We Are Limitless

I grew up around alchoholics, gamblers, cheaters, and liars. People who sold their souls and materials to serve their vanity, egos, narcissism, and greed were always around my house, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, sobering up and trying to move on with their lives.

In all my different work with young people, I have been around gangbangers and prostitutes, runaways and robbers, and cheats of all kinds. I’ve also spent time with adults so contemptuous towards children and youth that they’d never be allowed to be parents- and they were youth workers, teachers, and counselors!

But somewhere in the middle of all that hopelessness, all that suffering, and all that pain is a reality that few people involved actively spoke out loud, although everyone actually worked from it. The reality is that all human beings are limitless.

Limitlessness

We’re all racing. Just like the atoms around us, we’re all scurrying about from place to place, person to person, being who we are and doing what we’re doing. Even when life is syrupy and slow, the atoms in us are still yearning for movement, drawing us towards the dishes that need washed, bills that need to be paid, and life that needs to be lived. None of us are ever truly still of body and mind, because all of us are truly made of motion. That motion compels us towards endless movement.

The only respite we ever truly have for the movement of our bodies is death. Between here and there, our waking and sleeping hours are dominated by the impulse to move, and within that movement, change. Nobody is ever truly done.

Because of that impulse, we have a limitless potential for growth, progress, transformation, and generation. Nobody can escape that impulse, and whether its within them or around them, each of us is always changing.

Young People

There’s a temptation to make this limitless into a thing that only children and youth experience. Folks who say that will also say that adults stop growing, and they often believe that’s true. It is not.

All humans are truly limitless, filled with unknown potential, untapped possibilities, unacknowledged power, and limitlessness of all kinds. Each and every single one of us truly has no bounds! This includes youth, who embody this limitlessness because they actively live it. However, it also includes very small children, who are often forced into boxes by their parents who habitually seek familiarity and predictability, so they try to make their kids just like them.

And then there’s adults, who are all truly limitless no matter what we believe. Those self-beliefs are often what limit our ability to see our limitlessness. However, that doesn’t make those beliefs true. Instead, it makes them another opportunity that we can break free and see who we truly are!

My Work

This is why I do the work I do the ways I do. Within each of us in an indomitable spirit, something that cannot be taken away by anyone else. That’s the freedom we have, inherently and implicitly, simply because we’re humans. Its a place that we could celebrate and elaborate and explore everyday, if each of us saw it.

However, many of us don’t, or haven’t been able to.  Instead, we’ve been held in our cages and tied to our conceptions of ourselves in our worlds. Much of the time, we become alchoholics, gamblers, cheaters, and liars. Seeing no other routes, we become gang bangers and prostitutes, runaways and robbers, and cheats of all kinds. At the end of the day, we’re locked into jails and sleeping in alleyways, hoping for another way out.

Our individual lot doesn’t have to be that conspicuous for us to be limited. We may be divorced, or single parents, or too-hard workers, or hard-hearted lovers. We may deny our youth, reject our grandparents, and forget ourselves. There are so many ways we try to limit ourselves.

That is why I do what I do: To help others break free of the limits we’ve instilled in our lives and times.

Inspiration

Luckily, we have many people to turn to for inspiration. Without knowing it sometimes, we look to Dr. King for inspiration, especially when he wrote things like this: “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

Other times we call out to heroes from other times, like Joan of Arc, who reportedly said, “One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. But to sacrifice what you are and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying.”

Maybe we are moved by modern times and the people who occupy them with us, like President Obama, who famously said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

Each of these, and so many other people, can inspire us to see the limitlessness potential of all humans everywhere.

So if you believe that people are who they are, and cannot change from who they are, let me tell you a story sometime, if you want me to. Let me tell you about Larry, a drunk cabby who never quit trying to quit. Let me tell you about Idu, who lived without in order to go within, and who is becoming reacquainted with his own greatness. Maybe I can share Meghan’s story, or Melinda’s. There was that group of kids in that one place… All these stories are real, from my own experience, and show the reality that I’m asking you to see here.

