Seeing Neoliberal Youth Work for What It Is

It is important to understand the realities within the youth work. Since beginning my career in youth work in the 1990s I have been exploring its theoretical and social underpinnings throughout my career. Wiggling its fingers throughout my efforts has been neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism is the belief that young people are a commodity to be produced, manufactured, bought and sold throughout society. It makes inequality a necessity, creates unfair and unjust outcomes for youth and communities, and relies on the pain and suffering of some to benefit others.

Defeating the values of democratic society, neoliberalism actively teachers young people that their intuition is wrong. Values including Truth, Democracy, Fairness and Equality, Respect for Others, The promotion of Well-Being, and Tipping the Balance of Power and Control are not just irrelevant, but are actually negative.

Neoliberal youth work relies on broad political, economic and social force to drive it. Youth programs around the world have been assaulted by neoliberal forces hellbent on destroying the imaginations of children and youth and the democratic empowerment they were supposed to inherit. It replaces democracy with money-making through authoritarianism and certainty.

In youth work, neoliberalism takes many forms:

  • It is obvious in ways many programs are designed by looking at young people as incomplete, unformed and in need of adult direction;
  • The treatment of young people as disposable populations that should be removed from mainstream society and fed pre-determined programs, purchased from corporate publishers and refused roles throughout their communities and families;
  • Program funding reveals the exchange of money for production, as children and youth are taught certain skills, led in particular activities and directed through specific pathways in order to produce finite outcomes that are needed by businesses in order to make money;
  • Neoliberalism is also plain to see in the way youth programs communicate with parents, communities and young people themselves. Talking about “youth at risk,” “opportunity youth,” and “high risk youth” directs young people to act needy, helpless and incapable, and;
  • In youth work, decisions made by adults for young people without any intention, desire or designs to engage young people in making the decisions that affect them most are neoliberal to their core. They are removing the public, democratic function from society and replacing it with authoritarian beliefs.

Of course, neoliberalism is most obvious throughout society at large. Young people are clearly and deeply affected by the family settings, schools and other places they spend their time. However, youth programs should be a haven for young people to rest and recuperate from the onslaught of vicious opportunism haunting them.

Instead, many youth programs view youth as opportunities to make money, either on purpose or by accident. Undoing generations that said, “Youth are the future,” program after program and organization after organization simply gives up on that idea, let alone the radical notion that “Youth can be the leaders of tomorrow, if we procrastinate.” Instead, young people are simply seen as potential funding magnets for many nonprofits, and potential profit centers by the elected officials who ensure funding, support and evaluation for youth work.

Neoliberalism forces youth workers to go backwards in our thinking about youth: Instead of being a collective bunch of possibilities, we start seeing them as fixed to their identities, positions and roles in societies. This means limiting choices, reeling in perspectives and discouraging hopefulness among youth as well as our peers.

As a result of neoliberal youth work, young people today are growing up believing:

  • The welfare state — which created youth programs originally, ensured young people had food, shelter and healthcare, and allowed youth to be seen as future citizens — is not worth maintaining;
  • There are forces working deeply within communities to ensure youth are looked down on while cynically using language that sounds empowering;
  • Democracy means being able to make all the money you want to without any regard for the people around you, whether they are in your family or neighborhood, within your culture or society, or on the other side of the world;
  • Money invested in youth must be obviously beneficial to the donors who gave it; in the same way, money invested in the public must benefit every taxpayer directly or it wasn’t worth paying;
  • Surveillance through closed-circuit television, adult supervision, internet snooping and countless other ways should be an expected, normal part of life that isn’t questioned, challenged or otherwise looked down on;
  • Widening gaps between wealthy people and everyone else are okay and to be expected because of determination and rights, not because of white supremacy and indoctrination;
  • The rights of children and youth rights are only what adults are willing to extend to young people in certain circumstances, and not inalienable or unable to be taken away, and;
  • The public no longer believes in the future of our society, so their investment in children and youth should be squeezed and squeezed away until there is no more.

The results from these perceptions are terrifying, both for the individual well-being of young people today as well as their families, communities and our world. Democracy is on the ropes, with double- and triple-blows socked to it from crass consumerism and runaway capitalism. All of this leaves young people in the cross-hairs of politicians, executive directors, funders and evaluators, each of whom is ready and eager to pull the trigger. By doing this, they lay waste to the present as well as the future, sacrificing children and youth to line their own pockets, perpetuate their missions, and dismantle society as we’ve known it.

