Rachel Jackson is a youth advocate in California who once talked about the juvenile justice system, saying, “Our youth are not failing the system; the system is failing our youth. Ironically, the very youth who are being treated the worst are the young people who are going to lead us out of this nightmare.”
That was more than a decade ago, and since then her words have infiltrated the corridors of power. After successfully showing lawmakers, judges and other that…
The average daily cost of incarcerating a young person ($241) compared to that of an effective, community-based alternative-to-incarceration program ($75);
That Black youth are incarcerated in state-run youth prisons at five times the rate white youth are, and;
How 60,000 young people under 18 are incarcerated in juvenile facilities on any given day,
…organizations including the ACLU and others have declared that the juvenile justice system is beginning to change. There are other reasons, too, including corruption, violence and youth voice.
In my research, I’ve found that the juvenile justice system has began moving toward holistic, positive and transformative youth engagement. This is happening through the laws, legal bodies, and processes that are used to prosecute, convict, punish and rehabilitate young people who commit criminal offenses. Ultimately, transformation focuses on building the capacity of people, policies and programs throughout the juvenile justice system to engage young people in positive, purposeful and powerful ways.
Transforming systems is different from reforming or simply changing the courts, police, detention facilities or voters minds. Traditionally, youth/law interactions have been transactional in nature: You do something wrong, you get punished. Throughout time, these punishments have been largely arbitrary, demonstrating the racist, sexist, classist and adultist biases of legal systems across the country.
I propose moving away from transactional youth justice, and toward transformative youth engagement. That requires seeing the entire legal apparatus as a system, and working to radically reposition the culture, structure and individual attitudes within that system in order to foster meaningful youth engagement within and outside of juvenile justice. I’ve been studying work already underway, and from what I’ve learned about the place where I’m living, I believe change is coming across the entire country.
Theft, vandalism, violence and other crimes plague communities across the United States today. Low-income neighborhoods, communities of color, rural towns and other areas around the nation are disproportionately affected by these realities. The young people who are needed to restore, replenish, reinvigorate and reimagine these places are sometimes the perpetrators. Without educational, social, cultural and empowering activities in their lives, they are driven to crime for entertainment, money, opportunity and a sense of progress in life. Once they’re in the juvenile justice system, these same youth experience oblique outcomes, hurtful punishments, and life-defining stereotyping that is punitive, predictable and prejudice.
In the last several years, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed with this. Through a series of rulings, courts across the country have been compelled to foster more nuanced approach to juvenile justice.
In 2001, I began consulting youth-serving organizations, including K-12 schools, nonprofits and government agencies, specifically on youth engagement. In 2018, I’m expanding my scope to include the field of juvenile justice, especially in regard to the work already underway.
In the next few days, I’m posting a series of blogs that are an exploration of what I’ve found so far in the “new” juvenile justice, which I call transformative youth engagement.
Project Based Learning has become an essential arrow in the quiver of youth development and education. But are we doing it right?
As I present on youth engagement through Project Based Learning, I’m reminded of research I’ve done on youth-driven programming across the country. So often, when they’re leading projects, youth choose to take action and make a difference in the world around them. They want the vibrance and vitality of leading change, creating difference and fostering transformation in their own lives and the lives of their families, communities and the world.
That’s a tremendous opportunity! Think of the differences we could make as adult allies if we simply made space for young people to lead the projects they learn from, allowing them to create positive, powerful change in the world around us! Wow! Exclamation points!
My research has shown me that Project Based Learning should have seven main components:
POWERFUL Youth Engagement—At the core of all Project Based Learning should be youth themselves. Planning, researching, teaching, evaluating, decision-making and advocacy provide potential learning opportunities throughout Project Based Learning as youth are scaffolded for action and supported in transformation.
REAL Learning—Project Based Learning should have meaningful, substantive learning in its core. Learning shouldn’t be fake, pretend, meaningless or inconsequential.
PRACTICAL Problems—Focused on actual challenges and meeting real needs, Project Based Learning should lift the lives of youth and their communities by facing practical problems head-on.