All humans are limitless. Join me in seeing that reality, please.

You Might Like…

8 Rude Things Adults Say to Young People

When adults are talking rude to young people, they show patronizing superiority. Many parents, youth workers, teachers, and others are not aware of how rude they are towards children and youth.

Most adults would be shocked if young people were as rude towards them as they are towards young people. When we’re confronted by a brave youth, we usually deny it (“that’s not what I meant”, or “you’re being too sensitive”).

However, even well-meaning adults can say things to youth with good intentions that come across as rude. Because of their past experiences, social conditioning, peer influence, and other reasons, most youth are really hesitant to share their real feelings with adults. Because of that, most parents, teachers, youth workers, and other adults who work with youth may never know how they talk towards youth.

Here are eight rude things adults often say to youth. Whenever you say them, its going to sound rude.

8 Rude Things Adults Say to Young People

The risk of writing a list like this is that there are almost always exceptions depending on the context. With young people, as with all people, it’s often not what is said, but how you say it–the tone of the message. A simple phase like, “What’s up” can come across as rude if truly someone feels that they are superior to the other person.

Whatever the case, just beware that if you’re working with young people, you probably sound rude today.

1. “I’m not a creative youth like Lavonia here is, so she should do that!” 

I really doubt that Lavonia loves slogging through mundane details any more than you do, but she has to – as a youth council member or youth staff, it’s her job and not yours, so she does it. She takes pride in what she does too, and does it well. So don’t call her out in front of other adults and youth as a “detail” youth, as if that’s her job as a youth, and then congratulate yourself for being an adult who knows the “big picture”. A similar condensing bit of “praise” for youth is something like, “Hey, let me introduce you to Juan – he’s the one who really runs things around here, not me (snicker, wink).” No, he doesn’t really. You’re an adult, and you run things. Juan is just doing his job as a youth council member, stuff he’s supposed to do. Don’t pretend otherwise.  It may not be a big deal to you, but it must be a big deal to the youth in your program or they would not have brought it up. Adults need to take the time to listen to youth and find out why they are concerned. Then, adults can take the opportunity to coach young people to help them find a solution.

2. “Don’t worry about it,” or “It’s no big deal.” 

It may not be a big deal to you, but it must be a big deal to the youth in your program or they would not have brought it up. Adults need to take the time to listen to youth and find out why they are concerned. Then, adults can take the opportunity to coach young people to help them find a solution.

3. “It’s for your own good.”

That makes adults the only people who can decide what is good for young people? Children and youth should be expected to have a serious, meaningful role in determining their “own good”.

4. “Well, that sounds good in theory, but in the real world….” 

So what world are you saying the young people your are talking to are from? You might want to take some time to hear young peoples’ “theory” out and check your assumptions at the door – the children and youth around you might be more real than you.

5. “We’ll look into that,” “I’ll think about that,” or “You’ll have to work that out on your own.” 

Noncommittal answers dismiss youth and imply they aren’t worth the time, honesty, and effort of adults. Also, again, you’re missing a great opportunity to coach. Ultimately, that’s your job – to coach and guide the young people around you.

6. “I know you’re feeling ______ right now, but you really shouldn’t because…” 

Never assume you know what young people are feeling or tell them how they should be feeling. Ask them how they feel, and acknowledge it by responding with empathy.

7. “You’ll understand when you’re older,” or “When I was your age…” 

Well, maybe young people do understand you right now, and just don’t agree with you. Try finding out why and you might learn something. Taking this approach creates a line of separation between young people and adults and invalidates what children and youth are experiencing right now.

8. “Kid” or “Homie” or “Sweetie” or “Dude” 

Many young people prefer to be called by their first names – but its always a good practice to ask individual people what they’d like to be called.

