A Moral and Ethical Responsibility (for Jackie)

Today I received another spectacular question from Jackie, an executive director of a nonprofit focused on youth involvement in the Northeast. Reflecting on the Freechild Project Measure of Social Change Led By and With Young People, Jackie made an important point about this work:

…[I]f our goal is “all community members equally make decisions, take action” can it come from an effort initiated by an adult, like what I’m trying to do? I like the quote from Lilla Watson, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together.” I’m afraid maybe what I’ve organized is trying to “help” youth. Do you have time to share any thoughts?

I had to mull this over all afternoon, and honestly I’m not fully satisfied with my resolution – I think there’s more here. But here’s how I replied:

All adults have a moral and ethical responsibility to engage young people throughout the communities we co-occupy. It is true that we mostly fail to live up to that standard; however, that does not make it okay or right. We live in an adultcentric society that is reliant on the ideas, knowledge, and actions of adults to make the world turn; by deliberately setting about engaging children and youth in equitable and sustainable roles we can begin to rectify the disengagement we so regularly thrust upon them.

In consideration to Lilla’s quote, we must measure our responses in a responsible fashion. When I first read it a long time ago I internalized it, thinking that my inability to bring actual students into the state education agency I worked in was a failure to students and myself. However, I have come to understand that systemic change requires that adult allies assume responsibility for advocacy in the absence of youth themselves. I learned to talk with students directly by traveling around the state and going to schools and having safe and supported conversations with them about school improvement. I then took their words – directly, without my interpretation – back to the agency in their absence. When space was created within the agency for young people I had students I could go directly to, who I knew were informed and engaged in the lives of their schools as well as the language of school improvement. This led to their self-representation being a sophisticated contribution to these opportunities rather than bringing under-informed, under-prepared and frankly, disingenuous student voice into the room.

I say this at the risk of sounding as if I’m trying to rationalize away the selective inclusion of youth; however, I think that there are appropriately varying responses that need to be considered according to particular circumstances. By “selective” I do not mean WHO; I mean HOW. We don’t give 16 year olds the keys to the car and expect them to teach themselves how to drive; we shouldn’t do that with Youth Voice. This is particularly true when we consider the implications of youth involvement: its about efficacy as much as rights. We know that children’s rights and youth rights conversations generally don’t carry a lot of water in organizations and agencies today; however, we also know that school improvement and program efficacy are important throughout our communities. So let’s qualify and quantify youth involvement, if that is what is going to get young people at the table. In order to deliver on that, though, we must be very intentional and deliberate.

It is alsincredibly important to acknowledge that the nature of the quote has to do with the difference between sympathy and empathy. By differentiating ourselves from the young people we serve by dissing our actions we are merely perpetuating the “otherness” of youth. Unfortunately, I am convinced this is the silent messaging of a lot of programs that promote the perception that young people have the program within them. Ironically, this further strengthens the segregation of youth, which in turn enforces the alienation a lot of young people feel from adults, effectively undoing any notion of civic engagement and community building we thought we were encouraging through that approach in the first place. Now, please don’t get me wrong – there is a place for young people to run their own activities. However, I think that is a compromised position, at best, particularly when the work is in context of improving our whole communities and not singularly the lives of children and youth. If we are to address community problems what is a more effective, equitable approach than engaging all members of that community as partners? That includes children, youth and adults.

I guess to sum it up Jackie, at the end of the day I am a proponent of a radical democracy that sees the youngest among us as the logical engines, advocates and allies – just the same as everyone else. Full support, full opportunity and full inclusion are the only outcomes that I will accept; however, I know that the road from here to there is bumpy, unscripted, and sometimes isn’t a road at all. That’s why your work is so important.

I would love to hear anyone else’s response to Jackie’s question or my response.

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

Wikipedia Articles

After spending three years and 100s of hours on the cause I am wrapping up my time served as a-lot-of-time Wikipedia editor. Contributing as “Freechild” and a few anonymous IP addresses, I have created more than 400 articles, including dozens about the issues I originally explored on the Freechild Project website. Following are some of those topics listed for your easy reference and contributions. Please make Wikipedia better by getting in there and monkey-wrenching around yourselves – and don’t be shy! Want to know how to write a good article, defeat an “article for deletion” proposal or find references about obscure topics related to young people? Respond to this post!

