Starting Youth Work as a Youth

Learning from our experiences is a key to growing, as educators, parents, young people and social workers, and as humans. More than 20 years ago, I wrote an academic reflection on my decade-long experience as a line-level youth worker starting when I was 14. I’m not sure what to do with that document now, but I want to recap some of those experiences to share with you.

My story isn’t unique, as I’ve meant dozens of more longstanding, more effective and more authentic practitioners than myself. I’ve had the privilege of reflecting on a lifetime of service though, always seeking to leave a better world behind me than what I inherited as a kid. So here’s the story of my early attempts to do just that.

As I’ve told thousands of people around the world, my career began when I was 14 years old. Before that, I’d thrown newspapers and sold vacuum cleaners, but after that everything started coming together.

Action

Idu Maduli, called Ernest Nedds by some people, was Omaha’s premier African American theater director who ran a program called You’re the Star. Approaching me to teach with him when I was in the 8th grade, Idu told me I’d learn to teacher drama by watching him. For the next few summers, I did just that. We went around North Omaha to a few public housing projects and other neighborhoods bringing low-income kids to the stage, Idu leading them in traditional African tales while I taught stage basics and watched him in awe. After three summers together, I decided I wanted to be just like Idu. I’ve resigned to the fact that I’ll never be as tall as him, but this next summer I’m growing out my hair in hopes of having fantastic dreadlocks…

My high school years in Omaha weren’t easy. Instead, I struggled with a sense of being an intruder into the African American neighborhood where I lived; being a low-achieving student among the brilliantly dedicated white kids who attended the magnet programs in my urban high school; having a green card in a city beating the drums of patriotic Americanism; and having only lived in the neighborhood for a few years, being an outsider in a minority community in a racist city that routinely scowled at poor people.

However, my high school years were packed. Somehow, through the grace of the social workers, community advocates, watchful neighbors and my parents, I found activity after activity. While my neighborhood friends became consumer in gangs and guns and drugs, I volunteered at the elementary school as Santa for four years in a row. When my school friends were grinding into the books, I was unloading the food bank delivery truck into the food pantry where my family got subsistence. Other kids’ dads were absent or working while mine was simply struggling through his PTSD from Vietnam, taking my brother and his friends on night hikes through the Missouri River bogs and swamps of East Omaha, then starting a Scout troop where I earned my Eagle Scout award. Along the way, I worked at three summer camps running nature programs, including at Camp Kitaki (pictured), Camp Wagon Wheel and Camp Wakona.

Throughout my teen years, I also volunteered at my mom’s youth programs when she was a VISTA in our neighborhood. I joined the city’s Methodist Church youth council, then developed a youth council for my neighborhood when I was 17 years old. As a frustrated sophomore in 1991, I tried starting an environmental activism group at my high school, especially since then year before, when I attended a year-long youth leadership program through the Urban League of Nebraska, and went to a youth entrepreneurship program led by the NAACP. I knew that activism was the way to fight the environmental racism destroying my community. The churches in our neighborhood drew me in, and I attended the local Methodist church, was mentored by a Unity Church minister, and I listened frequently to the Church of God in Christ Sunday mornings around the corner from the place I went.

As much as anything, it might have been the Nebraskans for Peace rallies where my dad read his poetry about Vietnam; the community council meetings and PTA my mom went to; the government food subsidies program where we got cheese and peanut butter and more to fill my belly; or the gratitude of Mrs. Hickerson when I shoveled her walk and mowed her lawn and she thanked me with the stories from her long life. I’m not completely sure how my neighborhood got me out, set my on my path so strongly, or kept me walking ahead in such a determined way, but it did.

Outcomes

All of this kept me from spray painting around the neighborhood more. Or stealing. Or running from the group of young men wearing singular colors who tended to throw and swing and shoot when they saw me.

Some of this made me the wiser, teaching me lessons about education, about social justice and white supremacy, and about community building that a lot of people from my station never bother or have the opportunities to learn. Loading the food pantry made sure that I understood the humility of helping others; being homeless still reminds me of the vulnerability of being young and poor. Feeling the fear of violence breathing down my neck kept me on my toes, and I learned to relish paychecks of any size, which made me adept for nonprofit work. My dad’s PTSD was his burden shared, and while my siblings and I suffered, it made us stronger, too.

