Principles of Authentic Youth Engagement

Adam Fletcher promotes youth engagement in communities

I have spent the last few months here in New York City working with the Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education. They are national leaders in the Educating for Sustainability movement, providing training, resources and network leadership for hundreds of schools across the country.

While here I’ve been building out their youth voice focus, and I have some interesting products coming. One of them is a series of case studies of schools that have strong youth voice elements. I have compiled the following checklist to help me think about their informing beliefs, and thought I should share it here. I’d love to here what you think!

Authentic Youth Engagement is…

  • Collective Activities are led by youth and adults together – not individually
  • Connected Activities embody interdependence and model it among youth and adults
  • Empowering Youth voice is a driving force throughout activities
  • Equitable Adults recognize young people have differing backgrounds that require different approaches
  • Focused Activities are appropriately outcome-driven
  • Healthy Respectful disagreement, speaking up, and other avenues that equalize disparities between youth and adults are at the core of the activity
  • Learning Young people gain skills, knowledge and tools to be effect agents of change
  • Mutually Beneficial Young people and adults acknowledge each other’s dreams, actions, outcomes and reflections
  • Relevant Activities are responsive to the lives of young people
  • Responsible Adults and youth develop and sustain their capacity to be “response-able”
  • Substantive Activity design and outcomes are designed to impact individuals, organizations, communities and society
  • Self-Motivated Young people feel driven to participate

I might be wrapping up a white paper on authentic youth engagement in sustainability education within the next week – let me know if you’d like to see a draft by emailing adam at freechild dot org.

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2 responses to “Principles of Authentic Youth Engagement”

  1. This is a great list and I look forward to seeing the white paper. Just a few thoughts. I think “Self Motivated” is the key to all youth and adult involvement in anything. That’s why Summerhill encourages children to play as long as they want; to contradict the cultural expectation that adults define and control everything that children do. Finding one’s personal motivation is such a key to being human! As an older adult, I’ve spent a lot of time just discovering what it is that motivates me, what gives me joy, what work I think is worth doing. If young people are coerced in any way to participate, we’ve already failed.


  2. While I agree with the notion of self-motivated action Margaret, I don’t necessarily believe it has to be the key. The reality of participating in systemic transformation, like that in schools and youth-serving organizations, is that those institutions are simply adult-driven. They are adultcentric. I have seen that having to wait for young people to be self-motivated to participate in transforming those schools and orgs usually equates to one of two results: 1) Eternal waiting because children and youth have been conditioned not to want to participate. In turn this drives adults to believe they are doing the right thing by not asking young people to participate in the first place, and; 2) The same young people participating in everything. Self-motivated youth are usually those who see the long-term benefits of involvement and have goals to match. I call that group the “traditional youth leaders” because they are the ones we expect to show up everywhere, actually over-extending themselves and weakening the efficacy of their engagement. In turn this demonstrates to adults that young people are incapable of involvement, thereby justifying adults’ ongoing bias against them.Those are catch-22s. I believe there is a way to infuse youth-driven action into currently existing systems – even those that mandate youth involvement – in order to foster deeper self-motivation for future activities. Simply put, the disenfranchisement of young people throughout our society is simply too thorough to just wait for children and youth to one day react. We have to use the tools of popular culture – including or especially those that have disenfrachised them in the past – in order to motivate and drive action. Yeah. What do you think?


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