"Youth Voice" Isn’t Enough to Stop Youth Disengagement

Youth voice is not enough. Adults working to build communities with young people have learned that it is important to engage youth as self-advocates and peer teachers, community culture monitors, and youth organization cheerleaders. As youth organizations become more savvy, more youth are being effectively taught to challenge themselves, working with their peers to create safe and supportive environments for all people.

However, after more than 15 years of national interest in youth voice, many communities are still struggling to effectively address the problem of youth disengagement. We have to consider the reality of youth disengagement as a form of youth voice and the role of youth/adult partnerships in challenging youth disengagement. But we also have to acknowledge that youth voice is not enough.

Most people, young and old, value action. From our hunter/gatherer roots to present, there is often nothing more important to us than getting things done. Somewhere along the way, though, society decided that the loudest or most eloquent person in the group should be given a place to talk separate from everyone else. From Socrates to Abraham Lincoln, we have created pedestals and mantles on which we place these individuals, and we call that place “leadership.” Many youth organizations perpetuate that idea.

The challenge with many organizations’ conceptions of youth voice is that it is automatically associated with this traditional youth leadership model: Young leaders are nurtured to become adult leaders, and in many ways we carry forward the notion that youth leadership is only for certain youth.

Occasionally, well-meaning adults will try to engage nontraditional youth leaders in traditional youth leadership activities. When those experiences do not work out, adults feel justified shrugging their shoulders and simply give up on nontraditional youth leaders. However, when this reality is coupled with our hunter/gatherer roots, we can see why youth voice is not enough: Adults working with nontraditional youth leaders in “failed” youth leadership opportunities are generally taught to sit passively and wait for their turn to speak up. Despite that, the nontraditional youth leaders take action, whether it works for adults or not. This is when youth voice becomes inconvenient.

Effective social change requires direct action. It is important that everyone working for social change sees youth as a piece of that action but not the whole pie. My experience working with communities across the country and research on youth voice has shown me that there is a five-part process for meaningfully involving all partners. Following is an explanation of how my cycle of engagement can be used to engage nontraditional youth leaders.

Part 1: Listen to all youth. Families, counselors, and other adults have a direct stake in the well-being of our communities. However, the most important partner is often the least engaged: connecting all youth as partners and hearing their voices, at par with other partners including traditional youth leaders, is essential. Adults must hear youth experiences with injustice; their ideas about social change; their wisdom about creating safe and supportive communities; and their beliefs about learning, teaching, and leadership in general. These experiences and ideas and their wisdom are essential to effectively engaging not only youth, but also all other partners. Brazilian educator Paulo Freire wrote that educators must learn to “speak by listening;” social change opens the door for adults to demonstrate to nontraditional and traditional youth leaders that they are our partners.

Part 2: Validate perspectives. The historical structures of communities require adults to give permission to youth. In the old “youth empowerment” concept this meant always saying yes. Today things are different. We know that validation does not always mean saying “yes.” Instead, it is important to sometimes say “no” or “maybe,” and always to ask more questions. Inquiry is acknowledgment, and it builds relationships and allows adults to connect with young people across the board.

Part 3: Authorize change. Sometimes the straightest path to creating change is the one that looks wiggly. To authorize youth is to give them permission to tell their own stories through positions and education. They need the education and the positions that will allow them to effectively change the world.

Part 4: Take action. Young people are not the only partners who require action. With demanding modern schedules adults want to hear more than just words too—they want to do something. However, one of the points of this cycle is that action does not happen in a vacuum; instead, it has to have context. The other parts of this cycle provide that framing. Don’t take action without the other parts.

Part 5: Reflect on learning. Reflection allows all partners, including young people, to look back on what they have done, make meaning from it, and apply what they have learned to the next rotation of the cycle. An easy framework for reflection is

  • What?
  • So what?
  • Now what: What happened?
  • So what was the point of that?
  • Now what do we do with what we have learned?

Keep in mind that these different parts are a cycle though, so as they come around to completion, we use our reflections on learning to re-inform the process of listening to partners.

Social change requires more than youth voice: it needs action. The Cycle of Engagement is one tool in the Freechild Project Youth Voice Toolkit that can engage young people and adults as partners in creating a whole new world. Let’s use it together.



