Youth Engagement in Ohio

There are learnings about youth engagement everywhere there are young people, and every learning is different and unique, as well as similar and familiar. For the last few days, I’ve been at Miami University in Ohio learning about youth engagement with adult practitioners here. This is the  at OPEC (Ohio Promoting WEllness & ReCovery) Conference, an annual gathering of youth workers, teachers, prevention/intervention specialists, counselors, administrators, executives and others who are involved throughout the field. Its a tremendous gathering, and I’m humbled to be here.

Today, I facilitated a 9-hour seminar focused on Project-Based Learning. It was an exciting day, filled with so much collaborative learning and so many generative processes that my I left with a full heart and amazed mind. Excitement bubbled throughout the day, with almost 50 people creating community, connecting with their peers and teaching each other the positive, powerful potential of Project Based Learning. It was exciting!

One of the most powerful activities we did was creating new learning about youth engagement specifically. After sharing our definitions, I explained that my research and practice has shown that youth engagement is simply young people doing the act of choosing the same thing over and over. Either it happens unconsciously or consciously, meaningful or otherwise, good or challenging. After talking about that for a while, we answered some key questions about youth engagement. I want to share the group’s responses to some of those questions here. Following are six questions, and the responses to our brainstorming.

 

1. How Does Youth Engagement Happen?

  • Slowly
  • When adults give youth a voice and choice
  • With buy-in from everyone
  • Persistence
  • Organically
  • As a process
  • Opportunity
  • By having opportunities to connect and feel empowered
  • Authenticity of the leader/ adult ally/ mentor
  • Showing them that they matter
  • After much head banging and the sound of crickets chirping
  • As a facilitator: I listen… I create space/ activity… and fun!!
  • By being a living example of how life can be and all the possibilities that exist
  • By giving responsibility/ say to target group
  • Adults getting their egos out of the way
  • With support of the community
  • Buy-in from adults
  • With consistency
  • Give them the opportunity
  • With patience, time and comittment
  • Perspective

 

2. Why Does Youth Engagement Matter?

  • Help youth find their purpose
  • Positive use of time
  • Youth are invested in something bigger than themselves
  • Hope for the future
  • They’re our kids!
  • Creates meaningful engagement for a lifetime
  • Avoid wasting time, energy and money on a strategy that doesn’t work
  • Matters for the future
  • Life change
  • Change to happen
  • It enhances the community (is better)
  • Empowerment
  • Better health and social outcomes in the community/ relationships/ individual
  • Higher protective factors, fewer risk factors
  • So they feel like they belong and matter
  • Future healthy adults
  • Because no matter who you are or where you come from every person has value and can contribute their voice to make a positive difference in their community
  • To ensure the youth can be productive citizens in the community
  • Empower the next generation
  • Create positive change
  • To understand their identity
  • Community change
  • For society!! and what’s to come
  • Our humanity is dependent on it
  • Students do not always know what’s best
  • It matters because it redirects their energy, it lets them know they matter and gives them a sense of purpose

3. When Does Youth Engagement Happen?

  • When we listen to our youth
  • When we really care
  • When a connection is made
  • Daily and when students initiate with direction
  • When you make it relate to them
  • When they can express their passion
  • When youth are in pain looking for something different/ more than their current experience and situation
  • All the time!
  • Throughout a lifetime
  • When you people are part of the decision-making process
  • When we create the space or join it!
  • When prevention folks put in extra effort
  • When I stay out of it!
  • When they are able to take possession (own it)
  • When they are listened to
  • When adults stop talking long enough to listen
  • When adults listen
  • When youth believe in what they are doing
  • When kids are treated as experts in the topic or “them”
  • When youth see beyond themselves

 

4. What Does Youth Engagement Do?

  • Encourages
  • Reduces abuse
  • Empowers youth
  • Improves communication
  • Leads the pack
  • Creates opportunity
  • “Plants seeds of change”
  • Changes directions of ones’ life
  • Empower!
  • Build life skills
  • Fosters leaders and followers for all sectors and levels of society
  • Creative outcomes
  • Moves mountains
  • Access most valuable resources: Our Youth!
  • Helps to ensure we create youth who will change the world
  • Provides vision
  • Builds relationship
  • Connects generations
  • Gives knowledge
  • Builds confidence
  • (can) Creates safe space
  • Empowers young people
  • Builds skills
  • Offers hope
  • Creates change agents in the community

