Part 4: Barriers to Transformative Youth Engagement

The barriers to transformative youth engagement in juvenile justice occur in three ways: Individual barriers, Cultural barriers, and Structural barriers.

  • The individual barriers are shown by youth and adults, and may include attitudes, perspectives and mindsets related to youth engagement.
  • Cultural barriers can include the shared beliefs, common values and group think apparent throughout and around the juvenile justice system.
  • The structural barriers to transformative youth engagement include the policies and procedures, the decision-making processes, and the control and authority throughout the entire juvenile justice system.

Following are some details on the individual barriers to transformative youth engagement.

 

Overcoming Individual Barriers

There are several ways that youth and adults can behave like barriers to transformative youth engagement. They include Forcefulness, Silencing, Whitewashing, Showboating, Pedestaling, Heroism, Lowballing, and Sockpuppeting. Here’s what those can look like:

  • Forcefulness: Individuals—including youth and adults—can be barriers when they try to force youth to be engaged, undermining the best intentions.
  • Silencing: One of the most insidious ways that people can undermine transformative youth engagement can be very overt and/or very subversive, sometimes at the same times. Silencing happens when the voices of youth are intentionally shut down, denied, neglected or repressed.
  • Whitewashing: This happens when people pretend that all voices are represented by one voice, particularly if that voice does not and cannot effectively represent their peers. Its the enemy of diversity, pluralism and uniqueness.
  • Showboating: When individuals are allowed to continuously, selfishly and egotistically highlight their own skills, talents, or abilities, they are showboating. All voices should honor the contributions and abilities of all people everywhere all the time.
  • Pedestaling: Romanticizing youth voice or making someone always right is putting them on a pedestal and pretending they’re infallible. Transformative youth engagement has disagreement and mistakes, and models consensus and collaboration.
  • Heroism: 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. However, just because a young person talks to adults in a way that makes adults listen to them does not make them heroic or a superhero. It makes them well-versed. We have to make room for young people who do not please or appeal to adults so easily.
  • Lowballing: Some institutions, organizations and individuals are calling for youth to be informants to adult decision-making in juvenile justice. They want youth voice to be heard and a seat at the table for youth. However, there’s a lot more at stake for youth than simply being able to talk or be represented somewhere. In reality, youth are the reason for juvenile justice, and they can be fully integrated into the operations of every single decision affecting them.
  • Sockpuppeting: Some adults give youth words and ideas and issues, and expect youth to share them accordingly. That’s suckpuppeting. Transformative youth engagement requires safe and supportive environments for authentic youth voice to be engaged.

Once we begin acknowledging how we act as barriers to transformative youth engagement, we can begin addressing these behaviors throughout the juvenile justice system.

 

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Part 3: The Roots of Transformation and Moving Into Action

Youth voice can address a lot of issues throughout the juvenile justice system using a variety of approaches. Some of the juvenile justice system components that transformative youth engagement is happening through include policy, programming, multi-systems approaches and legal defense. The issues youth voice is addressing include mental health; treatment; education; re-entry issues.

With efforts nationwide to ban youth solitary confinement, stop physical violence in youth prisons, stop the sentencing of youth as adults, and end police resistance to transforming juvenile justice roles for youth are increasingly obvious within, throughout, and surrounding the system. Working within and outside the system, there are courts, attorneys, nonprofits, schools and other organizations working together to affect the hearts, minds and heads of court-involved youth.

In many places nationwide, this work is neither brand-new or a silver bullet. However, it is essential and the future. The following examples show how transformative youth engagement is happening right now in juvenile justice settings where I live.