Here’s a list of some of the articles I created on Wikipedia about topics focused on young people:

Issues

Organizations

Individuals

Other stuff

This list is almost complete. Also, please understand that Wikipedia is a constantly moving target, and I cannot be held responsible for the content of the articles beyond the last time I edited them.

Please let me know what you think, and again, please let me know how I can support YOU contributing to Wikipedia!

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

Interesting Promotion

A new social bookmarking website called Mister Wong has interviewed me and is currently featuring my youth and student involvement-related bookmarks on their frontpage. Check it out. Following is the bio they included on the site:

At the age of 14 Adam Fletcher led an environmental justice campaign in his local high school. Since then he’s worked to engage youth voice in dozens of programs and hundreds of schools in communities across the United States and Canada. He founded two internationally-recognized programs focused on youth voice: SoundOut, promoting student voice in schools, and The Freechild Project, focused on engaging young people in social change. Today Adam works in the Washington State Department of Health and is a private consultant.

Its great to see the technology field embrace my use of interactive web technologies.

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Spreading the Word

One of the things that amazes me is the spreading awareness of my work. Despite my lackadaisical efforts at promoting myself, friends from across the U.S. and around the world continuously let me know they saw my writing, they heard my ideas or they ran into someone running a curriculum or program I wrote.

At the risk of appearing too self-promoting, here are some of the citations I’ve collected:

What particularly excites me is that this kind of usage is resultant from 5 years work in which I traveled nationwide and internationally to promote the message of youth voice and meaningful student involvement. The publications that have cited me have included my writing focused on cooperative games and volunteerism, too, which I have really liked writing.

The question for me is how I can assist others in promoting their messages, too. The Freechild Project listserve has been a fair tool for spreading international messages about youth voice; is there another avenue that can be as useful?

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Peeled Away Memory

Reflections of wispy white clouds
Peel away
Deep shiny blue paint on the plane’s engines
The heavens call us upward, onward towards our destinations.

159 lonely people, each in our own cocoon
I feel akin to my sister and brother travelers.
here are we going?
How did we get here?
This flight suddenly becomes a parable for the time you left me.

It wasn’t four months ago that you told me you’d had enough, that a year of being together should have produced more than it had. You were done, and I was alone, wondering questions that had no answers.

You are the ocean whose beaches I cannot see;
I can only remember that you were warm like Sherwood Beach on the wayward side of Oahu;
Mulling as the winter’s demolition of Ruby Beach on the Olympic Peninsula;
Content as that stretch of beach on Long Island Sound.
You confuse me.

Now I feel… I feel…

I hunger for the emotion that I granted control of my well-being to our relationship, knowing that it would be tumultuous.
I did not lose control, but I did sacrifice it occasionally as a gesture towards our sanctity and continuity.
I surrounded my emotional well-being to stay together with you- but wait- that is not true.

I didn’t give up anything to you

Traveling upwards
Onwards
I look out the window, reach my hand towards eternity,
and watch a movie
to avoid thinking of you.

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Home Alone and Social Change

What does staying home alone have to do with young people changing the world?

In today’s New York Times there is an article that proposes that anywhere between ages 11 and 14 is okay. The author acknowledges that 7, 8 and 9 year-olds stay home alone in working class homes, but doesn’t hesitate to add a “poo-poo” from an upscale New Yorker who thinks that an 11 year-old staying home with their younger siblings is terrible. At the middle of this article is the assumption that these conversations are best held without the people directly affected. If they are involved, the opinions of children and youth need to be vetted by parents.

In my experience, this is often the reasoning in the minds of youth workers and teachers when they share the same space as young people: “I am the best person to make decisions for kids, and if they tell me their thoughts I need to decide what to pay attention to, not them.” I know this because I am a dad, and I have considered these concerns. On the other hand, I have gone through the Cycle of Engagement with children and youth, including my own daughter. She and I have a great time, usually, doing the activities that she determines she needs to, and that I support her in doing.

So what can young people do when they do not feel supported? How can adults show their support and their judgment at the same time? Is it either/or, or with/and? What are other important questions that need to be thought about here?


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Thanks to the IDEC crowd

This is a quick note to say thanks to all the great folks who I met with at the International Democratic Education Conference going on this week in Vancouver, British Columbia. This was by far the most influential, well-timed and restoring conference I have ever participated in, and its largely due to the people who I allowed me to share so much time with them.

