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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Youth as Heroes

In a room with too few representatives, a particularly loud voice standing above all others can sound brave and unique, especially when they represent an under-acknowledged majority. This is especially true in the youth movement today.

Just because a young person puts on a suit and discusses social change in a way that makes adults listen to them doesn’t make them heroic or a superhero. It makes them dressed right and well-versed.

In the same way, there are organizations and programs in the youth movement that are made heroic too. They are made out to represent youth particularly well or be the “right” whenever they talk. Among the 56 million youth in the United States right now though, adults do not lionize programs that make them uncomfortable or ideas that are too far from their acceptance.

The ones that are uplifted are generally satisfactory to adults who make decisions about funding, data usage in society, and social change leadership. Organizational heroism is also a danger to the youth movement.

The Freechild Institute works with partners to make room for young people who don’t please or appeal to them so easily, and emphasizes teaching young people about the society that affects them so much.

When everyone does this, only then can we stop setting us up to fail by positioning youth as heroes.

 

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Lowballing Youth

There is more out there than just what you see. Youth are being lowballed everywhere, all of the time.

Many organizations and individuals today are calling for youth to be informants to adult decision-making in schools. They say they want youth voice to be heard. They want a seat at the table for youth.

There’s a lot more at stake for youth than simply being able to talk or be represented somewhere. In reality, youth comprise up to 94% of any given school building’s population, and 26% of the entire population of the planet.

Youth should be fully integrated into the operations of every single organization in our society, if only for their energy and to educate them about democracy. That means schools, nonprofits, government agencies, community groups, faith-based organizations and others have to make room.

Every layer of government should infuse youth as well, positioning in them in powerful roles that effect not only individual youth, but all youth; not as recipients, but as active partners who design, implement, critically assess, and make substantive decisions about the education system as a whole.

I say this with a love that is critical and necessary: Many people and programs in the youth voice movement simply don’t get it.

Reduced to reacting, they rally youth around the apparent problems throughout society without recognizing the deeper issues.

Reaching much further than simply acting like the flavor-of-the-day, the Freechild Institute works with partners to position youth as constant, deliberate, and fully engaged partners throughout all of education, all of the time.

Its time to stop lowballing youth.

 

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Youth as Sockpuppets

A lot of adults use youth as sockpuppets, feeding them verbiage and giving them the issues adults expect them to address.

Intentional or not, this use of youth is designed to deceive the people who are listening to make them think what’s being said is authentic youth voice.

In a lot of places, sockpuppetry is often coupled with manipulation: If youth do what adults say, they’ll be rewarded; if they don’t follow expectations, they’ll be punished in some form. Youth often don’t know they’re being used to prop up an adult’s perspective.

Sometimes adults use youth to provide an alternate or opposite perspective to their own. This is called strawman sockpuppetry. Having no real authority to enact anything throughout society without adult approval, adults may deliberately position youth to say outlandish or contrary things, only to show their perspective as more valid, valuable, and important.

For the last 17 years, I’ve worked with the Freechild Institute to partner with organizations to deliberately position both traditional and nontraditional youth voice to be heard in safe and supportive environments, ensuring that youth speak for themselves and are treated as equitable partners with adults throughout society.

Contact me today if you’re interested in learning more.

 

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This is Adam Fletcher in São Paulo, Brazil in 2014

It All Begins With Youth Voice

It all begins with youth voice.

Whether heard or repressed, empowered or silenced, young people of all ages have valid ideas, knowledge, opinions and actions about every aspect of their lives, all the time. When youth voice is not engaged at home, young people may lash out or retract inwards.

It is vital to understand that what many people view as “negative” youth behaviors are actually the consequences of challenging life experiences.

Youth voice is obvious in all five domains of self-regulation, including the cognitive, social, biological, emotional and prosocial. The literal voices of youth can become less prevalent while unexpected behavior becomes more effective at portraying their inner landscapes: self-harm, skipping school, eating disorders, substance abuse, disobeying parents, violence, stealing, vandalism, and other ways of expressing youth voice can take precedent over good performance in schools, cooperation with siblings or an overall positive affect in their lives.

