Stop the Machine

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free the machine will prevented from working at all. – Mario Savio

I can think of no more suitable quote to express my frustration today than this one. There is so much that needs changed in this field where I work, and I need more avenues for action. Any ideas are welcomed – send them to adam at

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Two Magazine, Two Perspectives

I can be a junk reader at times. Oh sure, I toss around novels by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jose Saramago like they’re constantly in my hands (because they usually are), and I subscribe to more than one research database for a reason. But sometimes when I’m sitting around the house I crack open my latest edition of Fast Company or Wired magazines. This month the two magazines present two perspectives of young people today.

The first features “Teen Pleads Guilty in Rare Theater Filming Case” as the blaring title of an article posted August 21st to Wired magazine’s website. The story tells how a teen was arrested last month for filming 20 seconds of Transformers in a Virginia theater, and how he has pleaded guilty to one count of unlawfully recording a motion picture in violation of state law. This 19-year-old is a college sophomore, and was arrested in Annandale, Virginia, a well-off suburb of Washington, D.C.

As the Motion Picture Academy of America continues its assault on new media and tries to avoid its death vis-a-vis the Recording Industry Association of America, it shows just how theaters target young people. Recent studies have shown the profile of the average movie pirate to be a 21-24 year-old male; yet the target of this bust was a 17-year-old female. While it appears to show an anomaly, this actually reiterates the assertions of many young people who regularly report that they are targeted by movie theaters, stores, and other businesses for their age. It also supports research that shows how laws are disproportionately enforced against youth.

The second article is simply titled “Girl Power“. Its the story of Ashley Qualls, a 17-year-old in Detroit whose young woman-focused website is making millions of dollars from advertising. It talks about the stupification of a marketer named Ian Moray, and his complete dumbfoundedness after discovering one of his leading sales websites was run by a youth. “I assumed she was a seasoned Internet professional. She knows so much about what her site does, more than people three times her age.” Its a redeeming story for these Internet-based times, and shows the particular power of programs like Generation YES, where students learn the ins-and-outs of technology by teaching it to other people. The article relates this story to the New Yorker cartoon on the below; its sad, but the only analogy that came to a seasoned jounalist was to relate Ashley to a dog.

Other interesting age-focused notes for the day:

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Critical Questions for August

As I travel I write a great deal. My offices at home and work are filled with notepads where my ideas flow out, as are a pair of hard drives. Following are some of the critical questions I’ve written over the last month:

  • Can students be equal members of professional learning communities in schools?
  • Is the human capacity for learning unlimited?
  • What is the difference between “recycling knowledge” and “upcycling” knowledge?
  • If no one paints on an infinite canvas, what are the boundaries we don’t talk about?
  • What are the greatest educational practices that foster student voice and sustain the desire to learn throughout life?
  • How can the mechanisms that meaningfully involve young people evolve throughout a person’s lifetime to continuously, constantly and sustainably keep them involved?
  • Can role reversal activities be a useful learning tool for groups of youth and adult co-learners?
  • Can young people ever be truly disengaged in their own lives, or does living inherently require engagement of some sort?
  • Does engagement hinge on activities for young people, or the context in which they participate?
  • What are the significant “baby steps” a person/class/school can take towards meaningful student involvement?
  • What are the core differences between engaging historically disengaged students and engaging historically engaged students?
  • What are the core differences between meaningful involvement for young people in different community settings, i.e. schools, families, community organizations, government programs, etc.?
  • What is the apparent tension between focusing on meaningful student involvement in schools and fostering broad stakeholder involvement which includes, but is not exclusive to, students?
  • Why do teachers seek retribution against disobeying or nonconforming students?
  • When youth don’t speak up, is it okay for adults to speak for them?
  • Is there a false dichotomy between “youth voice” and “adult voice”?
  • Why isolate youth voice when youth are members of the larger community?
  • What are the effects of isolating youth voice and disallowing youth/adult interactions in critical conversations about place?
  • How can appropriate critical relationships between young people and adults be fostered?
  • Can equity exist without empathy?
  • Does every activity a young person participate in have to be “immediately” meaningful, or is there inherent value and “rightness” in activities where the meaningfulness does not become apparent until later dates?
  • Can students understand concepts, theories and practices better than adults?
  • Can students understand concepts when adults don’t understand them?
  • What is the outcome of students understanding concepts, etc., when adults don’t?

