Peak Youth Engagement

Within the last decade, there has been a groundswell of youth engagement around the world. International youth-led movements like the Arab Spring and the Hong Kong protest; and American youth-led movements like Parkland’s March for Our Lives and #BlackLivesMatters have burst into the public consciousness, with millions of young people taking action. Recently, climate activism has spurned more youth engagement, enlightening and empowering more young people to make a difference. This is a groundswell that foreshadows massive social change whose time is at hand.

What Is “Peak”?

Youth engagement happens anytime a young person choses the same thing again and again. As I’ve been teaching for decades now, youth engagement includes all the kinds of youth activism, youth leadership, some actions adults like and other actions adults frequently dismiss. Youth engagement also addresses all of the issues above and many others.

Peak youth engagement happens when more young people are choosing to become active in more activities addressing more issues than ever before. Peak youth engagement makes adults in society to pay attention to issues they would otherwise neglect or deny, i.e. drug use, sex, vaping, or gangs. This is also true within the family structure when individual kids become engaged in sports, romantic relationships or video gaming.

In recent years, peak youth engagement has happened in the issues mentioned above, including pro-democracy movements, public health crises, and racial justice. Historical peak youth engagement has been seen around these topics, and others too, including anti-war activism and economic reform. We have yet to see peak youth engagement in issues like school reform and lowering the voting age, and only time will show what comes next. That’s hard to anticipate!

Breaking the Flow

For better or worse, and perhaps more than anytime in the past 25 years, the media, politicians, community leaders, academics and others are hyping the power of young people to change the world. There are many, many local, regional, national and international organizations that say they support youth engagement, especially with the youth they specifically serve and the issues they particularly care about.

What’s Next

Advocates for youth engagement must address widespread adultism next.

“A youth revolt grows up when it reaches beyond its beginnings,” preaches the Washington Post with the now-normal posturing from well-meaning but poorly informed adults who write those articles. This type of adultism is cynical at best; belittling and demeaning, it assumes young people aren’t capable of finding the strategies and approaches that matter most to them. Adultism pervades the popular response to youth engagement in its myriad forms. Peak youth engagement invites these hyperbolic and ineffectual responses though, and with the power of youth intact, these criticisms fall to the side.

The social change at hand will see peak youth engagement reach massive proportions across all populations around the world. More adults than ever will come to support young people in active and empowering ways, and all kinds of transformations will take place. Aside from meeting basic human rights and the values enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the emerging peak youth engagement will ensure global transformation. These changes will include:

I believe understanding this concept of peak youth engagement can help youth program workers, organization leaders, grantmakers and others consciously and specifically develop the metrics they need to ensure success. It can show the rest of us where our culture is going next.

What do you think of “peak youth engagement”? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Making Our OWN Meaning

Viktor E. Frankl once wrote,

“Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.”

Man’s Search for Meaning (1985)

Given that he was a Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, Frankl knew the depth of saying that. In his observation, Frankl challenges us to find meaning in our lives.

You get to name what you live for. Not just your purpose, but the meaning behind that purpose. This isn’t a chance to name your favorite band or farthest travel dream, either. Instead, its an opportunity to take a look inside and really explore the questions at the middle of you:

  • Who am I, really?
  • Why do I live?
  • Where is my heart right now?
  • What difference do I make every single day?
  • When is my life the best?
  • How do I want to live versus how I am living?

These aren’t just billowing, pie-in-the-sky thoughts either. Frankl knew the depths of human hell, saw the worst in mankind and fought with every tooth and nail of his existence to become more, do more and be more than his captors thought he could.

Today, I’m leading a workshop at North Seattle College for 200 professionals in the field of diversity and equity education focused on finding your meaning in life. If you’re interested in what that looks like, contact me.

You can do more than you think you can, too. You get to make your own meaning, determine your own purpose and live your own life. How are you going to live it today?

