Low Barrier Youth Engagement

Adam Fletcher facilitating in Phoenix, Arizona

Over the last two decades of research and practice in the field of youth engagement, I’ve found a distinct lack of commitment to engaging the Other. Often used in literature and art to allude to people who are different from us, the Other is best understood as a person or people seen as not belonging and being fundamentally different in some way from us. Seeing youth and their communities as the Other has allowed a lot of nonprofits, schools and government programs to build high walls that stop youth engagement.

I’ve been committed to low barrier youth engagement for the last 30 years without having the language for it. Today, I know that low barrier youth engagement happens when programs, roles and activities actively work to lower the barriers to sustainably connecting youth with the world around them.

Low barrier youth engagement happens when programs, roles and activities actively work to lower the barriers to sustainably connecting youth with the world around them.

Some of the barriers to youth engagement include:

  • Bias—prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.
  • Sexism—prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex.
  • Transphobia—dislike of or prejudice against transsexual or transgender people.
  • Adultism—Bias toward adults leading to discrimination against youth; or the addiction to the ideas, actions, appearance and position of people over the age of majority.
  • Favoritism—the practice of giving unfair preferential treatment to one person or group at the expense of another.
  • Classism—prejudice against or in favor of people belonging to a particular social class.
  • Discrimination—the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex.
  • Homophobia—dislike of or prejudice against homosexual people.
  • Ableism—discrimination in favor of able-bodied people.
  • Favoring—feel or show approval or preference for.
  • Anti-Semitism—hostility to or prejudice against Jews.

When adults who work with youth read this list, they won’t be surprised or unfamiliar with the terms. However, its the concept of specifically and pointedly lowering these barriers to build youth engagement that we’re concerned with. When we deliberately address these barriers, we make it easier to engage youth on purpose.

Do youth have transportation to programs? Do youth have adults of their race leading activities? Are there other youth from their culture in the room? Do all youth have the ability to be engaged? Does the program assume youth have the knowledge they need to be engaged? Do youth have jobs or other commitment that prevents them from getting to programs or activities? All of these reasons can keep youth from becoming engaged in youth engagement programs. Often, youth have no option but to become engaged outside of youth programs and activities.

Illustrates the barriers and access points for youth engagement
This image shows the relationship between barriers and access to youth engagement.

To lower the barriers to youth engagement, youth are presented with opportunities reflecting their interests. They are allowed to become engaged how they want to, instead of having to do what adults want them to. In many programs, they are allowed to come and go freely, and given bus passes that encourage their freedom. Low-barrier youth engagement offers off-hours activities as well as typical activity times, and creates ways for youth with babies and jobs to attend, too. There are mental and behavioral health services, programs for food and housing, recreational activities, skills and knowledge-building activities and other resources, often all in one location. Life coaching is valued above mentorship, and facilitation is more important than teaching.

When we learn to stop seeing youth outside of our programs as the Other, we begin to lower these barriers and make space for youth engagement to happen.

We can continue to lower the barriers to youth engagement by becoming deliberate and intentional. Learning about and understanding concepts such as youth/adult partnerships, youth voice, adultism, ephebiphobia and youth empowerment can help us move towards low-barrier youth engagement.

I’m still exploring this idea, and I would love to hear your thoughts about it. Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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