LASTING Efforts—Sustained impact should be a goal of Project Based Learning at every turn. Focused on creating real change, young people and their lives should be transformed.
OUTWARD Outcomes—Looking towards the world around us, Project Based Learning should be conducted toward and presented to people who aren’t involved, including adults, youth and families.
CRITICAL Thinking and Action—Project Based Learning should center on social justice through positive, powerful action. Youth should consider the roles of oppression and empowerment, and the genuine possibilities for them to change the world.
AUTHENTIC Action—Keeping it real is at the center of Project Based Learning when youth focus on what actually needs changed, what problems and challenges they actually face and are trying to solve, and what difference they make.
These components can allow the adult allies of youth—including youth workers, counselors, teachers and others—to enact meaningful, positive and powerful transformation in the lives of their participants. I’ve also learned that only then can we see the all of the positive outcomes that Project Based Learning fosters, including skills focused on Organization, Teamwork, Research; Procurement, Time Management, Project Management, and Problem-Solving. Other outcomes include knowledge about Social Change; Community Building; Project Design and Implementation; Leadership; Social Justice; Courage in Action; and Creating the Future.
If there are higher goals for youth engagement, I still haven’t seen them!
If you want, I hope you’ll share your knowledge and ideas about Project Based Learning in the comments section below.
From 2013 to 2016, Adam conducted strategic planning, program planning and project management for the City of Olympia and Capital Recovery Center through the Downtown Olympia Homeless Youth Engagement Project.
Working with City staff, nonprofit partners and business owners in the downtown area, Adam facilitated homeless youth outreach forums, community planning events and key informant interviews, developing responsive programs and outreach activities with city staff and others.
He created meeting agendas and facilitated activities, including more than a dozen gatherings of up to 100 people. The activities he facilitated included technical assistance meetings, community-wide gatherings, professional affinity groups, and forums for homeless youth.
For this project, Adam created activity reports and developed a comprehensive funding report for the City government. He also designed performance tools for use in large scale public events as well as in professional development sessions for City staff and nonprofit partners.
In 2015, City of Lincoln workforce development staff approached me about more successfully reaching the youth they served. Committed to enriching their youth engagement strategies, the City contracted with me to deliver a variety of services.
Between 2015 and 2016, Adam facilitated evaluation and training events for city staff and nonprofit partners, and worked with City staff to redesign and implement a dynamic strategy to engage young people under 25 inworkforce development activities. Focusing on client voice, Adam’s strategy created responsive, interactive opportunities for youth and adults to partner together for continuous improvement and extensive community engagement. Activities including program assessment, event facilitation and staff consultation.
Containing tons of details, this book is focused on engaging all students in every school as partners in every facet of education for the purpose of strengthening their commitment to learning, community, and democracy. There are more than 75 examples from the author’s experience and research, as well as literature from throughout education. Never before published tools, new models and useful tips are included, along with more than 300 citations, dozens of recent and historic anecdotes, and more. The book also highlights unique approaches, detailed assessments and critical examinations of everyday school activities make this publication unlike any other available today. This book should be read by teachers, college students, other educators and school leaders and others focused on education transformation.
Student Voice Revolution is an optimistic, realistic and pragmatic clarion call for the future of public schools in democratic societies. Are YOU ready for this revolution?
About the Author
An internationally-recognized consultant and speaker focused on student voice, author Adam Fletcher has worked with schools, education agencies, and other organizations across the United States and Canada. He is the author the SoundOut Student Voice Curriculum, The Practice of Youth Engagement and The Guide to Student Voice. His writing has also been published in education journals and magazines around the world.
“Volunteerism isn’t right! Matter of fact, it is not good at all.”
With that, the preacher ended his speech, complete with “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” coming from the crowd gathered. I was a 19-year-old at a neighborhood meeting in the mid-sized Midwestern city where I grew up, and my ears were burning. Throughout the meeting I heard several perspectives from my friends and neighbors on the volunteers and missionaries who had come to rehabilitate houses, tutor kids and work at the food bank in my neighborhood.