 

5. Who Is Youth Engagement For?

  • The City of Columbus, families, and the continuous business growth of our city (purposeful, financially sound, etc.)
  • Communities, families and peers
  • Me
  • Everyone!
  • Middle and high school youth in Union County but also all youth and youth workers
  • For all the youth in the community and adults involved with them
  • All people invested in young people
  • Students of Lucas County – ALL of them!
  • Community
  • Whole community
  • Local, national and global communities
  • Inner city – low income families and youth! As well as the program facilitators and mentors
  • Summit and Medina County students
  • The community
  • The rural Appalachian youth covering 2,600 square miles we serve in Ross, Pickaway, Pike, Fayette and Highland Counties
  • Middle and high school students in Clement Co.
  • Afterschool program at middle school – 70% free/ reduced lunch

6. Where Does Youth Engagement Happen

  • Anywhere!
  • School
  • Summer camps
  • Online
  • Texting
  • In relationship
  • Where there is youth!
  • Family night engagement activities with afterschool students
  • Community
  • After school
  • In school
  • At home
  • Social network
  • Anywhere that you show intentional use of self
  • Wherever they are
  • Afterschool and in the community
  • With our communications
  • In our neighborhood
  • In the hearts and minds of our youth
  • Now – anywhere!
  • Across the social ecological model
  • Where there is love
  • Coalition meetings
  • School, home, anywhere
  • Parent-free areas (not the good youth engagement)
  • Everywhere
  • Anywhere there are youth
  • Where there is need and the desire to make a difference
  • Everywhere
  • Wherever the message and connection happens
  • In the streets
  • Afterschool youth center
  • In our homes
  • School
  • Summer camps
  • Online
  • Texting
  • In relationships

 

There was so much information shared in this GREAT seminar! Watch for another post coming with a great artistic creation by the group.

 

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Elsewhere Online

Youth Engagement at Home

Youth engagement starts at home. This post offers some of my thoughts about that reality, as well as steps to ensuring that youth engagement happens in your family. I also share some of the experiences I’ve had with youth engagement at home.

Basic Thoughts

These are barriers to Youth Engagement at home identified by youth and parents in my last workshop.
These are some barriers to Youth Engagement at home identified by youth and parents in my last workshop.

I’ve started defining the word engagement as choosing the same thing over and over. There are many kinds of youth engagement at home:

  • Psychological engagement
  • Physical engagement
  • Emotional engagement
  • Intellectual engagement
  • Social engagement
  • Cultural engagement

…and so on. Within their homes, youth can be engaged with their families, including parents, siblings or other family members; their physical spaces like their bedrooms or backyards; activities like housework or video games; feelings like love and security; ideas like belonging and importance, and; many other things.

With all those possibilities, its easy to see how youth engagement starts at home. The elements of our family life determine how we engage with the world beyond our front door, including at school, in our communities, at work, in public, and everywhere else. If youth experience crappy engagement at home, youth are more likely to be disengaged in their lives – not always, all the time, but often in many ways.

Through my research and practice, I’ve found there are three things all parents can do to build youth engagement at home:

  • Listen to youth. Your offspring are yearning to be heard, no matter what age, what space and what condition your family is in. They might not show that desire, they might act the opposite of caring, and they might not be aware they have a voice—but they want to be heard.
  • Take action with youth. Don’t stop at listening to your kids—actually do things with them! Make, build, clean, connect and show your care and connection by being with youth directly, in each others’ spaces and sharing each others’ time.
  • Think about it. Youth engagement at home requires critical thinking about yourself, your parenting, your beliefs and your future. Is this how you want youth to live? Are these the things you want to do in your family? Be critical of your parenting and take action to change it.

