Recently, I received a request to inform a project focused on designing a youth space. The requester had read my book, A Short Guide to Holistic Youth Development, and wanted to know how to proceed. Without a lot more information, I shared these thoughts.
I see two options:
If a space is going to be truly holistic for youth, it must reflect the will of the young people who will use it most as well as the technical specifications of the designer and the requirements of the regulations governing the space. Rather than prescribe the specific places within the center, the designer should provide a foundation of knowledge and a menu of options for the youth who are going to use it, and then co-design the space accordingly. With young people, a designer could bring together a focus group and gather the thoughts, opinions, ideas and wisdom of youth in order to not merely inform the design process, but to actually co-design the space with appropriate capacity building and full authority throughout the process. The final product should reflect their intentions, or a mutual compromise with the designer.
If that is not possible, it would be most relevant to design a multi-use space providing the highest degrees of function, variability, and ease of use for the participants. In this case, the open interactive spaces you suggest may be best; however, it’s still important to have interactive elements like moveable walls, furniture, etc. as well as the continual and overt permission of adults to move, use, and otherwise treat the space according to their intentions for it.
Its important to consider the different ways that youth are involved in this kind of effort. Holistic development suggests that youth be treated not as incomplete vessels simply awaiting adult guidance, information and decision-making; instead, it re-informs the relationships between youth and adults by empowering young people as full humans throughout their lives. That includes the design of the physical spaces intended to serve them.
Does that make sense? I guess that ultimately I’m concerned these projects often reflect the needs of well-meaning but poorly enacted designers’ plans. Alternatively, they’re relevant for a single affected generation of youth, but become irrelevant to succeeding generations of young people.
Share your thoughts in the comments? More ideas the better…
Standing in the dark, cavernous sanctuary, I shouted from the stage into the midnight silence of the empty pews before me:
For the next three hours, I let loose with all the thoughts, feelings, ideas, concerns, criticism, conclusions and questions I could muster. Speaking with my greatest vibrato and whispering in my lowest loud tones, I was excited, nervous, scared and frustrated.
The previous year had been a roller coaster for me. That night, I was the 19-year-old youth director at a suburban church in the Midwestern United States. With little practical knowledge of how to do the job, I ran off of inspiration and enthusiasm, generally winning the hearts of young people with my personality before appealing to their minds with my abilities.
Before that night, I went to college for several months before having to give it up for both fiscal reasons, and simply because I had no idea what I was doing, literally. I worked at this church during that time, as well as running a youth program at another church and working in an independent living skills program for foster, homeless and other disconnected youth.
Out of frustration, a few months before then I’d packed my car full of all my worldly possessions—bed comforter, dress clothes, high school diploma, etc.—and headed off to make a life in New Orleans. I had no idea what I was doing then either, and halfway there my car permanently broke down; the drive shaft separated and went into the oil pan as I drove down the highway. A scrap heap, I sold my car and almost everything I owned to a wrecker for $50. Buying a bus ticket, I continued onward, only to run into rejection, theft, violence and loneliness for the next three weeks. Sleeping behind dumpsters and playing my harmonica on a street corner at the edge of the French Quarter after Mardi Gras, my parents and other adults back home wouldn’t save me, send me money or otherwise help me get on my feet. When my brother finally returned from an overseas deployment in the military, I asked him for help and he sent me a bus ticket. I went back to the city where I lived and took the youth director job back at that church.
Working late into the nights anytime during the week was my norm. I didn’t enjoy the nightlife of the university city where I lived, and I wasn’t really connected to other young people there, so being at the church all the time was comfortable for me.
By that point in my life, I was well aware that I wasn’t a traditionally religious person. My upbringing was punctuated by my mother’s zealous appreciation of Gandhi, who she constantly quoted and whose life she made lessons with. I became enamored with the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. in my teenage years, reading Letter from a Birmingham Jailrepeatedly by then. I didn’t read the copy of the Koran I kept that often though, and the Tao Te Ching didn’t make a lot of sense to me then. I constantly listened to U2, though, and that wasn’t a bad leadoff for the spiritual development of the teenage me. Sure, I flipped through the Bible and henpecked my favorite scriptures, too.
I adamantly didn’t believe in the tenets of the faith though, and it was increasingly awkward for me to be working at this church. My job there was to lead Bible studies, teach Sunday school classes and informally counsel the youth there. Many of these teens grew up in the church and were stronger in their faith than me, as well as more determined to grow into their faith. Others were rebellious in ways I had never been, and I couldn’t relate to the struggles they wrestled with.
Oh, and the other part of my job was to co-lead church services with the minister. Once a month I got to deliver a sermon. These parts of the job were exhilarating for me. There was nothing as rewarding as weaving together my favorite Gandhi, King, U2 and Bible quotes with stories from my own life, and an occasional piece of news or other tale I’d picked up, only to have a kind middle-age mother come to me after the service to say she understood exactly what I was saying, or an older parishioner tell me she loved how dynamic I was. As much as I relied on metaphor and analogy, I strove to be understood and found it rewarding when people “got it.”
There were times when I didn’t get it though. Standing at the pulpit in the story at the beginning of this, I was wrestling with the universe as I stood there. That call was purposely Godless, distinctively direct, and purposefully submissive. I didn’t want to think I knew it all, because I felt responsible for the cataclysmic shape of my young life then, and clearly knew then that I just didn’t know what I was doing.
It wasn’t the first time I’d done this kind of midnight ghost preaching. After being invited to talk in many churches during the three years before that, I was (over)confident in my abilities as a speaker.
I share this memory with you to share with you my dream. When I was 15, I participated in an Urban League youth leadership program that included Toastmasters training. From that point forward, I wanted to speak professionally, captivating audiences with magically woven words to enlighten, educate and engage broad messages that flowed magically from my complex mind.