I also learned basic skills, like communication and conflict resolution, group management and motivating others. My advanced logic ability was sharpened as I wanted to accomplish major tasks like youth empowerment, interracial relations and community building with minor fiscal support or technical assistance. With and without adult guidance, I strove to close to the sun sometimes, and my wings melted. But every now and then I’d become warmer and more successful than I could imagine.

So many of these lessons cost so much, and while they might have sucked at the time, they’ve challenged me to become a better person, a better youth worker, a better consultant, a better dad, and a better human in general. I made lifelong friendships with Jimmy and Jeff; discovered restorative connections with my brothers in the hood like Kal, Shawn, Tracy and Joe; and keep fond memories of the kindness shown to me by Bethany, Mary, Athena and Jeff.

Today I know there’s more still to mine from all that, but that’s a bit about how I started youth work as a youth.

 

You Might Like…

 

The Basics of Adultism

Adultism is the bias towards adults that causes discrimination against youth. First coined in the late 1800s, the term describes the ways adults treat children and youth, and is obvious through language, culture, architecture, education, healthcare, families, and more. Adultism includes attitudes, beliefs, and discrimination in favor of adults throughout our society.

Treating Kids Different

Adultism is about respect, trust, authority and power. It is apparent beginning when children are very young. Because of the ways our society generally behaves, babies are assumed to be incomplete and their opinions are seen as largely inconsequential. Adults determine the feeding, caregiving, clothing, bedding and lighting of babies because we don’t understand whether babies are sharing their opinions about these things, among others. This belief continues until young children can share their opinions in language adults can understand. This establishes the basis of adultism that affects young people through the age of 18 and beyond.

At the point kids can share their opinions, adults constantly parse out what is a valid concern and what is invalid. Rather than referring to evidence or facts, adults mostly use personal judgment and beliefs to decide what foods, entertainment, activities, learning and opinions we should listen to. This is adultist. It is obvious in our language with phrases like “Children should be seen and not heard,” and is apparent our built environment, too: The height of a fountain, door handle and chair reflects an adult’s needs, not childrens’ needs. Adultism is reinforced through arbitrary rule-making focused on ages, too, rather than science or best practices.

When children become teenagers, their own beliefs become stronger, their wisdom starts accumulating, and their value to society starts to become determined. Adultism ensures that young leaders emerge to represent their peers, as well as confines rule-breaking youth to “stay in their lane” through punishment, classroom tracking, and curfews. In some places, youth are sent to jail for offenses only they can commit, like breaking curfews, being truant to school, drinking alcohol and other infractions. In other situations, youth are encouraged to put on a tie and “act like adults” in order to gain privilege and access that will benefit their futures. Each of these demonstrates bias towards adults, since our society reveres age and stands against the knowledge young people possess. Movie ratings, drivers licensing, banking rules and compulsory education reflect this, too: We simply don’t trust the ability of youth to determine what’s best for themselves, so adults make judgments for them. That’s not just parents, either; teachers, youth workers, counselors and police make judgments for youth all the time.

All this shows how adultism is apparent in the attitudes, culture and structures throughout our society.

Making Changes

There are active movements across the United States and around the world today to face adultism head-on, and to fight and defeat adultism when it’s necessary. These movements are engaging youth as partners with adults in government agencies, building youth/adult partnerships in community organizations, challenging schools to build Meaningful Student Involvement, and transforming families everywhere.

In Seattle, Washington, I partnered with the King County Superior Court to design a program for more than 40 families created to keep youth out of jail. The Parent/Youth Engagement Seminar was designed to build the skills and knowledge parents and youth needed through 12 hours of interactive workshops. Participants learn what youth voice is, how it works, and the positive outcomes that can happen when parents and youth work together to make families more successful. This seminar directly challenges adultism by confronting parents’ bias towards their own opinion, as well as by teaching parents and youth about partnering together for success, instead of using coercion and force to enforce compliance.

