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.
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.
A lot of us working with youth today came from hard times. Whether we came from adversity or trauma, or if we grew up in challenging ways, we have to take care of our heart. The times we live in today are conscientious and aware of how these hard times affect us. This article is about surviving youth. Your youth.
What Is Your Youth?
Your youth is two things: First, it’s the time you lived when you weren’t seen as a child or as an adult. Second, it’s the young people you are meaningfully connected to right now, whether they’re your children, students, program participants or otherwise. Youth isn’t “yours” in terms of possession; it’s yours because you are engaged in youth, whether we’re talking about the time of your life or the people you serve.
You need to survive your youth if it’s affecting your adulthood in negative, hard or challenging ways.
Over the past 20 years, I’ve facilitated self-care learning for thousands of teachers, youth workers and other adults who work with youth. Many people have shared that their awareness of the adverse childhood experiences they lived through as young people shine through in their current jobs. They specifically work to support young people growing up with abuse, household challenges and/or neglect, and they’re very committed. These people are surviving youth.
3 Ways to Survive Your Youth
Many people are surviving the challenges of their younger years at the same time they’re working to support young people. When we work within these realities, we have to be precautious, patient and promising for ourselves.
Here are three ways I teach people to survive their youth.
Be Precautious. Your experiences make you relatable and grant you powers of reciprocity. However, they can make you vulnerable, too. If you haven’t addressed your childhood trauma intentionally, if you haven’t addressed your wounds and sought healing, then be precautious. Even if you have dealt with your suffering and challenges but still hyper-react, overreact or otherwise act disproportionately to the situations, you might need to continue being precautious. Take care of your heart.
Be Patient. While you may want to challenge your own inabilities or charge into changing yourself and the world, you should be patient. Your calmness and self-control can be a model for the young people you work with, however you positively express them. If you feel anxious, excited or too ambitious, be patient and know that the challenges of your younger years are teaching you right now. Allow calmness to hold your heart.
Be Promising. Seeing a greater picture, understanding the wider world and knowing the best possibilities are the best way to be promising to yourself. Don’t make promises you can’t keep, and don’t promise things you can’t follow through. However, hold your heart accountable, listen to your intuition and keep yourself true and honest with what you know best. Set the bar for your heart and keep yourself accountable.
Surviving your youth is essential to being a hopeful, supportive and effective adult ally to children and youth. The steps above can help you understand where to begin doing that. There are a number of great resources emerging in the field, and more organizations are supporting their staff dealing with their trauma as well as promoting trauma informed care throughout education, youth services, at home, throughout communities, and beyond.
However, ultimately you need to deal with your youth. Soothing the inner challenges can only go so far, and these steps are simply triage for the complex wounds you might have. Deal with those challenges, get help and move forward in your career, your family and throughout your life.
After working in hundreds of communities nationally, I am primed to explore this more. Call me to talk about my consulting, training and speaking services at (360) 489-9680.
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.
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.
For six days in July, I walked in solidarity with my comrade, colleague and friend Terry Mattinson. In my 20-plus years experience as an independent consultant working with schools and communities to build a global movement supporting youth power, I have rarely meant anyone like Terry. A long-time youth worker in Preston, Lancashire in the United Kingdom, his experience has afforded him wisdom beyond measure. It was my honor to walk with him and listen, observe, and see young people and adults engage with him on issues that matter to me the most. This is a short reflection on that experience.
shepherded me through an agenda that alternately inspired me and encouraged my
own reflection on the work I’ve been doing. We visited youth-serving organizations
in several communities as well as schools for young and older learners. There
were deep conversations about theory, practical discussions about taking
action, and meaningful opportunities to dissect, digest and divulge our
experiences and learning with several people along the way–especially with
Sitting in classrooms at several schools, I got to hear student voices sound out on issues they were learning about, projects they designed, and the difference they were making in the world. Excited young students answered my questions anxiously, sometimes with gentle prompts from their teachers and other times with the restraint only well-taught learners can have. Their global perspectives behoove the pluralistic society they are growing up within. Other times, older students shared their wizened perceptions of taking action to change the world. They analyzed the effects of their actions, proposed radical new ways of affecting change, and inspired each other, Terry and I, and others in great ways.