I have had success accomplishing that dream. However, I still feel like my work in this way has just begun, and I’m looking for ways to improve myself, improve my messages, and improve the vision in my heart and mind.
That job didn’t last long after my last midnight sermon. At some point towards the end, I painted a wild image of Golgotha, or Calvary, on the wall of the office I kept there. While I don’t have a pic of it, the image is burned in my mind. I didn’t feel like Jesus or a savior when I worked at that church or preached anywhere. Instead, I often felt like the thief basking in the shadow of greatness, hoping to be forgiven right before my own imminent demise.
For more than a century, there have been a legion of young people and adults committed to building the skills, knowledge, abilities and power of youth. These people work in programs that are dedicated to recreation and education, providing safe and supportive environments, and that holy triumvirate of youth services: Intervention, prevention and empowerment. The overarching title uniting many of these people together is Youth Worker.
In the United States, being a youth worker is challenging, at best. Without a solid career pathway, with little cross-sector acknowledgment of interconnectivity, and lacking substantive opportunities to make a successful living at the work, many youth workers treat their jobs as starting points towards other work.
That doesn’t mean that people don’t make the best of it! While my own livelihood has been a journey through harrowing odds, against hardening obstacles and towards an uncertain endpoint, for more than 25 years it has kept me alive, enthused and inquisitive. My passion for youth voice, youth engagement, education transformation and meaningful student involvement is hotter than ever, and opportunities keep unveiling themselves to continue growing and learning. While positive youth development, youth empowerment and community youth engagement grow in my heart, I’m confronting my own adultism, white supremacy and toxic masculinity, and how they pervade my work. This is the richest living I have done in a long time.
The youth worker career challenge is bigger than any single persons’ journey though. We have to strive to connect with each other, learn together and challenge one another to reach higher, more intentionally, past the boundaries and borders of grant expectations, organizational competition and professional burn out. Instead, we have to fuse our hearts and minds together with love, hope and genuinely transformational empowerment. Nothing less should be woven throughout our profession, now and into the future.
I support youth workers who are at the beginning of their journey, in the midway or seeking a logical way out, whether they’ve worked three months or three decades. Through one-on-one coaching, small group workshops and retreats, and my speeches I reach into the hearts and minds of the people who do this work everyday to challenge, enliven and enthrall those who want to change the situations young people are in right now, everywhere, all the time.
Standing awkwardly at the back of the room, I listened to the words coming from the four tables in the middle of the space. It was a drab, faded white hall with dull, grey carpet that smelled musty, felt greasy and looked depressed. I was 17, wearing my most optimistic white sweatshirt and clean jeans, and trying my hardest to stay attentive to what was being said.
“Why would any kid want to come to our meetings?” said Paul, a gruff World War II vet who clearly didn’t support the idea.
“I don’t think there’s a place for him here, or any other teen. This is the work of people with experience and knowledge, and when you’re in 12th grade you have none of those,” said Betty, who was one of the grandmas in the room that I liked.
That night, the church council decided there was no role for youth in their work. I’d lobbied the church and minister to allow me onboard for several months before that vote. Hearing their decision, I was crushed.
For three years, I’d been actively involved throughout the life of the church. Joining the choir, coming to classes, continuing my membership in scouts, and helping whenever the minister asked led me to join the church council. My mentors in the church made so many spaces for my voice and involvement that I wanted to take it to the next level. I had helped plan classes, build events and relations between the church and community, and preached at Sunday services at the invite of the minister.
I wasn’t ever given firm reasons for why I wasn’t allowed to join the church council. Instead, I was given platitudes and misdirections like, “You’re too young to understand,” “This is adult work,” and “We don’t have space for kids in our work.”
When I wasn’t allowed to join the church council, I internalized a lot of the messages given to me, whether they were inadvertent or intentional. Those messages included:
Youth voice matters in certain situations, but not all the time
Youth voice is useful when it fits adult expectations, but not when it goes out of the boundaries
Adults don’t want to listen to all youth voice, just the ones they want to hear from.
Rather than try to engage me in any sense, the church council simply denied me altogether. It would be too simple to say that was disheartening to me; instead, it’s more apt to say it was crushing. I didn’t realize it then, but I stacked that experience onto many others that felt disempowering, disconnecting and unaccepting.
Within the next year, I slowly moved away from the home I’d felt at the church. My longtime skepticism about religion took hold of my imagination, granting me some critical thinking but mostly lavishing cynicism in my heart. I no longer saw the people in that place as family, but instead as overseers. Sure, I still had mentors there cared for me, and I was always respectful and cared about them. But never again did I feel the same.
A few years later I left that denomination entirely and never returned. In the 25 years since, that congregation folded and the church changed hands. I moved on too, only occasionally visiting the place that raised me. My work allows me to keep it in mind though, especially as I work with organizations to consider never allowing adult discrimination against youth to happen again.
Adultism is the bias towards adults that causes discrimination against youth. First coined in the late 1800s, the term describes the ways adults treat children and youth, and is obvious through language, culture, architecture, education, healthcare, families, and more. Adultism includes attitudes, beliefs, and discrimination in favor of adults throughout our society.
Treating Kids Different
Adultism is about respect, trust, authority and power. It is apparent beginning when children are very young. Because of the ways our society generally behaves, babies are assumed to be incomplete and their opinions are seen as largely inconsequential.
Adults determine the feeding, caregiving, clothing, bedding and lighting of babies because we don’t understand whether babies are sharing their opinions about these things, among others. This belief continues until young children can share their opinions in language adults can understand. This establishes the basis of adultism that affects young people through the age of 18 and beyond.