“Our youth are not failing the system; the system is failing our youth. Ironically, the very youth who are being treated the worst are the young people who are going to lead us out of this nightmare.” – Rachel Jackson

 

FEDERAL WAY: In Federal Way, Washington, there has been a growing amount of violence in the city, including more gun deaths, beatings, and domestic violence. Many youth being implicated in these crimes are brown and black, low-income and frequently, under-educated. A program from the Federal Way Youth Action Team is called Helping Youth Perform Excellence, or HYPE. Believing that community members can make a positive difference in the lives of local youth, HYPE empowers local community members to take action to create a safe and healthy community with young people who are involved. Learning diverse adult living skills, establishing authentic mentorships with local adult allies, and building support for each other within the program and beyond, HYPE is challenging the status quo and working to end youth violence in their city. This program is transforming juvenile justice by making discussions personal, promoting strong community connections, and building a sustainable infrastructure for changing Federal Way today and in the future.

SEATTLE: A program led by the Seattle-based Vera Institute for Justice works in three cities nationwide to build educational success and workforce training for youth who are at risk of juvenile justice system involvement or who are already in the system. Vera’s Center on Youth Justice, or CYJ, has a program called Youth Futures that aims to help build youth stability through employment. Building the skills and support youth need to achieve long-term success, the program focuses on youth living in or returning to high-crime, high-poverty communities in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. Through comprehensive, individualized services linked to workforce development, education, and training programs, the lives of youth are transformed from the beginning of young peoples’ involvement in juvenile justice. Assigned and volunteering to participate in Youth Futures, the lives of these youth are changed forever through their involvement.

WASHINGTON STATE: Reflecting a commitment to address the entire system of youth engagement, officials in the State of Washington’s Department of Social and Human Services have adopted a statewide cultural competence plan that positions youth voice as vital to youth at the family, neighborhood, local, regional, and state levels. Within a standard focused on embedding diversity practices, they seek to expand youth voice in order to, “Infuse culturally and linguistically appropriate goals, policies, and management accountability throughout the organization’s planning and operations.”

The Washington State Juvenile Rehabilitation United Youth Council program, or UYC, is a new youth voice mechanism for youth to share their knowledge, ideas, concerns and opinions of youth specifically in regards to improving the juvenile justice system. There is a UYC at the three main juvenile justice facilities in Washington State. Youth who have successfully completed the application process join the UYC at their facility; then, a few of the local UYC participants make up a statewide youth committee to inform state-level decision-making. The UYCs focus on what’s working and what’s not working regarding their juvenile justice experience. They also share input on treatment processes and outcomes from rehabilitation; current and future policies; and process re-design.

SEATTLE: More than a decade ago, the ROYAL (Raising Our Youth As Leaders” Project began fighting to reduce disproportionate minority confinement and recidivism in King County by fostering radically powerful youth/adult partnerships. They hire adults to serve in the traditional role of mentors, youth participants wanted more than friends. The original participants sought critical feedback, substantive insight and meaningful opportunities to connect with adults from the communities they lived in. The Royal Project wanted to fill that desire by positioning adults as life coaches who would instruct youth about life, teach them business principles, and help them set and work toward goals. Ultimately, the positions are powerful youth-adult partnerships that significantly change the lives of many participants

Many programs fostering transformative youth engagement are explicitly antiracist, and/or led by people of color. They provide community alternatives to juvenile incarceration, often giving Black people, Asian, Hispanic/Latino, American Indian, and Pacific Islanders direct control over the structures created to address youth misbehavior. Community-led, community-owned responsibility for their own children matters.

KING COUNTY: Other approaches insist on addressing juvenile justice as a public health issue. In King County, Washington, that means that officials are embracing strategies such as rather than spending time incarcerated while awaiting trial, youth can:

  • Work with counselors to deal with trauma in their lives
  • Attend workshops with parents to learn new skills
  • Other paths to avoid ending up in the adult justice system in the future.

It means that officials will look at the entire ecology of a young person when considering their offenses and the results, and because of that they work with the goal of zero detention for youth, also called “Deinstitutionalization of Status Offenders” or DSO. This movement to end youth incarceration is inherently anti-adultist because it places youth wellbeing in tandem with adult intentions.