This preacher was alluding to a belief that I hear repeated in many of the discussions I’ve been in where community volunteerism was addressed: that similar to other “isms” in our society, volunteerism has become an addiction that serves to reinforce the social, attitudinal and structural barriers facing “others” in American society – children and youth, homeless, LGBTQ, differently-abled, people of color. These barriers limit the recipients of said volunteerism in their ability to experience authentic self-driven change in the situations they occupy.
However, my experience has also shown me that there is hope for volunteerism. For the last three years The Freechild Project has operated under the motto of “By, not to; With, not for.” This motto is strengthened by our mission to build active democracy by engaging young people in social change, particularly those who have been historically denied participation.
When the purpose of service and volunteerism is to strengthen democratic participation and community empowerment, volunteerism can be wholly beneficial. As Ivan Illich once observed about international volunteerism, “[Volunteers] frequently wind up alleviating the damage done by money and weapons…” When conducted as part of a deliberately revelatory cycle, volunteerism can become a process for empowerment, as long as it is not at the expense of others’ self-determination.
After growing up occasionally homeless, then in a low-income community where my family and friends were the subject of much volunteerism, I served three terms in the AmeriCorps national service program. I developed a tutoring and mentoring program for Kurdish and Iraqi kids in the Midwest, ran a ropes challenge course for low-income youth in the Northwest, and assisted in the leadership of a service learning program in the Southwest. I know service work, and I promoted volunteerism to all kinds of people. However, my most riveting experience came when I worked for a larger national foundation where I was responsible for teaching young people about volunteering. I discovered that the language of “service” covered an attitude that was pious at best; at worst, it perpetuated a sense of noblesse oblige, the royalty taking pity on the peasants and giving them alms.
My own concern was coupled with others who I met in this volunteering. After several years, I worked with a group of people from across the United States to develop a teaching practice called Activist Learning. After exploring the benefits and faults of service learning, we defined Activist Learning as community learning characterized by people taking action to realize a society based on just relationships by seeking to change unequal power structures throughout our communities. However, after promoting Activist Learning for several years I discovered that there is another need that extends beyond schools and into communities. I see that need as a re-visioning of experience of volunteers.
Below is a model through which volunteerism can start to become emancipatory for ALL of its participants, including the volunteer and the community, the “giver” and the “receiver.” The Freechild Project believes that this model represents the most radical and powerful possibilities for people’s participation throughout our society. One of the goals of The Freechild Project is to realize the full participation of all people throughout society as equal members in decision-making and action. We have developed this model in order to represent our vision of democratic, community-oriented participation for ALL people. Individuals and organizations can use this model to start thinking about how volunteers of all ages can be integrated as empowered, purposeful participants throughout society.
I have re-envisioned sociologist Roger Hart’s Ladder of Children’s Participation for this model. According to Hart, he developed the Ladder to introduce community workers to the practice of children’s participation, and its importance for developing democracy and sustainable communities. The model presented here is done in the same context, except for the purpose of sharing the goal with a broader audience. I believe that the importance of developing democracy and sustainable communities must be spread to all people, including the homeless, the impoverished, and all those regarded as “others” in American society.
Ladder of Volunteer Participation
Following is the Ladder of Volunteer Participation, including a brief explanation and examination. In this Ladder, Community Members are “insiders” from any community of people who have been historically been “others” in the United States. Volunteers are “outsiders” who have traditionally come into communities to provide “service.” They may include non-profit staff, AmeriCorps Members, teachers and others.
8) Equitable Partnerships with volunteers happen when projects or programs are initiated by community members and decision-making is shared among community members and volunteers. These projects empower community members while at the same time enabling them to access and learn from the experience volunteers.
7) Self-Led Partnerships with volunteers happen awhen community members initiate and direct a project or program, and volunteers are involved in supportive roles only.
