The Next Generation of Neighborhood Leaders

I have helped to throw a number of block parties in my community over the last few years. The pandemic created a new urgency for them as many people needed a safe way to connect with each other. Block parties allowed us to be socially distant outside while connecting with each other. One of the things I hear from some of the older residents in our neighborhood is that “We used to do a lot more block parties!” Often, I wonder why the block parties stopped happening. I know people grow older and tired and move away, but block parties are so much fun. Surely, they should have continued throughout the years.


When we first threw our block parties, we noticed very quickly that the teenagers did not feel very welcome at them. Usually the younger kids felt fine as long as there were activities and they could ride their scooters up and down the street. However, the teens did not care for the activities or socializing that many of the adults would be occupied with. For a while, we tried to keep coming up with new ways to entice them to come and stay at the block parties. Eventually, however, we realized we were missing something crucial. We never actually talked to the teenagers about this, nor invited them to be a part in the planning process. We just made lots of assumptions about what was best for them.


Whether it’s a transition of a family moving from one place to another, or a transition of a new generation of people living in a community, there must be some intentionality to making sure what is good is not lost. While we encourage our young people to grow and develop in contextualized settings such as schools or team sports, I feel that we do not let them lead in our community and neighborhood settings nearly enough. If we do not give them the reins to lead in our communities, then how do we expect our neighborhood block parties to continue in the future?


Here are a few things I have had to remember as I invite young people into our community processes.


1. Invite young people to lead.


One of the best things we can do is let young people have a key role in the planning process. While adults may have more control over community assets, that does not mean we must have control over who plans what is to be done—or even who leads it. Asking young people to join us in the planning process welcomes their perspective and imparts a shared sense of ownership in our neighborhood and community activities.


2. Make space for young people to fail.


The pursuit of perfection can be a deterrent for anyone who is wanting to try a new thing. If there is a daunting expectation of perfection, then many people start to think “I cannot do that; only certain people can.” Community activities should strive for involvement over perfection as it can be a great opportunity to include many people and not just the “skilled few.” As more people are involved—especially young people—we must ensure that we have a culture where people are allowed to fail and learn from mistakes.


3. Pay attention to what’s important to young people.


If we are inviting young people to do things alongside us, then we must make sure they understand how it actually benefits them or impacts something they care about. I have experienced young people rallying around a cause and bringing the community into that effort. It is an absolutely wonderful experience! Rather than having our young people solely serve our interests, is there a way for us to support theirs?


While some may say that too many things in our culture exist to entertain young people at a shallow level, I believe that fostering their engagement in our communities can be a truly transformative thing for them. I hope in the future our block parties are not lost. Instead, I hope young people in our community can say later in life that “I learned to do this when I was young.”


A hopeful neighborhood is one where neighbors believe that everyone is a gift with gifts to share. What gifts do the young people on your block bring to your neighborhood? How might you weave them more deeply into the fabric of your community?

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