MORE RUDE THINGS ADULTS SAY TO YOUTH:

Thanks to all the folks who contributed on the FACING ADULTISM Facebook page!): 

  • “I brought you into this world, and I can also take you out!” 
  • ”You’re so smart for fifteen!”
  • “When are you going to grow up?”
  • “Don’t touch that, you’ll break it!”
  • “As long as you are in my house, you’ll do it!”
  • “You’re being childish.”
  • “You’re so stupid (or clumsy, inconsiderate, etc.)!”
  • “Go to your room!”
  • “Don’t ever yell at your mother like that!” (yelling)
  • “She doesn’t understand anything.” (about a baby)
  • “You are too old for that!”
  • “You’re not old enough!”
  • “Oh, it’s only puppy love.” 
  • “If you don’t stop crying I’ll give you something to cry about.” 
  • “What do you know? You haven’t experienced anything!”
  • “It’s just a stage. You’ll outgrow it.”
  • “Go to your room!”
  • “Act your age.”
  • “Children should be seen and not heard.”
  • “What do you know, you’re just a kid!”
  • “Do as I say, not as I do.”
  • “You’ll understand it someday, just you wait.”
  • “It’s my house and you’ll follow my rules!” 
  • ”Calm down,”
  • “You’re just a kid,”
  • “Grow up!”
  • “These kids are a form of birth control!” 
  • “You’re cruisin’ for a bruisin!’” 
  • “Did you just do what I saw you do?”
  • “Because I said so.”
  • “Someday I hope you have a kid and she’s just like you.”
  • “Don’t get smart with me.”
  • “You’ll do it and you’ll like it.”

Ground Rules to Stop Rude Adult Talk

One way to set the stage for clear and comfortable communication between young people and adults is to set ground rules when working together. Here is an example of some commonly used ground rules:

  • Speak for yourself—No put-downs Take responsibility for your words, your action, and your learning
  • Expect unfinished business—Listen to others and to what you are saying, too
  • Have fun—You have the right to pass at any time in group discussions or activities  
  • Create Space—Its important to create environments where young people and adults feel comfortable asking questions and being themselves.
  • Stop Hesitating—Make sure everyone knows they can stop conversation and ask questions at any point. Make it a norm to inject in the conversation when its appropriate.
  • Be Diverse—Celebrate the variety between youth and adults, and among youth, and among adults. AND try to always talk in ways that are understood by everyone in the group.
  • Body Language—Be aware of body language and facial expressions. If you are speaking, pay attention to how other people are reacting and ask questions, if you need to.
  • Be Comfortable—Use language you are comfortable with. Don’t use jargon or slang just to fit in. Just be sure you’re sensitive to others in the group, no matter what their age.  
  • Questions to Ask Yourself—How about you? What does rude speech sound like to you? Do you speak in a way that everyone can understand what you’re saying – young people? adults? people who speak English as a second language? others? Are you aware of the views and perspectives of the young people and adults in the room? Do you talk with others respectfully? Do you listen carefully to what they have to say? If somebody is speaking with words or in a way that is confusing to me, what should I do? When is it okay to use slang or jargon?

You Might Like…

Order FACING ADULTISM by Freechild founder Adam Fletcher at http://amzn.to/2noYclH
Order FACING ADULTISM by Freechild founder Adam Fletcher!

Stop Attacking Youth!

Another day, another article slamming young people for not being activists. This one comes from the Left, effectively making its author a fremeny to youth activists today. (He joins these hallowed ranks with Todd Gitlin, among others.)

This well-meaning, but poorly informed narrative generally leaves readers with the following points:

  • There isn’t any/enough youth activism today.
  • The world is hard.
  • Young people are held down by the world.
  • There are logical reasons why they’re held down.
  • Things will never be as good as they were in the past.
  • Youth today will never be as good as they were in the past.

