A Youth Rights Group in Olympia Changes the World

Back in 2000, I was serving a fellowship with a national foundation in Washington, DC. Focusing on youth engagement, I participated in hundreds of hours of train-the-trainer workshops and professional coaching with Drs. Jim and Pam Toole. They helped me and my small cohort prepare for adventures in the ten states where we worked, mine being Washington.

stopHere in Olympia, I was the Youth Ambassador in Washington State’s education agency. Throughout my yearlong fellowship, I advocated for youth involvement and youth voice in communities across the state. Nonprofits and government agencies across the state sponsored me as I trained their communities, and I provided technical assistance and other services in many other areas.

Late in December 2000, I was invited to a meeting of “Get It Right!”, a youth rights group in Olympia. Sitting with a dozen youth in a cooperative arts space downtown, I listened as they railed against adult oppression and youth liberation. They were on fire for freedom and liberty from adult tyranny, and honestly, it all confused me greatly!

I grew up in a neighborhood where youth didn’t suffer adults; adults suffered youth. Cops routinely rounded up my friends, school principals ripped down their basketball courts, and old people locked their doors in constant fear that the youth in the neighborhood would plunder their houses – and mostly rightly so. So, to see youth trying to placate domineering parents or throw off the shackles of mighty schools confused me.

With time and their gentle mentoring, I learned more about the youth rights movement. Online, I met Alex, the leader of the then infant National Youth Rights Association. He guided me to several books, and I found several others, including Jonathan Holt’s revolutionary The End of Childhood. 

Get It Right! didn’t continue for long. They conducted a few pickets and graffited some throughout town, but an organized campaign for social change didn’t emerge. At some point in the year I was involved with the group, they did change the world though. Someone brought in a collection of quotes from A.S. Neill, the founder of the seminal youth rights institution, Summerhill School in England. One of them inspired the group to suggest to me the name of my most enduring work thus far:

“Free children are not easily influenced; the absence of fear accounts for this phenomenon. Indeed, the absence of fear is the finest thing that can happen to a child.”

From that was borne the name, The Freechild Project. And that’s how a youth rights group in Olympia changed the world.

Voices of the Damned Youth

damnedyouthWe should never give up on any young person, or any person as far as that’s concerned. There is nobody – absolutely nobody – in our society who is too far gone to simply relinquish them to the trash can of society. Especially children and youth.

In reality though, many young people are born into indifference, apathy, and intransigence. Depression, inability, and oppression are holding legions of children and youth from realizing the dreams they could have.

They face families, communities,and nations that are wholly indifferent to their realities. Because of this, these children and youth struggle with society’s norms, cultures, customs, and behaviors. They can be gifted or struggling, adult-pleasing or anti-authoritarian. A few times, they lash out. Mostly, they internalize.

I know of this because its lived experience for me. Identifying in turns as an impoverished homeless immigrant child, white-kid-grown-up-in-an-African-American-neighborhood, nearly dropped out, couldn’t-pay-for-college, been-a-youth-worker-all-my-life kinda guy, I have struggled with those senses of alienation all of my life. My story has been told by a half-dozen journalists who think they should expose the scars as well as the stars in my life. Its not their story to tell though, its mine.

The same is true for many youth today. Their stories deserve—mustbe told, but not by well-meaning adults. Not by reporters or grantwriters, poets or politicians. Instead, we must make space for damned youth to speak for themselves.

To be specific, I want you to know that I believe we should routinely, systemically, and completely engage the voices of young people who identify as academically failing. Poor, Low Income, and Working Class. Homeless. Minority culture. GBLTQQ. African American, American Indian, and other communities of color. Immigrants. Runaway, foster, and Ageing Out. Incarcerated. Court-involved. Juvenile Delinquents. Addicts and Abusers. And many, many others.

We shouldn’t deny any young person the opportunity to share their voices, and I’m not suggesting that we shut down one youth in order to create another. I am fully in support of expanding every possibility available throughout our society in order to create more space for the voices of youth. Youth Voice includes any expression of any young person anywhere, anytime, about anything. (Luckily) It doesn’t depend on adult approval. I’m suggesting that we, as adults, make space for youth voice, and especially those of the damned youth.

These youth are damned because they’re inconvenient for adults to listen to. They’re damned because they say things we don’t want to hear in ways we don’t want to listen to. They’re damned because adults are the majority culture and youth are the minority culture. They’re damned because they’re youth. More importantly though, they’re not really damned at all.

In sharing my own voice, I learned that I wasn’t damned; moreso, I am vastly privileged. I believe my younger brothers and sisters must learn this too, and so I call for them to have the space I was fortunate enough to experience as a young person, no matter how rarified it was.

Voices of the damned youth require:

  • More youth voice from the children and youth who we don’t routinely hear from.
  • More youth involvement from the historically disengaged.
  • More empowerment for youth who are oppressed.
  • More democracy for everyone.

