The Role of Intensity in Youth Activism

Empowering young people to create social change happens best in intensely personal, intensely local, intensely focused opportunities that engage children and youth in deliberate, meaningful action and learning. None of these things can happen independently of each other.

One of the best examples illustrating this is a recent entry on the Highlander Center blog that details what happened at their “Seeds of Fire Youth Leadership Camp” this July. This is how it fit the bill:

  • Intensely personal: There were 20 youth and 6 adult allies
  • Intensely local: Youth represented the immediate region around Highlander
  • Intensely focused: Participants studied Dr. King’s nonviolence program, learned about social justice movements worldwide, and focused in on issues from their region

I first uncovered this formula in 2005 when I began researching youth action programs for the Washington Youth Voice Handbook. In that study I sought to uncover the threads that bind together all the different types of youth engagement activities that happen in this state. I have only seen that pattern repeat itself since then, as studies from the Movement Strategy Center (pdf), Barry Checkoway and Shawn Ginwright, among others, continue to show.

The role of intensity goes beyond the frequent and adultist attribution of the emotional state of young people. In this sense intensity makes an appropriate approximation of the depth and value given to the words its attributed to: The personalization, location, and focus of youth activism must be intense in order to demonstrate to participants the value of their energy, to foster the direct outcomes required in order to sustain interest, and to identify that depth and value. All those reasons make the role of intensity in youth activism über-valuable.

Take a moment to acknowledge the role of intensity in your own life. Where do you feel intense? When do you feel intense? Why do you feel intense? When we begin to uncover the value of intensity in our own lives, our own work and our own motivations we can begin to understand the power of youth activism in our communities.

CommonAction staff is available to train on Youth Activism and much more. 
Contact me to talk about the possibilities by emailing or calling (360)489-9680.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Home Alone and Social Change

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

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

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

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

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Selling Out Youth

I’m beginning to bring together the vast amounts of reading I’ve done over the last 10 years, combine them with my experience, and make some sense of it all. I’m excited! Some poor soul on Wikipedia just wrote to me to ask why the histories of children’s rights in the United States and the United Kingdom appear to be steeped so heavily in childhood criminality and abusive systems of care. Here’s what I replied with:

With the coming of the Industrial Age a mass labor pool was discovered in the requisite population of children, particularly those who were not well-off. However, at some point the titans of industry realized their labor pool needed to be better-prepared for the developing technologies of industry, both as laborers and as consumers of the production. These titans needed mechanisms which fostered that preparedness through training, and when the labor pool would not participate accordingly in those mechanisms, additional mechanisms were needed to either rehabilitate or remove those participants from the pool entirely. Threats to industry needed to be handled by a specialized labor pool, as did the recuperation of wounded laborers. Thus were born the social manipulations of schools, prisons, hospitals and the military – all of which were primarily targeted at “youth,” a classification in Western society which was not existent until the late 19th century. Phew!

All of that said, the modern functions of those institutions has been tweaked to meet modern needs: schools are largely for training the labor pool to become mass consumers as well as productive laborers; prisons are largely for the complete debilitation of entire segments of society that are regarded as having questionable value to consumerist culture; hospitals have become mere extensions of the marketplace; and the military serves the same function it always has, with “nation-building” (aka “marketplace expansion”) thrown in for good measure.

That’s my two cents, and is largely rooted in my conception of neoliberalism. While it doesn’t quite answer your question of where Montessori fits in, I think it rather reflects why she did not fit in – and rightly so. When interpreted against the backdrop of this analysis, Article 5 of the CRC, which wholly acknowledges Montessori, seems so far astray of the mainstream children’s rights movement that its no wonder neither it, nor she, gets any significant attention today – beyond the branding of schools in this country which weakly attach her name to their practices.

That’s the most clear statement I’ve made about the subject so far – even though I’ve tried to make it before. The analysis that is implicit here is supports my contention that kids aren’t just neglected, and that youth are just subjected to prejudice; rather, there is a systematic and thorough discounting of their innate abilities, and furthermore, a wholesale reprogramming of their roles in society, in order to further the economic mobility of the most upper classes. That sucks.