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Love Is A Radical New Thing

Staring at our phones is just the beginning. Wagging our fingers, scowling at the world and isolating ourselves are symptoms. Seeing our lack of humility, facing the challenge of vulnerability, and harnessing the power of love are solutions. This article is about the crisis of self-disconnection in the world today, and how to overcome that crisis by acknowledging, enriching and empowering the connections we already have in our lives.

Understanding Ourselves

Despite the well-meaning teachers, community leaders and writers trying to teach us, people believe they’re doing all this alone more than ever before. Almost all of us are afflicted by this, too. Whether we’re burned out suburban parents or aspiring entrepreneurs, social media pushes us to post vain selfies, push arrogant self-promotion and cultivate images of narcissistic glory. This is afflicting old people, young people and everyone in between.

I don’t think anyone wakes up in the morning wishing they were more self-centered. Sure, we learn to take care of ourselves and remove unnecessary drama from our lives, but that doesn’t make us oblivious to the needs of those around us and beyond.

Somewhere along the way though, people can become manipulative, unconsciously forcing their friends, family and coworkers to do their bidding, become their minions, and fulfill their demands with no intention of supporting others, building community or lifting those without power or ability.

Forcibly demanding others bend to our will, conniving to change others’ thinking without their investment, and alienating those who care for us can separate us from the people who care the most about us.

Relying on the Power of Love

A year before he was assassinated, Dr. King gave a speech called “A Time To Break The Silence,” in which he said,

“…I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to humankind’s problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. And I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love.”

Dr. King was killed because he saw the power of love for what it is: An infinitely accessible, directly effective and wholly powerful instrument to fight arrogance, conceit and ignorance. At the same time he was determining this, there was a contradictory force rising in the garage of a young inventor in suburban Washington state. A machine meant to harness the capability of individuals and built on the premise that each man is an island unto his own, the personal computer became one of the most isolating forces humankind ever faced.

Through the decades afterwards, technology became more and more alienating and separating, but not without the veneer of interconnectedness. Relying on the internet as a worldwide superhighway for knowledge, ideas and opinions, computers have become smaller and faster, further allowing and encouraging individuals to believe they’re acting in a vacuum without obligations to others. To be clear, personal computers and the Internet did not create narcissism; however, they’ve exacerbated it beyond the wildest imagination.

“Everywhere we learn that love is important, and yet we are bombarded by its failure….This bleak picture in no way alters the nature of our longing. We still hope that love will prevail. We still believe in love’s promise.”—bell hooks in All About Love: New Visions

We can rectify this challenge. It will not be an easy or simple fix, but it’s tangible and present. The answer has been present for millennia, and even though its under-credited, history shows it repeatedly. In his 1855 book called Where Love Is, God Is, Leo Tolstoy showed us the basis for this understanding when he wrote, “Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love.”

Through the wisdom of Dr. King, as well as many others like bell hooks, Angela Davis, Mahatma Gandhi, and Caesar Chavez, we can begin to craft approaches to love as a tool, a possibility and a gift for transforming the world we live in. Love is the single greatest resource we have, and moving from seeing it as a poetic plaything towards enacting it as a passionate, powerful instrument will help us actualize the reality that another world is possible.

We each have to rely on the power of love to overcome the arrogance, conceit and narcissism trying to overwhelm our hearts and our communities. This requires that we move love into action.

Moving Love Into Action

In 2017, Senator Corey Booker shared powerful words on Twitter when he wrote,

“Love is not a being word, it is an action word… When you see hate out there, understand that the challenge will never be the hate of some, but the silence, indifference and apathy of the many.”

Throughout my career, I have sought and struggled to harness my own commitment to putting love into action. Living in a patriarchal society that emphasizes machismo over vulnerability and highlights individuality over interdependence, my work has been chagrined for being too compromising, too sensitive and too aware.

I have learned from the words I’ve shared here as well as others, and I’ve learned the following lessons for putting love into action.

