The Youth Action Spiral

Youth workers and educators sometimes gather in meeting rooms to talk about what the work they do with young people. Discussing education, recreation, social activities, psychological counseling, and many other approaches to youth work, they sometimes discover that there are patterns that emerge within their work that affect all of the young people they work with, no matter what their ages, socio-economic backgrounds, cultures, educational levels, or otherwise.

One of the patterns these youth workers sometimes discuss is how young people take action in their own lives and in the lives of their communities. They refer to this action in many ways and with many terms.

In my research and practice focused on social change led by and with young people for The Freechild Project, I have discovered many of these terms. I have found they’re often used synonymously without distinguishing their meanings or purposes.

Following is my new Youth Action Spiral. In this graphic and the description below, I intend to show how each of these words fits within a concise picture of action that all young people benefit from. It also shows what youth workers, educators, and others are doing to engage young people, and what they could be doing.


The Youth Action Spiral

The Youth Action Spiral is designed to hold many different activities that young people take action in throughout our communities. Its a spiral because these activities are not linear and do not begin and end in a sequence. Instead, they can all happen at the same time throughout communities, within organizations, among a specific group of young people, and even in the lives of individual youth. There is a particular deepening that happens as the Spiral turns; however, this isn’t a tool for determining the value of a particular approach. Instead, its met to highlight that each has value in alternating turns.

  • Youth Voice is any expression of any young person anywhere, at any time. This can include expressions that are verbal, written, visual, body language, or actions; expressions that are convenient and inconvenient for adults to listen to; and intentional as well as unintentional expressions. They do not require adult approval or acceptance.
  • Youth Participation is the active attendance of young people in any mode throughout their lives or communities. Youth participation can happen through active decision-making, sports, schools, or faith communities. It can also happen in homes and among friends. Youth participation can be formal or informal; when its formal, youth may not choose to attend something, but they choose whether to participate. When its informal, youth choose to join in on something.
  • Youth Involvement is any deliberate effort that centers on young peoples’ ongoing attendance in personal, social, institutional, cultural, and other forms of structural action throughout society. Youth involvement is generally formal, often including specific roles, education, and outcomes.
  • Youth Engagement is the sustained connection young people hold towards a particular thing, whether an idea, person, activity, place or outcome. That sustained connection can be social, emotional, educational, spiritual, sentimental, or otherwise as long as its sustained.
  • Youth Empowerment is the attitudinal, structural, and cultural process whereby young people gain the ability, authority, and agency to make decisions and implement change in their own lives and the lives of other people, including youth and adults.
  • Youth Leadership is the practice of young people exercising authority over themselves or others, both in informal and formal ways. There is youth leadership beyond the scope of what adults recognize, appreciate, or foster; there is also youth leadership which is guided by adults.
  • Youth Equality happens when young people are fully equal with adults while they’re involved in a given activity. This is a 50/50 split of authority, obligation, and commitment. One of the realities of this is that there isn’t recognition for the specific developmental needs or representation opportunities for children and youth.
  • Youth Equity is the pro-active rebalancing of relationships between youth and adults to allow for appropriately empowered roles between youth and adults. It allows for a 40/60 split of authority, while everyone involved- young people and adults- are recognized for their impact in the activity, and each has ownership of the outcomes.


The Youth Action Spiral can help young people and adult youth workers understand exactly what’s happening in youth programs and schools.

From 2012-2015, I worked with more than 75 youth workers in the Seattle Youth Engagement Practitioners Cadre. Facilitating large group activities focused on professional reflection, we used the Youth Action Spiral to position their daily activities in relationship to the varying outcomes of the 50+ organizations represented. What we quickly discover was that despite the apparent differences and ambiguities in practice throughout these organizations, there were a lot of similarities. Recognizing this created the potential of working together to solve common challenges, ultimately strengthening the capacities of each individual in the Cadre as well as the organizations and communities where they worked.

Using frameworks like this is essential for understanding not only where we’re at, but also where we’re going. Where are YOU going? Use the comment form below to answer that question, or contact me directly to find out how I can help you answer that question!


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Published by Adam F.C. Fletcher

I'm a speaker and writer who researches, writes and shares about youth, education, and history. Learn more about me at

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