Away from Radical Youth Work?

Radical youth work moves from simply implanting skills, knowledge or ideas in young people towards engaging them as full human beings who co-construct the world we share. This youth work is radical because it departs from seeing youth as empty vessels to be filled by all-knowing adults. Instead, it engages them in active c0-learning, co-examination, co-building, advocating, and leading throughout our communities.

Between 1989 and 1999, I was a staff member in a dozen youth work programs across the United States, with several of them easily positioned as radical youth work. During that decade I looked for jobs I thought were “cool” where people “got it” and “knew what they were doing.” I didn’t have the language for it then, but I was looking for radical youth work that empowered young people to change their own lives and the world.

Starting in my own neighborhood as a teenager, I was an assistant director for a theater program that took low-income youth from public housing projects and taught them basics that led them to a performance for their families and neighborhoods. After that, I taught independent living skills for foster, homeless and runaway youth; led nature education activities in Midwestern prairies with bison and sandhill cranes abounding; developed a mentoring program for Kurdish and Iraqi refugee children; staffed a youth drug treatment facility; led inner-city youth in high adventure wildness activities in the Pacific Northwest; developed a youth center for high-risk pre-teens, and; consulted schools in northern New Mexico on service learning.

Throughout that journey, I learned about youth-led community activism, participating as an adult ally to youth demanding rights in their communities; developed my understanding of popular education, employing it to make critical inroads for learning among fellow low-income people; and built praxis among fellow youth workers who identified as marginalized or excluded from mainstream cultural, educational and social activities.

The way was dangerous along that road. There’s a flame of righteous indignation that burns within the hearts of people who are committed to changing the world. That flame is lit by hopefulness, but is doused by setbacks, depression, failure, and even success sometimes. Conscientiousness costs, and the passionate nuance of democracy can cause people to feel the bends and twists of social change in hyper-sensitive ways. More than just poor outcomes from contested elections can slice at the heart of radical youth work. When you hear a youth voted negatively; another one committed a crime that affected the whole community; another “dropped off the face of the earth” and disconnected from everything in their life that was empowering; and another grew up and went to work for a corporation with no apparent ethical baring in their lives; all of these things cut.

There’s a temptation to give up on youth, but I would suggest its more necessary to give up on radical youth work.

Rather than quit young people and walk away from them entirely, there are times when it can be necessary to quit the thinking and action that led to the disenchantment. Rather, to rest from it we have to relax the mental muscle and instead simply be. Be a youth worker, be an adult ally, be hopeful but with boundaries.

This isn’t about showing grit or resilience; it is about survival. We must survive. Through these years of wrestling with myself, my work, its outcomes and the possibilities ahead of me, I have had to rest a lot. Today, I’m thinking that sometimes that means walking away from radical youth work–and that’s okay.

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Heading to the United Kingdom

Starting June 30th, 2019, I am traveling to the United Kingdom for two weeks! Over 15 days, I’ll my work with more than 500 youth and adults from 20 communities across the country, visit with government and education officials, and help support the youth engagement transformation underway in the UK.

The sponsoring organization for my trip is called Community Organisers, and they are working in conjunction with the Community Development Journal for the first activity on my itinerary. Its called a “Thinkery,” and its focused on community development. My role at this gathering in London is as a provocateur, and I’ll give a keynote focused on my most radical vision for youth engagement today.

Next, I’ll be joining Community Organisers for a young organisers residential weekend. This three-day event will be held at a beautiful-looking facility on the outskirts of London called Woodrow High House. With 50 youth from around the UK coming, over the course of the weekend I’ll facilitate a few activities, including a workshop for adult chaperones who are attending.

While I’m in London, I’ve been invited to connect with my friend Annie Blackledge from Seattle, who will be on an international exchange with youth from the nonprofit she leads called the Mockingbird Society. Its a great coincidence that we’ll be there at the same time, and I’m excited to spend time with them.

One of the most exciting connections I’ll be making on this trip is with my longtime colleague Clare Hanbury-Leu. Years ago, we connected while she was brainstorming developing an international NGO. Today, she’s the leader of Children for Health, which engages young people in learning and teaching around public health issues throughout developing countries. She and I will be meeting in person for the first time. Given all the excitement of our Skype calling over the years and our maintenance of knowing each other, this will be a great conversation!