  1. Feel Your Heart. Feeling feelings can be scary. It can feel weak. It can be thankless. And you need to do it anyway. Feel things relentlessly, no matter what they are.
  2. Let Go Of Entitlement. Meant to keep us from the pain of trauma, entitlement is generally unrealistic and unhealthy, and prevents us from relying on ourselves to heal.
  3. Be Aware Of Your Suffering. When you experience hard times or big challenges, you can suffer. Anxiety, depression and hurt come from this. Be aware of this and what it leads to.
  4. Serve Others Relentlessly. Caesar Chavez said it best: “Being of service is not enough. You must become a servant of the people. When you do, you can demand their commitment in return.”
  5. Love Without Inhibition. There’s a certain recklessness that’s implied when you move beyond the “bosh” love Dr. King explained above. Be about it, love without inhibition and move into a new space that is unstoppable. When enough people love enough ways the whole world will change.

These lessons are not a road to happiness; they are a call to love. Even though those two words are not synonymous, they aren’t far apart. Moving love into action is a brave, ridiculous, essential thing that we all must do if we’re going to change the condition of the world we’re in today.

In her 2012 book Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed wrote, “You will learn a lot about yourself if you stretch in the direction of goodness, of bigness, of kindness, of forgiveness, of emotional bravery. Be a warrior for love.” Love is not really a radical new thing, but if that’s how we must see it to become warriors for love, then let’s see it that way.

We need to become nothing less.

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Workshops by Adam Fletcher
“No Emotional Bosh” is a workshop on teaching youth about love. Learn more by calling Adam Fletcher at (360)489-9680.

Olympia Downtown Ambassadors and Clean Team

In 2013, Adam Fletcher provided program development, training and evaluation services to the City of Olympia Downtown Ambassadors and Clean Team under a contract with the Capitol Recovery Program.

The scope of this project was broad, and included background research, project planning, self-assessment, key informant interviews, training and coaching, and workshop facilitation.

Products created for this project included:

  • Olympia Downtown Ambassadors Core Values
  • Program Recommendations
  • Training Plan
  • Data compilation (interviews, workshops, meeting notes, etc)

The team-designed training plan focused on several issues, including team identity and culture; core values; enacting core values in work; maintaining personal engagement in work, and; engaging the community.

At the completion of the work, the Downtown Ambassadors and Clean Team enacted this plan and used it to guide their work for three years afterwards.

For more information and details, please read the Program Development Project Final Report.

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Washington State Office of Homeless Youth

As principal consultant on a team through The Athena Group, Adam was contracted to serve the Washington State Office of Homeless Youth in 2019. In this project, he provided program planning, research, product development and report writing services for the client.

Working to support the ongoing systems response to Washington State’s crisis of youth homelessness, Adam provided services in support of agency staff. Focused on human-centered design, these services included designing outreach workshops to engage current and formerly homeless youth who transitioned from state care via foster care, juvenile incarceration and behavioral health. Exploring the gaps in the system with those youth, this project also engaged Adam in conducting personal interviews with a dozen young people to learn about systems gaps and explore opportunities to improve the system from their perspectives.

Finally, Adam drew together information from many sources to develop a report of activities by the Office of Homeless Youth in support of a bill designated by state legislators earlier in the year.

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Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families

In 2018, Adam was the subject matter expert and a principal consultant on a team with The Athena Group contracted with the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families, or DCYF. His efforts contributed to a statewide examination of resources for youth transitioning from state systems of care, including foster youth, formerly incarcerated youth, and youth involved with behavioral health care.

Supported by a team of data analysts, Adam’s specific tasks focused on gathering systemwide feedback and ideas. Advertising through regional DCYF offices, Adam planned, facilitated and analyzed findings from ten regional gatherings for youth and adults affected by state systems of care. Participants included young people, birth parents, foster parents, systems workers, community based workers, healthcare and mental health professionals and advocates. Facilitated as dynamic, interactive workshops, these gatherings produced more than 5,000 data points for DCYF officials to draw from as they informed policymakers about the issues in the field.