Then we’re going someplace spectacular, together.

Student Voice and Student Activism

One of the main researchers of student voice in the world today is Dana Mitra. Based out of Penn State, she’s done awesome work over the last 15+ years focused on students changing schools, and more. I really admire her writing, her commitment, and the breadth of her studies. She’s taught me a lot.

Today, she posted this video on our Student Voice Researchers and Practitioners facebook group. It details the causes of the massive uprising in Venezuela right now.

In response,  I asked the following questions:

Can we talk about the uncomfortable bridge between student-led student activism for education reform and adult-led student voice in schools? 

From my conversations and workshops, I’ve found that a lot of teachers are very off-put by that connection. Why is that? Is there an unspoken assumption that hidden inside every student is a possible revolutionary? Or that every student activist could potentially lead Venezuela-style protests?

Or does this get to the heart of why there still isn’t a #studentvoice movement throughout North American public schools, en masse? Is it that schools (including but not limited to teachers, administrators, and elected officials) are simply frightened by the prospects of educated, aware, and empowered students?

These questions go further, too, as they reach to the very heart of our society’s relationships with young people today. That’s all for another post though…

Our Hope Is Students on Fire!

The world is on fire right now!

As I sat at my computer at my dining room table in Olympia, Washington, in the Cascadia region of North America, I read about the new round of protests erupt around the world. In one day, there were reports of students in Chile, the working class masses of Brazil, the dissatisfied citizens of Egypt, and angry protests against the American president’s visit in South Africa.

These proverbial fires have been burning for a while now. Countries around the world have been attempting to quell mass protest since before the World Trade Organization eruption in nearby Seattle back in 1999. In the decade-plus since then, more people have risen up than ever before.

Fed excuses by mainstream media and convenient politicians worldwide, the public is told these fires burn because of political dissatisfaction, totalitarian rule, and economic upheaval. However, smart people across the planet know these are broad generalizations that don’t generally answer the question at hand: What fuels these fires?

I believe that from their uncomfortable positions as the passive recipients of adult-driven education systems, students around the world are at the heart of the social upheaval facing almost every nation today. Faced with stark incongruities between the highly-interactive, diverse, socially-driven, media-saturated environment they live in every single day and the now-anomalous, anti-collaborative, homogeneous, inherently disengaging schools they’re compelled to attend by law throughout the school year, it is absolutely no wonder why the fires are burning tonight.

However, many are taking these movements so far as to demand the dismantling of society as we know it today, instead advocating a kind of anarchistic autonomy. They have essentially given up hope and are reaching for something completely different.

For just over a decade, I’ve been working with schools across Canada and the United States to develop a new understanding of democracy. Centered in a partnership-oriented transformational approach to school improvement, I initially called the frameworks I developed “meaningful student involvement.” Research-driven and experience-proven, I was proud to facilitate learning experiences with educators of all ages focused on this approach. Since 2002, I have consulted on more than 50 projects in a wide range of diverse schools serving low-income students, minority communities, and other places labelled “hard-to-serve” through government assessments. I still believe democracy requires public schools.

However, I see now that whatever I’ve been trying to do is falling short.

Tonight, young teenagers are leading and rallying on the frontlines of the more than 800,000 people participating in Santiago and other cities across Chile.

These are the types students I want to reach, the ones who are starting the protests. They are on fire, and they are our hope. I want them to learn the ins and out of the education systems and government agencies that make decisions on their behalves everyday. I want them to not fight for new governments or reformed schools, but transformed learning environments. I want them to understand that democratic societies require free, engaging, inclusive, and comprehensive education, and that schools right now are capable of meeting these demands—if only students themselves know what to demand.

As they continue to burn, I hope to reach students where they are and show them where they can go, in positive, powerful, and proactive ways that can benefit everyone in society. They are our only hope, and we can reach them, because ultimately, they are us.

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

Great Poetry Series: "To Be Of Use"

This is the 20th entry in CommonAction’s “Great Poetry” Series. Marge Piercy is is the author of seventeen novels and eighteen volumes of poetry, and a critically acclaimed memoir. Born in center city Detroit, educated at the University of Michigan, the recipient of four honorary doctorates, she has been a key player in some of the major progressive battles of our time, including the anti-Vietnam war and the women’s movement, and more recently an active participant in the resistance to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We honor her work by featuring her spectacular work that speaks so deeply to the work of engaging people to change the world: “To Be Of Use”.

To Be Of Use
Marge Piercy

The people that I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to be natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seal
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

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

Some Observations About Social Change


I started my first community organizing campaign with a group of friends when I was 14. Involved in formal and informal youth engagement work throughout my teens and early 20s, I got my first job supporting youth involvement and youth activism when I was 24. I haven’t stopped since then. Starting The Freechild Project when I was 25, I began reading the research supporting community organizing, activism, and social change insatiably. It’s been 13 years now, and I’ve seen a few things.