At the point kids can share their opinions, adults constantly parse out what is a valid concern and what is invalid. Rather than referring to evidence or facts, adults mostly use personal judgment and beliefs to decide what foods, entertainment, activities, learning and opinions we should listen to. This is adultist.
It is obvious in our language with phrases like “Children should be seen and not heard,” and is apparent our built environment, too: The height of a fountain, door handle and chair reflects an adult’s needs, not childrens’ needs. Adultism is reinforced through arbitrary rule-making focused on ages, too, rather than science or best practices.
When children become teenagers, their own beliefs become stronger, their wisdom starts accumulating, and their value to society starts to become determined. Adultism ensures that young leaders emerge to represent their peers, as well as confines rule-breaking youth to “stay in their lane” through punishment, classroom tracking, and curfews.
In some places, youth are sent to jail for offenses only they can commit, like breaking curfews, being truant to school, drinking alcohol and other infractions. In other situations, youth are encouraged to put on a tie and “act like adults” in order to gain privilege and access that will benefit their futures. Each of these demonstrates bias towards adults, since our society reveres age and stands against the knowledge young people possess.
Movie ratings, drivers licensing, banking rules and compulsory education reflect this, too: We simply don’t trust the ability of youth to determine what’s best for themselves, so adults make judgments for them. That’s not just parents, either; teachers, youth workers, counselors and police make judgments for youth all the time.
All this shows how adultism is apparent in the attitudes, culture and structures throughout our society.
There are active movements across the United States and around the world today to face adultism head-on, and to fight and defeat adultism when it’s necessary. These movements are engaging youth as partners with adults in government agencies, building youth/adult partnerships in community organizations, challenging schools to build Meaningful Student Involvement, and transforming families everywhere.
In Seattle, Washington, I partnered with the King County Superior Court to design a program for more than 40 families created to keep youth out of jail. The Parent/Youth Engagement Seminar was designed to build the skills and knowledge parents and youth needed through 12 hours of interactive workshops. Participants learn what youth voice is, how it works, and the positive outcomes that can happen when parents and youth work together to make families more successful. This seminar directly challenges adultism by confronting parents’ bias towards their own opinion, as well as by teaching parents and youth about partnering together for success, instead of using coercion and force to enforce compliance.
Building support for empowered student voice around the world, back in 2002 I started supporting K-12 schools, districts and state education agencies after building SoundOut.org. Since then, I’ve partnered with more than 300 different schools and agencies to write policies, develop programs, facilitate professional development and speak at conferences about Meaningful Student Involvement. This work has resulted in roles for students on school boards, students training teachers, and new education policies focused on student voice and student engagement. This challenges adultism among educators and policymakers by showing the positive potential of all students in every classroom, rather than simply tokenizing through constrained student/adult relationships.
There is so much work happening to challenge adultism!
5 Steps to Stop Adultism
I have identified these 5 steps to stop adultism based on my experience and research. Leave your thoughts in the comments section!
Name Your Bias. Every single person has bias towards adults. No matter how enlightened you are, how educated you might be, or how important you think you are to young people, you are adultist, and you’ve experienced adultism. Name your biases and be honest with yourself.
Listen to Youth Voice. Listen directly to youth; read their writing; listen to them sing; look at their art. Don’t respond, don’t fix, don’t do for them; just listen to youth voice.
Get Educated. Read my book, Facing Adultism. It’s a deep exploration of how adultism happens, who it affects, where it’s worst, who it affects most, and why it matters so much. Also, explore other writing about adultism and join the Facing Adultism group on Facebook.
Find New Ways to Be. Declare your allyship with youth and stick to it. Be kinder and more compassionate with young people, and advocate for youth to be present when they aren’t in the room. Find new ways to be at home, at work and throughout the community.
Make Change. When you’ve started changing your life, look at the health and well-being of your community. How does adultism affect youth around you right now? Which youth are most affected? Which adults are most biased towards other youth, and non-inclusive of youth?
What would you add to this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
When you’ve begun to address adultism, you might see how it’s tied together with paternalism, sexism, racism, classism and other injustices throughout our society. You might also discover different ways you have made the challenge of adultism worse, and how you’ve affected positive changes towards adultism in the past!
Each of us are capable of doing remarkable things–what are you going to do?
Recently, I answered an interview question that essentially asked if I think youth are as smart as adults. I took the liberty of answering with my clearest thinking, and I want to share it with you here:
Adults have created a society in which we are powerful and youth are not. We have done this with the tools of shared culture, individual attitudes and systemic structures, and we’ve infused rumors, conjecture and insinuation throughout all those things in order to maintain, sustain and enforce our power. One of those rumors, conjectures and insinuations is the myth that adults are inherently wiser, smarter and more intellectually capable than youth.
There is absolutely no strong science that shows – wholesale – that all adults everywhere are naturally more able than youth. I think the reverse is actually true, and that’s why adults have created so many systems (economics, education, religion, families, neighborhoods, etc) to enforce adultism, and the myths that enable it. Sucky.
Let me know what you think – are youth as wise as adults? What do you think about what I wrote? Share your response in the comments section below.
In the last few weeks, the United States has seen a resurgence of interest in youth engagement. Young people from Parkland, Florida, have led the charge and created a stir among the media by calling out politicians and pundits in public forums, including social media and press events. They’re advocating sophisticated responses to the violence that tore apart their school, and demanding people pay attention. Its working.
However, this isn’t an “ah-ha” moment. Despite how the media is treating it, this isn’t a glorious revelation about the power of youth or the need for systems change. Instead, it’s the continuance of decades of youth-led social change across the United States. This article highlights how that’s true, and what we can do to KEEP youth changing the world!
