Keeping Youth Programs Relevant

The National League of Cities is an organization that works across the country to “help city leaders build better communities”. One of their initiatives is called the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families, or YEF. In a recent publication, YEF proposed there are four primary ways youth programs can ensure their relevancy in cities:

  • Coordinate systems to support effective service delivery.
  • Ensure programs are of high quality.
  • Offer a wide variety of relevant program options.
  • Promote college attendance and workplace readiness.
While these are all good practices and things that every program should aspire to, they aren’t quite responsive to the realities young people face today.

This is true of the entire report. Working from a deficit model of what’s wrong with children and youth, the authors of the guide open by proclaiming that without youth programs,

Youth are more prone to engage in juvenile delinquency, substance abuse and other risky behaviors after 3:00 p.m. if there are few positive OST programs available. Municipal leaders are also well aware of the impact of high school dropout rates on crime and unemployment, and are increasingly sup- porting out-of-school learning opportunities as a strategy for promoting school and career success. (p. 3)

This approach to rationalizing the existence of youth programs is common. Too easily, it suggests that youth program providers are the Great White Hope, doing what nobody else can do, and without them all young people are falling to pieces.
While that’s a common approach, I believe that its misguided at best, virtually ensuring the irrelevance of youth programs today and into the future.
The relevance of youth programs relies on recognizing current trends, identifying new opportunities, and leading communities forward. Seeing youth as deficits and taking white knight stances does none of those things; worst still, it perpetuates the belief many funders have that many traditional youth programs aren’t effective and can only be made effective through radical accountability.
More than a decade ago, I began working in communities across the US and Canada to promote the integration of youth voice throughout our communities. When I published The Freechild Project Youth Voice Toolkit online for free, I thought I was only speaking to the audience that’s concerned with youth voice, youth engagement, meaningful youth involvement, and youth-driven programming. However, reading over YEF’s report, today I see that the things I’ve learned about youth voice also apply to the wider field of all youth programs.
Youth voice, which is any expression about anything from any young person anywhere, ever, obviously appears ubiquitous throughout our society. Marketers sell youth to older people, while more products appear geared towards youth than ever before. However, the difference is that youth voice comes from youth themselves. Its not conformed, deformed, reformed, or transformed by adults to do whatever we want. Instead, it is simply what youth think, say, feel, do, believe, understand, and know on their own without adults.
In order to maintain their relevance, youth programs should follow the following principles I summarize below. You can find the complete version on The Freechild Project website.
Keys to Youth Voice
  1. Don’t fool the youth. The old saying, “You can’t fool all the people all the time” applies to young people, too.
  2. Work with young people – not for young people. Don’t do for children and youth what they can do with you.
  3. Make “having fun” powerful. The days of “pizza box youth engagement” are over, and you can’t just throw a bunch of “fun food” into a room and expect young people to come and learn something meaningful.
  4. Embrace change. Planning today is not as rigid as it used to be, and young people today are more flexible than ever. Teach the benefits of change by “going with the flow” and striving to be calm in the center of chaos.
  5. Don’t talk about “youth problems” anymore. Young people are part of larger communities, and when they have a problem, their communities have a problem.
  6. Teach young people about adultism when they are young. By being a responsible advocate for youth you can illustrate the practice and possibilities of being an active ally to young people.
  7. Acknowledge young people in significant ways. Patting someone on the back or giving them a certificate can only go so far.
  8. Engage young people in something greater than themselves. MLK wrote that living nonviolence requires us to, “rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” When applied to young people this means that simply encouraging or allowing young people to advocate for themselves is not enough.
Using these keys as a guide for critical thinking, assessment, and program planning, youth programs can assure their relevance well into the future.
Change is inevitable; staying with it and growing from it is not. Keep youth programs relevant by adapting and transforming with the times, and the young people you’re trying to serve.
Here are some links mentioned above:
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Elements of Successful Community Engagement

The nature of community programs continues to evolve.

