I Used To Hang Out With My Friends: Hanging Out as Informal Learning Practice in the City

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #14 in April 2014]

I work at a youth arts organization that offers informal learning experiences to teens and young adults. Our free programs bring adult artists together with youth to foster experiential creative practices through an integration of HOMAGO values (Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out) into everything we do. Artist throughout history have always had hang out time be it in their studios, at exhibition openings or over passionate conversations at bars about who the next big name will be. As a society we value our hangout time; even companies are investing money to make sure their employees are holistically satisfied. Urban planners argue that societies organically develop social meeting spaces (hangout spaces) and therefore need them for community development and civic engagement; such spaces are called “third spaces” (home is the firstspace and work is the second). Third spaces foster and nurture informal learning practices. As adults we can, for the most part, afford to inhabit thirdspaces and when we can’t, we find a means to by congregating, pitching in for a pizza with friends, or attending an event that serves free wine with cheese and crackers.

And yet these values are not upheld when it comes to youth hangout time. What are youth third spaces? Home life for youth is their firstspace and school their second (some youth may have jobs, which would be their second space), but a youth thirdspace is difficult to point out. Spaces like my art organization function like thirdspace options for teens and young adults, as do parks, libraries, diners and grandma’s basement. Most youth do not have a steady income, unless they are upper middle to upper class, so they cannot afford to spend their afternoon at a cafe or arcade. Youth—especially urban youth—thirdspaces, or “hangout spaces,” are being negatively affected by adultist and socially/racially preconceived notions of youth which consequently impact their informal learning practices in a negative way.

Over the summer I caught myself getting nervous, annoyed, and even tense when our participants would hang out in large groups in our hallways and stairwells. I remember thinking, “Why are they so loud?” “Why can’t they put headphones on their phones?” “Do I really need to hear that song again?” As a practitioner and supporter of youth programming, I should be conscious of my role as an adult, yet I wasn’t. Like me, many adults fall on adultist behaviors and attitudes when we interact with youth, especially Black and Latino youth. More importantly our adultist attitudes are devaluing youth’s hang out time.

Hanging out is a part of social development. Social development is crucial to becoming a successful learner within formal and informal settings. In a city like Chicago, hanging out for a teen—like their public schooling—has become sociopolitically challenged. Hangout time and space is hard to come by, and at times, even a privilege. In communities like Englewood, Little Village, Austin, and Back of the Yards where violence, gangs and even harsh policing can limit the amount of time youth spend on the streets, hangout time is limited. Teens are forced to rush to get to and from home. If you were to walk the halls of a public school at the end of the day, you would hear security guards yelling at kids to leave the premises. Free and accessible afterschool programs offer teens a space, possibly even their own third space, but we should not be their only option. Many times despite good intentions, enrichment activities go to waste because they are inaccessible to participants. Teens are seeking thirdspacesof their own, even if it means facing adultist consequences.

Our current generation of teens grew up in the digital age. Teens have found thirdspaces on the internet. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Tumblr are the digital spaces where teens hang out. Other teens search deeper and find communities in “cosplay” anime sites and band fan pages. Although cyber thirdspaces are completely valid and enriching, as humans we will continue our search for communion in the three-dimensional world.

Here in Chicago, you may have witnessed teens seeking out third spaces, but society’s adultist ways portray them as a nuisance. Media tends to inflate teen actions, particularly those of youth of color or of low socioeconomic status. Earlier this year, teens were hanging out at Ford City Mall to see a free concert given by the newest dance craze. The concert was canceled at the last minute and like any disappointed music aficionado would, the attendees made this apparent. A disappointed adult crowd would have, of course, done the same without the dispute making headlines. The media tends to inflate and intensify stories for their audiences, especially stories about young black men, and in this instance, referred to the group’s disappointment with the canceled event as “a riot . . .” by “menaces to society” [sic]. I wanted to get an understanding of what the media also called “mindless behavior,” so I rang up Jackie Moore, the director and founder of Level Up, a teen-centered maker space that focuses on supporting teens’ hangout and geeking out time through the exploration of robotics, located inside Ford City Mall.