CommonAction is available to train, coach, speak, and write about this topic across the US and Canada. Contact Adam to learn about the possibilities by emailing adam@commonaction.org or calling (360) 489-9680.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Youth Kicking Butt in 2012 (for Brad)

Across the United States there are a number of innovative youth leadership programs that excite me. I get to interact with them sometimes, and other times I merely study them, read about them, or just hear about them from my friends and colleagues in the field.

For just over a decade, I’ve been working to support an decentralized movement of young people and adults working around the world. This movement has many different guises, including youth-led activism, youth voice, youth mainstreaming, youth engagement, intergenerational partnerships, and youth empowerment. All of them include youth leadership, in all its myriad forms. Another thing they do is center on transforming the roles of young people throughout society, and that has been my main interest, action that actively evolves society.

One of my favorite organizations for early 2012 is the Pennsylvania Student Equality Coalition. PESC is an entirely youth-led and youth-run organization. They work statewide on issues affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth. Comprised of leaders from youth-led LGBTQ organizations across Pennsylvania, PESC works in schools and nonprofits to raise LGBTQ young people on the radar. Learn more about them at http://pennsec.org.

Another is School Girls Unite. Wendy Lesko is one of my favorite people in the world. After a long career focused on national advocacy for youth action, she began actively supporting a group of young women in her city in Maryland. School Girls Unite was formed as an organization of students and young women leaders in the United States and in Mali. They quickly became focused on working to advance the U.N. Millennium Development Goals related to gender equality and universal basic education, as well as child marriage prevention and other human rights issues. In late 2011, they succeeded in getting the United Nations to declare that October 11, 2012 will be the first International Day of the Girl Child. Learn more about them at http://dayofthegirl.org.

Catalyst Miami came storming onto Miami’s youth leadership scene this year with the launch of the SoundOut Youth Action Curriculum. I have provided more than 35 hours of training for facilitators of this program, which works in a diverse high school in the city to deliver the capacity-building service learning program for students. Catalyst has tied the program together with their well-established programs focused on parent leadership and children’s leadership, and is seeing excellent results. Find some information at http://commonaction.blogspot.com/2011/10/classroom-characteristics-supporting.html.

The indefatigable Joshua Gorman is behind Generation Waking Up. A global campaign to ignite a generation of young people to bring forth a thriving, just, sustainable world, the organization facilitates powerful training workshops across the country, networking thousands of young people to change the world. Learn more about them at www.generationwakingup.org.

A local organization, the Seattle Young People’s Project (SYPP) is a youth-led, adult-supported, social justice organization that empowers young people (ages 13-18) to express themselves and take action on the issues that affect their lives. They’ve always been a cutting edge model, and this year has been exemplary. Learn more at http://sypp.org.

Through 2010 and ’11, the US Department of Education ran a suave youth engagement program under the deft hand of Alberto Retana. With his guidance, the agency engaged with thousands of young people across the U.S., and actual students were positioned in places of direct consultation to the Secretary of Education and even the President. While Alberto left the agency late last year, the program is continuing on. Its best to learn about it on their Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/pages/ED-Youth-Voices/136786839692361?sk=wall.

Honorable mentions in the “2 Kewl 4 School” category PUEBLO, or People United for a Better Oakland, which conducted a powerful youth-led study of high school students in Oakland in 2011 regarding their perceptions of police. The survey is provoking serious conversations in the city about improvement. Information is at http://www.peopleunited.org/cspa/. Another is Students Speak Out, a social network working both online and offline for students influence policy conversations by co-defining public problems and co-creating solutions. They’re after my heart. You can learn more about them at http://www.citizing.org/studentsspeakout/. Also, a big shout-out to Vote 17 Lowell, a youth-led initiative to lower the voting age in Lowell, Massachusetts’s municipal elections to 17 years old. The Vote 17 campaign is unlike any similar past or current bill as it calls for the initiative to appear on Lowell’s local election ballot after full State House approval. Teen organizers are asking that the state legislature allow the voters of Lowell to decide on an issue that has already received full support from all levels of Lowell’s city government and its statehouse delegation. They made huge in 2011, and I’m looking forward to seeing them storm forward in the future. They’re online at http://vote17lowell.tumblr.com/.