Youth having been changing and challenging the United States to change for more than a century. From the newsboys’ strike of 1899 to the anti-gun activism enlightening the nation right now, young people have led the way for a long time. Here are a few issues they have covered:
Child Labor—In 1903, a few hundred children marched from the coal mines and textile mills of eastern Pennsylvania to Washington DC to demand politicians take action for labor laws. Led by Mother Jones, an infamous suffragette, the group shook Congress to the bones, leading to the passage of the first national child labor and compulsory school laws in the country.
Youth Rights—In the 1930s, a group of high school and college age students formed the American Youth Congress to lobby for recreation, education, food and work rights for their generation. They presented the The Declaration of the Rights of American Youth [pdf] to the US Congress in 1935. Working with Eleanor Roosevelt, in 1936 their work led to the formation of the National Youth Administration. Although it was dismantled shortly after, the American Youth Congress launched campaigns for racial justice, increased federal spending on education, and an end to mandatory participation in the college-level Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC).
Cultural Diversity—During World War II, racial hatred and white supremacy led to the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles. During these terroristic battles, Hispanic and Latino young people led cultural battles to express themselves, while white supremacists beat them down and stripped children and youth of their clothes to suppress youth voice. This kind of cultural activism serves as a strong call for the rest of us.
Civil Rights—Nine months before Rosa Parks, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin became a pioneer in the civil rights movement when she refused to give up her seat for a white woman on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Not prepared to capitalize on the moment or recognize her leadership, movement makers didn’t promote Claudette’s actions. However, Colvin testified at the US Supreme Court trial that ended with a ruling against segregated busing and the end of the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Self-Expression—The stories continue after that, too, with Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, leading a generation towards activism in the early 1960s; the teen-led organization Youth Liberation Press in Ann Arbor, Michigan printing radical tracts about youth rights, freedom and justice in the 1970s; and the emergence of hip hop youth activism in the 1980s.
Global Youth Action—Youth engagement in social change has increasingly gone global, too. In the 1980s, the student-led movement against South Africa apartheid was openly credited by Nelson Mandela for contributing to the end of the regime of terror that segregated that country. After the turn of the century, the United Nations recognized the essential nature of engaging youth in international development plans. Youth in Australia gained a massive footing in their state educational decision-making around 2003 with the implementation of the Victoria Student Representative Council. Their actions created a foundation that’s still being built on internationally.
Today, we’re seeing a shift in the battle over guns that has gripped the American soul with the murders of thousands of children and youth in the last 25 years. Whether shot by gangs, parents, stray bullets, police, or mass murderers, young people today are faced with increasingly hostile learning environments, with politicians who are seemingly intransigent to the threats they face. Luckily, they aren’t standing for it.
Inspired by activist youth from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where the latest mass murder happened, young people across the country are organizing on-the-ground, practical campaigns to end gun violence forever. They’re confronting politicians, partnering with parents and teachers, and planning massive school walkouts, rallies and demonstrations.
Like others before them, this generation is calling the American soul to the carpet. Young people today want us to feel their anguish, understand their suffering, acknowledge the collective trauma facing them, and to take action and make change.
However, there can be more to this moment than ever before. Rather than being a flash-bang instance of youth-led activism and instead of a media-driven hysteria focused on the appeal of middle class white suburban youth screaming for change, we can transform the very perception of young people in society in three ways.
3 Ways Youth Can KEEP Changing the World
Create sustainable roles—There have to be positions, policies and practices in your organization and community that are long-ranging, impactful opportunities for youth specifically.
Foster lifelong engagement—Engagement must not end at 15, 18, 21, 25 or beyond. Instead, there should be a continuum of opportunities for young people to see themselves engaged and then become that way throughout their lifetimes.
Call forth the positive powerful purpose of youth—Don’t continue to make youth come to adults and insist change. Instead, reach out directly to young people and appeal to their sense of purpose, power and belonging, and then be ready to take action.
Its already happening. For more than a decade, youth have been fighting for social change in dozens of areas, like local farming, stopping smoking, challenging white supremacy and ending zero tolerance policing practices. Students have been partnering with teachers to improve schools, working with parents to build healthy families, and struggling against entrenched perceptions throughout society. That’s all happening right now, and we need to expand these practices.
We need to sustain and uplift the current actions young people are taking to change the world. Instead of creating more opportunities for involved youth to become more involved, we need to create new spaces for disengaged youth to become involved. Whether youth or adults, we can do this by changing the attitudes of individuals around us by confronting adultism (bias towards adults) and challenging ephebiphobia (fear of youth) wherever we see it.
Whether youth or adults, we can do this by transforming the structures we live in and operate throughout everyday, including families, schools, nonprofits, government agencies and bodies, and businesses, including all of the policies, practices and procedures we follow everyday. Whether youth or adults, we can do this by navigating and negotiating our culture, including the mainstream culture that paint youth as incapable non-adults; traditional cultures that treat young people as sometime to be seen and not heard; or socio-economic cultures that rely on youth repression in order to assure the social orders they rely on.
Ultimately, we must engage every youth and every adult in every community, everywhere, all the time. My own professional experience dovetails with history to show us that we must embrace, sustain and expand youth engagement. In more than 250 communities nationwide, I have worked with K-12 schools, nonprofits, government agencies and other organizations to transform the roles of young people in their programs, policies and operations. By facilitating professional development for adult staff members; training children and youth in myriad youth engagement skills and issues; planning programs and evaluating outcomes; as well researching and writing curriculum, I have sought to move the needle from seeing youth as the passive recipients of adult-led decision-making towards engaging youth as partners throughout our communities. I have spoke at dozens of conferences, providing motivational and educational expert speeches for young people and adults to see each other as allies, not enemies, by breaking down generational assumptions and understanding the power of youth.
