This is me facilitating a parent workshop in Yakima, Washington, in 2011.
When parent engagement is supported, students can truly succeed throughout education. Parents must be empowered to be fully partners with educators and students if education is going to meet the needs of the modern era. These Rules for Parent Engagement in Schools offer those guidelines.
5 Rules for Parent Engagement in Schools
1. Seek authentic engagement.
Keep it real: Open the door for real parent engagement right now.
Learning to listen, validate, authorize, mobilize, and reflect on schools is important for parent engagement.
Seek nothing less than full parent-student-teacher partnerships for every learner in school.
Expecting action action means not letting any member of the school community be apathetic.
2. Foster mutual respect.
Respect is mutual: You give it, you receive it.
A culture of respect shatters stereotypes based on roles in schools.
Parents respect educators who listen and engage in challenging action.
A culture of respect provides all people the opportunity to act on their best intention for students and learn from their mistakes.
3. Provide constant communication.
Listen up: An honest and open exchange of ideas is crucial.
Parents are best heard when educators step back and parents speak up.
Educators are best heard when they are straight up and explain where they’re coming from.
All people’s ideas and opinions are valuable and must be heard.
4. Build investment.
It takes time: Investing in the future is accepting that parents can be more engaged right now.
Parents and educators must first set their fears aside and take a chance on each other.
Educators must provide parents with the information, education and support they will need to succeed. They must also develop their own ability to engage parents.
Strong parent/school partnerships require patience and courage.
5. Promote meaningful involvement
Count us in: Decisions about students should be made with parents and students.
Educators need to support parents in taking on responsibility based on what they can do, not what they have done.
Reflection helps everyone appreciate the importance of schools – for themselves, for students, for their communities.
Parents and educators must hold each other accountable for all their decisions and actions. Everyone should continually challenge the impact of schools on students.
Where These Rules Came From
For all these years that I’ve had the privilege of advocating student engagement in schools, I’ve had a more important job that I’ve wrestled through too. Well, at least for the last ten years. The most important thing I’ve ever done with any of my time is be a dad, and that my most important job.
An vital part of being an active dad has been my daughter Hannah’s education. Being raised by two people who are passionate about learning, teaching, and leadership in schools, Hannah has had very strong advocates for her education since she entered preschool, and before. Her mother and I have constantly worked at keeping Hannah in learning situations that are not only safe, healthy, and whole, but vibrant and relevant to her specific learning style. This has meant a lot of personal wrangling and negotiation, but always with Hannah at the center.
For all these years I’ve been concerned with the reality that for as deeply vested in our daughter’s education as we are, the schools Hannah has attended have mostly been less-than fully capable of engaging us as parents. In the past, we have been pointed about not revealing our professional stakes as Hannah’s parents. That said, there are many missteps that I’ve experienced from Hannah’s teachers, school leaders, and other parents attempting to promote parent engagement.
That’s where these rules of parent engagement in schools were born – my work as a guerrilla researcher in human engagement, as well as my experience as a parent. Thanks for reading them, and let me know what you think!
Fighting to free the world and struggling to free yourself are not independent; you need to do one in order to do the other.
Buried somewhere out there in the world is the belief that people who are working to make the world a better place are somehow being ultimately selfless, acting only in the interest of others and living comfortably in the guise of righteousness. In the meantime, there are people who are entrenched in the belief that the only thing they need to worry about in the world is their self.
This argument is false from either perspective. You cannot save yourself without becoming tied up in the plight of making the world a better place; freeing yourself frees others, too. Some people who believe that they can only help themselves also believe they have nothing to give to others, or that they can’t do for others what others should be doing for themselves. None of that is wrong – but it’s not fully right, either.
Being fully consumed with others’ well-being is said to be a fool’s game too, if only because anytime we interact with another person we inherently change them; there are no objective interactions, just like Schrödinger’s cat taught us.
So accept that you have a place in the world. That place is to help others and to help yourself. Neither is in opposition to the other.
As any expression of any young person about anything, anywhere, at any time, Youth Voice happens in countless places in every community every day. This includes schools, businesses, alleys, sidewalks, libraries, city halls, government agencies, afterschool programs, summer camps, foundations, nonprofits, community centers, at home, on the streets, and in parks. Youth Voice happens in these places; whether its heard is another question altogether.
Each of these places has a special assignment for children and youth:
In schools, young people are assigned to be students
In businesses, youth are assigned youth to be shoppers
In libraries, young people are assigned to be readers
In alleys, youth are assigned to be vandals, thieves, or street artists
In summer camps, youth are assigned to be campers
On the streets, young people are assigned to be innocent, gang members, or bad drivers
And so on…
All of these expectations are not inherently bad; they show that young people are seen. The issue may be that they aren’t seen fairly, or justly, or accurately, or according to their own self-identification. Instead, they’re assigned roles by adults that generally benefit adults.
But they do offer an opportunity to identify where Youth Voice can happen. There are other places where young people never go, but that affect them every day. Adults don’t often consider it, but these sorts of
places are all over:
City halls makes decisions about laws, regulations, planning, and programs affecting young people
School district offices make decisions about classes, budgets, and curriculum for students
Hospitals focus their services on young patients
Community centers and neighborhood associations are for young people
Businesses choose what young people will like and sell them on wanting it
Again, these places are not bad, only under-informed.
Youth Voice Is For Living
Youth Voice can—and does—happen throughout our society, in the places where young people belong and the places that affect them. That includes large geographic areas; small learning communities; outdoors in nature, and in homes, hospitals, hospices, and hallways in our neighborhoods, schools, halls, legislatures, and across the state.
Youth Voice happens in different types of institutions, organizations, and communities across our communities, too. Following are several different types, as well as considerations for those Youth Voice activities.