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"Why Do They Hate Us?"

“Our schools look like shopping malls.”
“My school looks like a prison.”
“People at shopping malls follow me around like I’m stealing things.”
“The army wants me to join them and then go to college.”
“The army wants to send you to die in Iraq.”
“For 100 years!”
“The curfew in my town is 10pm every night, and I have to get permission from the sheriff’s office to get a job.”
“I can’t find a job.”
“Social Security won’t be there for me when I’m old anyway.”
“They won’t hire me.”

“What is wrong with this country,” I thought to myself as I sat in on this classroom conversation last week. And suddenly, like a scene in a movie, a young woman in the back of the room blurted out,

“Why do they hate us?!?”

The rest of the class laughed, almost nervously. They’d heard the line on TV or seen it in print or on the Internet so many times that it was cliche now.

In the 1990s we were derisive about the sentiment that “youth are the future.” My colleagues and I, coworkers in nonprofits across the country who were barely out of our teens, thought that sentiment was old-fashioned and didn’t address the “hope/energy/creativity trust” that young people embody, that could be expended on positive, powerful solutions for today. Unfortunately, even concentrating on that idea seems to pale in comparison to the cold, harsh reality that young people face today.

The simple fact of the matter is that young people in the U.S. today face a net deficit of social prospects: the jobs, schooling, social fabric and democratic governance enjoyed by past generations appears to be falling apart right in front of their eyes. You and I both know they’re not ignorant to those changes, and last week I was jarred into feeling that again when I heard the follow-up to the rhetorical quip made by the high school junior in that class. After she asked, “Why do they hate us,” everyone laughed, then quieted down. As the room became hushed one guy spoke up and said, “Because we’re young.” As everyone smirked and someone said, “Huh,” the bell rang and the class shot out of their seats.

We, any youth activist or adult ally who is reading this right now, have work to do. It is urgent and it is vital. I am not talking in a metaphorical sense either: The young people of America need hope right now if the democratic experiment we have enjoyed, in any sense, is to continue. There are glimpses of possibility out there; its our responsibility to lift them up, share them out and help move them forward.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Activities that Address Adultism

I have recently made the acquaintance of an executive director for a nonprofit in Pennsylvania. We have carried on a dialog over the last several weeks that has been really neat, and I want to share with you another thought I just wrote to her. The other day she asked, “How do you show folks that young people are capable of SO much more than we know? I think about just giving them the opportunities to do things and make decisions and then I run into people who say, “They won’t tell us anything that we haven’t thought of ourselves.” I of course disagree, but how do we show the other side?” Here’s my response – let me know what you think!

I think that there are two steps to answering your questions, which are important ones:

1. Show folks the possibilities by showing them what has already been done. In addition to everything you can find on the Freechild and SoundOut websites, my friend Wendy Lesko has collected a great group of stories. Additionally, the What Kids Can Do website is packed with great stories that really show the reality and possibilities of youth involvement. Folks need to see what is possible. There are lots of cool, fun and engaging ways to present stories to groups – let me know if you want ideas.

2. Challenge people to see past their blinders by having them confront their discrimination head on. I describe this activity in the Washington Youth Voice Handbook in depth, but here’s the gist of one I use frequently to break down some mental barriers. Its particularly useful for age-divided groups, 4-6 youth in one group and 4-6 adults in another – but it can be used in any configuration for any size groups. I’ve led 100s at a time. Here ya go:

  • Give each group a seat around a piece of flip chart paper. Make sure each person has a marker, and ask one person from each group to divide the sheet into quadrants. Explain that you’re going to ask them to brainstorm “reality” with each other in order to get a clear idea of what we’re all thinking. Encourage each person to write something, be as honest as possible, and tell them that there are no right or wrong answers here – only their thoughts. Give them 5-10 minutes to answer each question.
  • In the upper right hand corner ask them to brainstorm answers to the question, “What are the best things about working with youth?” In the upper left hand corner, ask them to answer, “What are the best things about working with adults?” In the bottom right hand corner, “What are the most challenging things about working with youth?” and in the bottom left, “What are the most challenging things about working with adults?”
  • When everybody is finished ask each group to post their papers around the room, and then ask all the groups to get up and read each one to themselves.
  • When everyone has had the opportunity to read them, ask participants what stands out the most to them. What trends or patterns emerge? What is the weirdest thing they read? Then just have a free-flow conversation and see what emerges.

I think that activity could segue well into a frank conversation about the value each side brings to the table, which is vital for breaking down adultism. One of the perplexities of adultism is that it insists adults put themselves into positions of authority all of the time, which requires being right all of the time. I don’t know the last time you felt that obligation Jackie, but man, it stresses me out! So we’ve got a society ran by a bunch of well-meaning but powerfully stressed out adults who we’re asking to create space for youth to participate, let alone become equals with? Its no wonder they scoff! So this activity can help them identify – for themselves – the value, capacity and reality of involving youth.

The other thing I’d recommend is to lead by example. Involve youth in facilitating, advocating, speaking, cheering, anythinging as often as possible – and model youth/adult partnerships, not simple adult leadership disguised as allyship. That will give you more credibility with all sides.

I love to answer great questions and share conversations. Keep ’em coming!

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Rethinking Youth-Adult Partnerships

Last month I received a copy of a new report out from the National 4-H Council called 4-H YIG National Report: Youth-Adult Partnerships in Community Decision Making: What Does it Take to Engage Adults in the Practice? In this summary of stellar new research from Shep Zeldin and Julie Petrokubi from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, along with Carole MacNeil from the UC-Davis, studies continues to answer the research protocol Zeldin’s team boldly proposed back in 2000-2001. The report details, in depth, several important points that advocates and practitioners need in order to do this work:

  • Theory, research and practice behind youth-adult partnerships
  • 4-H’s model of youth development and the promotion of youth-adult partnerships
  • Research questions and methods
  • Findings focused on challenges of implementing youth-adult partnerships
  • Recommendations for creating the conditions for youth-adult partnerships

However, while the report hits on all the cylinders it needs to, I find it is sorely lacking several important components. Somewhere within the field of youth advocacy there is a blatant lack of critical thinking about one’s one work. While this report addresses challenges facing youth-adult partnerships (p 18), it does not mention the challenges of youth-adult partnerships. One of the main challenges is the crisis of social justice inherent within the frameworks of youth-adult partnerships:

The reason we need partnerships between young people and adults is because as it stands, society treats young people as less-than human.

If you are black or brown, the situation is worse still. In some communities, if you are a young woman that is worse; in others, for young men it is worse. In schools, it is almost the same straight across the board. Simply put, that treatment and the sentiment behind it must stop. The dilemma of the historical model of youth-adult partnerships examined within this report is that it relies on the continuation of that model, and worse still, it perpetuates it to some extent.

I want to go far as to propose that we adopt Malcolm X’s notion that sitting at the lunch counter isn’t enough – young people should own it, too. There must be complete investment and parity within the heart and mind of the individual young person in order to ensure the values that we purportedly strive for, which according to Zeldin, et al, is “authentic youth participation”, which ultimately is a “fundamental tenant of democracy” (p 3).

Let’s rethink youth-adult partnerships and go beyond this simplistic notion that having enough youth in enough activities in enough organizations is enough democracy. That is the problem of American democracy today: people think there is enough. This traditional model of youth-adult is not enough, simply because there is more! There are more young people, more adults, more opportunities and more outcomes we can and should expect from these relationships.