Its that last point that sounds so familiar. Given the long shadow cast by false generational analysis over the last 20 years (thank you Strauss and Howe), its no wonder why the Left attacks young people in equal measure to the Right. People who are progressive or liberal must must depart from this bad ideology and find consensus in post-modern analyses focused on socio-economic realities, instead of arbitrary age markers.


Realize this: Young people are working to change America like they never have before, using effective, sustainable ways that take time, energy, and commitment. Anti-democratic and uneffective roguish rock-throwing and police harassing only ever goes so far, and that’s why there’s very little left of the 60s and 70s youth movement. Today’s youth movement is a lot more sophisticated and is creating long-lasting change. Bad analyses, like the one cited at the beginning of this entry, mislead people into believing otherwise. However, there’s plenty going on right now.

The reason why we need to see what’s really going on is that it’s mostly young people of color and low-income youth who are deeply activating and making change happen. Mainstream media and mainstream academia isn’t going to promote what’s actually happening because they’re deeply invested in sustaining the status quo. Portraying youth in a true light, including their inspired organizing and powerful outcomes, challenges that status quo.

By comparing generations, conservative news sources and neoliberal academics effectively perpetuate disingenuous support of the past by lionizing those activists, while demonizing and demoralizing young people today. The vast majority of these authors don’t see the level of efficacy, depth of action, and breadth of engagement that’s going on out there.

Calling for the rallying of masses of young people, these authors are perpetuating a disillusion myth about the past. The masses of youth were never truly activists in any social movement, particularly in the 1960s and 70s. For every young person on the front lines holding picket signs and teach ins, how many others were mere moochers on the movement who joined in so-called “love-ins” and smoked pot in order to enjoy the escapism those activities offered? True adult supporters of youth activists shouldn’t be concerned with those masses of youth. Well-positioned upper class and middle class kids get all the coverage in the media and from many of the world-changing youth programs they want. They don’t need our interest or support, because they have very little authentic motivation to change anything. They do it for reasons that I don’t personally connect with, and that I don’t think are fair to the world we live in today.

Its the young people who don’t have any choice but to change the world, who will be swallowed up by the abyss of consumeristic self-interest, those are the ones I’m most interested in. Those are the ones the Left should really keep an eye on, because while they’re the ones most in need of social change right now, luckily, they are the fighters who are most deeply engaged in the struggle right now.

In order to see these youth activists, the Left has to stop framing young people and making their disengagement the issue. Doing this the Left perpetuating the horribly minimalistic and defeatist misconception that’s been popular in mainstream media and academia over the last 15+ years. The reality that’s been waiting to be seen is that young people are changing the world right now in positive, powerful ways. They could really use the support of the Left in all its myriad forms.

Here’s what’s really happening right now:

  • There is a lot of youth activism happening today.
  • The world is changing for the better, right now.
  • Young people are partially responsible for the positive, powerful change happening.
  • Youth activists today are not recognized for the hard won successes happening.
  • A new world is possible, and young people are ushering that world in.
  • Youth today stand in solidarity with the past, while ushering in the future.
  • They could use adult support. All youth can.


Let’s look at the whole picture instead of hen-pecking according to popular assumptions and projections. Let’s support young people, for real.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

"I Must Exert Myself"

Albert Einstein wrote, “Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to a divine purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: That we are here for the sake of others…for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day, I realize how much my outer and inner life is built upon the labors of people, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received.” 

Time to get busy exerting!

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Youth Voice EVERYWHERE!

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.

Critical Questions

  • 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?

Want more resources? Visit The Freechild Project Youth Voice Toolkit!

Do Not Let Go Of Young Adults

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.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Our Hope Is Students on Fire!

The world is on fire right now!

As I sat at my computer at my dining room table in Olympia, Washington, in the Cascadia region of North America, I read about the new round of protests erupt around the world. In one day, there were reports of students in Chile, the working class masses of Brazil, the dissatisfied citizens of Egypt, and angry protests against the American president’s visit in South Africa.