Additionally, Adam also crafted a 20-page summary report incorporating data analysis, process evaluation and policy recommendations. There were also multiple original data studies included that focused on the emergency care available to youth transitioning from state care, as well as additional resources they need to move from state care into successful adulthood.

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Adults Are Essential

A gentle breeze blows across my face and sunlight flickers through twinkling treetops as I paddle softly along a calm, shaded river in upstate New York. Laughing easily, I’m splattered with water from a joyous splash as a middle school principal cascades water in my direction. There are a dozen canoes around me, all of them instantly caught up in an easy water war that is as playful as it was predictable: I ended up capsized, and laughing hardest of all.

The year was 2007, and I was a guest of Giselle Martin-Kniep, the president of an education organization called Communities for Learning. She brought together 50 educators from all types of settings across New York state, along with mentors and guides of all kinds. These folks were gathered to co-learn about many things, including Meaningful Student Involvement. They came with the intention of growing learning communities to support their school improvement efforts, and the weeklong conference at a backcountry retreat center offers dynamic conversations, deep workshopping and challenging opportunities to grow. Playing in the water was a much-needed break.

Teaching Adults

As the years have passed, I have come to understand that the work of preparing adults to engage students as partners throughout the education system is a bedrock of Meaningful Student Involvement. After facilitating learning and projects with hundreds of schools in many ways, I have all-too-often left the building with the sensation that something didn’t work right.

Since starting my work in schools two decades ago, I have focused mightily on teaching students about the education system; worked with students and adults to establish safe and supportive partnerships that support co-work; facilitated evaluation, reflection and research to improve student voice in schools; and sought to inspire action in all levels of schools for all learners everywhere, all the time.

However, looking back on my successes and failures as well as the challenges and opportunities in my work, I can see that the entire time I should have focused on supporting adults more. My experience has taught me that in order to infuse Meaningful Student Involvement into the lifeblood of education, adults should have four traits within their character:

  • Humility—Adults have to have the intellectual humility that allows them to not know everything in schools.
  • Courage—Moving past tokenism and softball questions requires adults to be brave, bold and assertive over the necessity of Meaningful Student Involvement.
  • Urgency—There is no waiting today. Young people are increasingly and astutely aware of the urgent need to change the world.
  • Fun—Getting out of our heads and into our hearts can mean lightening up, loosening up and sharing our whole selves with our students. Meaningful Student Involvement needs that, too!

Playing in a canoe in a river in rural upstate New York more than a decade ago gave me insight that I’m still learning from today. In all this time, part of that learning has become obvious to me finally: Adults must be focused on, too.

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Walking With Terry

For six days in July, I walked in solidarity with my comrade, colleague and friend Terry Mattinson. In my 20-plus years experience as an independent consultant working with schools and communities to build a global movement supporting youth power, I have rarely meant anyone like Terry. A long-time youth worker in Preston, Lancashire in the United Kingdom, his experience has afforded him wisdom beyond measure. It was my honor to walk with him and listen, observe, and see young people and adults engage with him on issues that matter to me the most. This is a short reflection on that experience. 

Adam Fletcher and Terry Mattinson
Adam and Terry in Preston in July 2019.

Terry carefully shepherded me through an agenda that alternately inspired me and encouraged my own reflection on the work I’ve been doing. We visited youth-serving organizations in several communities as well as schools for young and older learners. There were deep conversations about theory, practical discussions about taking action, and meaningful opportunities to dissect, digest and divulge our experiences and learning with several people along the way–especially with Terry himself.

Sitting in classrooms at several schools, I got to hear student voices sound out on issues they were learning about, projects they designed, and the difference they were making in the world. Excited young students answered my questions anxiously, sometimes with gentle prompts from their teachers and other times with the restraint only well-taught learners can have. Their global perspectives behoove the pluralistic society they are growing up within. Other times, older students shared their wizened perceptions of taking action to change the world. They analyzed the effects of their actions, proposed radical new ways of affecting change, and inspired each other, Terry and I, and others in great ways.