Me discussing youth kicking butt wouldn’t be right if I didn’t give props to adults who are actively allying with young people to get the good work done. I want to start by giving mad respect to the Perrin Family Foundation in Connecticut. For more than a few years now they’ve been focused on providing real dollars to youth voice programs across their state that are doing cool, cool things. Check out their strategy at http://www.perrinfamilyfoundation.org/strategy.html. They’ve also been blogging about it, and getting the word out is a significant part of the work. I really like their blog, which is at http://perrinfamilyfoundation.blogspot.com/. (You may have read my recent blog, Foundations Fail Youth By Design. Perrin is completely not included in this analysis.)

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the King County Youth Engagement Practitioners Cadre. Funded by the Seattle Youth Engagement Zone, I’m partnering with a coalition in Seattle called SOAR to facilitate this learning community for 22 youth engagement experts from across the county. We’re working together to share what we know, figure out what we don’t, and shore up the capability of King County to support substantive youth leadership work far into the future. It rawks.

Worth mentioning, too, is Jessica Taft’s book, Rebel Girls: Youth Activism and Social Change Across the Americas. Although it came out in 2010, it really impacted their field in 2011. It tells the powerful story of young women, uniquely positioned agents of social change.

IMPORTANT NOTE: There are literally THOUSANDS of butt-kicking examples of young people changing the world right now all across the country, not to mention the MILLIONS of youth around the world who are doing it. AND IT IS WORKING! This is only a small survey of what I remembered quickly and off the top of my head. Please respond and tell me what I have missed!

Props to all young people of color and low-income youth struggling for leadership, power, and justice across the United States and around the world. I stand with you. Much love to the adult allies who support them. I have great respect for every young person who is deeply committed to changing the world, no matter what their background is. Everyone can be engaged, and that is right. Adults working in partnership with these young people, please keep doing what you do. Finally, here’s a reminder to anyone who has read this far: Get engaged in yourself, first, and seek to engage other people after that. Never the reverse. Learn more.



CommonAction is available to train, coach, speak, and write about this topic across the US and Canada. Contact Adam to learn about the possibilities by emailing adam@commonaction.org or calling (360) 489-9680.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

20 Steps Towards Youth Engagement

Are YOU concerned about disenfranchised youth? Do YOU believe young people don’t have enough power throughout society? Do you think YOU can help make the world a better place through youth engagement?

Here are 20 steps towards youth engagement right now. These are for all people of all ages in all locations at all times, always in all ways.

  1. No matter what age you are right now, reflect personally about your experience being young. 
  2. Examine your personal experiences with youth engagement, no matter what age you are. 
  3. Identify what your beliefs about young people are , no matter what age you are . 
  4. Examine your beliefs about young people. Why do you have them? How do you act them out? 
  5. Stop discounting people because of their age right now, no matter what age they are. 
  6. Stand up to others that discount people because of their age, no matter what age they are. 
  7. Identify an adult to have honest conversations with about being young, no matter what age you are.  
  8. Identify a young person to have honest conversations with about being young, no matter what age you are. 
  9. Have honest conversations with everyone about being an adult, no matter what age you are.  
  10. Read books, websites, blogs, and other forms of expression by young people about topics you are interested in, your job or profession. 
  11. Start a group, join a group, or offer personal support to a group of young people promoting youth engagement in your community, school, or organization. 
  12. Contact current youth engagement activities in your neighborhood and learn about them. 
  13. Evaluate your organization using the evaluations in my Freechild Project Youth Voice Toolkit
  14. Contact local officials and write a letter to the editor to advocate for youth engagement. 
  15. Explore books, websites, blogs, and other forms of expression about society, youth engagement, and advocacy. 
  16. Provide free training in your community using The Freechild Project Youth Engagement Workshop Guide. 
  17. Learn about issues that are important to people throughout your community by having conversations with people you want to know. 
  18. Join a group that is not focused on youth or youth issues. 
  19. Consistently represent the interests of young people or your community in personal, professional, social, and other parts of your life.
  20. Create a conscious critical relationship with a young person or adult, right now. Allow them to call you out for your behavior, attitude, or actions that do not promote youth empowerment.

Why are you still reading this article? Stop, and get to work, right now. Young people and adults everywhere thank you!