Tomorrow I’ll write about what I think that is. In the meantime I would suggest that you check out this report, along with related materials, on the National 4-H website. Also, check out this new article on Wikipedia for a preview of where I’m going with this.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Youth Rights on the March

Its difficult to build a movement, and even harder when you are young. Last month after 7 years of aspiring to build a nonprofit and struggling once my board of directors received 501c3 status from the IRS, I folded CommonAction. I earned a few grants, got a few contracts, but there simply was not enough support to warrant the full-time operation of The Freechild Project and SoundOut.

So its with a great sense of awe and pride that I share the story of my friend and hero, Alex Koroknay-Palicz. Yesterday the Washington Post featured Alex in a spread called “Age Is Just a Number: Youth Rights Advocate Tries to Break Down Barriers to Adulthood”. Its a nice piece that centers on Alex’s activism, and should help bring awareness to the National Youth Rights Association, and the youth rights movement as a whole. Congrats Alex!

Here’s where you can read the article. You can also talk about it on NYRA’s forum, read the history of NYRA on Freechild, and learn about the youth rights movement in the U.S. from an article I wrote on Wikipedia. Oh, and for the fun of it, here’s Alex’s blog – he’s all over the place in a great way – and an interview my SoundOut advisor Adam King did with Alex in 2005.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

A Future So Bright…

Who do they write these articles for? In a recent edition of Fast Company, a “cutting edge” business magazine, editors paired up a high school student from California with a corporate scientist to talk about technology. They chose a senior from a private religious school tucked away by a golf course in the Bay Area.

Not being one to rant, but come on. This article was clearly written for the demographic the magazine represents. The student says things like, “The future is exciting,” “Society puts too much pressure on teens… to have a plan,” and “I’ll follow the path as I go, I suppose.” The picture of her takes up 1/4 of the page, and she’s striking a painfully cliché pose; her “counterpart” looks thoughtfully at her, as if he is really paying attention (see right). Meanwhile, he’s blowing past her dialog with bullets like his opening salvo, “We are experiencing a ‘Cambrian explosion’ of innovations that will impact every aspect… [blah blah blah- insert empty rhetoric here].”

The magazine juxtaposes the scientist’s pompous adultisms against the student’s “naive” criticisms. And I’ll give her credit – she is critical. She voices concerns that everyone she knows is plugged into media while the world is whizzing past them. He just keeps drilling this notion that “the future’s so bright”.

However, what’s at issue here isn’t the way these two interact, but rather what and how they are interacting. First, let’s take a look at some statistics. According to CIRCLE, there are 40.7 million 18-29 year-old citizens in the United States, over twice the number of 66-77 year-olds. The scientist in this article is pushing 65. And the population of young people today is almost as large as the population of young people was when the baby boomer generation was young. Also, the population of young people of color is steadily increasing, while the population of young white people is decreasing.

All this is to say that if the conversation in this magazine was to truly representative of a conversation that might actually happening in America today it would sound and act entirely different from what is represented here. Try it: First find a young person who you can have a 6-paragraph-long conversation with, and then ask them what the future looks like to them. Challenge them, encourage them to challenge you, and have a conversation – don’t just give them the floor. Then read the Fast Company article here and compare your results. Let me know what happens.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Worth Repeating: Warning: your children are not in danger

This article from London’s The Independent is worth repeating. Joan Bakewell, a respected television personality who was born in 1933, wrote the piece and it was published yesterday. We need to grab a hold of the support of anyone who stands alongside young people as an ally and advocate, and I think Bakewell is a perfect example. Here is her editorial. Thanks to Mike Males for forwarding this on.

Warning: your children are not in danger

Published: 07 September 2007

Back to school and the worries start. In fact they start before that first day of term. Apparently young children confronting their first day at school are subject to stress. Well, you would be. We all were. But is that any bad thing?

The response to this news implies that it is a matter of deep concern and that we should all be anxious about children being stressed. The daisy chain of worrying about worrying now infects our entire life cycle. Of course the media need stories and sociologists need subjects to research, otherwise no grants and no career. But might the whole thing be getting out of control? Is life seriously more risky now than it once was?