Youth Voice Where Young People Live: Youth Voice begins at home. There are a lot of ways that young people can contribute to decision-making that directly affects them every single day. This can include helping plan meals and decorating their own bedrooms, as well as decisions that affect the whole family, like whether moving across town is a good idea, or when its time to buy a new couch, comparing buying a new one versus a used one. Youth Voice at home is encouraged by having children advocate for their own needs (with consideration to others’ needs), speak up for themselves to adults, and by adults advocating for their children when needed. Where Youth Voice happens has to do with where young people actually live. Young people who live in suburban areas have different circumstances to consider than those who live in large cities, rural towns, or island communities. Those differences are significant, and they matter when trying to engage children and youth.
Youth Voice is for Suburban Communities: On the outskirts of cities around the world, suburban communities face unique challenges engaging young people. These sometimes include trying to connect with families who are new to the area. Suburban youth may feel they lack a focus or reason to making Youth Voice real, as they may see many of their needs already met. It can be difficult to physically involve young people who are physically disconnected from each other by lack of roads or public transportation. Suburban communities may also have high numbers of young people who are at home alone after school and who lack parental support for participating in Youth Voice programs. It is also difficult to incubate Youth Voice in communities that lack a physical center or downtown. Belonging is central to Youth Voice.
Youth Voice is for Rural Communities: Small towns and remote areas share some issues in common with suburban communities. They both have challenges with transportation, and getting to any central geographic “hub” can be tough. These communities face other challenges as well, including what some people call “brain drain.” This phrase usually summarizes the loss rural communities feel when large percentages of young people move away because of a lack of opportunities. Young people who stay in the area may feel like they live in a “black hole” where their voices, their dreams, and their lives never escape. Small, local economies suffer when there is a blow to the area, such as the loss of an important industry or lack of highway access. The resulting poverty can make it difficult for young people to feel hopeful, as if they don’t have any ability to create change in their lives or the lives of their communities. Hope is central to Youth Voice.
Youth Voice is for Urban Communities: Inner-city areas rely on hope. The experience of many urban youth shows that urban neglect, a common issue in inner-city neighborhoods across the state, can steal hope. For many young people it is hard to feel hopeful when you don’t have food on the table. Safe schools, glaring financial inequities, and negative relationships between youth and police are a sampling of the issues urban youth face. Other communities where there are particular challenges and rewards of engaging young people. They include isolated communities in extremely rural areas, Native American reservation communities where culture and heritage is strong, and military base communities with largely transient populations.
Youth Voice Is For Learning Learning in classrooms, after-school programs, at home, or around the community provides excellent opportunities to engage young people. Children and youth can share responsibility for planning what they want to learn, how they want to learn it, and where they learn. They can work with adults to create realistic, tangible learning goals; when finished, young people can evaluate their accomplishments, learning experiences, and learning environments. In schools and community centers, young people can help teachers discover which teaching strategies are most effective and what methods work best. Youth Voice can help education administrators make student-centered decisions, and policy-makers create more effective laws and regulations that govern schools. young people are also engaged when students lead classes, research learning, plan new schools, and advocate for education.
Youth Voice is for Classrooms: The pressure is on schools to improve teaching and learning. As educators struggle to encourage achievement from kindergarten to twelfth-grade, they are discovering Youth Voice makes a difference.
Youth Voice throughout Schools: Students are also working to change schools in other ways. Out-of-school programs provide young people with safe, supportive environments to expand their learning in healthy, constructive ways. However, these programs share the responsibility schools have by needing to actively strive to engage young people in meaningful learning. Youth Voice can be a source for those experiences.
Youth Voice is for Community Centers: Youth Voice doesn’t happen in a vacuum. By involving young people in recreational activities with adults and seniors, our communities grow stronger and stay together longer. Dances, game nights, and block parties encourage youth to mix with adults in safe places; classes and training opportunities that bring adults and young people together help them learn from each other and see each other as partners, not enemies. Youth can also make good staff at community centers when they’re engaged in leading and growing programs.
Youth Voice is for Parks and Recreation Programs : Green spaces, play places, and nature are important to everyone—especially children and youth. Who better to help plan and grow outdoor areas than those who use them? Young people can learn through service projects in parks about biology, ecology, and neighborhood design; and park staff can discover what works best in parks. Youth Voice can also activate in parks leadership, advisory councils, advocacy campaigns for better parks, program evaluation and park redesign.
Youth Voice is for Libraries: Public libraries can bring together communities by making knowledge accessible to young people and adults. Young people are encouraged by youth-friendly spaces that are designed with young people. Featuring a section to the interests of young people, like popular culture and youth action, and hiring youth as staff, are both positive strategies. Youth have also served as full members on library guidance committees.
Youth Voice is for After-School Programs: Programs that affect young people most can engage young people most effectively, purposefully, and deliberately. After school programs for children and youth can focus on Youth Voice, responding to what young people see as their most pressing needs and fulfilling their grandest dreams. Rather than adults designing programs from their imaginations, program coordinators are looking to youth for inspiration, guidance, support, and leadership. Many programs have engaged young people as program planners, project leaders, and as program evaluators.
Youth Voice Is For Government
While youth programs and schools are logical places where Youth Voice happens, there are more public places where it is increasingly essential to infuse children and youth as partners with adults.
Youth Voice is for City Hall: Local governments are in the unique position of being able to foster and support Youth Voice as a benefit the whole community. Many towns and cities have created youth advisory councils where Youth Voice measures the impact of regulations and laws affecting youth. Other municipalities have actually created positions for young people on existing committees including parks and recreation, libraries, and community planning.