Most importantly to me, I have stayed at it: For more than 17 years, I have run the Freechild Institute to share examples and tools for youth-led social change worldwide, while directing SoundOut, which focuses on meaningful student involvement throughout education. Recently, I joined the Athena Group, a collective of consultants focused on systems change nationwide. Our work will continue to move youth engagement into the mainstream today and in the future.
When you see the headlines, experience the momentum and feel the demand for youth engagement today, I hope you consider the history that’s come before, and understand the efforts underway to continue these actions today and beyond. Youth engagement is our greatest hope, and you can help build it right now.
Sometimes, there are things to understand and know that aren’t necessarily agreed with by society. There are beliefs, ideas and activities that don’t make sense to a lot of people. As an advocate, I’m not compelled to do what others think I should; instead, I follow my heart and mind and take inner guidance on where I’m at and where I’m going.
This article explores what youth empowerment is, what it does, and why it matters.
Taking Away Youth Power
Reflecting on more than 20 years of working with children and youth across the United States, I realize that I have seen a generation of youth who constantly strive, constantly achieve and constantly exceed society’s wildest expectations of them.
However, young people are doing this with the barest minimum support from society-at-large. We barely fund the schools they attend; we scrape up just enough money for low-income young people; we routinely profiteer off locking up youth who offend the law in order for private companies to make money off them; and just as soon as we can, society throughs young people into war, college or the workplace in hopes that they’ll make it all on their own.
We barely fund the schools they attend; we scrape up just enough money for low-income young people; we routinely profiteer off locking up youth who offend the law in order for private companies to make money off them; and just as soon as we can, society throughs young people into war, college or the workplace in hopes that they’ll make it all on their own.
I’m of the firm belief that our society should take responsibility for the decisions we make. All of the experiences of children and youth today are not the fault of their families or the fault of young people themselves.
Instead, they are the outcomes of our society as a whole. Childhood homelessness? Society. Childhood hunger? Society. Failing students? Society. Abused young people? Society. Youth offenders, dropouts, child prostitutes, child slaves, child labor, all of this? Society.
However, it is not just the actions of young people that society is responsible for; it’s also the feelings and beliefs of young people. As a society, we drive children and youth to think and feel the ways they do. That means that when young people feel distrust, apathy, despair, depression, hopelessness, hurt, anger, frustration and any feelings that make adults uncomfortable, its not just their job to “pick themselves up by their bootstraps” and make themselves feel better. Society must take responsibility for what we’ve done.
I want to change this crummy situation. I want to see things be radically different for children and youth today than ever before. After more than 20 years working in education, social services and government to promote the health, welfare and empowerment of young people, it is my responsibility to demand more.
While there are many, many ways to get that done, I believe one of the most responsible and genuine ways to transform our society is by enfranchising every child everywhere with the right to vote in every election all of the time.
Given the right and responsibility of the vote, children and youth can begin to hold society responsible for the attitudes, actions, beliefs and outcomes that it has routinely dumped on young people for thousands of years. One of the constructs in our society has been to see young people merely as adults-in-the-making, rather than seeing them as full humans right now. As voters, adults will not be able to deny the capabilities of young people; they won’t be able to deny the validity of young people; and they won’t be able to deny the power of young people AS young people, which is what they’ve always done.
All youth, everywhere, all of the time should have the right and responsibility to be empowered today.
To say that schools are changing right now is a gross understatement.
Between technological, social and cultural transformations happening right now across the U.S., there are new trends becoming apparent everywhere, schools included. This paper puts the massive changes happening throughout the education system into context to help readers understand what’s happening, and why its happening.
Lots have said it, many see it, but few have called it out: for a century, our education system has revolved around ego. As we become an evermore interdependent and transparent society, this is inherently at odds with the future. This article explores the former EGOsystem of education and identifies an emerging ECOsystem taking its place. It also shows what the future might look like.
An EGOsystem of Education
When I first started working in education 15 years ago, I discovered quickly that educators in schools are most often the ones who school worked well for. After barely graduating from high school and taking eight years to get my BA, it was glaringly obvious to me that I was surrounded by former star students and others whose learning styles, socio-economic statuses and cultural backgrounds were being perpetuated by the system. This formula generally holds true for politicians who make educational policies as well as social service staff who support student success outside of schools.
These students often go on to work in schools as teachers and administrators; in districts as administrators; and in state education agencies as program directors, assessment officials and curriculum experts. They are successful in their careers, embraced by their institutions, and generally, reveling in the ways things are. If they are aware of how things are going for students who are most often failed by schools, they see these learners from a position of noblesse oblige, looking down on them from on high.
The system that created these workers has engendered particular school cultures that ensured succeeding generations of familiarity. Despite technology and social changes of many sorts, in many schools, learners who time travel from a century ago can find similar patterns of teaching, classroom management and testing. This is because the education system revolves around the ego, which is a person’s sense of self-importance or self-esteem.
Four Phases of Transition
Educators have relied on fulfilling their sense of self-importance and building their self-esteem through their work for more than 100 years. Through my studies, I have seen four phases in America’s education system.
1) The Control Phase
Initially relying on a high control environments, schools were initially places where teachers controlled students. The Control Phase looked like this:
Teachers could literally physically abuse students for not complying with their every intention.
Students who innately complied with teachers were awarded with increased amounts of autonomy and access to learning opportunities.
Educators sought to wrangle authority from communities and parents by illegitimating self-education and learning from life.
Education policymakers make child labor illegal at the same time legal and cultural systems were created to ensure government authority over learning and teaching.
The Control phase radically dismantled community-based and home-based learning opportunities, secured the function of a controlled curriculum, and imposed the meaning of grades and scores on students.