Building support for empowered student voice around the world, back in 2002 I started supporting K-12 schools, districts and state education agencies after building SoundOut.org. Since then, I’ve partnered with more than 300 different schools and agencies to write policies, develop programs, facilitate professional development and speak at conferences about Meaningful Student Involvement. This work has resulted in roles for students on school boards, students training teachers, and new education policies focused on student voice and student engagement. This challenges adultism among educators and policymakers by showing the positive potential of all students in every classroom, rather than simply tokenizing through constrained student/adult relationships.

There is so much work happening to challenge adultism!

5 Steps to Stop Adultism

I have developed these 5 steps to stop adultism based on my experience and research. Leave your thoughts in the comments section below!

  1. Name Your Bias. Every single person has bias towards adults. No matter how enlightened you are, how educated you might be, or how important you think you are to young people, you are adultist, and you’ve experienced adultism. Name your biases and be honest with yourself.
  2. Listen to Youth Voice. Listen directly to youth; read their writing; listen to them sing; look at their art. Don’t respond, don’t fix, don’t do for them; just listen to youth voice.
  3. Get Educated. Read my book, Facing Adultism. It’s a deep exploration of how adultism happens, who it affects, where it’s worst, who it affects most, and why it matters so much. Also, explore other writing about adultism and join the Facing Adultism group on Facebook.
  4. Find New Ways to Be. Declare your allyship with youth and stick to it. Be kinder and more compassionate with young people, and advocate for youth to be present when they aren’t in the room. Find new ways to be at home, at work and throughout the community.
  5. Make Change. When you’ve started changing your life, look at the health and well-being of your community. How does adultism affect youth around you right now? Which youth are most affected? Which adults are most biased towards other youth, and non-inclusive of youth?

What would you add to this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

When you’ve begun to address adultism, you might see how it’s tied together with paternalism, sexism, racism, classism and other injustices throughout our society. You might also discover different ways you have made the challenge of adultism worse, and how you’ve affected positive changes towards adultism in the past! Each of us are capable of doing remarkable things–what are you going to do?

 

You Might Like…

 

Order FACING ADULTISM by Freechild founder Adam Fletcher at http://amzn.to/2noYclH
Order FACING ADULTISM by Freechild founder Adam Fletcher!

Youth as Sockpuppets

A lot of adults use youth as sockpuppets, feeding them verbiage and giving them the issues adults expect them to address.

Intentional or not, this use of youth is designed to deceive the people who are listening to make them think what’s being said is authentic youth voice.

In a lot of places, sockpuppetry is often coupled with manipulation: If youth do what adults say, they’ll be rewarded; if they don’t follow expectations, they’ll be punished in some form. Youth often don’t know they’re being used to prop up an adult’s perspective.

Sometimes adults use youth to provide an alternate or opposite perspective to their own. This is called strawman sockpuppetry. Having no real authority to enact anything throughout society without adult approval, adults may deliberately position youth to say outlandish or contrary things, only to show their perspective as more valid, valuable, and important.

For the last 17 years, I’ve worked with the Freechild Institute to partner with organizations to deliberately position both traditional and nontraditional youth voice to be heard in safe and supportive environments, ensuring that youth speak for themselves and are treated as equitable partners with adults throughout society.

Contact me today if you’re interested in learning more.

 

You Might Like…

 

 

Youth Engagement in Ohio

There are learnings about youth engagement everywhere there are young people, and every learning is different and unique, as well as similar and familiar. For the last few days, I’ve been at Miami University in Ohio learning about youth engagement with adult practitioners here. This is the  at OPEC (Ohio Promoting WEllness & ReCovery) Conference, an annual gathering of youth workers, teachers, prevention/intervention specialists, counselors, administrators, executives and others who are involved throughout the field. Its a tremendous gathering, and I’m humbled to be here.

Today, I facilitated a 9-hour seminar focused on Project-Based Learning. It was an exciting day, filled with so much collaborative learning and so many generative processes that my I left with a full heart and amazed mind. Excitement bubbled throughout the day, with almost 50 people creating community, connecting with their peers and teaching each other the positive, powerful potential of Project Based Learning. It was exciting!