I asked Jackie to tell me what she witnessed that day at Ford City Mall, she answered:

Were TEENS running and yelling in the mall? Don’t know about upstairs, but I saw 10–12 year old girls squealing as they ran to find the band—and they were with their parents AND mall security. Did teens misbehave? YES. Did they show poor judgment? YES. Did they leave when they were told to leave? YES! Were they all criminals? NO!!! In fact, nothing was reported stolen, there was no random violence, and there were only two incidents of property damage reported (the broken windshield in the video, and a garbage can was thrown in the main mall). Does not sound like a riot to me.

Instead, sounds like teens who don’t have many options when it comes to hanging out (especially in free public spaces) on a Saturday afternoon. It is highly likely that, as has been reported and speculated, that some teens gathered there intentionally that afternoon (thanks to social media). It is unclear what drew them there—boredom, the expectation of some excitement, or just an opportunity to be with other teens. It is unfortunate, that teens really don’t have a safe place to congregate, and that their presence in large numbers causes fear in adults.

Jackie’s experience as a teen program practitioner challenges her to be aware of her role as an adult within a teen space; her observations of that day’s events tell us that adultist mindsets and racially prejudiced views turned a normal teen event into the frenzy that it was, not the teens themselves. I asked her why she thought the story was twisted:

The easy answer (and there is an unfortunate amount of truth in it) is that isms sell (racism, classism, and adultism). Nondominant teens gathered en-masse equals evil intentions and/or unrestrained violence in the eyes of the media, and that garners the attention of the public. The more subtle message is that the South Side of Chicago is a dangerous place; youth of color who live there are especially dangerous, and they need to be constrained by the police (because their parents aren’t/can’t/won’t). Once this is accepted as fact and not opinion, it becomes easy to generalize and see teens as a threat that requires adult control. Since these generalizations are most often applied to youth of color, the criminalization of teens has become the new Jim Crow.

Contrast that with the “wilding” or “flash mob” that occurred a week later (and on several more occasions through May) on North Michigan Avenue. A tourist was injured (stabbed?), pedestrians were knocked over, people and stores were robbed, and significantly more youth were arrested. It was never called a riot, there was no backlash against the shops on Michigan Avenue, and the entire event was played down by the news media. But [Governor Pat] Quinn did get a law passed to classify these events as “terrorist acts.”

This single event shows that urban youth here in Chicago are an example of urban youth across the world whose hang out time (informal learning practices) are being limited, closed and criminalized. I have heard my teens at work say jokingly, “We’re like party hobos on bikes.” They aren’t able to hang out anywhere too long because they get harassed, questioned and ultimately kicked out. Although afterschool spaces like Level Up are a safe hangout option for teens, those spaces are being impacted by the need to formalize them for funders, validate them for researchers and simply make it easier for adults to interact with teens on adult terms.

Where and when does the formalization of teen hangout spaces stop? As programmers can we afford to keep our programs absolutely informal?

Organizations that are struggling to fund accessible programming for youth are finding themselves transforming what was once a free, organic, and welcoming informal space into one that is easily evaluated and valuable to funders, even if that change may create disinterest in youth. Spaces created by youth have become ephemeral, available until the moment an adult becomes uncomfortable, judgmental and irritated at the sight. Youth have been and will continue to be vilified and criminalized, but if we could just accept and appreciate the wonders of being an adolescent these programmatic and social nuisances would be irrelevant. But alas, it feels instead like every day we are farther away from validating youth’s potential and creative & cultural capital.

We were all teens at one point of our lives, we discovered who we are at informal hang spaces, we socially developed on our own terms, those experiences allowed us to be open to possibilities and to thrive. We were lucky.

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