More than ever, nonprofits, government agencies, and other programs are being challenged to transform their goals, activities, assessments, and resources in order to motivate, educate, and engage people beyond simple participation. In a time when many communities are stuck in a malaise, community programs require a realignment to grow beyond what they’ve done.

Appearances Matter

People appear to have more options with what to do with their time, making it ironic they need community programs more than ever. However, the technology, recreation, sports, faith-based activities, and opportunities to earn income that were present just a decade ago simply aren’t in many communities anymore.

Considering these dual realities of increased need and decreased opportunities, it is absolutely vital that nonprofit and government program providers get earnest about successfully engaging all people in their programming.

After more than a decade promoting community engagement across the US and Canada, I have found what works and doesn’t work for engaging all sorts of people. These lessons have to be deconstructed and reapplied in each community, because all communities are different.

I have read the research, worked directly with people, and struggled through many projects focused on community engagement. Following are some elements I consider essential to successfully engaging all kinds of people in community programs.

Elements of Successful Community Engagement

  • Focused – Instead of meandering through purposeless activities and focus-less personal activities, every program session is designed to be a concise, deliberative engagement of multiple intelligences, broad perspectives, and varying experiences. Successfully engaging people remains the central goal of all activities, and is the focus of every program.
  • Supportive – Youth and adults alike are committed to working together without fear of retribution or alienation. All people are partners with each other in community programs, and everyone works together for the common cause of engaging more people throughout the community.
  • Engaging – The experiences, knowledge, ideas, and opinions of people are validated and substantiated with meaningful learning experiences that infuse everyone with a new capacity to visualize, analyze, create, and engage themselves.
  • Critical – As co-learners within a community of learners, all people provide vital insight in the learning and teaching process for their peers and facilitators in community programs. These democratic interactions are actively encouraged and supported by all members.
  • Transparent – There should be no mysteries about what the purpose of the community program is, or what the outcomes of the activities will be. Community programs should offer numerous ways to make goals, outcomes, and activities fully understandable to people.

These are not simply the keys to successful community programs, nor to successfully engaging people. They are the elements of successfully engaging people throughout their communities all all sorts of programs. Its important to consider that these programs and their organizations are unique and different, and these elements are recognized for paying attention to that.

With these in mind, you can go forth and make a difference in the lives of the people you serve through your activities.

Want to talk about me doing a workshop for your organization or community? Get in touch!


Related Articles

North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center

The North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center works statewide to develop, promote and implement sound economic strategies to improve the quality of life of rural North Carolinians.


In 2011, the Center wanted a nationally-respected, research-driven motivating keynote speaker focused on youth engagement to address their annual gathering called the Rural Partners Forum, with 750+ attendees from economic, academic, social, and political backgrounds. They also needed a facilitator to drive a conversation focused on youth engagement for the state’s mayors gathered at the forum.

The following year, the Center sought to publish a chapter about youth engagement for a forthcoming handbook they were creating for a statewide initiative.


After crafting a dynamic address for the forum and leading the mayor’s gathering effectively, Adam was contracted to draft a knowledge-sharing, skill-building publication for the Center called the New Generation Initiative Youth and Young Adult Engagement Guide. After providing more than 100+ pages of original content in less than three weeks, the Center then contracted with Adam to facilitate a statewide training workshop focused on the Guide’s contents in November 2012.

By providing motivational speeches, facilitation, technical assistance and professional development, Adam’s work drove a successful program launch and influenced ongoing action in North Carolina.




You Might Also Be Interested In…

NO "Marketplace for Love", Mr. Pollota.

We need to do it differently, and that much is agreed upon. However, that’s about it.

Another white guy wants to sell nonprofits better.

Earlier this week I watched a video of Dan Pollota‘s recent talk at the 2013 TED conference. Hoping it was another version of INCITE‘s absolutely powerfully essential book, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, I was sorely disappointed when it turned out otherwise.

From the beginning of the talk, Pollota actually said, “Philanthropy is the market for love”. Cole Porter was talking about prostitution when he wrote “Love For Sale”, and I guess, sadly, that Pollota doesn’t seem far from this in his video. Rather than saying that nonprofits need to be turbo-charged engines run on the fuel of love in order to build democracy, Pollota actually says that running as businesses with marketplace accountability, the nonprofit sector should pimp poverty, sell missionary perspectives, and monetize humanity.