One of the most powerful activities we did was creating new learning about youth engagement specifically. After sharing our definitions, I explained that my research and practice has shown that youth engagement is simply young people doing the act of choosing the same thing over and over. Either it happens unconsciously or consciously, meaningful or otherwise, good or challenging. After talking about that for a while, we answered some key questions about youth engagement. I want to share the group’s responses to some of those questions here. Following are six questions, and the responses to our brainstorming.

 

1. How Does Youth Engagement Happen?

  • Slowly
  • When adults give youth a voice and choice
  • With buy-in from everyone
  • Persistence
  • Organically
  • As a process
  • Opportunity
  • By having opportunities to connect and feel empowered
  • Authenticity of the leader/ adult ally/ mentor
  • Showing them that they matter
  • After much head banging and the sound of crickets chirping
  • As a facilitator: I listen… I create space/ activity… and fun!!
  • By being a living example of how life can be and all the possibilities that exist
  • By giving responsibility/ say to target group
  • Adults getting their egos out of the way
  • With support of the community
  • Buy-in from adults
  • With consistency
  • Give them the opportunity
  • With patience, time and comittment
  • Perspective

 

2. Why Does Youth Engagement Matter?

  • Help youth find their purpose
  • Positive use of time
  • Youth are invested in something bigger than themselves
  • Hope for the future
  • They’re our kids!
  • Creates meaningful engagement for a lifetime
  • Avoid wasting time, energy and money on a strategy that doesn’t work
  • Matters for the future
  • Life change
  • Change to happen
  • It enhances the community (is better)
  • Empowerment
  • Better health and social outcomes in the community/ relationships/ individual
  • Higher protective factors, fewer risk factors
  • So they feel like they belong and matter
  • Future healthy adults
  • Because no matter who you are or where you come from every person has value and can contribute their voice to make a positive difference in their community
  • To ensure the youth can be productive citizens in the community
  • Empower the next generation
  • Create positive change
  • To understand their identity
  • Community change
  • For society!! and what’s to come
  • Our humanity is dependent on it
  • Students do not always know what’s best
  • It matters because it redirects their energy, it lets them know they matter and gives them a sense of purpose

3. When Does Youth Engagement Happen?

  • When we listen to our youth
  • When we really care
  • When a connection is made
  • Daily and when students initiate with direction
  • When you make it relate to them
  • When they can express their passion
  • When youth are in pain looking for something different/ more than their current experience and situation
  • All the time!
  • Throughout a lifetime
  • When you people are part of the decision-making process
  • When we create the space or join it!
  • When prevention folks put in extra effort
  • When I stay out of it!
  • When they are able to take possession (own it)
  • When they are listened to
  • When adults stop talking long enough to listen
  • When adults listen
  • When youth believe in what they are doing
  • When kids are treated as experts in the topic or “them”
  • When youth see beyond themselves

 

4. What Does Youth Engagement Do?

  • Encourages
  • Reduces abuse
  • Empowers youth
  • Improves communication
  • Leads the pack
  • Creates opportunity
  • “Plants seeds of change”
  • Changes directions of ones’ life
  • Empower!
  • Build life skills
  • Fosters leaders and followers for all sectors and levels of society
  • Creative outcomes
  • Moves mountains
  • Access most valuable resources: Our Youth!
  • Helps to ensure we create youth who will change the world
  • Provides vision
  • Builds relationship
  • Connects generations
  • Gives knowledge
  • Builds confidence
  • (can) Creates safe space
  • Empowers young people
  • Builds skills
  • Offers hope
  • Creates change agents in the community

 

5. Who Is Youth Engagement For?

  • The City of Columbus, families, and the continuous business growth of our city (purposeful, financially sound, etc.)
  • Communities, families and peers
  • Me
  • Everyone!
  • Middle and high school youth in Union County but also all youth and youth workers
  • For all the youth in the community and adults involved with them
  • All people invested in young people
  • Students of Lucas County – ALL of them!
  • Community
  • Whole community
  • Local, national and global communities
  • Inner city – low income families and youth! As well as the program facilitators and mentors
  • Summit and Medina County students
  • The community
  • The rural Appalachian youth covering 2,600 square miles we serve in Ross, Pickaway, Pike, Fayette and Highland Counties
  • Middle and high school students in Clement Co.
  • Afterschool program at middle school – 70% free/ reduced lunch