These actions are unfortunately and frequently misinterpreted by adults.

While most parents, guardians and extended family members intend to do no harm to our children and those entrusted to us, we sometimes fail our best intentions. Incapable of creating safe, stable, supportive and permanent environments for youth to succeed, young people will strive to get their needs met even when it is not apparent to adults that is what they’re doing.

This can result in youth homelessness; truancy and breaking curfews; substance abuse, and; other ways of youth expressing themselves that adults frequently don’t want to hear and don’t know how to listen to. When we do listen, we often don’t know what to do.

Ignoring and silencing youth voice can have harsher results, too, including juvenile incarceration, substance addiction, physical and mental harm, and severe mental health implications.

Engaging youth voice intentionally can begin to rectify this imbalance.

Parents, social workers, educators, mental health counselors and others need to learn what youth voice really is; how youth voice is shared throughout the lives of young people today; what works and what doesn’t work; and more.

All of this begins to detail a clear pathway, and it begins with youth voice.

 


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  • Getting In Trouble
  • We Are The Problem
  • Authenticity in Youth Voice and Youth Engagement
  • Cultural Appropriation & Youth Voice
  • Bastardizing Youth Voice

 

Olympia Youth Forum 2014

Interpreting Youth Voice

Some adults suggest its “simple” to listen to youth. They merely open their ears, turn on their hearts and watch their body language as young people speak. These same adults often take liberty in interpreting youth, telling other adults and even young people themselves what youth voice means, what it does and why it matters.

This is a double standard though. It’s never the job of adults to tell youth how to speak, what they mean, why to share and when is appropriate and when its inappropriate. Instead, I think its our job to make space for youth to speak in the most unbridled, uninhibited ways they want in order to make their feelings, thoughts, ideas, knowledge and wisdom known.

Our society is in such a desperate state that we can’t wait for adults to make sense of others’ words anymore. We have to hear young people speak with reckless abandon now, and instead of whittling down meanings, figuring out perspectives and deciding others emotions and knowledge, we should hear all young people everywhere as earnestly, honestly and authentically as possible.

Basically, I want every teacher, youth worker, parent, nonprofit executive, social worker, school leader and anyone who pretends, portends or otherwise interacts with youth to push themselves to stop trying to make sense of youth voice. Instead, simply let youth voice be and learn to hear what’s being said.

  • Listen to emotions, even when they make you uncomfortable.
  • Hear knowledge, even when it conflicts or contradicts what you think you know.
  • Watch your own responses, even (especially) when you think you’re right.
  • Trust youth. Every. Single. Time.
  • Believe in youth voice, especially when its different from your own.

When we adults learn to control ourselves and our negative behavior towards youth voice, we can make genuine progress in transforming the roles of young people throughout society. When those change, the world changes. We should aim for nothing less.

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Youth Engagement On Purpose

When youth engagement happens, does it happen on purpose, with intention and by design, or is it simply an organic, authentic personal experience that can’t be forced by outside sources?

Youth-serving programs, projects and organizations constantly wrestle with how youth engagement happens. Through my years as a line-level youth worker, evaluator and consultant, I’ve found that the equally important questions to answer are why youth engagement happens and what youth engagement actually is. The purpose of youth programs is as important as how the youth programs happen.

Some organizations talk about topics like education or workforce development or environmental restoration as being their purpose. Others will explain that themes like community building or social justice are their purpose. Neither topics or themes are real purposes though.

Instead, purpose is the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists. That’s why Nietzsche wrote, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” In our field that can be interpreted as, “Youth who understand why they are engaged can live with however that happens.’

The purpose of youth engagement is to rebalance the disengagement of youth throughout society. Its not that youth aren’t engaged; all youth are engaged everywhere, all the time—even if adults don’t agree why, where, when, how or who they are engaged with. Instead, its that youth often aren’t engaged in the things adults want them to be engaged in, in the places adults want them to be engaged, with the people adults want them to be engaged with, doing the things adults want them to do for the reasons adults want them to be engaged.