Seeing neoliberal youth work for what it is means taking off the rose colored glasses and addressing this scourge for what it is: The rapid, holistic and undeniable effort of a few to make money from the masses. Unfortunately, the few are winning.

Youth work is much more than a site for workforce development; public health promotion; community service completion; or athletic competition. It is the place where we foster democracy in its most obvious forms, where young people and old can find allies and abilities they didn’t know they had; and where the fiery caldrons of disruption and imagination are borne to fruition, with unquantifiable youth engagement and social change emerging en masse throughout society and across futures we have yet to imagine.

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Establishing a Government Youth Engagement Office

Across the United States and around the world, an increasing number of governments are establishing an office of youth engagement. This approach codifies youth engagement as the either the most desirable avenue or outcome of the government agencies involved. If your government agency or elected official is considering addressing young people, this article shares some considerations and ways to establish a government youth engagement office.

Locating an Office of Youth Engagement

This graphic shows potential locations for an office of youth engagement within a government.
These are potential locations for an office of youth engagement within a government.

For more than 20 years, I have worked with government agencies across North America to establish, revitalize and re-imagine youth engagement.

I have learned that there are a few basic places in government where an office of youth engagement might exist. They include within an elected official’s office, such as a mayor, governor or parliament member.

Another location for an office of youth engagement is within a government agency, department or division. This could include public health, education, public safety or transportation, or several other agencies. The issues these offices can address are as myriad as the agencies or departments they are located within. These can include national service, homelessness, student voice, juvenile justice, foster care, climate change or other individual issues, as well as multiple issues.

The other point about locations for youth engagement offices is that they can exist at many levels. For instance, they can be within an elected official’s office, such as a mayor, governor or parliament member. Another location is within a government agency, department or division. This could include public health, education, public safety or transportation.

Perhaps most importantly is the reality that a government office of youth engagement can exist on the local, county, state or province, or federal level.

Finally, a youth engagement office can supersede any given office, issue or location by addressing an entire jurisdiction and all of its needs.

Note that this isn’t singularly about youth civic engagement, but rather any form of youth engagement throughout a community.

Considerations

These are considerations for establishing a government youth engagement office, including policies, practices, personnel and more.
Considerations for establishing a government youth engagement office.

There are many considerations for establishing an office of youth engagement. Following are some of them.

  • Placement: Where will the youth engagement office be located within the government? Having a firm, consistent location is essential for ensuring successful implementation.
  • Practices: What activities, cultures, and attitudes will the individual adults and youth involved with the office of youth engagement exhibit and possess?
  • Personnel: Who has roles in the youth engagement office and to support youth engagement? How are they selected, who ideally fills them and how are those people supported for success?
  • Policies: What are the practical, applicable rules, regulations and outcomes codified in government policy to support the office of youth engagement?
  • Products: Can you identify the actual outcomes of the youth engagement office, including the effects on individuals, the impacts on communities and the considerations for the jurisdiction that supports government youth engagement?
  • Processes: What are the everyday, mundane considerations that can make or break youth engagement, who’s responsible for them and what are the anticipated outcomes?
  • Promotion: Who strategically shares the stories, successes, challenges and failures that are essential for promoting youth engagement?

These seven P’s can provide a useful framework to embark on government youth engagement strategies. Offices of youth engagement can facilitate the most authentic forms of connectedness within and throughout communities. These were some approaches and considerations for your government’s journey to establishing an office of youth engagement.

For further information, including examples, training and technical assistance, call me at (360) 489-9680 or send an email to info@adamfletcher.net.

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Peak Youth Engagement

Within the last decade, there has been a groundswell of youth engagement around the world. International youth-led movements like the Arab Spring and the Hong Kong protest; and American youth-led movements like Parkland’s March for Our Lives and #BlackLivesMatters have burst into the public consciousness, with millions of young people taking action. Recently, climate activism has spurned more youth engagement, enlightening and empowering more young people to make a difference. This is a groundswell that foreshadows massive social change whose time is at hand.

What Is “Peak”?

Youth engagement happens anytime a young person choses the same thing again and again. As I’ve been teaching for decades now, youth engagement includes all the kinds of youth activism, youth leadership, some actions adults like and other actions adults frequently dismiss. Youth engagement also addresses all of the issues above and many others.

Peak youth engagement happens when more young people are choosing to become active in more activities addressing more issues than ever before. Peak youth engagement makes adults in society to pay attention to issues they would otherwise neglect or deny, i.e. drug use, sex, vaping, or gangs. This is also true within the family structure when individual kids become engaged in sports, romantic relationships or video gaming.

