For more than 20 years, the Walker Art Center has hosted the Walker Art Center Teen Arts Council (WACTAC), a group of a dozen teenagers from across the Twin Cities who meet up after school every week to learn about the behind-the-scenes life of the museum and develop their own self-directed projects. The goal of WACTAC is to build a community of peers who convene their ideas, issues, and artistic practices, leveraging the institution’s resources and access to build their leadership skills and professional development. I recently became the facilitator of the program and, as part of applying for the job, I was interviewed by the WACTAC members. It was terrifying.
I had absolutely no idea how to prepare. I couldn’t use any of my typical canned interview answers. Teens wouldn’t care about my management preferences or my perfectionistic tendencies. I didn’t know if they’d be looking for a camp counselor type, who could teach them friendship bracelet making techniques and trust exercises, or someone who is undeniably cool and in-the-know about whatever teenagers like these days.
These thoughts didn’t take up too much space. What was truly occupying my mind, and really scaring me, was that teenagers would be playing a role in deciding if I would get a job. Even to someone who wants to work with teenagers, there is nothing scarier than a teenager with real responsibility—however, that’s exactly the premise of WACTAC. In my short time at the Walker, I have learned WACTAC has had the power to change the course of exhibitions, develop critical literature about the institution’s funding structures, and determine the vocabulary and signage used for the Walker’s all-gender restrooms. WACTAC aims to provide teens with experiences that can help with confidence building and problem solving, giving teens responsibility that truly communicates trust in their ability to achieve. Because of the Walker’s belief in these teens, the future of my employment was in their hands.
My interview went fast. Over 30 minutes, five teenagers asked me five questions about my past work, why I was interested in the job, what I considered important qualities in a youth worker, and what I would want to do for an upcoming event. While my actual interview felt short, it was part of a much longer conversation held by the WACTAC group. After my interview, and interviewing the other applicants, the teens discussed our responses. They debated what they valued in a facilitator, weighed their own assumptions, and shared expectations of their time together so they could determine their collective needs and interests. From there, they determined what skills and attributes a facilitator should have to meet them. The conversations got the teens on the same page so they could make the decision, as a group, that actually worked for all of them.
Conversations like these happen after all job interviews, but for the WACTAC teens this process was more than just a “kid-friendly” version of a selecting the right person for the job. As the teens shared their overlapping and competing beliefs, they were building a community of practice: an educational term for a space that allows for self-expression, connection, and conversation over shared or disparate assumptions, and meaningful validation. When working with teens, everything they do has the potential to be more than just an activity. Every moment has the potential to facilitate broader learning and development. This experience in collective decision making will surely help the teens later in life, and they know that.
Teenagers are up for the challenge of growth and responsibility and will accept it with eagerness and seriousness. The hardest part is letting go of the reins and trusting the teens—but once you do it, it’s really not that scary.