These proverbial fires have been burning for a while now. Countries around the world have been attempting to quell mass protest since before the World Trade Organization eruption in nearby Seattle back in 1999. In the decade-plus since then, more people have risen up than ever before.

Fed excuses by mainstream media and convenient politicians worldwide, the public is told these fires burn because of political dissatisfaction, totalitarian rule, and economic upheaval. However, smart people across the planet know these are broad generalizations that don’t generally answer the question at hand: What fuels these fires?

I believe that from their uncomfortable positions as the passive recipients of adult-driven education systems, students around the world are at the heart of the social upheaval facing almost every nation today. Faced with stark incongruities between the highly-interactive, diverse, socially-driven, media-saturated environment they live in every single day and the now-anomalous, anti-collaborative, homogeneous, inherently disengaging schools they’re compelled to attend by law throughout the school year, it is absolutely no wonder why the fires are burning tonight.

However, many are taking these movements so far as to demand the dismantling of society as we know it today, instead advocating a kind of anarchistic autonomy. They have essentially given up hope and are reaching for something completely different.

For just over a decade, I’ve been working with schools across Canada and the United States to develop a new understanding of democracy. Centered in a partnership-oriented transformational approach to school improvement, I initially called the frameworks I developed “meaningful student involvement.” Research-driven and experience-proven, I was proud to facilitate learning experiences with educators of all ages focused on this approach. Since 2002, I have consulted on more than 50 projects in a wide range of diverse schools serving low-income students, minority communities, and other places labelled “hard-to-serve” through government assessments. I still believe democracy requires public schools.

However, I see now that whatever I’ve been trying to do is falling short.

Tonight, young teenagers are leading and rallying on the frontlines of the more than 800,000 people participating in Santiago and other cities across Chile.

These are the types students I want to reach, the ones who are starting the protests. They are on fire, and they are our hope. I want them to learn the ins and out of the education systems and government agencies that make decisions on their behalves everyday. I want them to not fight for new governments or reformed schools, but transformed learning environments. I want them to understand that democratic societies require free, engaging, inclusive, and comprehensive education, and that schools right now are capable of meeting these demands—if only students themselves know what to demand.

As they continue to burn, I hope to reach students where they are and show them where they can go, in positive, powerful, and proactive ways that can benefit everyone in society. They are our only hope, and we can reach them, because ultimately, they are us.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Loosening the Evaluation Stranglehold

Every day, young people around the world—including Pittsburgh and all of Allegheny County—struggle to connect in meaningful ways to the world around them. They’re yanked on and dragged around by the adults in the lives, being sent to school, dropped off in after school programs, made to come to dinner, forced to kiss their great aunt Bertha… They struggle to make those connections meaningfully.

In the meantime, businesses are marketing products to children and youth like never before, selling them on the notion that they can connect to their favorite brand all over the place, all the time, and that’s all that matters. Every young person seems to know what Hershey’s candy bars are. iPhones, Nikes, Forever 21, and Facebook have extremely engaged youth consumer bases.

Some people think nonprofits need to act like those businesses. Many youth-serving organizations are being pressured to reform the ways they serve their constituencies according to the philosophies of people like Dan Pollota and funders who demand the usage of the Youth Program Quality Assessment. The intention of many folks who promote the stance that nonprofits need to be business-like, emphasizing accountability, ROI, and similar strategies, is well-meaning. Indoctrinated by business profiteers who fund philanthropies, many nonprofits are struggling to meet these expectations.

There’s a simpler way to go, and all afterschool programs should go for it.

In the ancient Greek empire, philosophers often sought to promote core values rather than complex rubrics for self-reflection and personal growth. Their holistic approaches to seeing the world were matched by these values, and although all of their actions weren’t aligned with them, general philosophical beliefs were. (Their philosophy before Socrates is said to be aligned with Eastern beliefs including the Tao and Buddhist impermanence, as will the following.)