6) Equal Partnerships with community members happens when projects or programs are initiated by volunteers but the decision-making is shared 50/50 with community members
5) Community Consultation happens when community members give advice on projects or programs designed and run by volunteers. The community members are informed about how their input will be used and the outcomes of the decisions made by volunteers.
4) Community Assignments happen when someone else creates projects and community members are assigned specific roles and told about how and why they are being involved.
3) Tokenism happens when community members appear to be given a voice, but in fact have little or no choice about what they do or how they participate.
2) Decoration happens community members are used to help or “bolster” a cause in a relatively indirect way, although volunteer do not pretend that the cause is inspired by community members.
1) Manipulation happens when volunteers use community members to support causes and pretend that the causes are inspired by community members.
This Ladder isn’t a static tool meant to describe whole programs or the entire experience of individuals. Instead, it is meant to help individuals identify where they are at any given point of their volunteering, and where they can aspire to. People can occupy many spots on the Ladder at the same time; organizations can engage different volunteers differently in order to meet their needs. The Ladder isn’t static.
While many community organizations seek to “fix” or “heal” the wounds in our society, it has been often noted that rarely are these works more than band-aids. The after school basketball program I ran for young people in my neighborhood when I was 21 did help keep kids off the streets. However, it didn’t help their parents get better jobs so they didn’t have to work two shifts; it didn’t help their grandparents strengthen their parenting skills so they didn’t feel so frustrated; ultimately, it didn’t help the young people learn more skills or become more involved in their community so they felt a sense of hope and purpose.
Volunteerism oftentimes serves to perpetuate the worst of these characterizations, often with negative effects on both the volunteers and the community members themselves. Instead of engaging community members on the top rungs of the Ladder, at most some organizations relegate them to the bottom rungs. How many homeless shelters do you know of that are operated by homeless people? How many afterschool programs for young people do you know of that are operated by young people? In some programs, when the recipients of rehabilitated homes help carry out the framing, plumbing and painting of their homes, are they actually learning about places the water lines and helping to choose the colors, or are they just finishing the nailing?
The challenge of reaching higher rungs on the Ladder of Community Participation is one that faces all individuals and organizations committed to validating and uplifting the skills and abilities of the people who are served, whether they are young people, people of color, or others. However, the reality is that all organizations cannot all be at the top rungs. Sadly enough, when reliant on dysfunctional trends to justify their existence, some groups actually work to keep communities from being on the Ladder at all. That is reality.
When considering community members’ empowerment in Brazil, Paulo Freire once wrote “those invaded became convinced of their intrinsic inferiority.” The implication that volunteerism is an engine for a degrading, delineating social design is not new, but the challenge that faces us is: to make volunteerism a relevant, purposeful engine for democracy and sustainable communities today, and by doing so, to create a vibrant, purposeful society tomorrow.
In his book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community,” published a year before his death, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about what he called the world house. “This is the great new problem of mankind,” he wrote. “We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together — black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu — a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”
“All inhabitants of the globe are now neighbors,” King continued, predicting a time in which not only African Americans would be fully free, but peoples suffering discrimination everywhere. “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever,” he wrote. “The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself.”
The challenge we face as responsible community workers, educators and other social providers is to build Dr. King’s world house, where he proposed a revolution of values. That is why we must aspire to lift volunteerism towards the poignancy which it could have. That is one where the community and the volunteer work with intention in unity for the common good. That is where I want to live.
To Hell With Good Intentions – A 1968 speech by Ivan Illich focusing on the injustice perpetuated by American volunteers working in Mexico, and when contextualized in the light of modern “service” work, offers a startling analysis of the volunteer movement in America.
Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? – In 1967 Dr. Martin Luther King laid out a clear analysis of the painful divide facing activists and community organizers. The problem is that we’ve fulfilled his worst fears. 1960s Connections he drew between Black Power, affirmative action and American segregation provide a clear glimpse into modern American apartheid; his prescriptions for community building, nonviolence and unity offer a roadmap for a different America.