Voters supported this model enough to enable schools to emerge as a dominant force in society.
The Control Phase relied on the EGO of educators, as it enabled teachers to control large groups of students with minimal enforcement.
Administrators were able to control massive groups of students with few teachers, and were capable of ensuring teachers success through compliance.
The Control Phase served to break down the EGO of students in order to ensure students would learn what educators wanted them to. Academic honor societies were available only to the highest achieving students and student governments were almost nonexistent.
This phase displaced young people from their positions in communities, positioning them as dependents of schools for their learning. It attempted to strip students of self-leadership in order to secure the role of adults as leaders in learning and teaching.
All of these factors weighed together to create an EGOsystem in schools dependent on control. This phase evolved towards the Competition Phase. People who benefited from the Control Phase of American education saw the transition towards the Competitive Phase as logical, predictable and favorable progress.
2) The Competition Phase
With time, schools became high command environments that relied less on forcefulness and abrasion and more on leveraging authority for outcomes. During the Command Phase, schools looked like this:
Students were compelled to participate in classes because of government orders and nothing further.
The Competition Phase sought to essentialize schools by making graduation diplomas requirements for workplaces.
Conversely, during this phase post-high school opportunities were minimalized for non-graduates.
Voters initially supported this approach because they saw that when more people succeeded at schooling, more people succeeded in their careers; more successful careers led to more successful communities, which led to better schools.
In the Competition Phase, pragmatic acceptance reigns as students, educators, administrators, policymakers, politicians, parents and voters become acclimated and accustomed to the EGOsystem that has formed within the education system.
As schools became judged for their success according to graduation rates, students EGOs were recognized as helping motivate academic vigilance. This phase saw the widespread prevalence of honor societies and student governments in order to satiate those EGOs.
With the decreased emphasis on teacher EGO in the classroom, this phase saw the emergence of powerful teacher unions that ensured the authority of educators.
Student connections outside classrooms were ignored or seen as irrelevant to teaching, learning and leadership in schools.
This phase positioned students as the subjects of teachers, securing the hierarchal relationship between adults and students in schools.
All of these factors weighed together to create an EGOsystem in schools reliant on competition. This phase evolved towards the Connection Phase. People who thrived in the Competition Phase were threatened by the transition towards the next phase and saw it as the devolution of schools.
3) The Connection Phase
When social change insisted, schools modified their approach to include connection between students, among educators, within the curriculum and throughout the education system. During the Connection Phase, schools looked like this:
Rigorous demands imposed on schools coupled with decreased school funding led to increased attempts to ensure community connections with schools.
Cross-curricular approaches to teaching and learning were recognized as essential in some areas.
Student connections outside classrooms were recognized and mass amounts of homework were assigned to utilize out-of-school time.
Students work and family responsibilities outside school time were dismissed.
The EGO of students becomes central with honor rolls, honor societies, extracurricular clubs and other student voice and student leadership clubs being perceived as elite or otherwise disconnected from mainstream student populations.
The EGO of educators is struggling due to having diminished authority throughout the education system.
In the Connection Phase, placing self above all others is the norm. opportunists have the most authority as they maximize connectivity in order to ensure their personal gain.
The EGO of education policymakers is peaked from their increased authority over educational outcomes and avenues.
The EGO of education textbook, assessment, preparation and advocacy organizations is peaked from their influence on education policymakers.
Voters become resentful from subsequent generations going through failed phases of American education and stop supporting schools with levies and pro-public school advocacy.
This phase fosters a sense of independence with an awareness of the larger whole.
All of these factors weighed together to create an ECOsystem in schools contingent on connection. This phase evolved towards the Collaboration Phase. People who benefited from this phase saw the emergence of the Collaboration Phase as a relief from the pressure of connection and competition.
4) The Collaboration Phase
Today, we’re in the midst of moving from EGOsystems towards ECOsystems of education. This movement is happening through collaboration fostered by technology, social change and other evolution that holds great possibilities.
Connectivity is recognized as key to successful learning, teaching and leadership with all partners recognized for their potential, purpose and power.
Students are recognized as full partners in learning, teaching and leadership throughout education.
While technology was initially frowned upon, connections among students outside of school time became an imposition on classrooms. Educators were essentially required to recognize student connections outside of schools and the effects they have within schools.
In the Collaboration Phase, placing self above others is becoming increasingly unacceptable as more people identify with the whole.
Students who work and have family responsibilities are recognized for the legitimacy and authority of their learning outside school time, and receive high amounts of support to ensure their successful academic growth.
Academic learning, liberal arts and community living skills are recognized with equitable authority throughout the lives of young people.
The EGO-driven era of education ends as learning is recognized and embraced as a community-wide, lifelong endeavor for all people everywhere all of the time. This leads to the ECOsystem of education.
Voters reinvest in education because of the re-asserted vitality of schools in the health and well-being of democratic society.
This phase nurtures a sense of increasing interdependence with strong awareness of the effect of individuals on others.
All of these factors weighed together to create an ECOsystem in schools revolving around collaboration. This phase is currently evolving and emerging. Everyone in society should benefit from the emergence of the Collaboration Phase and will embrace the ongoing evolution of learning, teaching and leadership.
The emerging ECOsystem of education is harder to see than previous phases. From my work in schools and throughout communities over the last 15 years, I have seen some aspects of it becoming apparent. Following is an exploration of some patterns that are becoming apparent.
An ECOsystem of Education
Right now, there’s a new picture of schools that is coming into focus. Across the horizon of testing, standardization and the school-to-prison pipeline are learning, teaching and leadership opportunities for all people everywhere in which love prevails and pessimism stops. With beautiful balance between critical thinking, cultural uplifting and participatory infrastructure, learning mirrors life in a balanced, holistic way that honors difference, embraces hopefulness and builds through equitable partnerships among everyone involved, regardless of their ages.