As parents, we all screw up. The difference between the conscious parent and the unthinking parent is the energy they spend becoming more fair, just and equitable. We don’t want equality between youth and parents, we want equity. There’s a difference, and youth engagement at home makes us think about it.

My Experience

These are questions I asked related to Youth Parent Partnerships.
These are questions I asked related to Youth Parent Partnerships.

I’m a dad for four kids between the ages of 10 and 15. They are beautiful, strong-hearted kids full of all the challenge, vigor, suffering and joy of youth, and I love them. However, I screw up too, and I’ve learned to accept that. I learn a lot from my experience as a parent.

If you’ve followed me for a while, you’ve heard the tenants of my life: Childhood homelessness; family PTSD; Vietnam veteran father; poverty-stricken family that moved into low-income lifestyle; generational depression; minority neighborhood background; academic struggles; found my soulcraft at age 14; only kid in family to graduate high school on time; first in family to earn a bachelors degree; built my life’s work from The Freechild Project and SoundOut focused on youth engagement and Meaningful Student Involvement; wrote 50+ publications; spoke and taught and consulted around the world; still screwing up every day.

Throughout 2018, I’ve been facilitating the Parent-Youth Connections Seminar in King County, Washington, where Seattle is surrounded by suburbs, exurbs and more in all of its explosive boom-era angst and glory. Along the way, the community has chosen to investments on infants, children and youth throughout the county. One of these investments is through the King County Superior Courts, and its the program I’m facilitating.

For several years, the project taught parents and youth about youth development and adolescent brain development as a diversion to prevent youth incarceration. A successful project, it operated for several years and successfully kept a lot of young people out of jail.

Early this year, I was contracted to facilitate the program. In my initial contact with the courts, I explained that rather than taking the tact they’d traditionally espoused, I was going to veer toward youth engagement. These are some of my findings so far. There’ve been more than 100 participants in these 12-hour sessions so far, coming from a variety of racial, ethnic, cultural, linguistic and economic backgrounds.

Stay tuned as I learn more and start distilling all this into actionable change. My first product related to youth engagement at home is called the Parent Youth Engagement Seminar, and I’ll be launching it soon.


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Systems of Youth Engagement

Our society is filled with systems. A lot of them affect youth. A system is any group of coherent connections resulting in a predictable result.

Whether we’re talking about obvious systems like education, health care and juvenile justice, or less tangible systems like culture and families, it is important to understand how each of these systems affects youth engagement.

Systems are made of many factors, including people, policies, procedures and possibilities. There are eight factors in the graphic below.

The systems of youth engagement include formal and informal, obvious and subtle and practical as well as theoretical spaces. This graphic shows where and how they might exist.
The systems of youth engagement include formal and informal, obvious and subtle and practical as well as theoretical spaces. This graphic shows where and how they might exist.

While I’ve worked with schools, nonprofits, government agencies and other orgs over the last 17 years, I’ve explored how and these systems operate. I’ve seen “under the hood” in dozens of communities, watched the bad and the good arise in times of crisis and seasons of apparent ease… and every time I’m reminded of the systems at work.

Wherever they’re sustainably connected, youth engagement happens in systems.

  • Education—Education systems are formal and informal, apparent and subversive. Youth engagement starts in the space where they’re learning.
  • Sports—The youth athletics system includes rules, teams, scores, morals, codes and more
  • Culture—The cultural system all youth belong to includes obvious and not-obvious rules, behavior, attitudes and beyond
  • Economics—The youth employment system exchanges goods and services for money and more

Other systems of youth engagement include school, faith, justice, health, family, civic action, social services, mental health, recreation, or other systems, ALL youth EVERY where can experience the positive, powerful potential of youth engagement. Let’s explore that together!

Systems of Youth Engagement by Adam Fletcher

If you’re interested in understanding systems of youth engagement more, check out this activity.

I’m offering a new series of training and speeches on Systems of Youth Engagement. If you’re interested in learning how I can help you, your organization or your community, call me today at (360)489-9680 or send me an email. Want to learn on your own? See the links below.


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The EGOsystem/ECOsystem dynamic as illustrated by Adam Fletcher
This article, “EGOsystems or ECOsystem in Education” by Adam Fletcher is available.