Some of the things I
distinctly learned from young people in these visits included that they are
intensely focused on making a positive, powerful difference in the world around
them; they want to demonstrate to adults, including teachers, youth workers and
parents, their concern for the larger world beyond classrooms and throughout
the community, and; they want to have fun while they’re taking action to make
In the course of my time there, I was able to meet with several adults about these issues, too. I met with Steve Walker, a senior lecturer and programme leader for working with children and families at the University of Cumbria. Steve has conducted a fascinating study at his university focused on establishing the validity of youth voice in evaluation. We discussed the nuances of his study, and I suspect there will be more conversations ahead as I explore the intricacies of what he’s doing. I also met with Mary Sayer, the Unite in Schools Coordinator for Unite the Union, the largest trade union in UK. Her program teaches students about labor unions, organizing and political power. In the course of a morning, she and I had an intensive series of conversations with a dozen young people at Our Lady’s Catholic High School in Preston, discussing the intersections of her interests with my efforts along the way. I also had a great convo with Marc Besford, the National Training and Development Worker for Young Christian Workers. Marc supports youth workers like Terry in a large portion of the UK, and has great perspectives on youth involvement. Given his broad application of the principles of meaningful involvement and their diverse applications, it was exciting to talk with him.
One of the most intriguing conversations I had was with Nigel Ranson, the headmaster of Our Lady’s. In a thorough but brief tête-à-tête, he and I discussed the capacity, interest and ability of educators to engage pupil voice in substantial ways. As I elaborated on the difference between engaging voice and meaningfully involving students throughout education, our back-and-forth reminded me of the early advocacy I’d conducted in Washington state’s education agency back in the early 2000s. It was an honor to talk with each of these folks.
Terry launched me back and forth through his region on trains, visiting surrounding cities with ease while allowing me to take in some gorgeous English countryside vistas, complete with fells and sheep galore! We also went to an old cathedral city called Carlisle. Sitting near the ancient Scottish border, Carlisle was surrounded by an enormous wall that we walked along for a bit. I saw the cathedral and castle, and devoured other historical sites shared by Terry and his nephew Andy, who is also a youth worker in the area. Our tour there included a fantastic facility called the Carlisle Youth Zone. Focused on providing a fun, safe environment for young people to hang out, recreate and learn, the Youth Zone is one of many facilities spread throughout the nation that does similar things. I had a thorough tour with the youth work manager, Clint Howat. While we discussed the several informal youth voice opportunities here, I became distinctly aware of the opportunity these types of facilities have to infuse meaningful youth involvement and youth mainstreaming throughout their operations. Fascinating potential!
One of the greatest
rewards of this visit was the chance to form a great connection with Terry.
He’s been working so hard for so long to engage young people, foster youth
power, and nurture community connections with children and youth that really have changed the places
they live. We shared the personal motivations we have for behind our commitment
to youth and discussed the faults and potential for our individual futures. He
also took care to find me beautifully calming accommodations, and I enjoyed a
relaxing, invigorating stay that uplifted my spirit and rekindled my interest
in the world beyond my front door!
All-in-all, I was excited by the potential Terry Mattinson shared with me in his city of Preston and the surrounding area. Talking with so many people showed me more of the commonalities in our international efforts to engage youth in dynamic, powerful new ways. It also inspired me to consider new ways that I can continue my life’s work, both where I live and far beyond.
Radical youth work moves from simply implanting skills, knowledge or ideas in young people towards engaging them as full human beings who co-construct the world we share. This youth work is radical because it departs from seeing youth as empty vessels to be filled by all-knowing adults. Instead, it engages them in active c0-learning, co-examination, co-building, advocating, and leading throughout our communities.
Between 1989 and 1999, I was a staff member in a dozen youth work programs across the United States, with several of them easily positioned as radical youth work. During that decade I looked for jobs I thought were “cool” where people “got it” and “knew what they were doing.” I didn’t have the language for it then, but I was looking for radical youth work that empowered young people to change their own lives and the world.
Starting in my own neighborhood as a teenager, I was an assistant director for a theater program that took low-income youth from public housing projects and taught them basics that led them to a performance for their families and neighborhoods. After that, I taught independent living skills for foster, homeless and runaway youth; led nature education activities in Midwestern prairies with bison and sandhill cranes abounding; developed a mentoring program for Kurdish and Iraqi refugee children; staffed a youth drug treatment facility; led inner-city youth in high adventure wildness activities in the Pacific Northwest; developed a youth center for high-risk pre-teens, and; consulted schools in northern New Mexico on service learning.
Throughout that journey, I learned about youth-led community activism, participating as an adult ally to youth demanding rights in their communities; developed my understanding of popular education, employing it to make critical inroads for learning among fellow low-income people; and built praxis among fellow youth workers who identified as marginalized or excluded from mainstream cultural, educational and social activities.