Feel free to answer any of these, or put me onto somewhere where I can learn more. Thanks.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

We’re one, but we’re not the same

Question of the Day: How can adults realize that they are different enough from youth without thinking youth are so different that they cannot relate to youth in any form? Maybe one of the greatest challenges of building youth/adult partnerships is the continuous point that so many people like to draw out and get hung up on: We’re one, but we’re not the same.

On one hand, it’s right: youth are different! Their intellectual and emotional capacities, cultural norms, and social interactions evolve with every passing day, and because of that we can easily see that young people are different. Sociologist Mike Males explores a lot of these real and perceived differences in his writing, often demonstrating that differences between the racial and economic composition of young people today and previous generations leads to ephebiphobia. Henry Giroux, Kathleen Cushman and John Holt do this to some extent, as well.

But wait! That’s wrong – youth are part of us all! Every single person on this planet who is an adult has been a youth before. The experiences of young people vary so much, but the notion remains the same: For a period of our lives, each person is all commonly afflicted by the hallmarks of youth, which change from society to society, culture to culture. Youth aren’t so different from us that we cannot relate to them. No matter how we choose to relate, we all co-occupy this gigantic ball of Earth, and we’ve all got to learn to change it. Why not do this together?

Somewhere in the middle of that is a lot of tension related to adultism, adultcentrism and adultocracy. Its easy to admonish people for not understanding each other, particularly when we refuse to see difference. But there are differences that must be acknowledged and embraced. All that I’m looking for today is to stop the tendency of so many adults to make young people so different from ourselves.

Thinking about my previous post where I beg for a new vision for youth leadership, I realize that maybe another tension is in here: Adults who think they “know” youth and “get it” are the ones who seek out and readily interact with the youth who act most like themselves. Ooow, that’s a tough statement right there. Question of the Day: How can adults realize that they are different enough from youth without thinking youth are so different that they cannot relate to youth in any form?

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Looking for New Visions of Youth Leadership

It is difficult for me to listen to the experts and professionals preach about “youth leadership“. There is an inherent dilemma in that phrase and in the practices behind it that is repulsive. I have not met a program that bills itself as a youth leadership program that teaches young people how to survive the system, how to take control of their personal lives or how to challenge the messed up situations that many, if not all, young people live in.

Too often these organizations just focus on skill development: communication, leadership, conflict management, decision making, time management, and leadership styles. They sometimes teach action-oriented skills: project development, change management and volunteer development. Rarely do they put context to youth leadership, meaning that any discussion about depleting water supplies, parental abuse, the school-prison-military complex, police abuse, adultism or educational inequities is gone. Instead, the organizations that do teach these skills in context are marginalized by their assigned categories, like youth activism, youth media or youth rights. These groups might attach “youth leadership” in their descriptions, or buried within a grant application, but they don’t surface the title because generally they know what it implies.

What is most problematic about that is that whenever adults convene meetings or conferences or call for young people to become engaged in their communities, they put out general calls for “youth leaders”. They want the young people who shine to show up. What makes a young person shine? Why, anyone who acts just like me! Adults, 2.0 – you know the type. They know how to dress, act, walk and talk like adults. They can turn a phrase and spin an idea like the pros, and often make adults look silly because they are smarter and quicker than yesterday’s youth. (The training ground of “youthhood” is ironic, because as soon as you stop being young you become outdated, no matter what you do. That is how it is.) Meanwhile, young people who need skills different from the white, middle- and upper-class struggle to find accessible, appropriate and relevant opportunities to develop them.

When I was 16 I participated in a youth leadership program of the Urban League in Omaha. I remember it being a pretty intensive program that was filled with all kinds of sessions, maybe once a week for a quarter or something. It was a little awkward for me because suddenly I was sitting with the other people from school who lived in my neighborhood but didn’t talk with me. Oh, we saw each other: they were notorious bangers or the funny, smart, cynical people at the front of the class. But suddenly we were in the same class together, collectively seen as “youth leaders”. I don’t remember anything else from the class. I don’t remember writing it on any college applications, either.