As ethical adult allies, educators, parents and others, we have to admit that. Adultism is at the heart of youth engagement activities, programs and organizations, too. For whatever reason, our motivation to stop youth disengagement or youth engagement in risky behaviors or anything other than what adults want, is adultism—bias towards adults.

Having a hard time understanding that? Look at the causes we engage youth in:

  • Anti-smoking and anti-vaping
  • City planning
  • Anti-drug use
  • Teacher evaluation
  • Safe sex and abstinenance
  • Cancer prevention
  • And so on…

None of those causes are inherently bad or wrong. However, all of them are driven by adult agendas. Using youth engagement as the justification for youth activities in those causes is a problem though, because it places the onus on youth for not having been engaged in those causes prior to our activities. Its not the fault of youth that they haven’t been engaged in your cause—its adults’ faults they haven’t been engaged; its adults’ goals to engage them in these causes, and its adults’ outcomes that are going to be measured in these activities.

Using youth engagement as the justification for youth activity, no matter how well-meaning you are, is inherently adultist.

If you want to identify the real purpose for your youth engagement activity, program or organization, look at the intention behind your supposed purpose. Are you seeking to end environmental racism, build cultural ownership, stop institutional sexism, or challenge civic apathy? Are you designing public spaces with youth, building tiny houses for homeless youth, fostering cross-racial connections or sustaining meaningful student involvement in your education system?

Look beyond how you’re doing these things. Look past where they’re happening. Look into when you’re doing activities. Examine who you’re serving, for real. Explore why youth engagement is the goal. The design of your activities, the action plan, your SMART goals and your activity objectives will tell you the truth.

Then, and only then, will you be able to engage youth on purpose.

 

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The Voices of Youth in Crisis

Youth in crisis are young people who face imbalanced challenges due to circumstances beyond their control. Through the concern of international, national, state and local governments around the world, the voices of these youth are being engaged like never before. Few people are talking about how that happens though.


My own experience

As a child, I experienced routine homelessness as my family constantly moved to escape my dad’s demons of alcoholism and post traumatic stress disorder. When I was a youth, I was constantly subjected to violence in my gang- and drug-infested neighborhood. As the only one of four siblings to graduate from school on time; as the first in my family to go to college; and as a one-time homeless youth struggling with depression and a sense of purposelessness in the world, I know what it means to be a youth in crisis coming from a family in crisis. These issues resonate with me deeply.

However, as you may know from my speeches and books, the topics of youth voice, youth involvement, youth engagement and youth empowerment matter to me a lot, too. My first job working with youth was as a teacher/assistant director in a theatre program when I was 14, which I continued for three summers and which set my life’s work trajectory in this area. I started a neighborhood youth council when I was 17, and learned about all this when I was 24. Its almost 20 years later, and I’m still celebrating the positive, powerful potential of young people! This matters, too.

For the last 20 years, I’ve been contracting with nonprofits, government agencies, K-12 schools and other organizations across the United States and Canada to build youth voice, foster youth engagement and support meaningful youth involvement. I have spoken, trained and advised more than 500 organizations in 200 communities, at hundreds of conferences, and to more than 1,000,000 youth and adults. The entire time, while I’ve sought to help all youth everywhere, I’ve focused my conversations on “nontraditional youth leaders” and young people who are historically denied opportunities to share their voice. In addition to young people of color and low-income youth, I was talking about youth in crisis, I was working with youth in crisis, and I was struggling for youth in crisis to become engaged as full partners within their communities rather than being treated as passive recipients.

This month, I began a national and international scan of youth voice among services for youth in crisis. Following are my initial findings from that scan.


Basic terms

Voices of Youth in Crisis by Freechild Institute for Youth Engagement

 

When I talk about youth in crisis, I am talking about young people who are:

  • Homeless
  • Ran away from home
  • Dropped out
  • Violent
  • Thinking suicidal thoughts
  • Are abused
  • Hungry
  • Pushed out
  • Bullied
  • Experience violence
  • Experience self-harm
  • Neglected
  • Experience sexual explotation
  • Abandoned by a parent or guardian
  • Experiencing eating disorders
  • Suffering from a substance abuse, or
  • Have mental health issues

Youth who are from these areas are generally seen as “highly vulnerable populations” and as “at risk youth;” alternatively, they are also addressed as “opportunity youth” and “youth at hope.”