After London, I will be heading north to the city of Preston, near Liverpool. There, I will be hosted by longtime youth worker and advocate Terry Mattinson. Terry’s enthusiasm and commitment has inspired me for a decade, as he’s been an avid reader of my books, follower on social media and communicator with me in many ways. Over the course of several days, out of the kindness of his heart Terry has arranged an intensive schedule of visits, conversations, hangouts and learning for me. I am absolutely excited for this leg of the trip, and look forward to experiencing the wonders of Preston’s youth movement in the order Terry shares it.

When I return to the States in the middle of July, I’ll be a richer person because of this experience. I’m humbled that people around the world value what I have to share and bring me to their homes, cities, communities and schools. I know this trip will change my worldview yet again, as so many others have.

Stay tuned for more blogs over the next few weeks!

Low Barrier Youth Engagement

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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The Contract With Your Soul

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the contract we make within our soul; the guarantees and negotiations; the deals, the debts and the forgiveness.

I’ve been wondering about the conditions and compromises we make. What makes us who we are, who we spend our time with, where we go and what we do are all questions that we get to answer for ourselves.

There of been times in my life when I’ve tried to let other people decide those things for me. I have ended those circumstances unhappily, without the satisfaction of having met what I believe to be my life’s purpose, or fulfilled my dreams.

I guess we all have to come to terms with our soul. Today, I understand that the terms, deals and contracts are set within ourselves. Nowhere else do they matter nearly as much as they do to me.

This might be the crux of what Shakespeare meant when he said “To thine own self be true.” If that’s the case, it’s never rang so truly to me as it does right now.

No Seat At The Table

Standing awkwardly at the back of the room, I listened to the words coming from the four tables in the middle of the space. It was a drab, faded white hall with dull, grey carpet that smelled musty, felt greasy and looked depressed. I was 17, wearing my most optimistic white sweatshirt and clean jeans, and trying my hardest to stay attentive to what was being said.

“Why would any kid want to come to our meetings?” said Paul, a gruff World War II vet who clearly didn’t support the idea.

“I don’t think there’s a place for him here, or any other teen. This is the work of people with experience and knowledge, and when you’re in 12th grade you have none of those,” said Betty, who was one of the grandmas in the room that I liked.

That night, the church council decided there was no role for youth in their work. I’d lobbied the church and minister to allow me onboard for several months before that vote. Hearing their decision, I was crushed.

 

Adam at Pearl Church
This is me sitting courtside at the basketball court in the basement of the church.

 

For three years, I’d been actively involved throughout the life of the church. Joining the choir, coming to classes, continuing my membership in scouts, and helping whenever the minister asked led me to join the church council. My mentors in the church made so many spaces for my voice and involvement that I wanted to take it to the next level. I had helped plan classes, build events and relations between the church and community, and preached at Sunday services at the invite of the minister.

I wasn’t ever given firm reasons for why I wasn’t allowed to join the church council. Instead, I was given platitudes and misdirections like, “You’re too young to understand,” “This is adult work,” and “We don’t have space for kids in our work.”

When I wasn’t allowed to join the church council, I internalized a lot of the messages given to me, whether they were inadvertent or intentional. Those messages included:

  • Youth voice matters in certain situations, but not all the time
  • Youth voice is useful when it fits adult expectations, but not when it goes out of the boundaries
  • Adults don’t want to listen to all youth voice, just the ones they want to hear from.

Rather than try to engage me in any sense, the church council simply denied me altogether. It would be too simple to say that was disheartening to me; instead, it’s more apt to say it was crushing. I didn’t realize it then, but I stacked that experience onto many others that felt disempowering, disconnecting and unaccepting.

Within the next year, I slowly moved away from the home I’d felt at the church. My longtime skepticism about religion took hold of my imagination, granting me some critical thinking but mostly lavishing cynicism in my heart. I no longer saw the people in that place as family, but instead as overseers. Sure, I still had mentors there cared for me, and I was always respectful and cared about them. But never again did I feel the same.

A few years later I left that denomination entirely and never returned. In the 25 years since, that congregation folded and the church changed hands. I moved on too, only occasionally visiting the place that raised me. My work allows me to keep it in mind though, especially as I work with organizations to consider never allowing adult discrimination against youth to happen again.

 

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Listening to Parental Anxiety

Sitting in a room full of middle school parents, I could hear the anxiety in their voices as they answered the facilitator’s questions. She asked, “What’s wrong with your kids today?” “What do you think your kids are messing up about?” and “Why do you think kids today are so far off-course?”