Part 6: Resources on Transformative Youth Engagement in Juvenile Justice

Juvenile justice and youth voice by Adam Fletcher for The Freechild Project
Juvenile justice and youth voice

There are many resources on juvenile justice in the world, and I’ve spent almost 20 years collecting tools for youth engagement. Following is a collection of resources I’ve identified that address transformative youth engagement in juvenile justice. Do you have resources, tools, examples or more to share? Leave me a comment below!

Resources


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Part 5: What It All Comes Down To

Juvenile justice and youth voice by Adam Fletcher for The Freechild Project
Juvenile justice and youth voice

Transformative youth engagement is about building the capacity of individual people to become meaningfully and sustainably connected within themselves and to the world around them. Every person has affective and cognitive scaffolding within them; transformative youth engagement activates those abilities. The simplest way to judge whether you are engaging youth in transformative ways is to see whether diverse youth—youth of color, English language learners, immigrant students—are experiencing positive, purposeful and empowering changes through juvenile justice. If they are not, your approach can become more transformative and engaging.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Are there any activities in the juvenile justice system that don’t benefit all youth, their families, or their communities?
  • What activities seem to engage all youth, connecting them to the world within and around them?
  • What actions have you noticed that seem to be most engaging to youth within and outside of the juvenile justice system?

Educator Zaretta Hammond suggests three avenues that juvenile justice can adapt for transformative youth engagement: Gamify it; Make it social, and; Storify it. Can you imagine these approaches applied consistently throughout the juvenile justice system? What could gamifying diversion even look like? How can we positively making juvenile justice more social? If youth could storify their experiences as part of their experiences within the justice system, how would that affect their outcomes? Not being able to envision these changes is a barrier to transformative youth engagement in juvenile justice today. I think these are some of the most exciting prospects for transformative youth engagement today.

From my scan of the field, the transformative potential of youth engagement is underexplored, underemployed and underacknowledged within juvenile justice today. By activating youth voice throughout the system; encouraging youth empowerment through diversion and sentencing, and; fostering youth/adult partnerships throughout the entire system, we can change the hearts and minds of young people who’ve been implicated in wrongdoing. We can also change what their hands and feet do in the future. Isn’t that the ultimate goal?

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Part 4: Barriers to Transformative Youth Engagement

Juvenile justice and youth voice by Adam Fletcher for The Freechild Project
Juvenile justice and youth voice

The barriers to transformative youth engagement in juvenile justice occur in three ways: Individual barriers, Cultural barriers, and Structural barriers.

  • The individual barriers are shown by youth and adults, and may include attitudes, perspectives and mindsets related to youth engagement.
  • Cultural barriers can include the shared beliefs, common values and group think apparent throughout and around the juvenile justice system.
  • The structural barriers to transformative youth engagement include the policies and procedures, the decision-making processes, and the control and authority throughout the entire juvenile justice system.

Following are some details on the individual barriers to transformative youth engagement.

Overcoming Individual Barriers

There are several ways that youth and adults can behave like barriers to transformative youth engagement. They include Forcefulness, Silencing, Whitewashing, Showboating, Pedestaling, Heroism, Lowballing, and Sockpuppeting. Here’s what those can look like:

  • Forcefulness: Individuals—including youth and adults—can be barriers when they try to force youth to be engaged, undermining the best intentions.
  • Silencing: One of the most insidious ways that people can undermine transformative youth engagement can be very overt and/or very subversive, sometimes at the same times. Silencing happens when the voices of youth are intentionally shut down, denied, neglected or repressed.
  • Whitewashing: This happens when people pretend that all voices are represented by one voice, particularly if that voice does not and cannot effectively represent their peers. Its the enemy of diversity, pluralism and uniqueness.
  • Showboating: When individuals are allowed to continuously, selfishly and egotistically highlight their own skills, talents, or abilities, they are showboating. All voices should honor the contributions and abilities of all people everywhere all the time.
  • Pedestaling: Romanticizing youth voice or making someone always right is putting them on a pedestal and pretending they’re infallible. Transformative youth engagement has disagreement and mistakes, and models consensus and collaboration.
  • Heroism: In a room with too few representatives, a particularly loud voice standing above all others can sound brave and unique, especially when they represent an under-acknowledged majority. However, just because a young person talks to adults in a way that makes adults listen to them does not make them heroic or a superhero. It makes them well-versed. We have to make room for young people who do not please or appeal to adults so easily.
  • Lowballing: Some institutions, organizations and individuals are calling for youth to be informants to adult decision-making in juvenile justice. They want youth voice to be heard and a seat at the table for youth. However, there’s a lot more at stake for youth than simply being able to talk or be represented somewhere. In reality, youth are the reason for juvenile justice, and they can be fully integrated into the operations of every single decision affecting them.
  • Sockpuppeting: Some adults give youth words and ideas and issues, and expect youth to share them accordingly. That’s suckpuppeting. Transformative youth engagement requires safe and supportive environments for authentic youth voice to be engaged.

Once we begin acknowledging how we act as barriers to transformative youth engagement, we can begin addressing these behaviors throughout the juvenile justice system.

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Part 3: The Roots of Transformation and Moving Into Action

Juvenile justice and youth voice by Adam Fletcher for The Freechild Project
Juvenile justice and youth voice

Youth voice can address a lot of issues throughout the juvenile justice system using a variety of approaches. Some of the juvenile justice system components that transformative youth engagement is happening through include policy, programming, multi-systems approaches and legal defense. The issues youth voice is addressing include mental health; treatment; education; re-entry issues.

With efforts nationwide to ban youth solitary confinement, stop physical violence in youth prisons, stop the sentencing of youth as adults, and end police resistance to transforming juvenile justice roles for youth are increasingly obvious within, throughout, and surrounding the system. Working within and outside the system, there are courts, attorneys, nonprofits, schools and other organizations working together to affect the hearts, minds and heads of court-involved youth.


Moving Into Action in Washington State

In many places nationwide, this work is neither brand-new or a silver bullet. However, it is essential and the future. The following examples show how transformative youth engagement is happening right now in juvenile justice settings where I live.

“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.” – Rachel Jackson

FEDERAL WAY: In Federal Way, Washington, there has been a growing amount of violence in the city, including more gun deaths, beatings, and domestic violence. Many youth being implicated in these crimes are brown and black, low-income and frequently, under-educated. A program from the Federal Way Youth Action Team is called Helping Youth Perform Excellence, or HYPE. Believing that community members can make a positive difference in the lives of local youth, HYPE empowers local community members to take action to create a safe and healthy community with young people who are involved. Learning diverse adult living skills, establishing authentic mentorships with local adult allies, and building support for each other within the program and beyond, HYPE is challenging the status quo and working to end youth violence in their city. This program is transforming juvenile justice by making discussions personal, promoting strong community connections, and building a sustainable infrastructure for changing Federal Way today and in the future.

SEATTLE: A program led by the Seattle-based Vera Institute for Justice works in three cities nationwide to build educational success and workforce training for youth who are at risk of juvenile justice system involvement or who are already in the system. Vera’s Center on Youth Justice, or CYJ, has a program called Youth Futures that aims to help build youth stability through employment. Building the skills and support youth need to achieve long-term success, the program focuses on youth living in or returning to high-crime, high-poverty communities in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. Through comprehensive, individualized services linked to workforce development, education, and training programs, the lives of youth are transformed from the beginning of young peoples’ involvement in juvenile justice. Assigned and volunteering to participate in Youth Futures, the lives of these youth are changed forever through their involvement.

WASHINGTON STATE: Reflecting a commitment to address the entire system of youth engagement, officials in the State of Washington’s Department of Social and Human Services have adopted a statewide cultural competence plan that positions youth voice as vital to youth at the family, neighborhood, local, regional, and state levels. Within a standard focused on embedding diversity practices, they seek to expand youth voice in order to, “Infuse culturally and linguistically appropriate goals, policies, and management accountability throughout the organization’s planning and operations.”

