Some Observations About Social Change


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.

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Nobody Owns Volunteering

Nonprofits searching for purpose after the ship went down… The ship’s going down and all the rats are swimming for their lives!

A long time ago, back in the 1990s, the federal government decided to build the nonprofit volunteerism sector in the United States. At first this brought menial efforts from fledgling organizations that actually became powerhouses in social change across America.

Then it brought out the rats.

They flocked onto the big ship of national service that launched from the docks of the White House. This colossal beast carried AmeriCorps and Learn and Serve America into existence, as well as shoring up VISTA and the Senior Corps. Millions of people became volunteers, serving their communities in all kinds of ways.

On the Learn and Serve deck of the ship, schools actually got money to support classroom opportunities that infused substantive learning with real community needs. This had the ability to actually, tangibly demonstrate the value of schools to communities, and the abilities of young people to really, truly transform the places where they lived in positive, powerful ways. Astronaut John Glenn was on board, taking this cruise to the highest of heights!

Unfortunately, the ship got hit, and now its going down.

Last year, the US Congress defunded Learn and Serve America, almost wholly ending the federal government’s support for the service learning movement in one fell swoop. With a massive hole in the stern of the ship, volunteerism started taking on water and going under. That doesn’t mean that people aren’t volunteering- it just means they’re not taking cues from the federal government the ways they used to. Like through learning. Rather than using community service to learn from, the feds are concentrating their money on making students learn through tests–but that’s another post for a different day.

This post is to show that as every rat organization is grabbing for anything to float on so they don’t drown because the government took their money away. Suddenly, everyone wants to own volunteering. A lot of terms seem to be up for grabs too, as youth service, service learning, civic education, community youth development, and so many other phrases are being grabbed at.

The reality is that nobody owns volunteering. Today, as I spoke with the spectacular Charles Orgbon of Greening Forward, I thought to reassure him of that. I have seen the big rats be very defensive of their pieces of wood when the ship was intact, and now that they’re sinking, many are bumping around, tussling, and loosing their footing to other orgs (i.e. Hands On and POLF). As a young org leader, I think Charles’ good work might be targeted by some of these rat organizations to mooch off of or otherwise profiteer from. I’ve seen it too many times.

So, all of you fighters, advocates, and heroes out there doing the good work, please keep doing it no matter what they say. Nobody can take what is ours together, so long as we stand together. Charles, this includes you! Nobody owns volunteering, and that starts with your good work. Keep it up!

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

Making Adultism Okay

In many settings today, there is an increasing amount of attention towards racial, gender, and other forms of discrimination. However, little is made of a very real form of discrimination that is undermining a lot of well-meaning educators’ work with students today: adultism.

In my new book, Ending Discrimination Against Young People, I define adultism in three ways:

  1. Bias towards adults;
  2. Discrimination against children and youth;
  3. The addiction to adults expressed throughout our culture, society, and personal ways of being.

Adultism occurs throughout society. Despite our best intentions, many adults and young people try to make discrimination against children and youth okay in all kinds of ways. Following are some of them.

15 Ways Adults Try to Make Adultism Okay
  1. Denying discrimination against children and youth. Adults might say: “This is a free country, and kids can do whatever they want if they put their minds to it,” or “Hey, wait a second, that’s not what I meant… I mean… you took my words out of context, don’t make it try to sound like I’m adultist!” 
  2. Even when they’re aware, some adults still don’t get it.
  3. Telling young people they are too sensitive. Adults might say, ”You’re too sensitive,” or, “If youth weren’t so aggressive, vocal, hostile, angry, or upset, adults would listen to youth and they wouldn’t get in trouble!” 
  4. Speaking for youth. Adults might say, “I’m a youth ally myself, so why can’t we all just ignore age, it’s not like it’s even real. It is not as if I tangibly benefit from being an adult every day or anything! Can’t we all just get along?” 
  5. Turning the tables. Adults might say, “You are just discriminating against adults, you know. You’re discriminating against me right now, you hypocrite!” 
  6. Denying reality. Adults might say, ”Whoa, that guy over there is SUCH an adultist, unlike me… I know exactly the right things to say and I’m never adultist. By which I mean overtly offensive about it. Hold on, I think I’m going to go spit on that adult. I hate him.” 
  7. Bending over backwards. Adults might say, ”You kids are so right! I agree with everything you say, because you’re right, of course 
  8. Reinforcing adultism with personal reasons. Adults might say, ”But a youth cut in front of me in line at the grocery store last night, said something stupid, mugged me, or took my hubcaps! So as far as I’m concerned, they proved all of my prejudices!” 
  9. Taking on adultism. Adults might say, ”I can’t possibly be an adultist… I’m part of the oppressed due to the fact that I’m a woman! (or gay, poor, young, transsexual, etc.)”. 
  10. Trying to be a youth. Adults might say, “Dang, dude! I listen to emo and rock out at the shows, and you know I’m down with the homies. Did you see the last edition of that graphic novel?” 
  11. Being constantly available to youth. Adults might say, ”Teach me, help me. I’m just an adult, so I need your wisdom as a youth to show me how not to be adultist. Wait, is what I said earlier adultist? How about this shirt I’m wearing? Can you come with me to this meeting, so they know I’m not adultist?” 
  12. Rationalizing adultism through faux-empathy. Adults might say, “Unlike all those other adults out there, I’m an anti-adultist.” “I do anti-adultist work and I try to educate other adults about adultism.” “Wait, did you hear me?” 
  13. Switching sides. Adults might say, ”I totally agree. Adultism is one system of oppression among many interlocking ones that specifically awards more privilege and power to all adults whether they like it or not and serves to keep the existing power structure in place. Oh… what? You want me to volunteer in a community organization, contribute money, do security for your protest march? Uh… yeah maybe next time, I’ve got to wash my hair tonight. And walk my dog, see the latest episode of my favorite show, manage my stock portfolio…” 
  14. Sympathy for youth. Adults might say,”Oh my god… that is so awful. I’m so sorry. Sorry. I can’t imagine what it must be like… I’m sorry. That’s so awful. I feel so bad for you. Sorry.” 
  15. Being a friend by force. Adults might say, “Hey, I’m not an adultist, OK? Some of my best friends are youth. See?” or “Yeah, I’ve known her since I was a kid, and she’s never said anything adultist to me!” 
  16. Hiding behind their age. Youth might say, ”What? I can’t possibly be adultist – I AM a youth. How can I be adultist against myself, huh? No, I haven’t heard of internalized adultism, and I still think youth involvement is reverse discrimination!”