Given the opportunity to vent freely, many of these mothers and fathers let loose with their parental anxieties.

Attending this workshop sponsored by a local school district, I learned a lot, but probably not on what they intended. Focused on how to help young people today, I was curious what approach the facilitator would take to working with parents, how effective it would be, and whether my conclusions about these types of approaches were as applicable as they were 20 years ago when I first attended workshops like this.

So much uncertainty and sadness surrounded me. I heard the frustrations and wrestling of everyday folks struggling through modern cultural norms, giving into old shared beliefs, and sacrificing their knowledge at the feet of one of my community’s recognized experts. This room was packed for two hours as this expert facilitated a back-and-forth dialogue. What I heard during this conversation was the stoking of fears, the affirmations of limitations, and the wholesale short-selling of young people today.

Rather than asking parents to acknowledge their own shortcomings or build their conveniently displaced wisdom, this expert upheld negative media portrayals, biased research conclusions and typically absolutist deductions about young people today. It was as if their abilities, inabilities, capacities and possibilities were out the window, and instead of “Youth are the future” these parents were taught that youth is wasted on the young, and that adults need to be the directors of all interactions, all beliefs and all activities of the young.

This is just my first download from the event; next I’ll analyze this and write about how to counter parental anxiety.

 

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Starting Youth Work as a Youth

Learning from our experiences is a key to growing, as educators, parents, young people and social workers, and as humans. More than 20 years ago, I wrote an academic reflection on my decade-long experience as a line-level youth worker starting when I was 14. I’m not sure what to do with that document now, but I want to recap some of those experiences to share with you.

My story isn’t unique, as I’ve meant dozens of more longstanding, more effective and more authentic practitioners than myself. I’ve had the privilege of reflecting on a lifetime of service though, always seeking to leave a better world behind me than what I inherited as a kid. So here’s the story of my early attempts to do just that.

As I’ve told thousands of people around the world, my career began when I was 14 years old. Before that, I’d thrown newspapers and sold vacuum cleaners, but after that everything started coming together.

Action

Idu Maduli, called Ernest Nedds by some people, was Omaha’s premier African American theater director who ran a program called You’re the Star. Approaching me to teach with him when I was in the 8th grade, Idu told me I’d learn to teacher drama by watching him. For the next few summers, I did just that. We went around North Omaha to a few public housing projects and other neighborhoods bringing low-income kids to the stage, Idu leading them in traditional African tales while I taught stage basics and watched him in awe. After three summers together, I decided I wanted to be just like Idu. I’ve resigned to the fact that I’ll never be as tall as him, but this next summer I’m growing out my hair in hopes of having fantastic dreadlocks…

My high school years in Omaha weren’t easy. Instead, I struggled with a sense of being an intruder into the African American neighborhood where I lived; being a low-achieving student among the brilliantly dedicated white kids who attended the magnet programs in my urban high school; having a green card in a city beating the drums of patriotic Americanism; and having only lived in the neighborhood for a few years, being an outsider in a minority community in a racist city that routinely scowled at poor people.

However, my high school years were packed. Somehow, through the grace of the social workers, community advocates, watchful neighbors and my parents, I found activity after activity. While my neighborhood friends became consumer in gangs and guns and drugs, I volunteered at the elementary school as Santa for four years in a row. When my school friends were grinding into the books, I was unloading the food bank delivery truck into the food pantry where my family got subsistence. Other kids’ dads were absent or working while mine was simply struggling through his PTSD from Vietnam, taking my brother and his friends on night hikes through the Missouri River bogs and swamps of East Omaha, then starting a Scout troop where I earned my Eagle Scout award. Along the way, I worked at three summer camps running nature programs, including at Camp Kitaki (pictured), Camp Wagon Wheel and Camp Wakona.

Throughout my teen years, I also volunteered at my mom’s youth programs when she was a VISTA in our neighborhood. I joined the city’s Methodist Church youth council, then developed a youth council for my neighborhood when I was 17 years old. As a frustrated sophomore in 1991, I tried starting an environmental activism group at my high school, especially since then year before, when I attended a year-long youth leadership program through the Urban League of Nebraska, and went to a youth entrepreneurship program led by the NAACP. I knew that activism was the way to fight the environmental racism destroying my community. The churches in our neighborhood drew me in, and I attended the local Methodist church, was mentored by a Unity Church minister, and I listened frequently to the Church of God in Christ Sunday mornings around the corner from the place I went.