Youth Voice is for Government Agencies: Young people can be effectively engaged by local and state government administrators who are committed to serving communities. Research, program planning, budget decisions, and other activities have each been completed by children and youth serving on special committees, advisory boards, action councils, and in youth staff positions.
Youth Voice is for the State Legislature: A growing number of politicians, lobbyists, and state government officials are relying on Youth Voice to make their policy decisions more effective, responsive, and inclusive of their constituents.
How often do young people actually think about, share, and act on their ideas, knowledge, opinions, and experiences in these places?
Where should Youth Voice be that it is not right now?
Are the differences between types of communities important enough to note?
How does Youth Voice need to change for your communities?
What communities are missing from the Youth Voice conversation in general?
Youth engagement happens way into young adulthood. During one of my recent training events, participants were fixated on the end of youth. “When is youth over?” “How do youth move on?” “Can we just declare a youth finished?”
“Youth” is never finished. We are all always youth, and we can never truly leave our youth behind us. I believe that “Youth,” as a time of life, is about change at home, in school, and throughout our lives. However, its also a place in-and-of-itself. To paraphrase Alfie Kohn, youth aren’t just adults-in-the-making. Youth are people right now. Sure, youth change and move and shift, but adults do that too.
Youth engagement is no different from this. The foundation of engagement we experience (or do not experience) as youth stays with us for all of our lives. As youth become young adults, communities and organizations can foster and sustain their engagement. One important way to do that is to teach youth about giving back what they have received, or reciprocity. This powerful transition moves young people from being those who are engaged to being those who engage others.
Young adulthood is a cautionary place in time though. The forces of work, college, and social life pull at the desire to be involved throughout communities. As a consequence, many young adults become disengaged from the activities that once sustained them. That makes it essential to develop and maintain partnering relationships with young adults as they move along this transition. Our programs, organizations, and communities need to encourage young adults to stay connected through concrete action and involvement throughout their communities.
Do not let go of young adults. Spend time together so they learn what responsible adults do, from bill-paying to participating in committees to leading protests. Teach young adults that adulthood is about responsibility and privilege in equal measures, and they will neither turn away from it nor lose their connection with youth.
All young people can be engaged fully and wholly, everyday in every way. I have spent a career promoting the concept of an engaged world for all people, especially children and youth. Studying others practices, conducting research, and doing my work, I have come to define youth engagement as the sustained connections young people have to the world within and around them. I teach individuals, organizations, and communities that becoming engaged in any way affects everybody. Read this list and learn how that can happen.Youth engagement can happen in every way you can imagine. Here are a few different options for adults who want to engage young people in conscious, deliberate ways.
111 Ways To Engage Youth
Video Games—Play and encourage play, and be where youth are right now.
Home—Get youth engaged in their day-to-day life.
Family—Engage with young people in your family, including your children, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews, and others.
Learning—Find ways to engage youth in their own learning at SoundOut.org.
Water—Engaging youth in the surface cover of 72% of Earth includes swimming, drinking, and protecting it.
Beauty—Becoming engaged in beautiful things can mean a lot to the young people around you.
Empowerment—Young people experiencing empowerment throughout their lives and within themselves is engaging.
Work—Engaging in what youth make money on may be the key to transforming communities.
Reading—Exploring literature about new topics, interests, or art can be engaging for children and youth.
Play—Find engaging ways for youth to dig into the things they have fun doing and allow them to enjoy it more.
Hospitals—Develop sustained connections with young people who are recovering and emerging from care.
Breathing—Get young people consciously engaged in the moment-by-moment function of living, with purpose.
Advocacy—Standing with others and empowering the powerless can be very engaging for young people.
Self-Empowerment—Youth can engage within themselves and discover the roles they have in the world within themselves.
Art—Engaging children and youth in art can mean creating it, viewing it, critiquing it, and more.
Peace—Fostering nonviolence in lives of young people and the lives of others can be very engaging for children and youth.
Friendships—Developing short or long term connections with people they choose can engage youth.
Wildlife—Young people surveying animals, studying birds, sustainable fishing and hunting can all be engaging.
Communication—It can be engaging for children and youth to share thoughts and wisdom with others in creative or direct ways.
Skating—Young people who like skateboarding are often very passionate about it. Skate with them.
Pets—Engaging in sustained connections to the animals young people keep as pets or helping others doing the same.
Critical Thinking—Developing sustained connections with the honest, authentic, and real responses of young people can be engaging.
Parks—Go and walk, lay, eat, draw, paint, climb, run, paddle, swim, and have fun with young people, and encourage them to do the same.
Friendships—The people youth spend recreational time with want to be engaged with, too.
Physical Activity—Movement by young people that supports healthy bodies can be very engaging.
Ethnic Backgrounds—Engage young people in learning about the backgrounds of people from specific places.
Nature—Find youth engagement in the gardens, forests, ocean, lawns, and air around you.
Neighboring—Actively knowing and interacting with the people around us can be engaging for young people.
Community—Stand with people youth relate to and engage with them.
Culture—Engage children and youth in the shared attitudes, traditions, and actions of a connected background.
Libraries—Be in these public places designed to share free learning with young people and adults.
Coaching—Engage young people in providing encouragement and support to others trying to achieve things.
Music—Sharing melodies with young people can be very engaging.
Health—Getting engaged in their health and well-being can connect young people deeply within themselves.
Graffiti—Engage young people in creating street art that means something to them.
Community Centers—Get young people engaged in the places where community is fostered in play and sharing.
Anti-Racism—Young people challenging racist thinking and action can be very engaging for them.
Meaning-Making—Any activity that helps young people make meaning out of their lives and the world they live in can be engaging for them.
Music—When young people listen, share, create, dream, sleep, and breathe music, they become engaged in the sounds of life.