But isn’t that the thing? We look for youth leaders who we know will succeed, who we can trust not to fail our expectations, because as adults our worlds sometimes seem so concrete, so firm. But our world is changing! We have to develop a different vision of what leadership is – there simply is not a choice. We need more than a next generation that just comes in here to hold up the roof so it doesn’t all fall in on us. We need young people – every single one – to come in here and work with us to show us that the roof needs taken down, and then to help us construct a new vision of our collective present and future, as well as to help us understand our past. We need new dreams – another world is possible.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Dr. King & the Struggle

About once a year I stumble across a reason to go to Washington, D.C. A few years ago I spoke at the national Children’s Defense Fund conference; last year I was “on assignment” profiling a youth program ran by a friend in town. This year I’m attending an national “invitation-only” summit called “Blazing the Trail: A New Direction for Youth Development & Leadership“. I am most looking forward to hearing Karen Pittman talk about the state of youth leadership and youth development today, primarily because she wrote about this work ten years ago – I want to hear her still sound fresh about it.

Every time I visit this city, I like to sit on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and ponder, imagine and daydream about what has happened there, and what could yet come forward. I think about Marian Anderson and Abe and the Million Man March and Forrest Gump (yes, Forrest Gump). But mostly I wonder about Dr. King. Here’s a quote of his that stays in my head:

“Now, I say to you today my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: – ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all mean are created equal.'”

That is it – the stuff of greatness right there. It was not enough to call the individual out, like Bull Conor, and simply say, “You can change!” It wasn’t enough to challenge a congregation and say, “You can transform!” Not a city or a state, either – but the nation – Dr. King took on the nation. Whenever I dwell on King, I am immediately taken to a stronger thought and a deeper place within myself, and I feel like I understand a little more than I did before. I guess I should dwell on King a little more for that reason.

One of the stated outcomes of the “Blazing the Trail” summit is “Increased youth-guided policy making at the Federal, state and local levels”. That reminds me of another King-ism:

“A right delayed is a right denied.”

That’s it – that is it. That is why I dwell on Dr. King. His words offer guidance and direction in today’s troubled times and for today’s modern youth movement. Thanks, Dr. King – I only hope we can possibly live up to the dream.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

The All-Adult Youth Council

Our quote for the day comes from a 2003 publication that quoted a student in New York City who was an activist with Youth Force. In front of a city council meeting he said:

“If you had a problem in the Black community, and you brought in a group of White people to discuss how to solve it, almost nobody would take that panel seriously. In fact, there’d probably be a public outcry. It would be the same the for women’s issues or gay issues. But every day, in local arenas all the way to the White House, adults sit around and decide what problems youth have and what youth need, without ever consulting us.”

There’s something to ponder. Oh, and for an example of the (unfortunately) popular all-adult youth council, check out the Workforce Investment Act of 1998.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

My Learning Community Grows

These last few weeks my blog posts have been on the road, as I’ve traveled almost 5000 miles to and from the Northeast on two different trips. During these two trips, both at the insistence of my friend and colleague Giselle Martin-Kniep. I met Giselle last year during a project we were both working on with the New York State Student Support Services Office.

Earlier this year she invited me to become a fellow with the Center for the Study of Expertise in Teaching and Learning, recently renamed Communities for Learning. A few weeks ago I joined the C4L crew, along with about 40 other fellows, in the woods of rural Connecticut to explore the power of working in a cross-field learning community among education-related folks. I learned a lot, mixing and mashing ideas with K-12 teachers, principals, school coaches, higher ed faculty and others who simply “get it” on a lot of levels. I also presented the meaningful student involvement frameworks to folks, and was able to learn from the experiences of a wide range of educators from across New York State. Very cool. (Note: I’m the first out-of-state fellow in C4L; everyone else is from New York.) I spent more uninterrupted time concentrating on my work than I had in a long time, and for the most part unconstrained by the stuff that shares my daily attention. It was awesome.

If that weren’t enough, the next week I was able to spend three days outside of Boston with Peter Senge, one of the “Top Strategists of the Century”. With Giselle’s prompting, I was invited by Jaimie Cloud of the Cloud Institute to attend the Society for Organizational Learning‘s Core Course, facilitated by Senge to launching a “National Learning Community of Schools and Communities that Learn for a Sustainable Future”. While that seems pretty high-minded, it actually was. Senge strikes me as someone who spends a lot of time thinking and creating high-minded solutions to issues that strike much of society. Check out his book called The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization to find out more about his theories and work.