As much as anything, it might have been the Nebraskans for Peace rallies where my dad read his poetry about Vietnam; the community council meetings and PTA my mom went to; the government food subsidies program where we got cheese and peanut butter and more to fill my belly; or the gratitude of Mrs. Hickerson when I shoveled her walk and mowed her lawn and she thanked me with the stories from her long life. I’m not completely sure how my neighborhood got me out, set my on my path so strongly, or kept me walking ahead in such a determined way, but it did.

Outcomes

All of this kept me from spray painting around the neighborhood more. Or stealing. Or running from the group of young men wearing singular colors who tended to throw and swing and shoot when they saw me.

Some of this made me the wiser, teaching me lessons about education, about social justice and white supremacy, and about community building that a lot of people from my station never bother or have the opportunities to learn. Loading the food pantry made sure that I understood the humility of helping others; being homeless still reminds me of the vulnerability of being young and poor. Feeling the fear of violence breathing down my neck kept me on my toes, and I learned to relish paychecks of any size, which made me adept for nonprofit work. My dad’s PTSD was his burden shared, and while my siblings and I suffered, it made us stronger, too.

I also learned basic skills, like communication and conflict resolution, group management and motivating others. My advanced logic ability was sharpened as I wanted to accomplish major tasks like youth empowerment, interracial relations and community building with minor fiscal support or technical assistance. With and without adult guidance, I strove to close to the sun sometimes, and my wings melted. But every now and then I’d become warmer and more successful than I could imagine.

So many of these lessons cost so much, and while they might have sucked at the time, they’ve challenged me to become a better person, a better youth worker, a better consultant, a better dad, and a better human in general. I made lifelong friendships with Jimmy and Jeff; discovered restorative connections with my brothers in the hood like Kal, Shawn, Tracy and Joe; and keep fond memories of the kindness shown to me by Bethany, Mary, Athena and Jeff.

Today I know there’s more still to mine from all that, but that’s a bit about how I started youth work as a youth.

 

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The Basics of Adultism

Adultism is the bias towards adults that causes discrimination against youth. First coined in the late 1800s, the term describes the ways adults treat children and youth, and is obvious through language, culture, architecture, education, healthcare, families, and more. Adultism includes attitudes, beliefs, and discrimination in favor of adults throughout our society.

Treating Kids Different

Adultism is about respect, trust, authority and power. It is apparent beginning when children are very young. Because of the ways our society generally behaves, babies are assumed to be incomplete and their opinions are seen as largely inconsequential. Adults determine the feeding, caregiving, clothing, bedding and lighting of babies because we don’t understand whether babies are sharing their opinions about these things, among others. This belief continues until young children can share their opinions in language adults can understand. This establishes the basis of adultism that affects young people through the age of 18 and beyond.

At the point kids can share their opinions, adults constantly parse out what is a valid concern and what is invalid. Rather than referring to evidence or facts, adults mostly use personal judgment and beliefs to decide what foods, entertainment, activities, learning and opinions we should listen to. This is adultist. It is obvious in our language with phrases like “Children should be seen and not heard,” and is apparent our built environment, too: The height of a fountain, door handle and chair reflects an adult’s needs, not childrens’ needs. Adultism is reinforced through arbitrary rule-making focused on ages, too, rather than science or best practices.

When children become teenagers, their own beliefs become stronger, their wisdom starts accumulating, and their value to society starts to become determined. Adultism ensures that young leaders emerge to represent their peers, as well as confines rule-breaking youth to “stay in their lane” through punishment, classroom tracking, and curfews. In some places, youth are sent to jail for offenses only they can commit, like breaking curfews, being truant to school, drinking alcohol and other infractions. In other situations, youth are encouraged to put on a tie and “act like adults” in order to gain privilege and access that will benefit their futures. Each of these demonstrates bias towards adults, since our society reveres age and stands against the knowledge young people possess. Movie ratings, drivers licensing, banking rules and compulsory education reflect this, too: We simply don’t trust the ability of youth to determine what’s best for themselves, so adults make judgments for them. That’s not just parents, either; teachers, youth workers, counselors and police make judgments for youth all the time.