As the stories above show, action for transformative youth engagement should focus on fostering youth/adult partnerships. Focused on engaging young people with their communities, these are intentional relationships emphasizing equity between youth and adults, and building social justice throughout the lives of young people. It should focus on supporting youth voice, which is any expression of any youth anywhere, at any time, for any reason. Creating safe, supportive environments for youth voice within the juvenile justice system is important, as well as fostering the adult support needed to sustain and expand youth voice in appropriate, relevant and meaningful ways. Finally, transformative youth engagement should expand, deepen, criticize and necessitate youth empowerment throughout the system. Youth empowerment “is not a process, a product, or an outcome. Instead, youth empowerment comes from the individual attitudes, shared cultures, and everyday structures that children and youth share with adults throughout society.” Instead, it happens when the capacities of youth are enhanced, including their inner-strength, self-respect, motivation, future-thinking, and abilities to connect with people outside of themselves.

Unfortunately, all of this doesn’t just organically happen or authentically sustain itself. There are real roadblocks standing in the way, and they must be addressed.

 


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Part 2: Transformative Youth Engagement, Not Reform

Rachel Jackson is a youth advocate in California who once talked about the juvenile justice system, saying, “Our youth are not failing the system; the system is failing our youth. Ironically, the very youth who are being treated the worst are the young people who are going to lead us out of this nightmare.”

That was more than a decade ago, and since then her words have infiltrated the corridors of power. After successfully showing lawmakers, judges and other that…

  • The average daily cost of incarcerating a young person ($241) compared to that of an effective, community-based alternative-to-incarceration program ($75);
  • That Black youth are incarcerated in state-run youth prisons at five times the rate white youth are, and;
  • How 60,000 young people under 18 are incarcerated in juvenile facilities on any given day,

…organizations including the ACLU and others have declared that the juvenile justice system is beginning to change. There are other reasons, too, including corruption, violence and youth voice.

In my research, I’ve found that the juvenile justice system has began moving toward holistic, positive and transformative youth engagement. This is happening through the laws, legal bodies, and processes that are used to prosecute, convict, punish and rehabilitate young people who commit criminal offenses. Ultimately, transformation focuses on building the capacity of people, policies and programs throughout the juvenile justice system to engage young people in positive, purposeful and powerful ways.

Transforming systems is different from reforming or simply changing the courts, police, detention facilities or voters minds. Traditionally, youth/law interactions have been transactional in nature: You do something wrong, you get punished. Throughout time, these punishments have been largely arbitrary, demonstrating the racist, sexist, classist and adultist biases of legal systems across the country.

I propose moving away from transactional youth justice, and toward transformative youth engagement. That requires seeing the entire legal apparatus as a system, and working to radically reposition the culture, structure and individual attitudes within that system in order to foster meaningful youth engagement within and outside of juvenile justice. I’ve been studying work already underway, and from what I’ve learned about the place where I’m living, I believe change is coming across the entire country.

 


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Part 1: New Juvenile Justice and Transformative Youth Engagement

Theft, vandalism, violence and other crimes plague communities across the United States today. Low-income neighborhoods, communities of color, rural towns and other areas around the nation are disproportionately affected by these realities. The young people who are needed to restore, replenish, reinvigorate and reimagine these places are sometimes the perpetrators. Without educational, social, cultural and empowering activities in their lives, they are driven to crime for entertainment, money, opportunity and a sense of progress in life. Once they’re in the juvenile justice system, these same youth experience oblique outcomes, hurtful punishments, and life-defining stereotyping that is punitive, predictable and prejudice.

In the last several years, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed with this. Through a series of rulings, courts across the country have been compelled to foster more nuanced approach to juvenile justice.

In 2001, I began consulting youth-serving organizations, including K-12 schools, nonprofits and government agencies, specifically on youth engagement. In 2018, I’m expanding my scope to include the field of juvenile justice, especially in regard to the work already underway.

In the next few days, I’m posting a series of blogs that are an exploration of what I’ve found so far in the “new” juvenile justice, which I call transformative youth engagement.