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Privatizing Afterschool, and Privatizing Society

I just read about a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, H.R. 3498, that will expedite the process of privatizing afterschool activities across the country. This greatly concerns me as a career-long youth worker, as an advocate for nonprofit social services, and as a lowercase “d” democrat.

Let me begin by suggesting that in addition to being aware of wholesale efforts to privatize public education, every single privatized area of public education needs to be strategically cataloged and made apparent to the Public. They range from curriculum to assessment to professional development to food services, now tutoring and teachers, and so many other areas. The process that got us to this point started in the 1950s, caught steam almost three decades ago, and is well underway.

This process was not the gateway into our possible future as a privatized society; it’s just the biggest door to indoctrinate young people. The original doors were utilities, the military, hospitals, prisons, and transportation. Once all regarded as public essential bastions of democratic living, now almost all these institutions are privatized across the United States.

Social services are one of the last great pillars holding up the roof of the so-called “public good”. Once a public service, most mental health services are privatized today. Social welfare management is increasingly private, as are services for developmentally differently-abled people. Libraries, public health, social security, and so much more sits squarely in the sights of private corporations and people committed to profiteering off a unconcerned and disengaged Public. Schools are high on their lists, and afterschool programs are next.

Young people are obviously the best objects for privateers to target, both because of their susceptibility, and because of the long-term impact of “teaching them right”. Since the decimation of public schooling is well underway, the battlefield for the next wave is afterschool programming. I am watching this unfold right now as standards for afterschool programming are emerging across the U.S. and internationally. As public schools proved, the process of standardization lends itself to professionalization, which in turn morphs quickly into privatization.

Unfortunately, The Radical Left has been largely useless in fighting the privatization movement. As demonstrated by what is happening in public schools, their voices have been co-opted by The Right to fight against the institution of public schooling, rather than the process of privatization. Even the non-radical Left has historically reduced school privatization to anti-unionism, which is a myopic perspective at best. By taking these stances, The Left is actually contributing to the further decimation of the democratic infrastructure that built the American middle class and provided a utopian ideal to motivate social mobility, particularly among the poor.

All of this critique examines the heinous nature of neoliberalism, which describes the process of privatizing all public services, including education, social security, water, prisons, public transportation, and welfare services. Neoliberals believe that when the government, acting on behalf of The People who vote for them through democratic process, is a bad manager of these services. They think all these institutions need fixed, and the only way to fix them is in through privatization. History has shown us there are very few benefits for The Public in privatization, while large corporations controlled by small groups of people make great deals of profit. I first learned about neoliberalism and its effects on young people from my mentor Henry Giroux, and I have continued to examine the ill effects of neoliberalism throughout society through the writing of many other writers, including Noam Chomsky and Amartya Sen.

From all of this I arrive at the belief that we need a new conversation in our society that goes beyond revolution for the sake of revolution and “anarchism as hope”, because both of these fail. We have to make plain the mythologies of history. Let’s examine our social capital and the social contract. Take our afterschool programs, along with our schools systems, social services, community development activities, democracy building movements, and let’s critically explore their intentions, outcomes, and assumptions. Let’s peel this onion throughout our society in order to make meaning of the chaotic disembowelment democracy is experiencing today. However, let’s not abandon the positive powerful future we could all share together.

Who is to write that future? I have an idea that I’ve written about before – let’s start with young people.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Youth Are Leading Social Evolution

Hey, remember when it seemed like that loud, unruly kid was a punk? Remember when that quiet girl doing art in the back of the room was weird? Remember when the kids who were leaders were predictable and understandable? What a cool world that we live in that none of that is true anymore!

Over the last 100 years our society has been busy birthing new realities, thrusting itself forward into an unfamiliar, unknowable future. Women’s suffrage and civil rights were the cusp of these changes, as our family structures, social relationships, and cultural growth has reflected an even broader transformation. Young people, who at first were merely keeping pace with those changes, went from being the canaries in the coalmine to being the leaders at the front, taking charge, making movements, and driving social change as never before. Today, young people are the bellweather of the brave new future we continue to move towards.

Look around you! See those kids fixing their own problems on the playground? That’s evolution! See the teens in the alleyway finishing that tremendous graffiti mural? That’s evolution! See those tents and that meeting in the park where the Occupy movement is keeping hold? That’s evolution! Who is at the head of all this? Young people.