All this shows how adultism is apparent in the attitudes, culture and structures throughout our society.

Making Changes

There are active movements across the United States and around the world today to face adultism head-on, and to fight and defeat adultism when it’s necessary. These movements are engaging youth as partners with adults in government agencies, building youth/adult partnerships in community organizations, challenging schools to build Meaningful Student Involvement, and transforming families everywhere.

In Seattle, Washington, I partnered with the King County Superior Court to design a program for more than 40 families created to keep youth out of jail. The Parent/Youth Engagement Seminar was designed to build the skills and knowledge parents and youth needed through 12 hours of interactive workshops. Participants learn what youth voice is, how it works, and the positive outcomes that can happen when parents and youth work together to make families more successful. This seminar directly challenges adultism by confronting parents’ bias towards their own opinion, as well as by teaching parents and youth about partnering together for success, instead of using coercion and force to enforce compliance.

Building support for empowered student voice around the world, back in 2002 I started supporting K-12 schools, districts and state education agencies after building SoundOut.org. Since then, I’ve partnered with more than 300 different schools and agencies to write policies, develop programs, facilitate professional development and speak at conferences about Meaningful Student Involvement. This work has resulted in roles for students on school boards, students training teachers, and new education policies focused on student voice and student engagement. This challenges adultism among educators and policymakers by showing the positive potential of all students in every classroom, rather than simply tokenizing through constrained student/adult relationships.

There is so much work happening to challenge adultism!

5 Steps to Stop Adultism

I have developed these 5 steps to stop adultism based on my experience and research. Leave your thoughts in the comments section below!

  1. Name Your Bias. Every single person has bias towards adults. No matter how enlightened you are, how educated you might be, or how important you think you are to young people, you are adultist, and you’ve experienced adultism. Name your biases and be honest with yourself.
  2. Listen to Youth Voice. Listen directly to youth; read their writing; listen to them sing; look at their art. Don’t respond, don’t fix, don’t do for them; just listen to youth voice.
  3. Get Educated. Read my book, Facing Adultism. It’s a deep exploration of how adultism happens, who it affects, where it’s worst, who it affects most, and why it matters so much. Also, explore other writing about adultism and join the Facing Adultism group on Facebook.
  4. Find New Ways to Be. Declare your allyship with youth and stick to it. Be kinder and more compassionate with young people, and advocate for youth to be present when they aren’t in the room. Find new ways to be at home, at work and throughout the community.
  5. Make Change. When you’ve started changing your life, look at the health and well-being of your community. How does adultism affect youth around you right now? Which youth are most affected? Which adults are most biased towards other youth, and non-inclusive of youth?

What would you add to this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

When you’ve begun to address adultism, you might see how it’s tied together with paternalism, sexism, racism, classism and other injustices throughout our society. You might also discover different ways you have made the challenge of adultism worse, and how you’ve affected positive changes towards adultism in the past! Each of us are capable of doing remarkable things–what are you going to do?

 

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Order FACING ADULTISM by Freechild founder Adam Fletcher at http://amzn.to/2noYclH
Order FACING ADULTISM by Freechild founder Adam Fletcher!

Showboating Youth

The youth movement isn’t the same as basketball or business, and there is no room for showboating.

It is a diverse movement filled with multiple perspectives and broad actions focused on many, many issues. Showboating happens when someone exaggerates their own skills, talents, or abilities. In

the youth movement, individual young people may be tempted to self-promote and make it sound as if they are the only youth voice, or their organization or program is the only youth program of value.

Instead of focusing on themselves, the Freechild Institute works to engage all voices and teaches youth and adults to honor the contributions and abilities of all youth everywhere all the time in order to avoid showboating.

 

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Youth On Pedestals

Adults can be easy to amaze.

Seduced by mainstream media and politicians that routinely dismiss the positive power of youth, adults often feel like they’ve discovered gold when youth stand up for themselves and work together to create change.

In some instances, they lean on these youth constantly and raise them to the point of infallibility. I call this pedestaling youth. It includes romanticizing, which is making someone always right and out of way of questioning.

The Freechild Institute supports organizations as they establish and sustain room for disagreement and mistakes between youth and adults, and among youth on their own. We work to model consensus and collaboration.

We are in these continuous learning process that engages all participants–adults and youth–as equitable partners without artificially or superficially elevating one voice above all others.

There’s no room for pedestals.

 

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