Place-Based Connections—Living rural, urban, or broadly can be engaging for young people when done intentionally.
Hanging Out—Show young people that you, as an adult, have the ability to chill out and relax.
Teaching—Facilitating others learning experiences can be a deep avenue for youth engagement.
Homemaking—When youth are parents, nurture family by building their capacities can engage them.
Mediation—Developing deep connection within oneself can engage children and youth.
Self-Development—Engage young people in challenging negative assumptions or building skills and knowledge.
Globalization—Engaging young people in enriching world perspectives and uniting cultures.
Hiking—Walking, climbing, and otherwise traveling by foot can be very engaging for young people.
Nonprofits—Engaging young people with staff who are building on missions to help the world, or supporting them to start their own.
Poetry—Engaging young people in the feelings, motions, ideas, and thoughts of others and themselves can happen through poetry.
Refugees—Supporting people who escape from oppression or suffering can be engaging for young people.
Love—Young people can know the greatest engagement in deep love for the universe and all that is within it.
Cooking—Engaging young people in foods and meal-making can be sustained throughout a lifetime.
Homelessness—Create lasting connection with youth, families, and others without a permanent home can engage young people.
Farming—Growing food and consuming local farm food can deeply engage children and youth.
Heritage—Youth can become engaged in the history of their neighborhood, family, or other identity.
Disconnection—Engaging young people in fostering healthy disconnection and bridging new engagements can be vital.
Construction—Fostering lifelong connections for young people to build homes and places for others matters.
Volunteering—Engaging children and youth in supporting others, places, or issues can be rich and exciting.
Relief—When places cannot get enough of what they need, it is engaging for young people to provide relief.
Nutrition—Learning about healthy eating, food knowledge, and diverse food sourcing is engaging for young people.
Sports—Being engaged in athletic play, competition, or achievement can be sustained for all children and youth.
Finances—Engaging young people in personal, community, organizational, or cultural economics can be rich.
Politics—Develop lasting connections between young people and the formal and informal structures of influence and power.
Crafts—Creating homemade supplies, arts, food, clothing, and other items can be engaging for young people.
Social Action—Protest, picket, tweet, facebook, teach, advocate, evaluate… do whatever you can to engage young people in social change that changes the world.
Orphans—Engage young people with children and youth without parents through play, mentoring and other ways.
Schools—Young people can teach, learn, or help others do the same in the formal places where education happens.
Outdoor Education—Deep connections by young people in participating in and facilitating outdoor learning can change the world.
Responsibility—Engaging children and youth in the topic of responsibility, especially personally and socially can be very engaging.
Decision-Making—Lean into the decisions young people make everyday to engage them meaningfully.
Play—Do fun things, and show that as an adult, you value play no matter what age other people are.
Government—Engage children and youth deeply in the social structures designed to ensure all people can engage.
Education—Engaging in the challenges and opportunities others face in learning can change young people’s lives.
Small Business—Supporting and creating local, small, and nimble business can be very engaging for children and youth.
Writing—Making imagination and knowledge pour on paper can be engaging for young people.
Travel—Becoming engaged in visiting places children and youth aren’t familiar with can defeat ignorance.
Restoration—To engage young people in bringing life to old things can be enlightening and powerful.
Evaluation—Looking at their own life, the world they live in, and the people they are engaged with can engage young people deeply.
Repairs—Fixing broken things can be engaging for children and youth.
Protesting—Engage young people in sharing concerns with lawmakers and officials about issues that concern them.
Internet—Youth can engage in connecting, learning, and creating content on the web.
Reporting—Engage young people in sharing news, stories, and details with others in dynamic ways.
Senior Centers—In can be very engaging for children and youth to be with wisdom as it goes towards the end of life.
Tutoring—Helping other learners discover their capabilities in any topic can be very engaging for young people.
Strategic Thinking—Young people can become engaged in new and logical avenues for seeing wisdom.
Environmental Restoration—Engage children and youth in rebuilding and enriching the natural cycle of life on Earth.
Emergencies—Engaging young people with others in times of need and crises matters immensely.
Clubs—Connecting over professional and personal interests can be engaging for children and youth.
Censorship—Engaging young people in examining, challenging, testing, and changing censorship can be engaging.
Philanthropy—Engage young people with issues that matter by fundraising and giving money to causes.
Trees—Examining, learning, reforesting, planting, preserving, or caring for trees can be engaging for children and youth.
Media-making—Engage young people in creating websites, newspapers, television, videos, and other media.
Fun—Engage children and youth in creating, becoming part of, or expanding fun in their own life or with others.
Exploring—Exploring new spaces and examining where they already live can be engaging for young people.
Rights—Examining what rights are, what they aren’t, and how to have them respected matters can deeply engage young people.
Languages—Engaging young people in languages can mean listening, speaking, or exploring communication.
Solar Power—Connecting children and youth deeply with alternative energy can change the world and themselves.
Identity Issues—Fostering and exploring connectivity between and within identities can be engaging for young people.
Playgrounds—Engaging young people in play with other young people is supporting their development and your community.
Clothing—Establish deep connections with other’s and their own clothing needs by making, critiquing, and distributing clothes.
Dance—Creative movement, motion, rhythm, and melodic play can all be engaging activities for young people.
Self-Teaching—Learning new things and developing their understandings can be engaging for children and youth.
Inter-generational Partnerships—Engage young people in forming deep connections beyond their own age group.
Civic Action—Volunteering, voting, connecting, and building in communities can be engaging for young people.
Healthcare Access—Engaging young people in making sure everyone can access healthcare is important.
Service Learning—Connecting real learning goals with powerful community service can engage young people deeply.
Social Engagement—Fostering sustainable connections to the world around them is vital for all children and youth.