In recent years, peak youth engagement has happened in the issues mentioned above, including pro-democracy movements, public health crises, and racial justice. Historical peak youth engagement has been seen around these topics, and others too, including anti-war activism and economic reform. We have yet to see peak youth engagement in issues like school reform and lowering the voting age, and only time will show what comes next. That’s hard to anticipate!

Breaking the Flow

For better or worse, and perhaps more than anytime in the past 25 years, the media, politicians, community leaders, academics and others are hyping the power of young people to change the world. There are many, many local, regional, national and international organizations that say they support youth engagement, especially with the youth they specifically serve and the issues they particularly care about.

What’s Next

Advocates for youth engagement must address widespread adultism next.

“A youth revolt grows up when it reaches beyond its beginnings,” preaches the Washington Post with the now-normal posturing from well-meaning but poorly informed adults who write those articles. This type of adultism is cynical at best; belittling and demeaning, it assumes young people aren’t capable of finding the strategies and approaches that matter most to them. Adultism pervades the popular response to youth engagement in its myriad forms. Peak youth engagement invites these hyperbolic and ineffectual responses though, and with the power of youth intact, these criticisms fall to the side.

The social change at hand will see peak youth engagement reach massive proportions across all populations around the world. More adults than ever will come to support young people in active and empowering ways, and all kinds of transformations will take place. Aside from meeting basic human rights and the values enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the emerging peak youth engagement will ensure global transformation. These changes will include:

I believe understanding this concept of peak youth engagement can help youth program workers, organization leaders, grantmakers and others consciously and specifically develop the metrics they need to ensure success. It can show the rest of us where our culture is going next.

What do you think of “peak youth engagement”? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Making Our OWN Meaning

Viktor E. Frankl once wrote,

“Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.”

Man’s Search for Meaning (1985)

Given that he was a Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, Frankl knew the depth of saying that. In his observation, Frankl challenges us to find meaning in our lives.

You get to name what you live for. Not just your purpose, but the meaning behind that purpose. This isn’t a chance to name your favorite band or farthest travel dream, either. Instead, its an opportunity to take a look inside and really explore the questions at the middle of you:

  • Who am I, really?
  • Why do I live?
  • Where is my heart right now?
  • What difference do I make every single day?
  • When is my life the best?
  • How do I want to live versus how I am living?

These aren’t just billowing, pie-in-the-sky thoughts either. Frankl knew the depths of human hell, saw the worst in mankind and fought with every tooth and nail of his existence to become more, do more and be more than his captors thought he could.

Today, I’m leading a workshop at North Seattle College for 200 professionals in the field of diversity and equity education focused on finding your meaning in life. If you’re interested in what that looks like, contact me.

You can do more than you think you can, too. You get to make your own meaning, determine your own purpose and live your own life. How are you going to live it today?

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Love Is A Radical New Thing

Staring at our phones is just the beginning. Wagging our fingers, scowling at the world and isolating ourselves are symptoms. Seeing our lack of humility, facing the challenge of vulnerability, and harnessing the power of love are solutions. This article is about the crisis of self-disconnection in the world today, and how to overcome that crisis by acknowledging, enriching and empowering the connections we already have in our lives.

Understanding Ourselves

Despite the well-meaning teachers, community leaders and writers trying to teach us, people believe they’re doing all this alone more than ever before. Almost all of us are afflicted by this, too. Whether we’re burned out suburban parents or aspiring entrepreneurs, social media pushes us to post vain selfies, push arrogant self-promotion and cultivate images of narcissistic glory. This is afflicting old people, young people and everyone in between.

I don’t think anyone wakes up in the morning wishing they were more self-centered. Sure, we learn to take care of ourselves and remove unnecessary drama from our lives, but that doesn’t make us oblivious to the needs of those around us and beyond.

Somewhere along the way though, people can become manipulative, unconsciously forcing their friends, family and coworkers to do their bidding, become their minions, and fulfill their demands with no intention of supporting others, building community or lifting those without power or ability.

Forcibly demanding others bend to our will, conniving to change others’ thinking without their investment, and alienating those who care for us can separate us from the people who care the most about us.

Relying on the Power of Love

A year before he was assassinated, Dr. King gave a speech called “A Time To Break The Silence,” in which he said,

“…I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to humankind’s problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. And I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love.”