Specifically, thanks to Barry, Cass, Stacey, Melia, Yaacov, Carrie, Moe, Issac, Kirsten, Bob, and Rajeev. John, I look forward to talking with you again soon – you have a lot to teach me. I particularly want to acknowledge Jonah, whose powerful program and resonant dialog allowed me to find kin inside this strange community. I am really blown away by his work, and I’m glad he took my blows. Michelle and Elizabeth, thanks for playing with me – it was nice to see the city, have good convo, and just hang around with y’all. There were so many others, too, and all of you matter.

Finally, thank you Dana. When we talked in the city you opened the door for me and allowed me to walk into this area where I’ve always wanted to go. My experience at Evergreen gave me a lens; my deliberation gave me knowledge; and you gave me opportunity. Thanks man – let’s do something great.

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

My Review of “The Terror of Neoliberalism”

The Terror of Neoliberalism was written by Henry Giroux. Here is my review for The Freechild Project.

Every person who works with young people should know that politics is more than the Democrats or who you are voting for in the next election. Much more. Dozens of people have spent hundreds of hours speaking and thousands of pages writing to explain how politics underscores everything that we–as individuals and as a society–do every moment of every day of our lives. This kind of politics helps us make up our minds about what clothes to wear to work; what job to work at; who we work for; and, most importantly to youth workers and educators, what work we actually do.

A new book illustrates how a hellacious political reality is actually altering the society we live in right now. In The Terror of Neoliberalism: Authoritarianism and the Eclipse of Democracy, scholar/author Henry Giroux outlines how neoliberalism–the belief that the private sector should be wholly responsible for the public good–is about more than money. Throughout this book, Giroux explains how neoliberalism is actually a set of values, ideologies, and practices that is actively recreating America today–for the worse. Of course, CNN, the presidential elections, and the never-ending war in Iraq have proven that the political and economic reality of democracy in the US has changed. But Giroux exposes a more terrifying plot.

Neoliberalism is changing the very meaning of democracy today. Where democracy once depended on people becoming socially and politically involved throughout their communities, today that is an option. The schools, youth programs, community centers, and agencies where many young people spend the majority of their days have lost their place at the table of democratic importance. Do you want to understand the onslaught of high-stakes testing in schools? The defunding of programs for children and youth? The ongoing newspaper stories about so-called youth apathy? The seeming disregard for children and youth that fills our communities today?

Giroux cites the resistance against neoliberalism in all of its forms around the world today. The work of The Freechild Project, the mass movement against globalization, and the struggle for social justice in education each epitomize the struggle; but individually none summarizes the whole effort. Giroux writes, “…[Activism is] not limited to identity politics focused on particularized rights and interests.” Instead, the interests of young people and their communities, as well as those of the anti-globalization movement and many others are put into the larger context of building democracy. As Giroux explains,

“Democracy in this view is not limited to the struggle over economic resources and power; indeed, it includes the creation of public [places] where individuals can be educated as political agents equipped with the skills, capacities, and knowledge they need…”

With that premise established early in the book, Giroux proceeds to dissect and examine the realities of neoliberalism. He details the ability of the government to extinguish the capacity of society to make significant change in society by examining the effects of September 11, 2001, and the militarization of America. Giroux also outlines how neoliberalism has created a “new racism,” evidenced by the corporate powers that control law enforcement, education systems, and increasingly, community governments.

However, with his emphasis of the effects of neoliberalism across the spectrum, Giroux pulls a coup by reintroducing his ongoing analysis of youth in the US today with a chapter entitled, “Class Casualties: Disappearing Youth in the Age of Market Fundamentalism. What the chapter essentially proposes is that children and youth are subject to the whims of society, despite (or because of) the reality that young people “embody the project dreams, desires, and commitment of a society’s obligations to the future.” With this premise, Giroux sketches out how the American War Against Youth continues, as the programs and services which once benefited children and youth are slashed across the board, and as popular culture increasingly erases any optimistic expectations society may have of young people. Giroux explains,

“Rather than being cherished as a symbol of the future, youth are now seen as a threat to be feared and a problem to be contained… Youth are currently being framed as both a generation of suspects and a threat to public life.”