I’m continually amazed by the range and possibilities of this work around meaningfulness in schools, and I’m concerned that it apparently hasn’t struck folks more powerfully before now. Giselle, Peter and Jaimie all show me that the doors are wider than I’ve imagined, and I am hopeful for a powerful future for this work.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Robbing Perspectives

One of the biggest problems with standardizing education is that by creating standards – concrete, non-variable, measurable learning outcomes – educators actively ignore the nature of childhood. Young people are inherently moving, increasing and decentralizing their conceptions of the world. Standing them still and making them look in one direction should be illegal, because it robs children and youth of their very nature: That of the constantly evolving and transformative creature.

My mom put together a program in North Omaha called “Young Time”. She believed that the low-income kids in our neighborhood were forced to grow up too young, too fast:

  • Commercialism promotes crass-consumerism, often driving low-income young people to want things beyond their means, leading to early (and poor) employment experiences and dissatisfaction with family and community norms.
  • Empty homes where moms and dads were working full-time, two jobs and more drew many young people indoors to babysit during times when outdoor play could be happening.
  • A hollow sense of community among neighbors that leads to distrust and alienation, driving children and youth to loose contact with neighbors, and forcing neighbors to constantly survey youth and children throughout the community.

Anytime that socio-economic backgrounds are homogeneous with a community the perspectives of young people are going to become and stay static. That robs young people, whose perspectives are inherently moving. Let’s aim to be dynamic in learning. Standardized education assumes that there is learning – any learning – that is stagnant and worthy of learning. That there are base skills and knowledge that every student should learn. While I value the ability to read, I don’t believe that every young person needs to know deep mathematical theorems and scientific hypothesis. Education that forces students to learn is bound to fail.

Similarly, there are a number of youth programs that do the same. However, perhaps more dubious than schools, these programs don’t have the federal mandates or the sense of disconnected democracies that educational systems have. Instead, these programs are operated by nonprofit organizations that are effectively little tyrant organizations: While they are being hogtied by foundations, these nonprofits have chosen to give into the demands of funders and simply be held accountable for standards that simply do not apply to them.

Let’s not rob the perspectives of young people – let them have their views from wherever they stand. Those perspectives are valid, valuable and powerful.

Rereading this post, I’m reminded of Maya Angelou’s quote:

“We are all creative, but by the time we are three of four years old, someone has knocked the creativity out of us. Some people shut up the kids who start to tell stories. Kids dance in their cribs, but someone will insist they sit still. By the time the creative people are ten or twelve, they want to be like everyone else.”

The essence of recognizing the evolving capacities of the child is seeing that everyone is a creative genius – and we must learn to embrace that. We have so much energy!

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

My Background in Translation

There was a period of time, about ten years ago, when any discussion of “youth rights” automatically got me fired up. In 1997 I was working as an “adult living skills” instructor in a program for foster and homeless youth in Lincoln, Nebraska. That year I re-read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed for the second time, and still didn’t understand most of it. I also read Jonathan Caldwell Holt’s Escape from Childhood – which I absorbed and felt deeply.

Throughout Escape… Holt extensively surveys the notion and reality of youth rights – although his analysis embraces children, as well. He pounds the nail on the head over and over, discussing the abuses of schools, families, government agencies, children’s rights advocates, even banks. Everything in it – the anecdotes, the powerful points – they all resonated with some part of my experience, and I was completely excited.

I sat on those thoughts and let them percolate over the next several years while I served two more AmeriCorps terms, coordinated a ropes challenge course, supervised a youth floor in a drug rehab center, worked at a nature center and coordinated a service learning program. Percolate. Then, in 2000, I was hired by Washington’s state education agency to promote youth involvement. It was that year in the national youth voice movement and service learning field that I saw Holt’s ideas come to fruition, with nominal but present efforts abounding designed to involve young people more thoroughly in the decisions that affect them most. I was, and am still, critical of these programs, because I believe they are mostly devoid of critical consciousness in general; however, I took hope.

So I started to use Holt’s language. Conferences, teacher workshops, state agency meetings, anywhere people were discussing youth engagement, youth voice or youth empowerment I mentioned youth liberation, youth oppression and youth rights. I built the original Freechild Project websites from this perspective as well. As you might guess, I quickly ran into brick walls. Matter of fact, I ran into them over and over.

These trials-by-fire led me, slowly but surely, to adapt my approaches to accommodate to my given surroundings. Later I will write more about how these experiences molded my work with SoundOut, and still inform what I do. But today I’m concern about translating for people so deeply indoctrinated by the ephibiphobics and adultcentrists that they simply do not see the realities young people faced today. Any insight is appreciated.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!