Adam Fletcher – The Freechild Project

Note: I just finished this interview for a community newspaper in New York City, and they gave me permission to repost it here. Enjoy

Adam Fletcher is the founder and coordinator of The Freechild Project, one of the world’s largest online repositories for information about social change led by young people. We talked with Adam over hot tea at a shop in Queens.

How did the idea for The Freechild Project come about?
The idea for The Freechild Project came about while I was serving as a “youth ambassador” in Washington State’s education agency as part of a program operated by a large national foundation located in Washington, DC. This foundation thought I should be promoting their traditional forms of youth involvement throughout communities, including youth councils, youth forums and youth on boards. I thought all that was cool, but not necessarily relevant to the young people in the types of communities where I grew up. I saw so many amazing examples of youth-led organizing, intergenerational activism and action-oriented service that I just couldn’t settle for the “company line” – I had to take it one step further. Rather than just limiting that to the state where I lived at the time, I decided it should be national and international.

When did you set up the program?
Set up The Freechild Project in 2001. In 6 years we have gone from zero to over 5,000 listings, 1,500 newsletter subscribers, and released a dozen publications.

What do you enjoy most about running Freechild?
What I enjoy most is finding really amazing examples I want to go interact with and then tell other people about. I have traveled across the United States, Canada, to Brazil, the UK and Ireland to work with some of them. My big plan is to take a year out to tour The Freechild Project into low-income communities around North America.

Are you involved much in the youth community across the United States?
Not particularly involved in anything here in New York City, yet, although I am looking forward to getting as deep in as possible over the next year. Went to my first school in the Bronx yesterday, the International School for Liberal Arts. They were deeply interested in empowering student voice, and I have trained their principal before. You really get a sense the school – especially the students – want to develop a wonderful learning space as quickly as possible. I will keep working with them through the end of the school year, at least.

What did you do last Saturday?
Last Saturday I actually moved into my apartment! I live in Floral Park, and have taken the last week to sink into my place, unpack boxes, and explore the area. It is wonderful to have space to spread out and a place that is peaceful enough to imagine, but still have the vibrant urgency of the city at my fingertips. I spent that night driving around Queens with a friend who helped me move out here, and yeah, it was a good day.

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

Hello New York City!

BIG NEWS! As of today I’m starting a new track here in New York City. I’ve accepted a position with a great organization and moved across the United States to work for a group called Learner-Centered Initiatives. For the last 15 years they have provided professional development programs for K-12 schools across the state, with great leadership and excellent programs. I am joining their team as the “student engagement” guy, and will be working closely with Communities for Learning and the Cloud Institute.

I WILL CONTINUE to operate SoundOut and Freechild, as well as offer training and technical assistance to schools and youth-serving organizations across the country. I especially want to dig further into the excellent schools and districts across New England and the East Coast who have shown a lot of interest in my work.

If you are in the city and want to get together, send me an email or give me a call. Otherwise, wish me luck! It turns out NYC is a pretty big city to a guy used to the Wild West…

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

And Youth Go On…

Despite all the changes, all of the technologies, all the activities and all the news of the world, youth go on. Everything that I’ve read has shown me that young people have existed for all of time, whether recognized for their unique status in society or for their integral contributions to the good of the whole, youth have always been there.

I go on as well. Starting today I am rededicating this blog: Here I will continue to share, examine, critique and explore young people in the world today. Expect more of the same commentary, as well as news, links and other information about young people, youth activism, social change, student engagement and youth empowerment. If you think this has been whiley or critical in the past, you haven’t seen anything yet.

Look for more from here on out – and send me more, too. I’m willing to stand out if you’re reading. Thanks for that support.

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

Hip Hop Saves Youth

Another example of Freechild on the cutting edge: ABC News in Australia has posted a story about a hip hop project in Melbourne that is credited with helping young offenders change their lives. You might remember that about five years ago Freechild posted a webpage about Hip Hop Activism, emphasizing the power engaging young people in hip hop culture to create social change.

I say that while I’m listening to Talib Kweli, Brooklyn MC whose music always provides inspiration for my action. I would encourage anyone with an interest in hip hop to give him a listen, especially his new album Ear Drum.

Yeah. It’ll be interesting to see if the centralized hip hop movement will yet come through with anything significant – only time tells, right?

For more information, see these articles: Bay-area hip hop activism, Jeff Chang’s website, Music for the Movement, Hip Hop Uprising, and this Open letter from Saul Williams to Oprah Winfrey. “Radical” find for the day? Track down and listen to The Coup and Dead Prez do “Get Up”. Yeah.

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So-Called Juvenile Terrorism

We live in a time when being labeled a terrorist can lead a person to be indefinitely locked up in prison as a preventative measure designed to keep terrorists off the street. That’s what Guantanamo is for, and that’s what Mahar Arar suffered.