Carlisle Youth Zone badge
This is a visitor’s badge for the Carlisle Youth Zone.

Some of the things I distinctly learned from young people in these visits included that they are intensely focused on making a positive, powerful difference in the world around them; they want to demonstrate to adults, including teachers, youth workers and parents, their concern for the larger world beyond classrooms and throughout the community, and; they want to have fun while they’re taking action to make change.

In the course of my time there, I was able to meet with several adults about these issues, too. I met with Steve Walker, a senior lecturer and programme leader for working with children and families at the University of Cumbria. Steve has conducted a fascinating study at his university focused on establishing the validity of youth voice in evaluation. We discussed the nuances of his study, and I suspect there will be more conversations ahead as I explore the intricacies of what he’s doing. I also met with Mary Sayer, the Unite in Schools Coordinator for Unite the Union, the largest trade union in UK. Her program teaches students about labor unions, organizing and political power. In the course of a morning, she and I had an intensive series of conversations with a dozen young people at Our Lady’s Catholic High School in Preston, discussing the intersections of her interests with my efforts along the way. I also had a great convo with Marc Besford, the National Training and Development Worker for Young Christian Workers. Marc supports youth workers like Terry in a large portion of the UK, and has great perspectives on youth involvement. Given his broad application of the principles of meaningful involvement and their diverse applications, it was exciting to talk with him.

Beward of Children sign
I saw this sign outside of a school in Lancashire, UK.

One of the most intriguing conversations I had was with Nigel Ranson, the headmaster of Our Lady’s. In a thorough but brief tête-à-tête, he and I discussed the capacity, interest and ability of educators to engage pupil voice in substantial ways. As I elaborated on the difference between engaging voice and meaningfully involving students throughout education, our back-and-forth reminded me of the early advocacy I’d conducted in Washington state’s education agency back in the early 2000s. It was an honor to talk with each of these folks.

​​Terry launched me back and forth through his region on trains, visiting surrounding cities with ease while allowing me to take in some gorgeous English countryside vistas, complete with fells and sheep galore! We also went to an old cathedral city called Carlisle. Sitting near the ancient Scottish border, Carlisle was surrounded by an enormous wall that we walked along for a bit. I saw the cathedral and castle, and devoured other historical sites shared by Terry and his nephew Andy, who is also a youth worker in the area. Our tour there included a fantastic facility called the Carlisle Youth Zone. Focused on providing a fun, safe environment for young people to hang out, recreate and learn, the Youth Zone is one of many facilities spread throughout the nation that does similar things. I had a thorough tour with the youth work manager, Clint Howat. While we discussed the several informal youth voice opportunities here, I became distinctly aware of the opportunity these types of facilities have to infuse meaningful youth involvement and youth mainstreaming throughout their operations. Fascinating potential!

This picture shows Adam Fletcher standing outside a school in Preston, Lancashire, in the UK.
This picture shows Adam standing outside a school in Preston, Lancashire, in the UK.

​One of the greatest rewards of this visit was the chance to form a great connection with Terry. He’s been working so hard for so long to engage young people, foster youth power, and nurture community connections ​with children and youth that really have changed the places they live. We shared the personal motivations we have for behind our commitment to youth and discussed the faults and potential for our individual futures. He also took care to find me beautifully calming accommodations, and I enjoyed a relaxing, invigorating stay that uplifted my spirit and rekindled my interest in the world beyond my front door!

​All-in-all, I was excited by the potential Terry Mattinson shared with me in his city of Preston and the surrounding area. Talking with so many people showed me more of the commonalities in our international efforts to engage youth in dynamic, powerful new ways. It also ​inspired me to consider new ways that I can continue my life’s work, both where I live and far beyond.

Adam and Andy
This is Andy, Terry’s nephew and another youth worker, touring me throughout Carlisle.

Thanks to everyone who made this trip possible!

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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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