 

Next Posts

  • New Juvenile Justice through Transformative Youth Engagement
  • Transformative Youth Engagement, Not Reform
  • The Roots of Transformation; Moving Into Action
  • Barriers to Transformative Youth Engagement
  • What It All Comes Down To
  • Resources for Transformative Youth Engagement in Juvenile Justice.

 

The Excitement of Project Based Learning

Project Based Learning has become an essential arrow in the quiver of youth development and education. But are we doing it right?

Today, I’m in Columbus, Ohio at the Prevention Action Alliance 2017 Adult Allies Summit. I’m excited to present here, among so many people who see themselves and their work as essential to the lives of youth, because they’re taking the right tact.

As I present on youth engagement through Project Based Learning, I’m reminded of research I’ve done on youth-driven programming across the country. So often, when they’re leading projects youth choose to take action and make a difference in the world around them. They want the vibrance and vitality of leading change, creating difference and fostering transformation in their own lives and the lives of their families, communities and the world.

That’s a tremendous opportunity! Think of the differences we could make as adult allies if we simply made space for young people to lead the projects they learn from, allowing them to create positive, powerful change in the world around us! Wow! Exclamation points!

My research through The Freechild Project has shown me that Project Based Learning should have seven main components:

  1. POWERFUL Youth Engagement—At the core of all Project Based Learning should be youth themselves. Planning, researching, teaching, evaluating, decision-making and advocacy provide potential learning opportunities throughout Project Based Learning as youth are scaffolded for action and supported in transformation.
  2. REAL Learning—Project Based Learning should have meaningful, substantive learning in its core. Learning shouldn’t be fake, pretend, meaningless or inconsequential.
  3. PRACTICAL Problems—Focused on actual challenges and meeting real needs, Project Based Learning should lift the lives of youth and their communities by facing practical problems head-on.
  4. LASTING Efforts—Sustained impact should be a goal of Project Based Learning at every turn. Focused on creating real change, young people and their lives should be transformed.
  5. OUTWARD Outcomes—Looking towards the world around us, Project Based Learning should be conducted toward and presented to people who aren’t involved, including adults, youth and families.
  6. CRITICAL Thinking and Action—Project Based Learning should center on social justice through positive, powerful action. Youth should consider the roles of oppression and empowerment, and the genuine possibilities for them to change the world.
  7. AUTHENTIC Action—Keeping it real is at the center of Project Based Learning when youth focus on what actually needs changed, what problems and challenges they actually face and are trying to solve, and what difference they make.

These components can allow the adult allies of youth—including youth workers, counselors, teachers and others—to enact meaningful, positive and powerful transformation in the lives of their participants. I’ve also learned that only then can we see the all of the positive outcomes that Project Based Learning fosters, including skills focused on Project Management; Time Management; Organization; Teamwork; Research; Procurement, and; Problem-Solving. Other outcomes include knowledge about Social Change; Community Building; Project Design and Implementation; Leadership; Social Justice; Courage in Action; and Creating the Future.

If there are higher goals for youth engagement, I still haven’t seen them!

If you want, I hope you’ll share your knowledge and ideas about Project Based Learning in the comments section below.

 

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Elsewhere Online

  • THE FREECHILD PROJECT—Freechild supports youth and adults working together to change the world in positive, powerful ways. My 15-year project with examples, resources and more.
  • EDUTOPIA—Our vision is of a new world of learning based on the compelling truth that improving education is the key to the survival of the human race. Lots of Project Based Learning resources.

 

Downtown Olympia Homeless Youth Engagement Project

From 2013 to 2016, Adam conducted strategic planning, program planning and project management for the City of Olympia and Capital Recovery Center through the Downtown Olympia Homeless Youth Engagement Project.

Working with City staff, nonprofit partners and business owners in the downtown area, Adam facilitated homeless youth outreach forums, community planning events and key informant interviews, developing responsive programs and outreach activities with city staff and others.

He created meeting agendas and facilitated activities, including more than a dozen gatherings of up to 100 people. The activities he facilitated included technical assistance meetings, community-wide gatherings, professional affinity groups, and forums for homeless youth.