Personal Engagement—Recognizing the ways they’re engaged within themselves can be essential for young people.
Inequality—Bridging social, cultural, and structural differences can be engaging for all children and youth.
Dreaming—Envisioning the future, seeing alternate possibilities, and knowing how to use their imaginations engages young people.
I have written a lot about how to become more engaged, and simply acknowledging the things you’re already engaged in. How do you engage young people right now?
A lot of organizations don’t know where to begin with Youth Voice. They complain that young people don’t attend their activities, or that youth who do show up don’t have a voice. Building Youth Voice requires a deliberate strategy for action and transformation.
Eight Building Blocks For Youth Voice The following can be a checklist. If you want to engage Youth Voice in your youth-serving program or organization, ask yourself if you have the following building blocks.
The Foundation: A champion.
Do you have an individual in your organization who is leading youth engagement efforts? This person needs to be a champion who is knowledgeable, committed, and shares the experiences of youth you’re targeting. This is the most important step.
The Concrete: Commitment.
Does your organization’s Board of Directors value youth engagement beyond gestures or language by having 1/3 to 2/3rds of the seats on the Board filled by people under 30?
The Walls: Connectedness.
Are 50% of your Board members from the local neighborhood you’re serving? If you’re serving an entire city or county, do you recruit members reflecting the racial and socio-economic diversity of your area?
The Siding: Attachment.
Have you hired local youth or young adults into relevant positions within your organization? They must have local high school experiences and direct interaction with young people, and relevant training.
The Front Door: Relevance.
Does your organization have great programs relevant to youth in your area? They need a variety of educational, social, recreational, and other opportunities to be who they are, and to feel seen by your organization.
The Interior Design: Fun.
Do staff provide purely fun and social activities with no hidden agenda of selling them other programs or your organization’s goals? Do they fuse fun into the regular operating activities of the program?
The Yard: Broadening.
Do your youth programs connect young people beyond just your programs for them? Do they have opportunities to learn or play with adults, participate in community conversations, or do substantive activities with diverse community members?
The Sidewalk: Building.
No matter what your goals are, does your program seek to acknowledge the skills and knowledge young people already have and build upon them?
This is what has worked for the organizations CommonAction has worked with as we’ve founded more than 100 Youth Voice projects and programs in communities around the world.
What doesn’t work is using the same thinking that created the problem of youth disengagement to try to engage Youth Voice in your program or organization. Everything you’re doing is surely a necessary part of positive youth development, but just continuing on that pathway isn’t enough. Youth programs and youth-serving organizations cannot just be about any one issue anymore, and everyone has to focus on youth engagement. Engaging Youth Voice is a prime avenue to youth engagement. However, without these building blocks in place, young people will not be with you.
Finally, lead by example. Young people are watching everything you do right now, no matter who you are or what you do within your organization, community, or throughout your life. If you’re an aloof executive director who doesn’t make time to connect with youth in your organization’s programs, youth in your program will be that way too. If you’re a hyper-busy program worker with too much on their plate and little support, young people in your program will know that. So check yourself and lead by example.
Every program and organization can successfully engage Youth Voice, and its our ethical responsibility to do that. What are you gonna do today?!?
Democratic participation relies on individuals taking collective ownership and deliberate roles in the societies where they live. From the earliest age children have the interest in their neighbors and communities to warrant actively engaging them in democracy; research, and international practice codified in the CRC, demonstrates that their evolving capacities necessitate opportunities for their active involvement.
Children’s participation embraces these realities by connecting young people with meaningful opportunities to share their knowledge, ideas, actions, and more.
For a long time children’s participation was seen as the obligation of child-serving organizations only. Over the last decade we have seen the expansion of this concept as children’s participation is increasingly seen as essential in and by schools; local, regional and international governments; community development organizations; and in other sectors. Initially viewing children’s participation as effective marketing, businesses also have realized the necessity of actively engaging young people. Today, they continue to enrich their activities through technology. As recent developments in the Middle East have shown us, many activists are also realizing the potential of children’s participation, as indeed, many activists in that region are children.
Children’s participation is democratic participation, and serves to nurture all of the skills and knowledge young people need in order to be successful members of democratic society. By increasing the frequency of children’s participation, organizations and individuals can deepen the impact children have throughout society. This will help alleviate many of the worst conditions facing our world today, and help democracy transition to the new forms it will be required to have in the near future as technology and necessity continue to drive growth.
I started my first community organizing campaign with a group of friends when I was 14. Involved in formal and informal youth engagement work throughout my teens and early 20s, I got my first job supporting youth involvement and youth activism when I was 24. I haven’t stopped since then. Starting The Freechild Project when I was 25, I began reading the research supporting community organizing, activism, and social change insatiably. It’s been 13 years now, and I’ve seen a few things.
Some Observations about Social Change
Following are a few observations about changing the world that I could think of. Let me know what you think of them.
Anyone of any age can change the world.
A person’s depth of understanding about social justice isn’t limited to age. As a young person, I had experience and grew up in a community with a lot of deep experiences with discrimination, alienation, and segregation; lacking the verbiage to express their oppression, they turned to the language of action, creating community in gangs, generating income with drugs, expressing frustration through graffiti. Conversely, I’ve sat in rooms full of adult educators and youth workers and listened to self-proclaimed youth advocates pontificate about “us” and “them,” while they launched into diatribes about the ways young people act, dress, and talk… Ignorance knows no age, either.
Critical reflection is the gateway to social change.