Mother Jones magazine has followed the long-standing diligence of the National Youth Rights Association to expose what they call a “School of Shock” where students who are labeled autistic, mentally retarded, and emotionally troubled are routinely treated like prisoners at Guantanamo, complete with food deprivation, isolation and electric shocks.

Out of the United Kingdom comes a story that proclaims that all “teenagers drinking, taking drugs and being aggressive” are “juvenile terrorists.” This from the country that brought us a large and damning study that shows how ephebiphobia – the fear of youth – is actually driving people to move away from the places they grew up. Oh, and let me correct myself – its not one story, or two, but dozens. Its not a new problem, either, and its not particularly English: a 2003 book exploring film making in the U.S. identified more than modern one film that uses “juvenile terrorism” as a plot point.

Now the American Youth Policy Forum thinks schools and youth development organizations should learn how to reach disaffected young people from the U.S. military, which is reportedly effective at doing that. Karen Pittman from the Forum for Youth Investment is helping them. Its discouraging to know that the leaders who purport to lead this field support institutions that systematically disenfranchise all of their members, meanwhile expecting organizations to learn from the very legion responsible for Abu Ghraib. That’s great.

KIDS ARE NOT TERRORISTS! EMPOWERMENT AND PREVENTION AND TREATMENT – NOT IMPRISONMENT AND DETENTION AND PUNISHMENT. Its so frustrating to have to consistently see this type of regressive, punitive and destructive thinking tearing at the heart of young people today. On top of the standardization they live in every single day, with the testing and the laws and the advertising and the programming directed at their every waking moment, now more than ever young people are the targets of demonization and alienation within the places they live! We’ve got to stop that. Got to.

Other items worth noting:

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Stop the Machine

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free the machine will prevented from working at all. – Mario Savio

I can think of no more suitable quote to express my frustration today than this one. There is so much that needs changed in this field where I work, and I need more avenues for action.

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One, But Not The Same

Question of the Day: How can adults realize that they are different enough from youth without thinking youth are so different that they cannot relate to youth in any form? Maybe one of the greatest challenges of building youth/adult partnerships is the continuous point that so many people like to draw out and get hung up on: We’re one, but we’re not the same.

On one hand, it’s right: youth are different! Their intellectual and emotional capacities, cultural norms, and social interactions evolve with every passing day, and because of that we can easily see that young people are different. Sociologist Mike Males explores a lot of these real and perceived differences in his writing, often demonstrating that differences between the racial and economic composition of young people today and previous generations leads to ephebiphobia. Henry Giroux, Kathleen Cushman and John Holt do this to some extent, as well.

But wait! That’s wrong – youth are part of us all! Every single person on this planet who is an adult has been a youth before. The experiences of young people vary so much, but the notion remains the same: For a period of our lives, each person is all commonly afflicted by the hallmarks of youth, which change from society to society, culture to culture. Youth aren’t so different from us that we cannot relate to them. No matter how we choose to relate, we all co-occupy this gigantic ball of Earth, and we’ve all got to learn to change it. Why not do this together?

Somewhere in the middle of that is a lot of tension related to adultism, adultcentrism and adultocracy. Its easy to admonish people for not understanding each other, particularly when we refuse to see difference. But there are differences that must be acknowledged and embraced. All that I’m looking for today is to stop the tendency of so many adults to make young people so different from ourselves.

Thinking about my previous post where I beg for a new vision for youth leadership, I realize that maybe another tension is in here: Adults who think they “know” youth and “get it” are the ones who seek out and readily interact with the youth who act most like themselves. Ooow, that’s a tough statement right there. Question of the Day: How can adults realize that they are different enough from youth without thinking youth are so different that they cannot relate to youth in any form?

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My Learning Community Grows

These last few weeks my blog posts have been on the road, as I’ve traveled almost 5000 miles to and from the Northeast on two different trips. During these two trips, both at the insistence of my friend and colleague Giselle Martin-Kniep. I met Giselle last year during a project we were both working on with the New York State Student Support Services Office.

Earlier this year she invited me to become a fellow with the Center for the Study of Expertise in Teaching and Learning, recently renamed Communities for Learning. A few weeks ago I joined the C4L crew, along with about 40 other fellows, in the woods of rural Connecticut to explore the power of working in a cross-field learning community among education-related folks. I learned a lot, mixing and mashing ideas with K-12 teachers, principals, school coaches, higher ed faculty and others who simply “get it” on a lot of levels. I also presented the meaningful student involvement frameworks to folks, and was able to learn from the experiences of a wide range of educators from across New York State. Very cool. (Note: I’m the first out-of-state fellow in C4L; everyone else is from New York.) I spent more uninterrupted time concentrating on my work than I had in a long time, and for the most part unconstrained by the stuff that shares my daily attention. It was awesome.