For this project, Adam created activity reports and developed a comprehensive funding report for the City government. He also designed performance tools for use in large scale public events as well as in professional development sessions for City staff and nonprofit partners. 

 

Project Artifacts

 

North Carolina Rural Economic Development Forum Next Generation Initiative
The 2016 Youth Forum was a project Adam led for this consultancy.
Olympia All Youth Forum flyer
The 2015 Youth Forum was a project Adam facilitated for this consultancy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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City of Lincoln American Jobs Center

In 2015, City of Lincoln workforce development staff approached me about more successfully reaching the youth they served. Committed to enriching their youth engagement strategies, the City contracted with me to deliver a variety of services.

Between 2015 and 2016, Adam facilitated evaluation and training events for city staff and nonprofit partners, and worked with City staff to redesign and implement a dynamic strategy to engage young people under 25 in workforce development activities. Focusing on client voice, Adam’s strategy created responsive, interactive opportunities for youth and adults to partner together for continuous improvement and extensive community engagement. Activities including program assessment, event facilitation and staff consultation. 

 


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3 Ways to Find Meaning During Life Transitions

We live in a time of transition. Social change is swirling like a righteous cyclones throughout our society, bringing social justice, massive disparities and a whirlwind of destruction, transition, and ultimately, transformation everywhere, affecting everyone all the time.

Lots has been lost through these times. Job security disappeared for many of us, and along with it economic certainty, ongoing professional development, and benefits like retirement and healthcare. We’ve been stripped of the crystalline certainties of the middle class, including home ownership, higher education, and savings. Some of us struggle to put food on the table and pay rent, while others hustle to keep their mortgages and car payments going.

How can we find meaning when its all stripped away? What do we do when it feels like everything is lost, like we’re drowning in hopelessness and we need something more than mere survival?

 

Learning How to Sustain Ourselves

Throughout my career, I’ve been teaching low-income youth, youth of color, rural and urban youth, and the adults who support them. I’ve found their passion, courage and determination to be simultaneously exhilarating and frustrating. Its exhilarating because of the ambition of youth; its frustrating because of the inability of adults to change their lives.

Worn down, beaten down, and otherwise held down throughout our lives, all kinds of parents, youth workers, teachers, counselors, and others are running low on juice right now. Its frustrating because nobody is teaching these essential warriors of truth and justice how to survive their professions.

About five years ago, I began facilitating self-sustainability workshops. Working with schools, youth programs, national organizations and at conferences across the nation, all kinds of adults and youth have been teaching me how they take care of themselves, how they support others, and what they do along the way. I’ve been collecting lessons from these workshops, and I want to share some of my learnings here.

 

3 Ways to Find Meaning During Life Transitions

This is a flyer for Adam Fletcher's "Self-Sustainability for Educators" workshop.
This is a flyer for Adam Fletcher’s “Self-Sustainability for Educators” workshop.

 


3 Ways to Find Meaning

Following are three ways I’ve been taught to find meaning in transitions.

  1. NAME YOUR STRENGTHS. When the world knocks us down and takes things away, its important to acknowledge the abilities we have within ourselves. These things can’t be taken away. When you name your strengths, don’t be vague or ambiguous; name specific, accountable realities. Make a simple list, draw a complicated mindmap, or just talk it over with yourself. If you’re a planner, you’d better name planning as a strength; artists, poets, builders, parenting, learning, advocating, driving and gardening all count, along with any specific skill you have. Knowledge counts too, so account for your professional knowledge, your personal hobbies and your downtime activities, too.
  2. DRAW IN SUPPORT. If you’re struggling in life, bring your supports together from the world around you. Those can be people, places, activities and other assets throughout your life. Again, you can write them down, brainstorm images or do whatever works. In some way though, account for the supports in your life, including books, heroes, family, friends and whatever else helps you get strong and stay that way. Then, when you’re feeling the most low and vulnerable, be grateful for those supports. Go through your list and say thanks for everything you’ve drawn in, whether in person, over the internet, on the phone or simply by yourself. Don’t just name them; name them and then thank them.
  3. TAKE ACTION. The temptation to remain still, be complacent and simply react to the situations we face can be overwhelming at times. However, once you’ve completed the first two steps here, you must must take action! Look at the abilities and capacities you personal have from step one, then match them to the supports you’ve identified in the world around you from step two. If a clear pathway isn’t automatically obvious, you have to clear out the fog from in front of your eyes and concentrate your vision. Do you even have a vision? Name one. Do you see the next steps? Take them. Do you need to name the next steps? Write them down. Make timelines, create plans, match the resources you already have and find the meaning in your life right now.