In my experience, the “soundness” of an individual’s understanding about social justice is directly related to the amount of critical reflection they have engaged in. This can be both self- and community-reflection that questions our assumptions, values, and perspectives as we’ve experienced them in our own life. Paulo Freire, the acclaimed father of popular education, long espoused the necessity for oppressed peoples to critically examine their own actions as well as those of their oppressors. I have shared this experience with several groups of young people in their teens, and have heard about it done with younger people. The results of this may lead in many directions, including the “firm-groundedness” of which you speak. Many educators, including authors Ivan Illich and John Holt, have cited other outcomes, including broadened questioning of schools, government structures, and other social institutions. Personally, I’ve gained deeper ownership, commitment, and hope for the future through critical reflection.
Assumptions are ignorant.
There is a particular danger in saying, “You wouldn’t understand” to anyone. That gives many people permission to bombard others with righteousness, the type that popular media fills so much of our time with already. I have seen people with incredibly sophisticated, empathetic, and knowledgeable perspectives about social change; and again, I’ve seen others with extremely shallow understandings. Our perceptions shouldn’t be the determining factor for engaging people in social change work; interest and investment should be.
Authenticity means too much.
I think that by focusing on the whether peoples’ engagement is authentic, a lot of people are let “off the hook” because they don’t know how to give others their own space to speak, or how to engage them in collective community space. This is a form of scapegoating that easily reinforces the supposed “enigma” of engaging people. The real questions here may be, “Do we really want to hear the voices of other people?” and “Are we really looking for people who take risks and make decisions, or do we want to reaffirm our assumptions?”
After all, getting our ideas out of other people’s mouths is a ventriloquist’s trick, not a sign of meaningful engagement or autonomy. As a whole, society has so many attitudinal and structural barriers to engaging people that the question of whether or not anyone can or should actually become engaged needs to be answered first.
Don’t think simplistically.
The systems surrounding and encompassing all our lives are complex beasts. Thinking naively about them and trying to over-simplify them does no favors. Why do we think about having people involved in protests and rallies instead of their infusion throughout the “movement” as a whole? Where are people in the planning and decision-making processes that affect them most? It is vital to engaging people to move beyond tokenism and decoration, and their further engage and infuse everyone as leaders, teachers, and organizers throughout social their lives. When Saul Alinsky wrote, “True revolutionaries do not flaunt their radicalism. They cut their hair, put on suits and infiltrate the system from within,” this is what he was talking about.
Engaging people in changing the world is often trivialized by well-meaning people who, without conscious effort, often perpetuate discrimination of all kinds by patently denying others the opportunity to become deeply engaged. We must move from engaging people as decorations and start seeing everyone as a potential partners.
Popular assumptions don’t determine ability.
Media, politicians, and others are involved in a plot to turn identity-against-identity throughout American society in an attempt to keep people separate and incapable to work together. That’s made many organizers susceptible to their negative portrayals. However, in many cases the people who were supposedly least capable were the ones to make others aware of injustice. In one particularly poignant example, young people in the Philadelphia Students Union have led their communities in organizing for increased school funding, alternative school curricula, teacher pay raises, and more.
We have to dig into the reason WHY.
The crux of the issue is whether people truly understand why they are changing the world. Similar to many people, social change agents often believe that they are doing something for the “good” of doing it without exploring the meaning or purpose of their actions. This is how missionary-style service work has grown so popular in the U.S. and around the world, despite religious missionary work receding from popularity. Many community-based organizations actually exploit the oppressions of low-income communities and people of color in order to further their “service” work! Many of these same organizations use people as “safe” volunteers who don’t “safe” activities like picking up trash, serving homeless people meals, coloring pictures for grocery stores and politicians to hang in their windows. Is this meaningful social change? No. Is it “safe”? Yes. Are people told that it is valuable? Sure! And these things do have value, since the people who are leading the activities they reinforce their power over others, they are surely valuable to them. To the recipients of the service they exhibit the “proper” place for social change (arbitrary and irrelevant).
Everyone can be engaged in deep, meaningful, and powerful social change, if that’s what we want. If we want something else, we need to consider what that is and why we’re doing it.
An engaged world is one where everyone lives fully and wholly, everyday in every way. Since 2010, the bevy of consultants and trainers with CommonAction have been working across the U.S. and Canada to promote the concept of an engaged world. We define engagement as the sustained connections people have to the world within and around them. We teach that becoming engaged in any way affects everybody. Read this list and learn why.
Engagement can happen in every way you can imagine. Here are 100 ways to be engaged.
100 Ways to Engage the World
Home—Get engaged in your day-to-day life.
Family—Engage with people you are born to and choose: brothers, sisters, parents, children, others.
Learning—Find ways to engage in your own learning no matter how old you are.
Water—Engaging in the surface cover of 72% of Earth includes swimming, drinking, and enjoying it.
Beauty—Becoming engaged in beautiful things can mean a lot to the beauty around you.
Work—Engaging in what you make your livelihood in may be the key to your happiness.
Reading—Exploring literature about new topics, your interests, or art can be engaging.
Play—Find engaging ways to dig into the things you enjoy, and enjoy them more.
Hospitals—Develop sustained connections with people who are recovering and emerging from care.
Breathing—Get consciously engaged in the moment-by-moment function of living, with purpose.
Advocacy—Standing with others and empowering the powerless can be very engaging.
Self-Empowerment—You can engage within yourself and discovering the role of yourself in the world.
Art—Engaging in art can mean creating it, viewing it, critiquing it, and more.
Peace—Fostering nonviolence in your life and the lives of others can be very engaging.
Friendships—Developing short or long term connections with people we choose can be engaging.
Wildlife—Surveying animals, studying birds, sustainable fishing and hunting can all be engaging.
Communication—It is engaging to share thoughts and wisdom with others in creative or direct ways.
Pets—Engaging in sustained connections to the animals kept as pets or helping others doing the same.
Critical Thinking—Developing sustained connections with honest, authentic, and real responses in you.