6. Where Does Youth Engagement Happen

  • Anywhere!
  • School
  • Summer camps
  • Online
  • Texting
  • In relationship
  • Where there is youth!
  • Family night engagement activities with afterschool students
  • Community
  • After school
  • In school
  • At home
  • Social network
  • Anywhere that you show intentional use of self
  • Wherever they are
  • Afterschool and in the community
  • With our communications
  • In our neighborhood
  • In the hearts and minds of our youth
  • Now – anywhere!
  • Across the social ecological model
  • Where there is love
  • Coalition meetings
  • School, home, anywhere
  • Parent-free areas (not the good youth engagement)
  • Everywhere
  • Anywhere there are youth
  • Where there is need and the desire to make a difference
  • Everywhere
  • Wherever the message and connection happens
  • In the streets
  • Afterschool youth center
  • In our homes
  • School
  • Summer camps
  • Online
  • Texting
  • In relationships

 

There was so much information shared in this GREAT seminar! Watch for another post coming with a great artistic creation by the group.

 

You Might Like…

 

Elsewhere Online

Youth Engagement at Home

Youth engagement starts at home. This post offers some of my thoughts about that reality, as well as steps to ensuring that youth engagement happens in your family. I also share some of the experiences I’ve had with youth engagement at home.

 

Basic Thoughts

These are barriers to Youth Engagement at home identified by youth and parents in my last workshop.
These are some barriers to Youth Engagement at home identified by youth and parents in my last workshop.

 

I’ve started defining the word engagement as choosing the same thing over and over. There are many kinds of youth engagement at home:

  • Psychological engagement
  • Physical engagement
  • Emotional engagement
  • Intellectual engagement
  • Social engagement
  • Cultural engagement

…and so on. Within their homes, youth can be engaged with their families, including parents, siblings or other family members; their physical spaces like their bedrooms or backyards; activities like housework or video games; feelings like love and security; ideas like belonging and importance, and; many other things.

With all those possibilities, its easy to see how youth engagement starts at home. The elements of our family life determine how we engage with the world beyond our front door, including at school, in our communities, at work, in public, and everywhere else. If youth experience crappy engagement at home, youth are more likely to be disengaged in their lives – not always, all the time, but often in many ways.

Through my research and practice, I’ve found there are three things all parents can do to build youth engagement at home:

  • Listen to youth. Your offspring are yearning to be heard, no matter what age, what space and what condition your family is in. They might not show that desire, they might act the opposite of caring, and they might not be aware they have a voice—but they want to be heard.
  • Take action with youth. Don’t stop at listening to your kids—actually do things with them! Make, build, clean, connect and show your care and connection by being with youth directly, in each others’ spaces and sharing each others’ time.
  • Think about it. Youth engagement at home requires critical thinking about yourself, your parenting, your beliefs and your future. Is this how you want youth to live? Are these the things you want to do in your family? Be critical of your parenting and take action to change it.

As parents, we all screw up. The difference between the conscious parent and the unthinking parent is the energy they spend becoming more fair, just and equitable. We don’t want equality between youth and parents, we want equity. There’s a difference, and youth engagement at home makes us think about it.

 

My Experience

These are questions I asked related to Youth Parent Partnerships.
These are questions I asked related to Youth Parent Partnerships.

 

I’m a dad for four kids between the ages of 10 and 15. They are beautiful, strong-hearted kids full of all the challenge, vigor, suffering and joy of youth, and I love them. However, I screw up too, and I’ve learned to accept that. I learn a lot from my experience as a parent.

If you’ve followed me for a while, you’ve heard the tenants of my life: Childhood homelessness; family PTSD; Vietnam veteran father; poverty-stricken family that moved into low-income lifestyle; generational depression; minority neighborhood background; academic struggles; found my soulcraft at age 14; only kid in family to graduate high school on time; first in family to earn a bachelors degree; built my life’s work from The Freechild Project and SoundOut focused on youth engagement and Meaningful Student Involvement; wrote 50+ publications; spoke and taught and consulted around the world; still screwing up every day.