Anecdotal evidence is heard on every hand. My generation are particularly nostalgic for the days when we played in bombed-out buildings, walked to school alone and played away from home the live-long day without supervision or fear. The truth is you only get bombed-out buildings where bombs have been falling – very high risk – and it wasn’t unknown, those live-long days, to meet men in macintoshes who would give us a quick flash and a sheepish smile. We never told anyone because we didn’t know quite how to describe what we had seen.

There’s a certain elderly bravado, also, about declaring how in our day we all had measles, mumps and chicken pox, along with the rest of the class. We don’t mention that some of us had polio, too, and were crippled for life. Nostalgia is selective. The health and welfare of young people has never been better than it is today.

But many things have changed and one of them is the way we regard risk in our lives. We want to eliminate it entirely, living lives so safe and secure that you could die of boredom. We certainly want to protect our own families, especially the young, from the multitude of menaces that surround us, menaces that once just seemed part of being alive.

Now we are better informed than we ever were about the nature of disease, infection, the efficacy of drugs, the prospect of further scientific advances. Nonetheless we are fearful and suspicious about the MMR vaccine, alarmed by scientific tests that throw up horrific results such as those at Northwick Park Hospital where six healthy men suffered multiple organ failure after volunteering for clinical tests. We are and suspicious, too, of a pharmacology industry that lost our trust after the thalidomide catastrophe. That was the moment when the apparent blessings of science turned into a nightmare. We have never felt safe about new medical and pharmacological procedures since that time.

That’s why there is such suspicion of the MMR vaccine today. A warning went out this week that things could be getting serious. So many parents are now failing to give their children the two-dose treatment that there have been 480 cases of measles this year, 120cases in Hackney alone in the last three months. Children are being put at risk of a potentially fatal disease for fear of a risk – that of autism – that remains unproven.

The MMR vaccine was first introduced in 1988, and by 1992 more than 90 per cent of children were being given the jabs. The numbers went on rising until 10 years later when Dr Andrew Wakefield published an article in The Lancet, setting out the possibility that some children who had autism may have developed it as a consequence of the vaccine.

Dr Wakefield’s research is currently under exacting scrutiny by the medical regulators of the General Medical Council. But the public didn’t wait. Some 2,000 families in the UK began taking legal action, claiming that their children had been damaged. Plenty more agonise over what to do. Many of them opt for the process of having each of the vaccines separately. They are caught in the dilemma of balancing risk against risk.

The medical authorities deplore what is happening. Dr Liam Donaldson, England’s chief medical officer, says people are playing Russian roulette with the health of the country’s children. Could he be exaggerating the risk?

Since the flight from the vaccine in 1998, there has been only one death from measles. Other children have borne what is an uncomfortable and distressing illness and recovered. There is, yes, a mild epidemic of measles in certain areas. How are we to gauge whether it will become the killer disease the phrase Russian roulette would suggest? Is it legitimate to be alarmist to drive your message home? Won’t it simply increase a sense of bewilderment and panic?

The way we perceive children at risk is often through the prism of our own personalities and how we respond to the alarmist nature of news coverage. In fact, the incidence of accidents of all kinds, including traffic accidents, drownings, suicides, and murders, have shown a decline in Britain in recent years. Statistics suggest that rates of child abuse have decreased too, though prosecutions for cruelty have risen.

Newspapers are rightly fulfilling their obligation to inform us where neglect, culpability and just plain cruelty are evident. But that has to be balanced in our own minds against the millions of lives that make no headlines because they are so normal and so safe. Other headlines, of course, rightly report straightforward stupidity. The casual exposing of small children to vicious dogs is beyond any kind of risk assessment.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

My Review of “Bringing It Together”

Bringing It Together: Uniting Youth Organizing, Development and Services for Long-Term Sustainability was written by K. Zimmerman, M. Chow and T. James for the Movement Strategy Center. This is my review for The Freechild Project.