When considering the ECOsystem of education, its important to remember what constitutes an ecology. An ECOsystem consists of the interdependent and interacting components of a learner’s environment. There are living elements like teachers and other students throughout, and non-living elements like the building, computers and textbooks. Air and light cycles through an ECOsystem, as well as talking, music and paper ripping. Material elements also cycle through an ecosystem via cafeterias, heating plants, and other pathways.
As the ECOsystem of education continues to emerge, we will need new guideposts to know where we’re at. In the 300+ schools I have consulted over the last decade, the following three trends represent the new realities in education. These can serve as guideposts to ensure students, educators, administrators and others are on the right track to ensure the healthy, whole, successful and sustainable transition underway.
While more students opt to learn from home, more schools rely on BYOD and tablets-as-textbooks, and classrooms integrate more with communities, schools will have fewer and fewer options for retaining students in desk chairs. Instead, they will be forced to embrace disruptive learning technologies of all sorts, including experiential education, service learning and integrate CTE that positions elementary and middle school students in applicable, pragmatic problem-centered learning to address real world challenges.
With more adults actively infusing throughout the school day as both co-learners and co-leaders with students who are transforming communities, the role of student will be actively redefined. No longer the plaything of classroom tyrants, students will be recognized for their essential role in the American democracy as the foundation and implementation of lifelong civic identity and engagement. Students of all ages will freely co-learn, co-teach and co-lead communities in quintessential learning communities that are infused with vigor, vim and vitality.
By actively taking control of the things they want to learn, students are actively moving from being the passive recipients of teaching towards becoming active partners in learning and leadership. Each individual student will develop and implement their own course of learning from their youngest years in schools. Learning about their roles as active learning partners, they will also assume more responsibility throughout their communities for teaching their elders. In turn, today’s teachers will continue towards become learning coaches and facilitators to the willing. Students will gain full authority through true interdependence, and communities will become fully integrated throughout their local education systems.
The effect of dispersed learning and teaching are already rippling throughout the education system. Technology is actively pushing students out of the forced irrelevance of age- and interest segregated classrooms and towards their broader communities, while schools have to reach deeper towards their local communities in order to cover budgets. This is drawing students towards meeting real community needs through authentic leadership and away from falsely important student governments. In turn, this is forcing schools to reconsider engaging those students in educational leadership. In the ECOsystem of schools, education uses all members of the community in order to drive, transform and sustain learning. Students become researchers, planners, teachers, evaluators, decision-makers and advocates throughout communities, which in turn recognize their legitimacy as contributing members of society.
This rekindles community investment in education, which further enriches the educational environment. Racial inequities are eagerly addressed by communities, and the school-to-prison pipeline is dismantled. Every student creates their own learning plan with strategic systems of learning supporting their implementation. Restorative justice engenders new cultures of respect, trust and ability throughout schools, while nutrition, school buildings, athletics and other activities become safe supports for learning and teaching. All of this happens through new leading.
As schools move forward through the phases, a natural ECOsystem of learning will emerge. There is a growing awareness of this transformation. Some people see a complete destruction of traditional, EGO-driven schools, while others see an ongoing evolution towards ECOsystems of learning, teaching and leadership. If we deliberately identify the systems supporting education, we can make this shift intentionally.
As the entirety of the system moves forward, there will be resistance and denial. People who’ve upheld the first and second phases will resist the inevitably of this transformation, while others who’ve embraced the third and fourth phases might actually deny the need for the system to move forward. Those who resist and deny are actually representing the EGOsystem of education that has become entrenched by the powers that benefit most from the EGOsystem. However, truncated by the inevitable transformation fostered by ongoing social change, its inevitable for the EGOsystem to die.
In order to move it forward, its important for educators, students and others to make an honest assessment of where their own personal expectations lay; where their schools’ realities are; and what the gap is between those two areas. Schools will never do more than we are willing to do in them. If a person is young, then its imperative to establish genuine expectations for their own experience. This comes through reflection and critical thinking. If a person is older, its vital to engage in critical self-analysis as well as self-engagement in a project for school improvement. For anyone, its important to get active. Research what exists right now. Work with others to plan for alternatives. Teach people about options, no matter what age you are or they are. Evaluate and critically examine what exists, what could exist and what the gap is between those two spaces. Get involved in decision-making wherever there’s an opportunity, including on committees, in forums and in other spaces. Finally, everyone must advocate for the future of schools and the emerging ECOsystem of education. This has to be brought forth on purpose, and the only way to do that is to encourage individuals, organizations and communities to move towards the ECOsystem on purpose. Advocate for that.
Learning is a beautiful, nature and evolutionary approach towards expanding our human potential. The ECOsystem of education moves us towards powerful possibilities for all students everywhere all the time. You should come with.
Recently, a youth activist in the UK wrote to me with some excellent questions about adultism. I loved responding to him, and I think we have some excellent conversations ahead of us. I want to give you a peek into what was exchanged. Let me know what you think?
Question 1: Why does youth-based ageism matter to you, both personally and from a broader societal perspective?
Growing up, I experienced homelessness, generational PTSD, generational alcoholism, and situational poverty. After beginning youth work as a teenager, I discovered a realm of youth advocacy focused on youth rights. Beginning with the analysis that youth aren’t granted rights and freedoms enjoyed by adults simply because of their age, in my early 20s I examined my own professional practice and discovered that I’d perpetuated this discrimination against youth in my youth work. My own professional journey took a critical turn at that point, and I’ve never looked back.