Nonprofits are not in business, they’re not selling products and services, and they do not belong tied to the neoliberal measures Mr. Pollota is advocating in his video.

There are counter-narratives on transforming the work of nonprofits. A constant advocate is the powerhouse Arundhati Roy. Accompanying what she’s written about the deeply neoliberalism roots of charity work, this spectacular speech has her discussing the purpose behind much philanthropy today. She also writes about the genuine motivations of philanthropists that support Pollota and others like him. Its a clear analysis that deftly distinguishes the real work from the purpose of what Pollota is talking about. Needless to say, alongside neoliberal drumbeaters like Pollota and Melinda Gates, Roy will never be invited to TED.

We don’t need neoliberal accountability in nonprofits, marking philanthropic “investments” against “lives saved” in a tit-for-tat approach to charity. We also don’t need nonprofits that string out social issues and make society reliant on their existence in order to rationalize their funding. What is needed is a new understanding of need, capability, and engagement throughout our society. Nothing less.


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

10 Steps to AUTHENTIC Youth Voice

10 Steps to AUTHENTIC Youth Voice 
  1. Begin by acknowledging the real ways young people express themselves right now throughout their own lives, across their communities, and around our world. Youth voice happens all the time. Do adults want to hear what it is, or make it into what we want it to be? 
  2. Foster genuine commitment within your organization to actually engage young people beyond simply listening to what they say. Do adults actually want young people to be full partners? 
  3. Create interest among constituents- including young people, adults, or seniors- to contribute beyond their voices. Are adults willing to allow them to come in on young peoples’ own terms instead of our own? 
  4. Position young people in sustained opportunities to impact change as real doers and decision-makers. Are adults ready to cede power, share power, and relinquish our power as adults? 
  5. Educate young people about the whole issue that affects them, not just what they already know. Are adults committed to building the abilities of young people to be full partners instead of minor players. 
  6. Open places for everyone- adults and young people- to teach one another and be acknowledged for what they’re sharing. Can adults actually create fully equitable environments and cultures for full youth-adult partnerships? 
  7. Go to young people where they’re at and have earnest conversations with them instead of insisting they come to where you are for inauthentic listening events. Are adults threatened by the spaces young people occupy without our control? Can we release our control and be with the fear? 
  8. Develop activities that integrate and ingratiate young people and adults with each other. Can adults sustain their commitment to expand, expand, expand authentic youth voice, instead of simply trying and then stopping? 
  9. Give young people real opportunities to research the issues for themselves and to share their findings with their friends, families, neighbors, and others. Do adults trust young people to come to their own conclusions and can we allow them the access they need to do that? 
  10. Sustain authentic youth engagement by sharing the benefits of authentic engagement with young people. Can adults make a genuine case to young people for why they should be involved, how they should be involved, and what they should be involved in? Or are we incapable of that? 

About Authentic Youth Voice

When adults proclaim to want to hear young peoples’ voices, they’re often assuming that young people don’t want to or are incapable of doing anything other than sharing their voice. This includes schools that want to hear student voice, youth-serving organizations that want to listen to youth voice, businesses that want customers to make token choices, and politicians that want to engage young people in political processes.

These organizations often ignore the ability or deny the desire of young people to have meaningful input in the things that affect them most. The problem with this is that today, more young people more often want and actually require AUTHENTIC opportunities to become engaged in the activities throughout their lives. Authentic means real, whole, true, and meaningful. Young people want to share their music with the world. They want to help the President get reelected. They want to help lead school reform, have more consumer choices for their broad tastes, and design the streets they walk, ride, and drive on. Children and youth want in like never before.

Adults have access to the technology, both electronic and real-time, to make this happen. We have a growing capacity throughout the vast array of community leadership to be able to engage people in these ways. We have the ability.