Parks—Go and walk, lay, eat, draw, paint, climb, run, paddle, swim, and have fun.
Friendships—The people you spend recreational time with want to be engaged with, too.
Physical Activity—Movement that supports healthy bodies can be very engaging.
Ethnic Backgrounds—Engage in learning about the backgrounds of people from specific places.
Nature—Find engagement in the gardens, forests, ocean, lawns, and air around you.
Neighboring—Actively knowing and interacting with the people around us can be engaging.
Community—Stand with people you relate to and engage with them.
Culture—Engage in the shared attitudes, traditions, and actions of a connected background.
Libraries—Be in these public places designed to share free learning with the masses.
Coaching—Engage in provide encouragement and support to people trying to achieve things.
Music—Sharing melodies within or outside yourself can be very engaging.
Health—Getting engaged in your health and well-being can connect you deeply with your body.
Neighborhood—Engage in the place you live, work, play, and grow everyday.
Homemaking—Nurturing family by building the capacity of children and parents can be engaging.
Community Centers—Get engage in the places where community is fostered in play and sharing.
Anti-Racism—Challenging racist thinking and action can be very engaging.
Music—Listen, share, create, dream, sleep, and breathe engagement in the sounds of life.
Place-Based Connections—Living rural, urban, or broadly can be engaging when done intentionally.
Teaching—Facilitating others learning experiences can be a deep avenue for engagement.
Mediation—Developing deep connection in resolving self-conflict and other’s can be illuminating.
Self-Development—Engage in challenging negative assumptions or building skills and knowledge.
Globalization—Engaging in enriching world perspectives and uniting cultures.
Hiking—Walking, climbing, and otherwise traveling by foot can be very engaging.
Nonprofits—Engaging with staff who are building on missions to help the world.
Poetry—Engaging in the feelings, motions, ideas, and thoughts of others can happen through poetry.
Refugees—Supporting people who escape from oppression or suffering can be engaging.
Love—Know the greatest engagement in deep love for the universe and all that is within it.
Cooking—Engaging in foods and meal-making can be sustained throughout a lifetime.
Homelessness—Create lasting connection with youth, families, and others without a permanent home.
Farming—Growing food and consuming local farm food can be deeply engaging.
Heritage—Become engaged in the history of your neighborhood, family, or other identity.
Disconnection—Engaging in fostering healthy disconnection and bridging new ones can be vital.
Construction—Fostering lifelong connections to building homes and places for others matters.
Volunteering—Engaging in supporting others, places, or issues can be rich and exciting.
Relief—When places cannot get enough of what they need, it is engaging to provide relief.
Nutrition—Learning about healthy eating, food knowledge, and diverse food sourcing is engaging.
Sports—Being engaged in athletic play, competition, or achievement can be sustained.
Finances—Engaging in personal, community, company, or cultural economics can be rich.
Politics—Develop lasting connections to the formal and informal structures of influence and power.
Crafts—Creating homemade supplies, arts, food, clothing, and other items can be engaging.
Orphans—Engage with children and youth without parents through mentoring and other ways.
Schools—Teach, learn, or help others do the same in the formal places where education happens.
Outdoor Education—Deep connections in facilitating outdoor learning can change the world.
Decision-Making—Lean into the decisions you make everyday to engage in them meaningfully.
Government—Engage deeply in the social structures designed to ensure people can engage.
Education—Engaging in the challenges and opportunities others face in learning can change your life.
Small Business—Supporting and creating local, small, and nimble business can be very engaging.
Writing—Making imagination and knowledge pour on paper can be engaging.
Travel—Becoming engaged in visiting places you aren’t familiar with can defeat ignorance.
Restoration—To engage in bringing life to old things can be enlightening and powerful.
Evaluation—Look at your own life, the world you live in, and the people you are engaged with.
Repairs—Fixing broken things can be engaging.
Protesting—Engage in sharing concerns with lawmakers and officials about issues that concern you.
Internet—You can engage in connecting, learning, and creating content on the web.
Reporting—Engage in sharing news, stories, and details with others in dynamic ways.
Senior Centers—In can be very engaging to be with learned wisdom goes towards the end of life.
Tutoring—Helping learners discover their capabilities in any topic can be very engaging.
Strategic Thinking—Become engaged in new and logical avenues for seeing wisdom.
Environmental Restoration—Engage in rebuilding and enriching the natural cycle of life on Earth.
Emergencies—Engaging with others in times of need and crises matters immensely.
Clubs—Connecting over professional and personal interests can be engaging.
Parenting—Engaging with being intentional in childraising can be vital.
Philanthropy—Engage with issues that matter by fundraising and giving money to causes.
Trees—Examining, learning, reforesting, planting, preserving, or caring for trees can be engaging.
Media-making—Engage in creating websites, newspapers, television, videos, and other media.
Fun—Engage in creating, becoming part of, or expanding fun in your own life or with others.
Driving—Exploring new spaces and examining where you already live can be engaging.
Languages—Engaging in languages can mean listening, speaking, or exploring communication.
Solar Power—Connecting deeply with alternative energy can change the world and yourself.
Identity Issues—Fostering and exploring connectivity between and within identities can be engaging.
Playgrounds—Engaging in play with your children is supporting their engagement in play.
Clothing—Establish deep connections with other’s and your own clothing needs.
Dance—Creative movement, motion, rhythm, and melodic play are all engaging activities.
Self-Teaching—Learning new things and developing your understandings can be engaging.
Intergenerational Partnerships—Engage in forming deep connections beyond your age group.
Civic Action—Volunteering, voting, connecting, and building in communities can be engaging.
Healthcare—Engaging in making sure everyone can access healthcare is important.