The Washington State Juvenile Rehabilitation United Youth Council program, or UYC, is a new youth voice mechanism for youth to share their knowledge, ideas, concerns and opinions of youth specifically in regards to improving the juvenile justice system. There is a UYC at the three main juvenile justice facilities in Washington State. Youth who have successfully completed the application process join the UYC at their facility; then, a few of the local UYC participants make up a statewide youth committee to inform state-level decision-making. The UYCs focus on what’s working and what’s not working regarding their juvenile justice experience. They also share input on treatment processes and outcomes from rehabilitation; current and future policies; and process re-design.

SEATTLE: More than a decade ago, the ROYAL (Raising Our Youth As Leaders” Project began fighting to reduce disproportionate minority confinement and recidivism in King County by fostering radically powerful youth/adult partnerships. They hire adults to serve in the traditional role of mentors, youth participants wanted more than friends. The original participants sought critical feedback, substantive insight and meaningful opportunities to connect with adults from the communities they lived in. The Royal Project wanted to fill that desire by positioning adults as life coaches who would instruct youth about life, teach them business principles, and help them set and work toward goals. Ultimately, the positions are powerful youth-adult partnerships that significantly change the lives of many participants.

Many programs fostering transformative youth engagement are explicitly antiracist, and/or led by people of color. They provide community alternatives to juvenile incarceration, often giving Black people, Asian, Hispanic/Latino, American Indian, and Pacific Islanders direct control over the structures created to address youth misbehavior. Community-led, community-owned responsibility for their own children matters.

KING COUNTY: Other approaches insist on addressing juvenile justice as a public health issue. In King County, Washington, that means that officials are embracing strategies such as rather than spending time incarcerated while awaiting trial, youth can:

  • Work with counselors to deal with trauma in their lives
  • Attend workshops with parents to learn new skills
  • Other paths to avoid ending up in the adult justice system in the future.

It means that officials will look at the entire ecology of a young person when considering their offenses and the results, and because of that they work with the goal of zero detention for youth, also called “Deinstitutionalization of Status Offenders” or DSO. This movement to end youth incarceration is inherently anti-adultist because it places youth wellbeing in tandem with adult intentions.


As the stories above show, action for transformative youth engagement should focus on fostering youth/adult partnerships. Focused on engaging young people with their communities, these are intentional relationships emphasizing equity between youth and adults, and building social justice throughout the lives of young people. It should focus on supporting youth voice, which is any expression of any youth anywhere, at any time, for any reason. Creating safe, supportive environments for youth voice within the juvenile justice system is important, as well as fostering the adult support needed to sustain and expand youth voice in appropriate, relevant and meaningful ways. Finally, transformative youth engagement should expand, deepen, criticize and necessitate youth empowerment throughout the system. Youth empowerment “is not a process, a product, or an outcome. Instead, youth empowerment comes from the individual attitudes, shared cultures, and everyday structures that children and youth share with adults throughout society.” Instead, it happens when the capacities of youth are enhanced, including their inner-strength, self-respect, motivation, future-thinking, and abilities to connect with people outside of themselves.

Unfortunately, all of this doesn’t just organically happen or authentically sustain itself. There are real roadblocks standing in the way, and they must be addressed.


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Part 2: Transformative Youth Engagement, Not Reform

Juvenile justice and youth voice by Adam Fletcher for The Freechild Project
Juvenile justice and youth voice

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.


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Part 1: New Juvenile Justice and Transformative Youth Engagement

Juvenile justice and youth voice by Adam Fletcher for The Freechild Project
Juvenile justice and youth voice

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.


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The Excitement of Project Based Learning

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!

Adam Fletcher's Project Based Learning Wheel
Adam Fletcher’s Project Based Learning Wheel positions youth engagement as the hub for all outcomes!

My research has shown me that Project Based Learning should have seven main components:

  1. 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.
  2. REAL Learning—Project Based Learning should have meaningful, substantive learning in its core. Learning shouldn’t be fake, pretend, meaningless or inconsequential.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

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Elsewhere Online

  • Freechild Institute—Freechild supports youth and adults working together to change the world in positive, powerful ways. Examples, resources and more.