The way was dangerous along that road. There’s a flame of righteous indignation that burns within the hearts of people who are committed to changing the world. That flame is lit by hopefulness, but is doused by setbacks, depression, failure, and even success sometimes. Conscientiousness costs, and the passionate nuance of democracy can cause people to feel the bends and twists of social change in hyper-sensitive ways. More than just poor outcomes from contested elections can slice at the heart of radical youth work. When you hear a youth voted negatively; another one committed a crime that affected the whole community; another “dropped off the face of the earth” and disconnected from everything in their life that was empowering; and another grew up and went to work for a corporation with no apparent ethical baring in their lives; all of these things cut.
There’s a temptation to give up on youth, but I would suggest its more necessary to give up on radical youth work.
Rather than quit young people and walk away from them entirely, there are times when it can be necessary to quit the thinking and action that led to the disenchantment. Rather, to rest from it we have to relax the mental muscle and instead simply be. Be a youth worker, be an adult ally, be hopeful but with boundaries.
This isn’t about showing grit or resilience; it is about survival. We must survive. Through these years of wrestling with myself, my work, its outcomes and the possibilities ahead of me, I have had to rest a lot. Today, I’m thinking that sometimes that means walking away from radical youth work–and that’s okay.
Starting June 30th, 2019, I am traveling to the United Kingdom for two weeks! Over 15 days, I’ll my work with more than 500 youth and adults from 20 communities across the country, visit with government and education officials, and help support the youth engagement transformation underway in the UK.
The sponsoring organization for my trip is called Community Organisers, and they are working in conjunction with the Community Development Journal for the first activity on my itinerary. Its called a “Thinkery,” and its focused on community development. My role at this gathering in London is as a provocateur, and I’ll give a keynote focused on my most radical vision for youth engagement today.
While I’m in London, I’ve been invited to connect with my friend Annie Blackledge from Seattle, who will be on an international exchange with youth from the nonprofit she leads called the Mockingbird Society. Its a great coincidence that we’ll be there at the same time, and I’m excited to spend time with them.
One of the most exciting connections I’ll be making on this trip is with my longtime colleague Clare Hanbury-Leu. Years ago, we connected while she was brainstorming developing an international NGO. Today, she’s the leader of Children for Health, which engages young people in learning and teaching around public health issues throughout developing countries. She and I will be meeting in person for the first time. Given all the excitement of our Skype calling over the years and our maintenance of knowing each other, this will be a great conversation!
After London, I will be heading north to the city of Preston, near Liverpool. There, I will be hosted by longtime youth worker and advocate Terry Mattinson. Terry’s enthusiasm and commitment has inspired me for a decade, as he’s been an avid reader of my books, follower on social media and communicator with me in many ways. Over the course of several days, out of the kindness of his heart Terry has arranged an intensive schedule of visits, conversations, hangouts and learning for me. I am absolutely excited for this leg of the trip, and look forward to experiencing the wonders of Preston’s youth movement in the order Terry shares it.
When I return to the States in the middle of July, I’ll be a richer person because of this experience. I’m humbled that people around the world value what I have to share and bring me to their homes, cities, communities and schools. I know this trip will change my worldview yet again, as so many others have.
Stay tuned for more blogs over the next few weeks!
Over the last two decades of research and practice in the field of youth engagement, I’ve found a distinct lack of commitment to engaging the Other. Often used in literature and art to allude to people who are different from us, the Other is best understood as a person or people seen as not belonging and being fundamentally different in some way from us. Seeing youth and their communities as the Other has allowed a lot of nonprofits, schools and government programs to build high walls that stop youth engagement.
I’ve been committed to low barrier youth engagement for the last 30 years without having the language for it. Today, I know that low barrier youth engagement happens when programs, roles and activities actively work to lower the barriers to sustainably connecting youth with the world around them.
Low barrier youth engagement happens when programs, roles and activities actively work to lower the barriers to sustainably connecting youth with the world around them.
Some of the barriers to youth engagement include:
Bias—prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.
Sexism—prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex.
Transphobia—dislike of or prejudice against transsexual or transgender people.
Adultism—Bias toward adults leading to discrimination against youth; or the addiction to the ideas, actions, appearance and position of people over the age of majority.
Favoritism—the practice of giving unfair preferential treatment to one person or group at the expense of another.
Classism—prejudice against or in favor of people belonging to a particular social class.
Discrimination—the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex.
Homophobia—dislike of or prejudice against homosexual people.
Ableism—discrimination in favor of able-bodied people.
Favoring—feel or show approval or preference for.
Anti-Semitism—hostility to or prejudice against Jews.
