The Santa Maria Mayor’s Task Force on Youth Safety is inching toward a strategic plan, having spent the spring, summer and part of the fall trying to hammer out a plan.

The group launched in April with about 30 people on board, and has since grown to nearly 40 participants.

The group includes the Santa Maria Police Department, county Sheriff’s Office, superintendents of both school districts that serve the greater Santa Maria area, Literacy Council, Fighting Back Santa Maria, church leaders and representatives from the District Attorney’s Office, among others.

Conspicuously missing from this group are young people, a fact we pointed out several months ago. Our theory was, and continues to be if you want to solve the youth gang problem, thus improving the safety of the entire youth population, you need to talk to youth — or better yet, listen to them.

The absence of youth voices and ideas in the task force’s deliberations has not escaped the notice of some civic leaders, among them Peter Flores, co-founder of One Community Action, which has been lobbying for substantive policy change on youth issues. Flores has spoken publicly about young voices being MIA during this entire process.

City officials took a stab at including young people with a town hall meeting at which youth were given the floor, and adults were actually asked to stay on the sidelines. The results of that meeting may be included in the task force’s final strategic plan.

The problem is, and has always been that adults too often ignore what young people have to say, about almost anything. Aging somehow infects a person with the notion of superior wisdom.

Age can and does add wisdom in most cases, but it also deprives some adults of memories of what it was like being a teen, especially one growing up in a community such as Santa Maria, which has experienced periodic waves of youth gang crime, a lot of it extremely violent.

It’s tough being a kid. Young people have and can articulate feelings about situations too many adults have forgotten or never experienced. Grownups tend to move on, facing new and different life challenges. They can share the wisdom of such transitions without really remembering what it’s actually like.

One teen at the recent town hall event spoke of the tangible and potentially destructive impact of violence, gangs and drugs, to the intangible ills of racism, oppression and lack of mental-health services. She said these problems could be addressed if school administrators and other adults were open to listening and working with local youth directly.

In other words — listen to me, please. Here are that teen’s exact words:

“They may know what’s going on in our school but may not know what’s going on in our mind. When we’re young we’re told we have decision-making skills, but we don’t have opportunities to use them. We’re often told what we want by people who are older than us. It’s like we don’t have a voice.”

We hope that young person’s perspective will grab the attention of task force members, because young voices are a key ingredient that seems to be missing throughout this process.

As adults, we like to think we have all the answers. And it’s true that we may have. But the answers can be rendered meaningless if we don’t ask the right questions, and the only way we can do that is to listen — really listen — to what our young people have to say.

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