If that weren’t enough, the next week I was able to spend three days outside of Boston with Peter Senge, one of the “Top Strategists of the Century”. With Giselle’s prompting, I was invited by Jaimie Cloud of the Cloud Institute to attend the Society for Organizational Learning‘s Core Course, facilitated by Senge to launching a “National Learning Community of Schools and Communities that Learn for a Sustainable Future”. While that seems pretty high-minded, it actually was. Senge strikes me as someone who spends a lot of time thinking and creating high-minded solutions to issues that strike much of society. Check out his book called The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization to find out more about his theories and work.

I’m continually amazed by the range and possibilities of this work around meaningfulness in schools, and I’m concerned that it apparently hasn’t struck folks more powerfully before now. Giselle, Peter and Jaimie all show me that the doors are wider than I’ve imagined, and I am hopeful for a powerful future for this work.

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Robbing Perspectives

One of the biggest problems with standardizing education is that by creating standards – concrete, non-variable, measurable learning outcomes – educators actively ignore the nature of childhood. Young people are inherently moving, increasing and decentralizing their conceptions of the world. Standing them still and making them look in one direction should be illegal, because it robs children and youth of their very nature: That of the constantly evolving and transformative creature.

My mom put together a program in North Omaha called “Young Time”. She believed that the low-income kids in our neighborhood were forced to grow up too young, too fast:

  • Commercialism promotes crass-consumerism, often driving low-income young people to want things beyond their means, leading to early (and poor) employment experiences and dissatisfaction with family and community norms.
  • Empty homes where moms and dads were working full-time, two jobs and more drew many young people indoors to babysit during times when outdoor play could be happening.
  • A hollow sense of community among neighbors that leads to distrust and alienation, driving children and youth to loose contact with neighbors, and forcing neighbors to constantly survey youth and children throughout the community.

Anytime that socio-economic backgrounds are homogeneous with a community the perspectives of young people are going to become and stay static. That robs young people, whose perspectives are inherently moving. Let’s aim to be dynamic in learning. Standardized education assumes that there is learning – any learning – that is stagnant and worthy of learning. That there are base skills and knowledge that every student should learn. While I value the ability to read, I don’t believe that every young person needs to know deep mathematical theorems and scientific hypothesis. Education that forces students to learn is bound to fail.

Similarly, there are a number of youth programs that do the same. However, perhaps more dubious than schools, these programs don’t have the federal mandates or the sense of disconnected democracies that educational systems have. Instead, these programs are operated by nonprofit organizations that are effectively little tyrant organizations: While they are being hogtied by foundations, these nonprofits have chosen to give into the demands of funders and simply be held accountable for standards that simply do not apply to them.

Let’s not rob the perspectives of young people – let them have their views from wherever they stand. Those perspectives are valid, valuable and powerful.

Rereading this post, I’m reminded of Maya Angelou’s quote:

“We are all creative, but by the time we are three of four years old, someone has knocked the creativity out of us. Some people shut up the kids who start to tell stories. Kids dance in their cribs, but someone will insist they sit still. By the time the creative people are ten or twelve, they want to be like everyone else.”

The essence of recognizing the evolving capacities of the child is seeing that everyone is a creative genius – and we must learn to embrace that. We have so much energy!

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My Background in Translation

There was a period of time, about ten years ago, when any discussion of “youth rights” automatically got me fired up. In 1997 I was working as an “adult living skills” instructor in a program for foster and homeless youth in Lincoln, Nebraska. That year I re-read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed for the second time, and still didn’t understand most of it. I also read Jonathan Caldwell Holt’s Escape from Childhood – which I absorbed and felt deeply.

Throughout Escape from Childhood, Holt extensively surveys the notion and reality of youth rights – although his analysis embraces children, as well. He pounds the nail on the head over and over, discussing the abuses of schools, families, government agencies, children’s rights advocates, even banks. Everything in it – the anecdotes, the powerful points – they all resonated with some part of my experience, and I was completely excited.

I sat on those thoughts and let them percolate over the next several years while I served two more AmeriCorps terms, coordinated a ropes challenge course, supervised a youth floor in a drug rehab center, worked at a nature center and coordinated a service learning program. Percolate. Then, in 2000, I was hired by Washington’s state education agency to promote youth involvement. It was that year in the national youth voice movement and service learning field that I saw Holt’s ideas come to fruition, with nominal but present efforts abounding designed to involve young people more thoroughly in the decisions that affect them most. I was, and am still, critical of these programs, because I believe they are mostly devoid of critical consciousness in general; however, I took hope.

So I started to use Holt’s language. Conferences, teacher workshops, state agency meetings, anywhere people were discussing youth engagement, youth voice or youth empowerment I mentioned youth liberation, youth oppression and youth rights. I built the original Freechild Project websites from this perspective as well. As you might guess, I quickly ran into brick walls. Matter of fact, I ran into them over and over.

These trials-by-fire led me, slowly but surely, to adapt my approaches to accommodate to my given surroundings. Later I will write more about how these experiences molded my work with SoundOut, and still inform what I do. But today I’m concern about translating for people so deeply indoctrinated by the ephibiphobics and adultcentrists that they simply do not see the realities young people faced today. Any insight is appreciated.

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