My book explores how all adults are adultist. It comes down to this: Discrimination has many definitions, and one of them is the capability to discern difference between two or more things. In this way, adults constantly discriminate against young people. That’s not necessarily wrong or bad, but it is true. Adults who don’t discern the difference between them and young people generally have developmental restraints that limit their ability to discriminate. Again, discriminating against young people and being in favor of adults isn’t always bad; it simply IS. Accepting that reality is the first step to creating a more just and equitable society benefiting all people.

The items on this list are signs of when that ability to discern difference is either accidentally or intentionally blurred and erased, or hyper-exaggerated. Recognizing that adults do that is important for creating /authentic/ youth empowerment, instead of simply giving lip service to young people and saying they’re equal, but acting in other ways. Adults who do the things on the list are generally being disingenuous and inauthentic by going through the motions without any real meaning behind what they’re doing.

Identifying how you personally rationalize adultism can lead to becoming a more effective adult ally. Learn other things you can do at The Freechild Project website and contact our office for information on publications and training we offer.
You can order Ending Discrimination Against Young People from or ask for it at your local bookstore.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Steal this Voice?

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

These organizations often ignore the ability or deny the desire of people to have meaningful input in the things that affect them most. The problem with this is that today, more people more often want authentic opportunities to become engaged in the activities throughout their lives. Authentic means real, whole, true, and meaningful. 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. People want in like never before.

We have 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 we need is a non-cynical commitment to humanity and its capacity to serve itself best. What we need is for determination and perseverance to overcome sarcasm and irony. What we need is hope. Hope that people love and care and know and do. Hope that humans 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.

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

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

10 Ways Past Stealing Voices

  1. Acknowledge the real actions people are currently taking right now to change their communities and our world, and see how those actions affect your organization.
  2. Foster genuine interest within your organization to actually engage with people beyond listening.
  3. Create interest among constituents- whether young people, adults, or seniors- to contribute beyond their voices.
  4. Position people in sustained opportunities to impact change as real doers and decision-makers.
  5. Educate people about the whole issue that affects them, not just what they already know.
  6. Open places for everyone to teach one another and be acknowledged for what they’re sharing.
  7. Go to people where they’re at and have earnest conversations with them instead of insisting they come to where you are for inauthentic listening events.
  8. Develop activities that integrate and ingratiate neighbors with each other.
  9. Give people real opportunities to research the issues for themselves and to share their findings with their friends, families, neighbors, and others.
  10. Share the benefits of authentic engagement with people.

Post Script

Are you a well-meaning but “guilty party” to what I described above? Maybe, like I have in the past, you’re trying your hardest and simply don’t know a different way. For years now, I’ve been writing to you to help you feel better about what you’re doing, I have shared dozens free websites, videos, and publications and done dozens of trainings for you, and I have provided free technical assistance to you. Now I’m going to stop that, at least for the remainder of this post.

If you’re with an organization that steals voice, or if you are any kind of a thief of voice, rest assured knowing that despite your best intentions the people who you’re stealing from know you’re stealing from them. You are the reason The Who wrote the song Won’t Get Fooled Again. You can do better than what you’re doing, and should stop resting on your laurels thinking you’re doing enough. We can never do enough to engage people in genuine, authentic, and real ways.

All people have the right to be more than given power by you. We have the right to be in the positions with the education we need to affect change throughout our lives. Nobody should be minimized because of your perception of their inability or your indifference to their interest. Blaming the organization you work for won’t work either, because we know that’s generally a hallow blame game that allows you to feel relief for your actions and opinions.

Nothing less will suffice.

If you’re upset, that is good, you should be. You should be upset with a system that set you up to fail. You should be disappointed with a program that was designed to manipulate, even inadvertently. Ultimately, you might even be mad at yourself- but that won’t serve much good. If you are angry with me for writing so bluntly, call me right now at (360) 489-9680. Let’s talk about this.

You’re a fighter- now get busy fighting.

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