Dr. King was killed because he saw the power of love for what it is: An infinitely accessible, directly effective and wholly powerful instrument to fight arrogance, conceit and ignorance. At the same time he was determining this, there was a contradictory force rising in the garage of a young inventor in suburban Washington state. A machine meant to harness the capability of individuals and built on the premise that each man is an island unto his own, the personal computer became one of the most isolating forces humankind ever faced.

Through the decades afterwards, technology became more and more alienating and separating, but not without the veneer of interconnectedness. Relying on the internet as a worldwide superhighway for knowledge, ideas and opinions, computers have become smaller and faster, further allowing and encouraging individuals to believe they’re acting in a vacuum without obligations to others. To be clear, personal computers and the Internet did not create narcissism; however, they’ve exacerbated it beyond the wildest imagination.

“Everywhere we learn that love is important, and yet we are bombarded by its failure….This bleak picture in no way alters the nature of our longing. We still hope that love will prevail. We still believe in love’s promise.”—bell hooks in All About Love: New Visions

We can rectify this challenge. It will not be an easy or simple fix, but it’s tangible and present. The answer has been present for millennia, and even though its under-credited, history shows it repeatedly. In his 1855 book called Where Love Is, God Is, Leo Tolstoy showed us the basis for this understanding when he wrote, “Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love.”

Through the wisdom of Dr. King, as well as many others like bell hooks, Angela Davis, Mahatma Gandhi, and Caesar Chavez, we can begin to craft approaches to love as a tool, a possibility and a gift for transforming the world we live in. Love is the single greatest resource we have, and moving from seeing it as a poetic plaything towards enacting it as a passionate, powerful instrument will help us actualize the reality that another world is possible.

We each have to rely on the power of love to overcome the arrogance, conceit and narcissism trying to overwhelm our hearts and our communities. This requires that we move love into action.

Moving Love Into Action

In 2017, Senator Corey Booker shared powerful words on Twitter when he wrote,

“Love is not a being word, it is an action word… When you see hate out there, understand that the challenge will never be the hate of some, but the silence, indifference and apathy of the many.”

Throughout my career, I have sought and struggled to harness my own commitment to putting love into action. Living in a patriarchal society that emphasizes machismo over vulnerability and highlights individuality over interdependence, my work has been chagrined for being too compromising, too sensitive and too aware.

I have learned from the words I’ve shared here as well as others, and I’ve learned the following lessons for putting love into action.

  1. Feel Your Heart. Feeling feelings can be scary. It can feel weak. It can be thankless. And you need to do it anyway. Feel things relentlessly, no matter what they are.
  2. Let Go Of Entitlement. Meant to keep us from the pain of trauma, entitlement is generally unrealistic and unhealthy, and prevents us from relying on ourselves to heal.
  3. Be Aware Of Your Suffering. When you experience hard times or big challenges, you can suffer. Anxiety, depression and hurt come from this. Be aware of this and what it leads to.
  4. Serve Others Relentlessly. Caesar Chavez said it best: “Being of service is not enough. You must become a servant of the people. When you do, you can demand their commitment in return.”
  5. Love Without Inhibition. There’s a certain recklessness that’s implied when you move beyond the “bosh” love Dr. King explained above. Be about it, love without inhibition and move into a new space that is unstoppable. When enough people love enough ways the whole world will change.

These lessons are not a road to happiness; they are a call to love. Even though those two words are not synonymous, they aren’t far apart. Moving love into action is a brave, ridiculous, essential thing that we all must do if we’re going to change the condition of the world we’re in today.

In her 2012 book Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed wrote, “You will learn a lot about yourself if you stretch in the direction of goodness, of bigness, of kindness, of forgiveness, of emotional bravery. Be a warrior for love.” Love is not really a radical new thing, but if that’s how we must see it to become warriors for love, then let’s see it that way.

We need to become nothing less.

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Workshops by Adam Fletcher
“No Emotional Bosh” is a workshop on teaching youth about love. Learn more by calling Adam Fletcher at (360)489-9680.

Olympia Downtown Ambassadors and Clean Team

In 2013, Adam Fletcher provided program development, training and evaluation services to the City of Olympia Downtown Ambassadors and Clean Team under a contract with the Capitol Recovery Program.

The scope of this project was broad, and included background research, project planning, self-assessment, key informant interviews, training and coaching, and workshop facilitation.

Products created for this project included:

  • Olympia Downtown Ambassadors Core Values
  • Program Recommendations
  • Training Plan
  • Data compilation (interviews, workshops, meeting notes, etc)

The team-designed training plan focused on several issues, including team identity and culture; core values; enacting core values in work; maintaining personal engagement in work, and; engaging the community.