Social Engagement—Fostering sustainable connections to the world around you is vital.
Personal Engagement—Recognizing the ways you’re engaged within yourself can be essential.
Languages—Learning, examining, and exploring different ways people communicate can be engaging.
Inequality—Bridging social, cultural, and structural differences can be engaging.
If you’re interested, I have written a lot about how to become more engaged, and simply acknowledging the things you’re already engaged in.
How do you engage YOU? How would you engage the world? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.
Anyone who advocates for youth involvement, youth engagement, youth voice, youth empowerment, or youth rights is ultimately calling for the same this: the integration of young people in our society. As it stands, young people are routinely segregated from a lot of places. This includes the institutions that serve them directly, such as schools, nonprofits, governments, and faith-based communities. It also includes their homes, as well as places where they should be treated without bias but aren’t, including businesses. Ultimately, youth integration has to happen in all relationships between young people and adults.
This work has been underway for more than two decades, and needs to unite now. It starts with re-envisioning the roles of young people throughout society. In the last decade, I’ve worked in more than 200 communities across the US to help them re-envision their work with young people. Its been successful in some ways, challenging in others.
Through my efforts with The Freechild Project, along with similar programs across the country, a generation of young people and their adult allies have come to believe that our society can do more than simply do things to young people. Instead, we can co-create the world together. This notion reflects the wisdom, “Nothing about me without me is for me.”
Studying my own work and the vast library of literature I’ve collected focusing on this approach, I’ve devised some key points for integrating youth throughout society.
10 Steps to Youth Integration
Think Sustainable—Identify practical ways to ensure youth keep being integrated after an initial planning period. Begin by sitting down with a group of adults young people together and talk about the world today, their specific lives, and what they think needs to change. From the beginning, infuse youth in facilitation, evaluation, research, decision-making, and advocacy right into the culture of your group. If you must involve children and youth in a one-shot activity, let them know of real opportunities for them to be integrated with adults in their lives outside your group.
Clear Purpose—Name a clear purpose for integrating young people in your community. Come up with a mission statement. Let youth and adults, organization leaders, parents, community members, and local schools know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Clarity of purpose is often missing from young people’s lives, as school is done to them, family is done to them, and stores are done to them. Anywhere in society looking to actually integrate young people needs to let young people know the world be done with them, and they should know why that’s important.
Integrate The Non-Traditionally Engaged—Create space and help children and youth who haven’t been especially engaged in your community to become integrated. Actively integrating both traditionally involved young people and non-traditionally involved young people can radically transform your community in all sorts of ways. If you don’t know how to do this, get trained; if you need a reason, read this.
Real Connections—When young people see themselves in your program, real connections are happening. When real connections happen, children and youth become engaged. While they may have obvious expertise or interests in a specific topic, its important for your group to help young people discover what they know right now, and to see what they know inside what you’re doing.
Equity, Not Equality—Develop equitable roles between young people and adults. This means that groups don’t pretend all things between children, youth, and adults are 50/50 split equally, because in our adult-centered society that is simply never true. Equity allows young people and adults to enter into responsible relationships that acknowledge what each other knows and doesn’t know, and to work from that place instead of assuming everyone has equal ability and capacity. We’re all different; let’s not pretend otherwise.
Grow Their Capacity—Grow the existing capacity of children and youth to become involved in planning. Both young people and adults can learn from training about work styles, assumptions, skills, and more.
Make A Clear Plan—Having a specific pathway for young people to see how their integration will change their community. Are they contributing to an existing program? Opening a brand-new course of action and learning? Working with the same adults in new ways, or partnering with new adults? Its important to remember that creating a youth integration plan is not the culmination of work, but the starting point of a group’s efforts to create a more democratic society. A clear plan should include: 1) Practical next steps; 2) Roles and responsibilities for youth and adults; 3) an integration structure for your community; 4) group member evaluation opportunities. Setting priorities, using timelines with dates, and developing clear benchmarks for measuring success in each area can also enhance your community.
Get Systemic—Encourage youth integration beyond your group. Young people can be engaged in researching their community, school, nonprofit program, or anything through PAR. They can facilitate, teach, and mentor peers, younger people, and adult. They can evaluate themselves, their organizations and communities, workplaces and businesses, and other places. They can participate in organizational, family, community, or other decision-making. They can advocate for what they care about. Ultimately, they can be engaged throughout society in every way you can imagine.
Connect The Dots—Establish deep youth/adult partnerships wherever possible. Collaborations that reinforce learning will deepen any effort to integrate youth. The partnerships established in this process can deepen efforts through the future, and mutually support youth and adults throughout your community.
Eyes Wide Open—Open the doors to critical examination. Use critical lenses to examine your assumptions and effects in your group. Identifying strengths and weaknesses allow groups and communities to improve the overall integration of youth, especially through your particular effort. Make space by giving young people permission and skills they need to be partners in mutual accountability with adults. In your group, set clear benchmarks and agree on celebrations when they’re met and consequences that young people can see for when those benchmarks are not met.
Aside from ethical considerations for youth integration, there is a practical basis to integrate youth throughout society. A variety of recent research demonstrates that there may be no parallel to making schools, youth programs, government agencies, and even families more effective. The most intuitive outcome is true: Integrating young people throughout society changes young people who experience integration.
Less obvious are the effects that youth integration has on adults throughout our communities. When they’re actively infused throughout the broader community, young people can actually affect the broad community beyond your group in a variety of ways over the short and long term. The effects include lifelong civic engagement, and developing strong and sustained connections to the educational, economic, and cultural values of their neighborhoods and cities. Youth integration can dream no higher goals. (See here, here, and here for some studies.)
More importantly though, this pathway shows that youth integration is feasible. What are you doing to get it going in your community?