Giroux details how “the ongoing war against justice, freedom, citizenship, and democracy” is focused at young people today. He thoroughly explores how curfews, physical searches, profiling, and drug testing are heaved upon schools, youth programs, and communities as solutions to the “youth problem.” Poverty, childcare, healthcare, and education are all challenges that must be meant by an ever-growing private sector. Meanwhile, the number of children and youth who struggle to survive in low-income communities and communities of color grows, while federal policies increasingly legitimize “tough love” policies for all of America’s youth. Giroux also examines how juvenile detention for youth and lock-up rooms for 8-year-olds typify the norm, not the exception. This is neoliberalism at work in the lives of young people today.

Neoliberalism is seeping “into every aspect of American life… It thrives on a culture of cynicism, insecurity, and despair.” But the solution is as complex as the problem. “Democracy is too weak,” Giroux quotes Benjamin Barber as saying. When culture combines with politics to become entertainment (Giroux says think of the California governor), and when corporate powers– instead of the democracy– control the media, we’ve got a serious problem. And it is not an issue of whether education (and youth programs, or community organizations) has “become contaminated with politics; it is more importantly about recognizing that education is already a space of politics, power, and authority.”

Giroux proposes that we, as young people, youth workers, and educators “appropriate, invent, direct, and control” the politics within our efforts. Whether you facilitate after school activities, work with youth-led community organizing programs, or teach in a middle school classroom, you have the opportunity– or more appropriately, the responsibility– to “work against a politics of certainty, a pedagogy of censorship, and an institutional formation that closes down rather than opens up democratic relations.”

The one of his most directive moments yet, Giroux implores educators to “teach students to be skilled citizens… learn how to use the Freedom of Information Act, know constitutional rights, build coalitions, write policy papers, learn the tools of democracy, analyze social problems, or learn how to make a difference in one’s life through individual and social engagements.”

In the final chapter of this book Giroux deeply explores the implications of the work of Edward Said, renowned a renowned theorist, activist, and author. Giroux explores the implications of Said’s work on neoliberalism, sighting his recognition that “the war on terror has become a rationale for a war on democracy… against any movement that fights for justice, liberty, and equality…” Giroux offers Said’s life and work as a “model and inspiration for what it means to take back politics, social agency, collective struggle, and the ability to define the future.” He repeats Said’s call for “academics, students, and other cultural workers” to activate, mobilize, organize, and agitate society by “educating the public to think and act as active citizens in an inclusive democracy.”

But the conclusion the book holds the gauntlet over our heads, collectively, as people who are committed to young people, social change, and justice. Giroux cites Said’s call for groups to “put aside their petty squabbling over identities and differences and to join together collectively… [as a] coalition against those forces of totalitarianism lite, without anyone much noticing, or for that matter complaining.” This call for awakeness resonates with Dr. Martin Luther King’s message in his final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, where he wrote:

“One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. Today, our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.”

In The Terror of Neoliberalism, Henry Giroux reissues this call, reemphasizes Said’s mission, and issues a new demand for all of us to become active, engaged, and effective allies in our collective struggles against neoliberalism, and for democracy. It is up to you to hear this call.

My Review of “Against the Terror of Neoliberalism”

Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed by Henry Giroux. This is my review for The Freechild Project.

Teachers, youth workers, and parents who want to change the world: Read this book. Henry Giroux has written the essential book for anyone who wants to understand the powerful forces that are changing our world today, and the effects these forces are having on the most important people we work and live with everyday: children and youth. If you are tired of the over-simplified Fox News-style explanations of increased poverty, demoralized social fabric and machoistic militarism that come from most mainstream progressive sources, then Giroux’s new book is a great read. He puts everything into context: education reform, the American empire, and increased jailing all find their places in the mess of modern U.S. culture, and better yet, Giroux doesn’t hesitate to tell it like it is.

As a parent, an educator, and as a youth worker I recommend this book strongly to anyone yearning to understand why, how, and where our young people fit into – and need to fit into – the world today. Because of this book I am looking in my own “educated hope,” and am now recommitted to “make the promise of a democracy and a different future worth fighting for.” I hope you are, too.

New Interview

The latest edition of the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory’s Northwest Education magazine features an interview with me about meaningful student involvement. Its called “Students as Partners in Learning: Adam Fletcher Talks about Meaningful Student Involvement,” and its part of an entire (and awesome) issue dedicated to student voice, student ownership and student engagement in schools across the Northwest.

There is a great story about Greg Williamson and his work with Black Hills High School’s Student Engagement Team. I would recommend this entire issue to anyone interested in the practical, application avenues available to promote meaningful student involvement in schools today.

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