By Tanya Schmidt
I am a townie. Except for my training in the military and most of 3rd grade, I have lived my entire life in Oshkosh. I have lived on…gasp…both sides of the river. I have worked at both local and corporately owned businesses. I graduated from the Oshkosh Area School District. I earned my Bachelor of Science degree in Education at UWO. I am proud to call Oshkosh home.
I haven’t always felt that way. As a teenager, it seemed like everywhere my friends and I went – we weren’t wanted there. When we watched boys skateboard in the parking garage or across from the library, people would ask us to leave. When we went to hang out at the mall and sit in the angular wooden benches, people would ask us to leave. When we went roller-skating and stood in the parking lot after the sock-hop talking to friends, people would ask us to leave. It just felt like no one wanted the kids there. We were inconsiderate ‘riff-raff’, trouble makers, loiterers, etc. We just wanted someplace to be…to be teenagers. We were cool kids with tons of ideas on how things should be – not just in Oshkosh, but in the world. No one wanted to listen.
And then it happened. Someone listened. Value was given to the immense capabilities and acute perception we possessed. One idea grew into a (high school) club. Partnerships were built throughout the community. Other similar youth groups were born in different cities. Together, we worked on a campaign to help liberate the former president of South Africa. His daughter came to thank us for our work. Not too bad for a bunch of inconsiderate 16-year-old trouble makers.
This was all done before the age of internet research and communication. CDs were just hitting the market. Information was stored on 5 ¼ diskettes, if you were lucky enough to have a computer. Cordless phones were starting to replace the 10 foot stretched out corded versions. The Berlin wall had just fallen. Change was happening all over. We wanted to be a part of that change. We wanted to make a difference. We wanted someone to believe in us. We didn’t just reach out to make this happen. Someone reached out to us. Someone saw the potential we contained. Someone wanted fresh ideas from different perspectives.
Working to bring awareness of human rights violations was not our only idea. Another idea grew into the Oshkosh skate park. Another idea led to a music production company. Another idea led to an award winning film producer. Another idea led to a seat in our state government. All of these ideas had the backing of adults who believed in us, adults who valued our opinions, adults who listened to our ideas, and adults willing to trust how much we knew.
This is what Oshkosh needs. Adults willing to believe youth are capable of contributing in a valuable way. Adults willing to believe young people’s opinions matter. Adults willing to believe they can learn something from youth. Adults need to be willing to share their knowledge with youth. Adults need to listen to ideas of the youth rather than ignore, scoff, or veto them. Adults need to include youth as partners, not just tokens so as to claim “youth involvement.”
I listen to youth every day in my classroom. They have a perspective I do not have. I did not grow up with the advantages they have. I did not grow up with technological evolution occurring on an annual basis. Atari was amazing to me when I was their age. I could not wait for Saturday because it was the only day with cartoons on TV. And the Sunday funnies were (and still are) the best part of the newspaper. I need to listen to youth. I need to know how the world is perceived as working or what needs to be fixed. I let them know I am listening and believe in their immense capabilities and acute perception on their world.
So, Oshkosh, I challenge you. Listen to youth…really listen. Hear them. Believe in them. I hope they surprise you.
Tanya is a native Oshkoshite and also a mother, educator, amateur gardener, optimist, and believer in the power of youth.