching artists to create engaging and impactful arts programming for youth in underserved communities throughout the Greater Memphis Area and as an instrumental Teaching Artist at the world famous Stax Music Academy. It is at Stax that Sawyer has worked within the ever more popular music education field. Utilizing contemporary music from the Soul, Rock, Blues, and Pop genres, students at Stax Music Academy learn the fundamentals of music performance while also developing socio-emotional via the group rehearsal process. Sawyer performs primarily in Memphis, TN as a freelance trombonist frequently recording at legendary studio such as Sun, Royal, and Ardent and has performed at the North Sea Jazz Festival, South by Southwest, and Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York City’s Lincoln Center. Most recently Sawyer received the honor of performing with legendary Memphis recording artists 8Ball and MJG, Steve Cropper, Eddie Floyd, and Valerie June.

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