The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the a rush of youth-led activism in America, focusing a variety of issues including social justice, school improvement, and so-called “youth liberation”. The issues were highlighted through a variety of actions, including protest marches, rallies, and teach-ins, with riots, arrests, and curfews as regular results. Analyses within various efforts identified corporatization, militarism, and elitism as the forces to fight against.

Unfortunately, many people today- including youth and adults- bemoan the lack of those specific actions in these dangerous times. Many well-meaning liberal activists collectively yearn for the action embodied “back in the day.” However, after leading The Freechild Project for five years, I have consistently found that while youth activists share analyses with the past, the actions of youth organizations are more sophisticated than ever before – and that’s a good thing. A new report from the Movement Strategy Center calledBringing It Together: Uniting Youth Organizing, Development and Services for Long-Term Sustainability gives ample evidence that youth activism has “grown up” – and beyond a hunch, they show exactly why that is right and good for young people and communities today.

Similar to their popular youth co-created report Making Spaces-Making Change, [read a review here] in Bringing It Together the Movement Strategy Center spotlights six organizational case studies from youth-led and youth-driven organizations on the West Coast. As the subtitle of the report states, there are many correlations between youth organizing, youth development, and youth services. Throughout this piece the authors show how a growing number of organizations are intentionally uniting those approaches to provide a more holistic, supportive, and sustainable model of social change “as part of a very long-term vision for social justice movement building and healthy living.” If only more youth-serving organizations were so intentional.

The organizations featured here work in diverse communities, including Latino/a migrants, African American teens, an American Indian reservation, inner city communities, and LBGTQ youth. The issues are just as disparate: cultural awareness, women’s empowerment, education reform, voter registration, immigrant rights, and a bevy of other topics. That is what makes the authors’ findings about the common approaches to innovation between these groups that much more startling: the threads weave together to create a strong, empowering, and sustainable course of action. More importantly, they form a brilliantly effective strategy for social change on multiple fronts, including community organizing and cultural awareness, youth development and community services.

Throughout the report, the depth of analysis and possibility for field movement becomes startlingly clear. By clearly delineating each program’s history, goals, approaches, structure, partnerships, and progress, the authors continually move beyond the current rhetoric and postulating popular among numerous youth organizing intermediaries. Their observations and recommendations succeed in creating a vibrantly accessible and teachable framework for an integrated approach to youth action.

Through very approachable writing and research methods, the authors call the failure of many youth-serving organizations to put their work into a larger context to task in a very subtle way. As Paulo Freire often wrote, there is nothing neutral about our presence in the world, and before we can begin to change the world, we have to name it and critically understand it. Youth workers reading this report may find the authors’ explanation of the “Resource Power Triangle” particularly effective way of transforming their regular approaches into non-traditional action.

Getting back to the history: within 20 years, by the late 1970s, many observers and former participants from said that the American “youth movement” was dead. The American Indian Movement and the Black Panthers had been brutally suppressed; Students for a Democratic Society and Weather Underground imploded; Youth Liberation morphed, hippies became yuppies, and the rest is history.

Or is it? Since the late 1980s and early 90s the new movement has been growing. Today’s activists are standing on the shoulders of giants, yet creating space for themselves as well. The authors of this report note that “we are living at the end of the era of the New Deal.” George Bush’s so-called “ownership society,” paralleled by the increasing promotion of the importance of “social entrepreneurship,” is tearing apart the historical fabric of public responsibility in the US. This study shares scholar Henry Giroux’s analysis of the effects of neoliberalism on low-income youth and young people of color, as schools close, prisons swell, health programs end, and public programs become privatized.

The Movement Strategy Center’s new report illustrates- without a doubt- that youth-led community organizing is responsive, effective, wide-ranging, sophisticated, and powerful. This document is a vital contribution to further understanding, growth and hope for the future of our communities.


Title: Bringing It Together: Uniting Youth Organizing, Development and Services for Long-Term Sustainability

Authors: K. Zimmerman, M. Chow and T. James

Publisher: Movement Strategy Center