Some Observations about Social Change

Following are a few observations about changing the world that I could think of. Let me know what you think of them.

Anyone of any age can change the world.

A person’s depth of understanding about social justice isn’t limited to age. As a young person, I had experience and grew up in a community with a lot of deep experiences with discrimination, alienation, and segregation; lacking the verbiage to express their oppression, they turned to the language of action, creating community in gangs, generating income with drugs, expressing frustration through graffiti. Conversely, I’ve sat in rooms full of adult educators and youth workers and listened to self-proclaimed youth advocates pontificate about “us” and “them,” while they launched into diatribes about the ways young people act, dress, and talk… Ignorance knows no age, either.

Critical reflection is the gateway to social change.

In my experience, the “soundness” of an individual’s understanding about social justice is directly related to the amount of critical reflection they have engaged in. This can be both self- and community-reflection that questions our assumptions, values, and perspectives as we’ve experienced them in our own life. Paulo Freire, the acclaimed father of popular education, long espoused the necessity for oppressed peoples to critically examine their own actions as well as those of their oppressors. I have shared this experience with several groups of young people in their teens, and have heard about it done with younger people. The results of this may lead in many directions, including the “firm-groundedness” of which you speak. Many educators, including authors Ivan Illich and John Holt, have cited other outcomes, including broadened questioning of schools, government structures, and other social institutions. Personally, I’ve gained deeper ownership, commitment, and hope for the future through critical reflection.

Assumptions are ignorant.

There is a particular danger in saying, “You wouldn’t understand” to anyone. That gives many people permission to bombard others with righteousness, the type that popular media fills so much of our time with already. I have seen people with incredibly sophisticated, empathetic, and knowledgeable perspectives about social change; and again, I’ve seen others with extremely shallow understandings. Our perceptions shouldn’t be the determining factor for engaging people in social change work; interest and investment should be.

Authenticity means too much.

I think that by focusing on the whether peoples’ engagement is authentic, a lot of people are let “off the hook” because they don’t know how to give others their own space to speak, or how to engage them in collective community space. This is a form of scapegoating that easily reinforces the supposed “enigma” of engaging people. The real questions here may be, “Do we really want to hear the voices of other people?” and “Are we really looking for people who take risks and make decisions, or do we want to reaffirm our assumptions?”

After all, getting our ideas out of other people’s mouths is a ventriloquist’s trick, not a sign of meaningful engagement or autonomy. As a whole, society has so many attitudinal and structural barriers to engaging people that the question of whether or not anyone can or should actually become engaged needs to be answered first.

Don’t think simplistically.

The systems surrounding and encompassing all our lives are complex beasts. Thinking naively about them and trying to over-simplify them does no favors. Why do we think about having people involved in protests and rallies instead of their infusion throughout the “movement” as a whole? Where are people in the planning and decision-making processes that affect them most? It is vital to engaging people to move beyond tokenism and decoration, and their further engage and infuse everyone as leaders, teachers, and organizers throughout social their lives. When Saul Alinsky wrote, “True revolutionaries do not flaunt their radicalism. They cut their hair, put on suits and infiltrate the system from within,” this is what he was talking about.

Engaging people in changing the world is often trivialized by well-meaning people who, without conscious effort, often perpetuate discrimination of all kinds by patently denying others the opportunity to become deeply engaged. We must move from engaging people as decorations and start seeing everyone as a potential partners.

Popular assumptions don’t determine ability.

Media, politicians, and others are involved in a plot to turn identity-against-identity throughout American society in an attempt to keep people separate and incapable to work together. That’s made many organizers susceptible to their negative portrayals. However, in many cases the people who were supposedly least capable were the ones to make others aware of injustice. In one particularly poignant example, young people in the Philadelphia Students Union have led their communities in organizing for increased school funding, alternative school curricula, teacher pay raises, and more.

We have to dig into the reason WHY.

The crux of the issue is whether people truly understand why they are changing the world. Similar to many people, social change agents often believe that they are doing something for the “good” of doing it without exploring the meaning or purpose of their actions. This is how missionary-style service work has grown so popular in the U.S. and around the world, despite religious missionary work receding from popularity. Many community-based organizations actually exploit the oppressions of low-income communities and people of color in order to further their “service” work! Many of these same organizations use people as “safe” volunteers who don’t “safe” activities like picking up trash, serving homeless people meals, coloring pictures for grocery stores and politicians to hang in their windows. Is this meaningful social change? No. Is it “safe”? Yes. Are people told that it is valuable? Sure! And these things do have value, since the people who are leading the activities they reinforce their power over others, they are surely valuable to them. To the recipients of the service they exhibit the “proper” place for social change (arbitrary and irrelevant).
Everyone can be engaged in deep, meaningful, and powerful social change, if that’s what we want. If we want something else, we need to consider what that is and why we’re doing it.

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