I’ve found that terms, ideas and concepts supporting and aligning with the idea of youth voice and meaningful youth involvement in this area include:

  • Youth voice and choice
  • Youth empowerment
  • Youth leadership
  • Peer support
  • Youth/adult partnerships
  • Youth engagement
  • Youth-led programs
  • Youth as partners
  • Peer-to-peer
  • Youth-driven activities
  • Youth led prevention
  • Youth in policy
  • Youth-run programs

Some of the specific issues include: Community, family, and youth voice; Client engagement; Family and youth advisory boards; Collaborations throughout communities; Whole family empowerment programs; Internet engagement; Youth as trainers; Participant service evaluations; and more.

Specific activities include engaging youth as advocates; youth as trainers; youth as evaluators; youth as planners; youth as decision-makers; youth as facilitators; youth as policy-makers; and more.

 


Efforts to engage youth voice

Places to Engage the Voices of Youth in Crisis

 

A lot of people are concerned about youth in crisis. However, my recent scan shows that few of them are specifically, directly and concentratedly concerned about fostering youth voice or promoting youth engagement. Organizations and agencies that address these issues consistently focus on prevention, intervention, education and empowerment.

Currently, in governments and nongovernmental agencies across the globe, fields addressing these issues include:

  • Social service agencies
  • Human service agencies
  • Courts and the legal justice system
  • Crisis response
  • Child welfare
  • Juvenile justice
  • Zero youth incarceration
  • Youth homelessness
  • Family advocates
  • Educators
  • Public health
  • Religious organizations
  • Community organizations

National nonprofits

For instance, Safe Families for Children is a national advocacy organization with chapters nationwide, including in WA. They work across the spectrum, including with churches, and occasionally address youth voice in service provision, including in their Family Friendly Handbook. Another organization called USA Cares provides financial and advocacy assistance to post-9/11 active duty US military service personnel, veterans and their families. However, there is little evidence they have focused on youth engagement or youth voice specifically. The National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors represents the organizations receiving government money that make up the public mental health service delivery system. Representing state mental health commissioners/directors and their agencies, this organization works with states, federal partners, and stakeholders to promote wellness, recovery, and resiliency for people with mental health conditions or co-occurring mental health and substance related disorders across all ages and cultural groups, including youth. A hugely influential organization, they focus on youth voice in several documents, but do not highlight it on their website or overall.

The National Safe Place Network works to ensure an effective system of response for youth in crisis through public and private partnerships at a local, state and national level. National Safe Place Network envisions a world where all youth are safe; however, the organization doesn’t talk about youth voice. They are concerned about youth empowerment though, and there’s a track about it at their annual conference. The Child Mind Institute is an independent, national nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of children and families struggling with mental health and learning disorders. However, I can’t find reference to youth voice, youth empowerment and related topics in their materials online.

Other national and international nonprofit organizations focusing on youth and families in crisis which should provide information about youth voice but apparently don’t include the National Association of County and City Health Officials. NACCHO does provide info on injury and violence among youth, but not on the role of youth voice in solving the issue. The World Bank has a report called “Children and Youth in Crisis Protecting and Promoting Human Development in Times of Economic Shocks,” but doesn’t generally provide information on youth engagement for youth in crisis.

The online resource databases related to youth in crisis don’t seem to address youth voice, either. One of the most interesting resources available today is called “Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development.” A registry of evidence-based positive youth development programs, it seeks to promote the health and well-being of children and youth. Blueprints is hosted by the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence (CSPV), at the Institute of Behavior Science, University of Colorado Boulder, and is funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Another resources is called Connect Safely Resources for Youth In Crisis is a list of opportunities for youth provided by a nonprofit focused on safety, privacy and security.