I challenge you to see today’s reality: The Evolution Is Underway. Can you see it? Can you feel it? The economy, politics, education… Young people are stepping in front of these speeding trains that are bulleting their ways through our society, and they’re doing what appears to be “crazy stuff”. But that crazy stuff, unfamiliar and scary as it may seem, is bringing us towards a positive, powerful future for all people everywhere all the time.

The Freechild Project has been steadily moving towards demonstrating this evolution for more than 10 years, and during that time we’ve made some tremendous strides. Step with us into the future to see where we’re all going – together!

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Stop Beating Kids: Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools

  • Spanking
  • Slapping
  • Smacking
  • Pulling ears
  • Pinching
  • Shaking
  • Hitting with rulers, belts, wooden spoons, extension cords, slippers, hairbrushes, pins, sticks, whips, rubber hoses, flyswatters, wire hangers, stones, bats, canes, or paddles
  • Forcing a child to stand for a long time
  • Forcing a child to stay in an uncomfortable position
  • Forcing a child to stand motionless
  • Forcing a child to kneel on rice, corn, floor grates, pencils or stones
  • Forcing a child to retain body wastes
  • Forcing a child to perform strenuous exersize
  • Forcing a child to ingest soap, hot sauce, or lemon juice

THIS IS CORPORAL PUNISHMENT. All corporal punishment is child abuse, and child abuse teaches students nothing. 19 states in the U.S. still allow corporal punishment in their schools, and this must stop now.

“Bullying is enough of a problem among students; the teachers shouldn’t be doing it, too. There’s nothing positive or productive about corporal punishment and it should be discouraged everywhere.” Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY)

Anytime a young person is treated this way they are being abused. These forms of abuse are the cruelest, most unjust, and most ineffective treatment young people can receive. While including both, corporal punishment goes beyond adultism, beyond adultcentrism, and straight to child abuse. 
The most basic right of any person today is the right to live in peace. 

While that may sound simplistic or naive, violence is a daily reality for almost every young person in the world today. Physical violencewar, family abuse, bullying, and gang violence; mental abuseparental abuse, teacher abuse, or verbal put-downs— and child neglect surround young people. These are all forms of violence. The institutions that are purportedly supposed to support our children and youth, places like schools, hospitals, and governments, abuse young people. In their homes young people face violence through popular media, like television shows, movies, pop music, and video games. And violence surrounds young people in many ways that we don’t see, seeping into everyone’s hearts and minds without us being aware of it: another bombing overseas, another vicious attack on public funding, another slander against youth in the news.
This abuse adds up. According to a United Nations study,

“Corporal punishment of adults is prohibited in well over half the world’s countries, yet only 15 of the 190-plus nations have prohibited all corporal punishment of children, including in the family.”


It’s a statistic like this that leaves little wonder in my mind about why young people appear “apathetic” and “disenchanted” with a world so intent on numbing them to pain, hatred, cynicism and violence.
Luckily, our North American eyes are beginning to fully comprehend the imperative any ethical person faces when dealing with the situation of young people and violence today. We are beginning to stand with young people to change the situations that they face, and the situations our world faces. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) boldly declares that,

“Young people must be meaningfully involved in promoting and strategizing action on violence against children… Children… need to be well informed about their rights, and fully involved in the life of the [community and] school…”

This call situates corporal punishment as a fully-authorized premise for social action in 198 countries around the worldminus the US and Somalia, who are the only non-signatory countries. Canada and Mexico have signed on. There is no other convention, consensus, or constitution in the world that is more widely accepted than the CRC. So the vast majority of global governments agree that corporal punishment is a significant premise for social change, and we agree that young people should help lead anti-abuse efforts.

I believe that corporal punishment is the root of all discrimination in society. Premised on the hatred of young people, on adultism, on the self- and cultural repression of childhood, corporal punishment is made worse through dozens of other factors, including socio-economic class, gender, race, ethnicity, and more… Corporal punishment is at the heart of all this.

Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act
In 2010, Representative Carolyn McCarthy, a Democrat from New York, introduced a bill called “Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act” in the US House of Representatives. The bill would impose a ban on all public and private schools with students that receive federal services. Learn more about the bill, and support it. I do. 

Stop beating kids.

Resources on the Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!