Throughout 2018, I’ve been facilitating the Parent-Youth Connections Seminar in King County, Washington, where Seattle is surrounded by suburbs, exurbs and more in all of its explosive boom-era angst and glory. Along the way, the community has chosen to investments on infants, children and youth throughout the county. One of these investments is through the King County Superior Courts, and its the program I’m facilitating.

For several years, the project taught parents and youth about youth development and adolescent brain development as a diversion to prevent youth incarceration. A successful project, it operated for several years and successfully kept a lot of young people out of jail.

Early this year, I was contracted to facilitate the program. In my initial contact with the courts, I explained that rather than taking the tact they’d traditionally espoused, I was going to veer toward youth engagement. These are some of my findings so far. There’ve been more than 100 participants in these 12-hour sessions so far, coming from a variety of racial, ethnic, cultural, linguistic and economic backgrounds.

Stay tuned as I learn more and start distilling all this into actionable change. My first product related to youth engagement at home is called the Parent Youth Engagement Seminar, and I’ll be launching it soon.

 


You Might Like…

Not What You Think

Over the years, I’ve worked with a variety of different young people to build youth voice. When I was younger, some people did that for me, too, despite our differences. I was an immigrant kid from the country, a rodeo rider who wore cowboy boots and corduroy pants.

Later, I was a homeless kid and then lived in a low-income neighborhood. Generational PTSD and addiction flowed easily in my family, and my social defense mechanisms were high – biting humor and cynical perspectives and many other signs.

I was not what you think. Instead, I was a dynamic, empowered and excited young person who bumped into some rough edges, was challenged to grow and change, and became who I am today. And I’m still growing and changing.

As I sit here in Seattle, I’ve just closed my second Parent Youth Connection Seminar. The young people here are generally seen and treated as disengaged, but as the brainstorm here shows, they are anything but. I would tell anyone who asked that its not what you think.

What are you engaged in?


You Might Like…

 

How Do We Fix Adultism?

When I was asked how to fix adultism recently, I got deep! I want to share with you what I wrote:

I approach anti-adultism by addressing individual attitudes; shared cultures, and; systemic structures, and I use the systems change mantra “Start anywhere and go everywhere.”

So if you begin with individual attitudes, start anywhere and go everywhere: Read books yourself; talk frankly with youth and adults about adultism; teach others to identify and address adultism; directly challenge indifference, intransigence and apathy toward youth yourself; and so on.

If you begin with cultural transformation, start anywhere and go everywhere: Facilitate learning experiences for youth and adults; create advertising campaigns that disturb adultism where it happens; directly intervene and challenge any public instance of adultism; raise consciousness by writing and talking and practicing anti-adultism.

If you begin with systemic structures, start anywhere and go everywhere: Challenge any adultism rules and guidelines wherever you are, including schools, nonprofits, businesses, and home; talk with candidates for elected office about adultism, and stand with anyone who supports changing laws, policies and guidelines that promote adultism; create policy change proposals and legislative campaigns to address adultist rules and behaviors; promote people who serve youth taking anti-adultism classes, including teachers, youth workers, parents and others in order to fight adultism where it happens through policy change; and so on.

Ultimately, start anywhere and go everywhere, no matter what you do: Start.

 

What do you think of my response? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!

 


You Might Also Like…

 

Adam Speaking at the Teens Care Too Youth Summit in Vancouver, Washington

In this video, I’m keynoting at the 2018 Teens Care, Too! Youth Summit in Vancouver, Washington. The topic of my talk, “Ownership Is Just What We Do,” reflected the summit’s theme. Centering on my personal story, I touched base on owning our stories, owning our communities and owning the future, together.

 


You Might Also Like…

 

Parent Youth Connections Seminar

The Parent-Youth Connections Seminar, or PYCS, is a project of the King County Superior Court with primary focus on early intervention for low-risk youth involved in the court system. PYCS provides fun, interactive seminars to low-risk youth offenders and a parent or other connected adult.

Together, youth and adults explore youth engagement, community empowerment and social change. They explore the skills, knowledge and actions needed to change their lives and the world around them.

 

 

 


You Might Also Be Interested In…