Federal agencies

For its 50+ programs that deal with the issues related to youth and families in crisis, the US federal government provides little information on youth voice, youth engagement, youth empowerment and youth-led programs. They do, however, provide substantial information on the issue of youth and families in crisis. For instance, the Children’s Bureau in the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services hosts the massive Child Welfare Information Gateway promotes the safety, permanency, and well-being of children, youth, and families by connecting child welfare, adoption, and related professionals as well as the public to information, resources, and tools covering topics on child welfare, child abuse and neglect, out-of-home care, adoption, and more. Its a powerful tool. I have to similarly applaud youth.gov. Its a massive U.S. government website that helps organizations and individual people create, maintain, and strengthen effective youth programs. There are a lot of youth facts, funding information, and tools to help assess community assets, generate maps of local and federal resources, search for evidence-based youth programs, and keep up-to-date on the latest, youth-related news. Its a great source of information, and even features a significant collection of information about youth engagement specifically from the working group that coordinates it, as well as from individual agencies like SAMHSA. The The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention is an office of the United States Department of Justice and a component of the Office of Justice Programs, and they offer some related info at the OJJDP website.

National and international foundations

Some of the foundations that reportedly support youth voice in the area of youth and families in crisis include the MacArthur Foundation, Kellogg Foundation, Arnold Foundation, Annie Casey Foundation, and the Ford Foundation.


Greatest hope?

Youth MOVE National and its chapters advocate for youth voice and rights in mental health and other systems that serve young people, for the purpose of empowering youth to be equal partners in the process of change. Youth Motivating Others through Voices of Experience (M.O.V.E.) National is a youth and young-adult led national advocacy organization that wants to change the world. The organization is devoted to improving services and systems that support young people. They focus on empowering young people to partner with adults to create meaningful change in mental health, juvenile justice, education, and child welfare systems. The organization represents 77 chapters (link is external), consisting of 9,000 members across 39 states.

Perhaps Youth MOVE is the greatest hope we have to build meaningful involvement for youth in crisis. Helping people understand the power of youth voice, the potential of youth engagement and the purpose of youth-led programs to serve youth in crisis is essential.

There is also a lot of action happening at the local level nationwide, with a smaller amount at the state level. Internationally, I’m still scanning for agencies, programs and organizations addressing youth in all kinds of crisis. If you know of any specific efforts locally or internationally, or on the national and federal levels in the US, please share them in the comments below!

Let’s move this forward!

 


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Elsewhere Online

 

Fake Or Real Youth Voice?

Youth voice is any way youth choose to represent themselves. Youth voice is shared through ideas, opinions, attitudes, knowledge, and actions that are expressed individually or collectively; for the benefit of themselves or others.

Recently, I was leading a workshop for parents and youth on youth voice at home. During a brainstorming activity, the parents made a much longer list of ways youth share their voices at home than youth did. During their listing, parents said youth voice included things like…

  • Staring at the TV
  • Spending a lot of time on social media
  • Not sharing in family chores

The youth immediately protested and said those things aren’t their voices. When they share youth voice at home, these youth said it was the positive things like…

  • Helping younger siblings with homework
  • Doing chores around the house without being asked
  • Answering your parent every time they call for you, even when its annoying

Then one of the youth participants said,

fake youth voice

 

What makes youth voice fake?

  • When adults decide if youth voice should be heard
  • When adults tell youth what to say
  • When adults limit or direct the ways youth voice is expressed
  • When adults decide which youth voices are heard and which are ignored or silenced
  • When adults identify when youth voice should be heard

What makes youth voice real?

  • When youth share their ideas, opinions, attitudes, knowledge or actions freely
  • When youth decide what to say
  • When youth decide how to share their voices
  • When all youth share their voices freely
  • When youth decide its time to share youth voice

See the difference there? Things that youth decide are youth voice; things adults decide for youth are not youth voice.

That didn’t really answer the challenge between the youth and adults in my workshop though. All the activities described by adults, which included not paying attention, not doing what they were asked and zoning out, were done by youth and observed by adults. All the things described by youth, including being kind, doing as asked and contributing around the house, were ways they wanted to be seen.

What do you think the right answer is? Share your thoughts in the comments here.

 

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