When adults who work with youth read this list, they won’t be surprised or unfamiliar with the terms. However, its the concept of specifically and pointedly lowering these barriers to build youth engagement that we’re concerned with. When we deliberately address these barriers, we make it easier to engage youth on purpose.
Do youth have transportation to programs? Do youth have adults of their race leading activities? Are there other youth from their culture in the room? Do all youth have the ability to be engaged? Does the program assume youth have the knowledge they need to be engaged? Do youth have jobs or other commitment that prevents them from getting to programs or activities? All of these reasons can keep youth from becoming engaged in youth engagement programs. Often, youth have no option but to become engaged outside of youth programs and activities.
To lower the barriers to youth engagement, youth are presented with opportunities reflecting their interests. They are allowed to become engaged how they want to, instead of having to do what adults want them to. In many programs, they are allowed to come and go freely, and given bus passes that encourage their freedom. Low-barrier youth engagement offers off-hours activities as well as typical activity times, and creates ways for youth with babies and jobs to attend, too. There are mental and behavioral health services, programs for food and housing, recreational activities, skills and knowledge-building activities and other resources, often all in one location. Life coaching is valued above mentorship, and facilitation is more important than teaching.
When we learn to stop seeing youth outside of our programs as the Other, we begin to lower these barriers and make space for youth engagement to happen.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the contract we make within our soul; the guarantees and negotiations; the deals, the debts and the forgiveness.
I’ve been wondering about the conditions and compromises we make. What makes us who we are, who we spend our time with, where we go and what we do are all questions that we get to answer for ourselves.
There of been times in my life when I’ve tried to let other people decide those things for me. I have ended those circumstances unhappily, without the satisfaction of having met what I believe to be my life’s purpose, or fulfilled my dreams.
I guess we all have to come to terms with our soul. Today, I understand that the terms, deals and contracts are set within ourselves. Nowhere else do they matter nearly as much as they do to me.
This might be the crux of what Shakespeare meant when he said “To thine own self be true.” If that’s the case, it’s never rang so truly to me as it does right now.
Standing awkwardly at the back of the room, I listened to the words coming from the four tables in the middle of the space. It was a drab, faded white hall with dull, grey carpet that smelled musty, felt greasy and looked depressed. I was 17, wearing my most optimistic white sweatshirt and clean jeans, and trying my hardest to stay attentive to what was being said.
“Why would any kid want to come to our meetings?” said Paul, a gruff World War II vet who clearly didn’t support the idea.
“I don’t think there’s a place for him here, or any other teen. This is the work of people with experience and knowledge, and when you’re in 12th grade you have none of those,” said Betty, who was one of the grandmas in the room that I liked.
That night, the church council decided there was no role for youth in their work. I’d lobbied the church and minister to allow me onboard for several months before that vote. Hearing their decision, I was crushed.
For three years, I’d been actively involved throughout the life of the church. Joining the choir, coming to classes, continuing my membership in scouts, and helping whenever the minister asked led me to join the church council. My mentors in the church made so many spaces for my voice and involvement that I wanted to take it to the next level. I had helped plan classes, build events and relations between the church and community, and preached at Sunday services at the invite of the minister.
I wasn’t ever given firm reasons for why I wasn’t allowed to join the church council. Instead, I was given platitudes and misdirections like, “You’re too young to understand,” “This is adult work,” and “We don’t have space for kids in our work.”
When I wasn’t allowed to join the church council, I internalized a lot of the messages given to me, whether they were inadvertent or intentional. Those messages included:
Youth voice matters in certain situations, but not all the time
Youth voice is useful when it fits adult expectations, but not when it goes out of the boundaries
Adults don’t want to listen to all youth voice, just the ones they want to hear from.
Rather than try to engage me in any sense, the church council simply denied me altogether. It would be too simple to say that was disheartening to me; instead, it’s more apt to say it was crushing. I didn’t realize it then, but I stacked that experience onto many others that felt disempowering, disconnecting and unaccepting.
Within the next year, I slowly moved away from the home I’d felt at the church. My longtime skepticism about religion took hold of my imagination, granting me some critical thinking but mostly lavishing cynicism in my heart. I no longer saw the people in that place as family, but instead as overseers. Sure, I still had mentors there cared for me, and I was always respectful and cared about them. But never again did I feel the same.
A few years later I left that denomination entirely and never returned. In the 25 years since, that congregation folded and the church changed hands. I moved on too, only occasionally visiting the place that raised me. My work allows me to keep it in mind though, especially as I work with organizations to consider never allowing adult discrimination against youth to happen again.