At the completion of the work, the Downtown Ambassadors and Clean Team enacted this plan and used it to guide their work for three years afterwards.

For more information and details, please read the Program Development Project Final Report.

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Washington State Office of Homeless Youth

As principal consultant on a team through The Athena Group, Adam was contracted to serve the Washington State Office of Homeless Youth in 2019. In this project, he provided program planning, research, product development and report writing services for the client.

Working to support the ongoing systems response to Washington State’s crisis of youth homelessness, Adam provided services in support of agency staff. Focused on human-centered design, these services included designing outreach workshops to engage current and formerly homeless youth who transitioned from state care via foster care, juvenile incarceration and behavioral health. Exploring the gaps in the system with those youth, this project also engaged Adam in conducting personal interviews with a dozen young people to learn about systems gaps and explore opportunities to improve the system from their perspectives.

Finally, Adam drew together information from many sources to develop a report of activities by the Office of Homeless Youth in support of a bill designated by state legislators earlier in the year.

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Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families

In 2018, Adam was the subject matter expert and a principal consultant on a team with The Athena Group contracted with the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families, or DCYF. His efforts contributed to a statewide examination of resources for youth transitioning from state systems of care, including foster youth, formerly incarcerated youth, and youth involved with behavioral health care.

Supported by a team of data analysts, Adam’s specific tasks focused on gathering systemwide feedback and ideas. Advertising through regional DCYF offices, Adam planned, facilitated and analyzed findings from ten regional gatherings for youth and adults affected by state systems of care. Participants included young people, birth parents, foster parents, systems workers, community based workers, healthcare and mental health professionals and advocates. Facilitated as dynamic, interactive workshops, these gatherings produced more than 5,000 data points for DCYF officials to draw from as they informed policymakers about the issues in the field.

Additionally, Adam also crafted a 20-page summary report incorporating data analysis, process evaluation and policy recommendations. There were also multiple original data studies included that focused on the emergency care available to youth transitioning from state care, as well as additional resources they need to move from state care into successful adulthood.

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Adults Are Essential

A gentle breeze blows across my face and sunlight flickers through twinkling treetops as I paddle softly along a calm, shaded river in upstate New York. Laughing easily, I’m splattered with water from a joyous splash as a middle school principal cascades water in my direction. There are a dozen canoes around me, all of them instantly caught up in an easy water war that is as playful as it was predictable: I ended up capsized, and laughing hardest of all.

The year was 2007, and I was a guest of Giselle Martin-Kniep, the president of an education organization called Communities for Learning. She brought together 50 educators from all types of settings across New York state, along with mentors and guides of all kinds. These folks were gathered to co-learn about many things, including Meaningful Student Involvement. They came with the intention of growing learning communities to support their school improvement efforts, and the weeklong conference at a backcountry retreat center offers dynamic conversations, deep workshopping and challenging opportunities to grow. Playing in the water was a much-needed break.

Teaching Adults

As the years have passed, I have come to understand that the work of preparing adults to engage students as partners throughout the education system is a bedrock of Meaningful Student Involvement. After facilitating learning and projects with hundreds of schools in many ways, I have all-too-often left the building with the sensation that something didn’t work right.

Since starting my work in schools two decades ago, I have focused mightily on teaching students about the education system; worked with students and adults to establish safe and supportive partnerships that support co-work; facilitated evaluation, reflection and research to improve student voice in schools; and sought to inspire action in all levels of schools for all learners everywhere, all the time.

However, looking back on my successes and failures as well as the challenges and opportunities in my work, I can see that the entire time I should have focused on supporting adults more. My experience has taught me that in order to infuse Meaningful Student Involvement into the lifeblood of education, adults should have four traits within their character:

  • Humility—Adults have to have the intellectual humility that allows them to not know everything in schools.
  • Courage—Moving past tokenism and softball questions requires adults to be brave, bold and assertive over the necessity of Meaningful Student Involvement.
  • Urgency—There is no waiting today. Young people are increasingly and astutely aware of the urgent need to change the world.
  • Fun—Getting out of our heads and into our hearts can mean lightening up, loosening up and sharing our whole selves with our students. Meaningful Student Involvement needs that, too!

Playing in a canoe in a river in rural upstate New York more than a decade ago gave me insight that I’m still learning from today. In all this time, part of that learning has become obvious to me finally: Adults must be focused on, too.

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