Since then, I’ve studied the phenomenon of adultism in-depth, writing dozens of articles and a book about it called Facing Adultism. I’ve also led workshops with hundreds of youth and adults across North America and in Brazil over the last 15 years. Among my findings, I’ve discovered some radical trends that are disturbing. Rather consistently and regardless of setting, adults appear to be consistently predisposed to the actions, ideas, words and opinions of other adults. I call this bias towards adults adultism. Adultism seemingly happens everywhere, including many places that exist simply to serve children and youth, including schools, after school programs, youth centers, summer camps, and in childcare facilities, as well as businesses that serve young populations, including stores, healthcare, and restaurants. On a very basic level, the problem of adultism in democratic societies is that it inherently undermines and ultimately dismantles democracy. We basically spend 18 to 25 years of a person’s life telling them to be passive recipients of hierarchical, authoritarian decision-making, and then one arbitrary day we bestow them with the mantle of Voter and pray they have faith in democracy. That disjunction doesn’t sit well with most people, and easily explains why so many people are disaffected by voting today.
In a more complex way, I believe adultism is the conditioning that permits all other discriminations to co-exist throughout our societies. From infancy we’re taught in subtle and overt ways that adults are dominate in our worlds. At the same time we appropriately rely on them for food, clothing, shelter and security, we’re conditioned to accept their control over our appearance, attitudes, education and behaviors. Through this control, adultism opens the doorways for oppression through sexism, racism, hetrosexism, classism, and many other biases and discriminations, allowing each of us to both become oppressors and the oppressed. This has massive effects throughout our societies that are grossly underexamined.
Question 2: Is youth-based ageism entrenched in politics/culture/society? What are the consequences of it?
Bias towards adults is thoroughly entrenched throughout the entirety of society, including politics and culture, and education, healthcare, law enforcement, familial relations, community structures, government, economics, religion and spirituality, the arts, and even crime. This bias towards adults, and the discrimination against youth which is consequential, disallows all young people of every age from fully realizing their own capacities, personalities, abilities and interconnectedness. This continues until the time when society stops disallowing them to do so. This means that any contributions that children and youth could make to a better world for all people; any economic contributions they could make; any education they could become truly passionate about; any subject which they could master; all of this and so much more is thwarted because of adultism. The youngest people in our society could make the greatest contributions, if only they weren’t continually denigrated by adults simply because of their age. Mozart was five when he composed his first minuet – not bad for a kid. Imagine what any of us could do without the shackles of adultism.
Question 3: What would you argue is the main factor that prevents pro-youth organisations, such as the UK Youth Parliament and perhaps US equivalents, from being more effective than they are?
I would suggest that adultism is the main factor that prevents youth-serving orgs from being more effective, and that adultism uses money as a lever to control the structures, attitudes and cultures of those organizations. There are strong financial incentives that exist in order to enforce adultism. These fiscal constraints are the most powerful force that ensures the sustained habituation and enculturation of adultism in all of its forms throughout our society, especially within youth-serving organizations. Whether these organizations are working in hyper-local settings on the familial, neighborhood and community levels, or in national or international forums, all of them are generally constrained by the authority and ability granted to them by money. The simple fact is that there are absolutely no funds anywhere that actively support the elimination of adultism, or any steps preceding that. Because of that, each of these organizations choose the routes they need to follow in order to most effectively meet their funders’ expectations.
For instance, the UK Youth Parliament chooses politics as its avenue to serve youth. In these politics they follow the pathways which grant them the most ability to affect change on behalf of their constituents. That means that if a bill is going to be fought effectively, it might require a little adultism here and a little adultism there, which is acceptable in order to fight that bill. Similarly, a well-meaning teacher in a public school might know in her heart that student voice should be infused throughout her classroom, with students making and enforcing rules, cowriting and critiquing curriculum, administering and evaluating assessments, and so-forth. However, she also knows her headmaster placed a book in her hands, gave her a URL for student testing, and she must do what she’s told to keep her job. A little adultism here and a little adultism there, and she has a job again next year.
Question 4 and 5: What’s the solution for schools? And what are solutions beyond the school remit?
Schools must stop existing simply to promote academic achievement, and instead adopt the understanding that their singular purpose is to engage students in learning, teaching and leadership throughout their own lives and their communities. Academics is one avenue to student engagement, but only one. There are dozens of ways to engage learners, and schools should be held to the highest account for engagement, simply because that does not happen anywhere else in society. That’s because student engagement is the sustained connection a student feels towards something, and schools should be responsible solely for fostering that feeling. Who is in charge of whether or not a student becomes engaged in something? The student, and the student alone. Who can help facilitate whether a student becomes engaged in learning, teaching and leadership throughout their own lives and their communities? Educators. Student engagement would be the ultimate goal for schools because nowhere else could do it quite the ways they do.
Beyond schools, there are countless avenues towards a more successful society for all people, regardless or because of age. Starting with full suffrage for all people regardless of their age, I believe it extends towards complete citizenship for all people with equitable roles, responsibilities and rights accorded to people because of their ages. Teaching, reinforcing and uplifting the notion of interdependence is vital, too, as it can help both young people and adults understand complex social understandings in a concrete, tangible way. In his last book published, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “When we get up in the morning, we go into the bathroom where we reach for a sponge provided for us by a Pacific Islander. We reach for soap created by a Frenchman. The towel is provided by a Turk. Before we leave for our jobs, we are beholden to more than half the world.” I believe that same sentiment must be translated on the age issue. I don’t think we have a case of youth versus adults here, Tom. Instead, this is an issue that’s endemic in Western culture and its tearing us apart. We can work past this, given the right mindsets and resources.
Again, this was just the start of a long conversation. Let me know what you think and whether you’d like to read more!