These three ways to find meaning in transitions. Whether you’re changing jobs, changing houses, changing yourself or changing the world, you can always use these three steps to take care of you, lift yourself up and make a difference in your own life. I hope you share your thoughts about them in the comments below.

 


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Why Youth Empowerment?

Sometimes, there are things to understand and know that aren’t necessarily agreed with by society. There are beliefs, ideas and activities that don’t make sense to a lot of people. As an advocate, I’m not compelled to do what others think I should; instead, I follow my heart and mind and take inner guidance on where I’m at and where I’m going.

Taking Away Youth Power

Reflecting on more than 20 years of working with children and youth across the United States, I realize that I have seen a generation of youth who constantly strive, constantly achieve and constantly exceed society’s wildest expectations of them. However, young people are doing this with the barest minimum support from society-at-large. We barely fund the schools they attend; we scrape up just enough money for low-income young people; we routinely profiteer off locking up youth who offend the law in order for private companies to make money off them; and just as soon as we can, society throughs young people into war, college or the workplace in hopes that they’ll make it all on their own.

Social Responsibility

I’m of the firm belief that our society should take responsibility for the decisions we make. All of the experiences of children and youth today are not the fault of their families or the fault of young people themselves. Instead, they are the outcomes of our society as a whole. Childhood homelessness? Society. Childhood hunger? Society. Failing students? Society. Abused young people? Society. Youth offenders, dropouts, child prostitutes, child slaves, child labor, all of this? Society.
 
However, its not just the actions of young people that society is responsible for; its also the feelings and beliefs of young people. As a society, we drive children and youth to think and feel the ways they do. That means that when young people feel distrust, apathy, despair, depression, hopelessness, hurt, anger, frustration and any feelings that make adults uncomfortable, its not just their job to “pick themselves up by their bootstraps” and make themselves feel better. Society must take responsibility for what we’ve done.
 

Transforming Power

I want to change this crummy situation. I want to see things be radically different for children and youth today than ever before. After more than 20 years working in education, social services and government to promote the health, welfare and empowerment of young people, it is my responsibility to demand more. While there are many, many ways to get that done, I believe one of the most responsible and genuine ways to transform our society is by enfranchising every child everywhere with the right to vote in every election all of the time.
 
Given the right and responsibility of the vote, children and youth can begin to hold society responsible for the attitudes, actions, beliefs and outcomes that it has routinely dumped on young people for thousands of years. One of the constructs in our society has been to see young people merely as adults-in-the-making, rather than seeing them as full humans right now. As voters, adults will not be able to deny the capabilities of young people; they won’t be able to deny the validity of young people; and they won’t be able to deny the power of young people AS young people, which is what they’ve always done.
 
All youth, everywhere, all of the time should have the right and responsibility to be empowered today.

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Unboxing “Student Voice Revolution: The Meaningful Student Involvement Handbook”

Yesterday, I got a great package in the mail. Clocking in at 374-pages, Student Voice Revolution: The Meaningful Student Involvement Handbook is filled with tools, research, examples and more resources for educators, advocates and others who want to foster student/adult partnerships throughout the education system.

Here’s my unboxing of the book. Let me know what you think?

 

 

Order your copy of Student Voice Revolution!

 


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