What adults need is a non-cynical commitment to humanity and its capacity to serve itself best. What our communities need is for determination and perseverance to overcome sarcasm and irony. What we need is hope. Hope that young people love and care and know and do. Hope that young people have justice and peace in their hearts, and because of that they want to make the world a just and peaceful place- if given the opportunity.

Unfortunately, the organizations that peddle youth voice are often the most cynical. They most frequently steal voice for their own purposes, selling young people they serve on the effectiveness of sharing their voice. “You’ll help guide us,” they tell children and youth as they take their opinions and squirrel them away in the backrooms of file cabinets and unpaid interns. Young people know they’re stealing voice when there is little or no accountability for what’s been shared with them. They know these organizations are stealing voice when they wrote their statement beforehand and used the collected voices to bolster their thoughts afterwards. Young people know.

What is needed is truth, accountability, reciprocity, and engagement. Genuine, authentic, real engagement. Nothing less will suffice.

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

Changing Roles of Young People

Why should only affable white boys get to be seen as the
young captains of industry?

It seems that the story of human existence is one of innovation and transformation. Through epochs everything changes, from the earliest homo erectus though to today, and onward into tomorrow. Despite concentrating on industry, art, technology, and culture as the modicum through which that change happens, society is missing the mark when it comes to identifying the major indicator of innovation and transformation: Young people. 

For more than 2,000 years, children and youth have been the most obvious markers for all things transformative. Children in ancient Greece were seen as the bearers of civilization, and were prepared for their duties until they were seen as adults. In ancient China, children of many social classes were seen and treated as important for their nation’s future, as well as their own family’s future. At the time when North America was stolen from American Indian tribes, the children of Europeans here were treated harshly and largely seen as sub-human. 
So the historic trends show us back-and-forth treatment. Modern times have been no different. In my Short History of Youth Voice in the United States, I suggested that this treatment is a sign of the times. Today, I’m going to build on that premise and suggest that we must consciously, positively transform the roles of young people throughout society or risk having society dictate terrible, meaningless roles for them.
For too long, young people have been seen as the passive recipients of adult-driven culture handed to them. As an inheritance, this has been a sham. Children and youth are active creators of their private worlds as well as the larger families, communities, and cultures in which they live. In the West today, young people are living in a dichotomous world, on one side alienated and isolated because they aren’t adults, and on the other fetishized and infantalized because they represent the wellspring of eternal youth which adults apparently should feign for.
In reality, young people are neither wholly infants or wholly adult, but instead should be seen specifically for what they are: Children and youth. These are their unique, important positions. They matter not because of their transitory nature, but because of the substantive and unique placements they occupy throughout society. Because of these placements, we need to re-envision the roles of young people to be seen as active partners throughout our culture. 
These active partnerships extend from early childhood in the home into young adulthood living independently from families. Throughout the journey, locations for these partnerships to exist range from home to community center, school to faith community, government to playground, and everywhere in between and beyond. The roles themselves, while highly relevant, are strangely familiar: Children and youth as planners, advisors, designers, teachers, lobbyists, trainers, philanthropists, politicians, recruiters, social entrepreneurs, paid staff, mentors, decision makers, activity leaders, policy makers, and so much more.
These positions are already being occupied by young people right now. In some cases, they’re reserved for middle and upper class white kids; in some others, they’re specifically for young people of color and young people in low-income communities, or runaway and homeless youth. They’re happening right now; why should they be the exclusive purview of young people who are fortunate enough to stumble upon them? Why aren’t these changing roles for all young people everywhere all the time?
At the same time those roles seem important, upon further examination we discover they aren’t. It’s not really what young people do, it’s about how it is done. Anyone can be the happiest janitor in the world, if they know that position is important, empowered, and valued by everyone else.
We need engaging cultures where the roles of young people are seen as fluid and transitional, yet secure and relevant. Acknowledging what children and youth already know, and expanding their exposure to, knowledge of, and opportunities to generate new thinking about these roles is what is key. That is what full, active partnerships with young people look like, and that is why we need to change the roles of young people today.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!