Mentoring the Mentor – This book is a written conversation between Paulo Freire and a number of promoters, practitioners and detractors who have beef with his analysis. “The fundamental task of the mentor is a liberatory task. It is not to encourage the mentor’s goals and aspirations and dreams to be reproduced in the mentees, the students, but to give rise to the possibility that the students become the owners of their own history. This is how I understand the need that teachers have to transcend their merely instructive task and to assume the ethical posture of a mentor who truly believes in the total autonomy, freedom, and development of those he or she mentors.” (from Chapter Sixteen: “A Response” by Paulo Freire).
In the Service of What? The Politics of Service Learning – In 1994 a pair of university faculty wrote an academic analysis of service learning. They provided a basis for a lot of the modern criticism underway today, and allowed the service learning movement to breathe enough to allow critical thinking within its ranks. While that movement seems to have exhaled lately, Kahn and Westhiemer’s analysis is just as applicable today, and provides a great construct to learn from.
Learning Through Activism – The Freechild Project’s action plan for powerful, purposeful learning through social change. Includes guiding principles and resources for young people, educators and activists.
Let me start by saying that I don’t know what humility is. For more than a dozen years I’ve consciously struggled with the word and the concept of humility, and I’m still not sure. I do know this: If you want to change the world, humility is definitely a requirement.
The dictionary says humility is simply defined as the quality of being humble. It also says that to be humble is to lower something in importance.
This means developing and maintaining a modest view of our own importance in public and personal regards to who we are and what we do. Sometimes, we are given struggles that humiliate us, cause us to get humble and send us down the road with compromise in our hearts. That is the core of humility: Accepting that everyone, everywhere screws up and is screwed up.
That doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference in the world, and that doesn’t lessen our responsibility to make a difference in the world. It does mean that while we’re working for social change, we shouldn’t be arrogant. Being proud and selfish can mean not seeing our faults and hoarding our accomplishments without sharing props with the people we worked with. That selfishness is typical in a lot of activist campaigns, where peoples’ egos and conceits become obvious. Its selfish to think the world owes you anything; to think the good guy always wins; to think the world works in a balance that will benefit you particularly.
Being right is the enemy of understanding. There’s a difference between knowing what you know and knowing what you don’t know; one suffocates curiosity while the other leaves the door open to possibilities. In the same way that being perfect is the enemy of being good, so it holds true that being right is the enemy of being humble. Screwing up and being wrong, as well as tripping and falling, are all pathways to humility. They won’t automatically make you humble, but they can help you get there quickly.
Despite all the things we may have accomplished in the past, there will always be opportunities ahead. Our ideas, activities, outcomes and struggles do not make us better than anyone else, more correct than anyone else, or less faulty than anyone else. Being humble means acknowledging our mistakes, accepting responsibility for our inabilities, and working in earnest to make progress within ourselves as well as throughout the world around us.
Its a leap for some people to understand, but just to check whether you’re paying attention, I’ll say the reality for me: True humility means accepting our equality with everything else on Earth, including past and present, old and young, rich and poor, human and animal and insect and plant and dirt. All of it.
No matter what happens, in trying to change the world we should always really, really try to be respectful towards everyone, all the time. Humility is an absolute requirement for changing the world. Look at yourself honestly, strip yourself of your pride, puffed up chest and closed eyes. Look at yourself and what you’re trying to do and allow yourself to develop a humble attitude. Then, correct your defects, ask others for help and keep taking action to make the world a better place.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate our successes, but it does mean that we shouldn’t be arrogant or boastful. Don’t brag. Feel quiet confidence, because in the long run your character will speak for itself. C.S. Lewis once wrote “If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.” Understanding that is a pathway towards being humble.
6 Ways to Be Humble
Learn to be humble and always strive to become a better person.
Find your moral compass and strive for constant conscious contact with what matters most to you.
Stay humble while you’re trying to change the world.
Stop being selfish and start being selfless.
If you want to change the world, be humble.
Oh, and if you think you are humble, you’re not. If someone else tells you you’re humble, you lose it. If you are striving for humility everyday in every way in everything you’re doing, you cannot become humble.