In the same vein, youth programs—and all nonprofits—should move away from intricate dollar-for-dollar assessment and invest in deeper, more substantial change through the communities and populations they serve.

I have created a document that I think embodies this deeper way of being. Its not meant to summarize activities, emphasize outcomes, or promote accountability. Instead, its thinking about our whole lives as a way of living, including our youth programs, nonprofit organizations, schools, families, neighborhoods… all of a young person’s life. I call my document the Get Engaged Manifesto.

To be more successful, we need fewer strangleholds on our work, not more. Our public school teachers have been saying this over the last decade as they’ve labored under excruciating evaluations of their effects on student learning. Hopefully nonprofits won’t have to go through a decade of similar struggles in order to learn this lesson too.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

10 Steps to Planning Programs With Youth

Planning youth programs for children and youth is tricky. Stuck without enough time to plan or strict guidelines for curriculum delivery, youth program workers can feel powerless over what they do with the young people they serve. In my own experience working in the field for more than a decade, I had this experience continually.

In the last decade, I’ve worked with more than 200 nonprofits across the US to help them re-envision program planning for out-of-school time programs. Organizations are wrestling because of their best intentions. My own work through The Freechild Project, along with similar programs across the country, have convinced a generation of practitioners and planners that youth programs can do more than simply deliver content to young people. Instead, they can create program content with young people, and in some instances actually position young people to generate content with their peers. This notion reflects the wisdom, “Nothing about me without me is for me.”

Aside from this ethical consideration, there is a practical basis to promoting meaningful youth involvement in youth program planning. A variety of recent research is increasingly demonstrating that there may be no parallel for ensuring program effectiveness. The most intuitive outcome is true: This approach powerfully impacts young people who participate in program planning along with youth who participate in programs planned by youth. Less obvious are the effects that youth-involved planning has on adults in the program, in the sponsoring organization, and in the surrounding community. If their activities include engaging peers in service to the broader community, young people involved in planning youth programs can actually affect the broad community beyond their programs in a variety of ways over the short and long term, including promoting lifelong civic engagement for young people, including developing strong and sustained connections to the educational, economic, and cultural values of their neighborhoods and cities. Youth programs can dream no higher goals. (See here, here, and here for some studies.)


Studying my own work, along with a vast array of literature focusing on this approach, I’ve devised some key points for engaging children and youth in program planning.

10 Steps to Planning Programs With Youth

  1. Think Sustainable—Create ways to ensure participants that being involved is going to keep happening after this planning period. From the beginning, infuse youth engagement in facilitation, evaluation, research, decision-making, and advocacy right into the culture of your program. If you must involve children and youth in a one-shot activity, let them know of opportunities for them to be involved in their lives outside your program.
  2. Clear Purpose—Establish a clear purpose for youth involvement in program planning. Let participants, 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. Your program can be done with them, and they should know why.
  3. Engage The Non-Traditionally Engaged—Create space and help children and youth who haven’t been especially engaged in your program to become involved in program planning. Both traditionally involved young people and non-traditionally involved young people can contribute to all of the various aspects of program planning. If you don’t know how to do this, get trained; if you need a reason, read this.
  4. 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 afterschool youth workers to help young people discover what they know. 
  5. Equity, Not Equality—Develop equitable roles between young people and adults. This means that programs 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.
  6. 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. 
  7. Make A Clear Plan—Having a specific pathway for young people to see how their contributions affect program planning is vital. Show how their participation will affect the program. 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 an afterschool program plan with young people is not the culmination of work, but the starting point of an organization’s efforts to create more effective programs. A clear plan should include: 1) Next steps; 2) Roles and responsibilities; 3) program structure outline; 4) program participant evaluation. Setting priorities, using timelines with target implementation dates, and developing clear benchmarks for measuring success in each area can also enhance the youth program plan’s effectiveness.
  8. Get Systemic—Encourage active youth/adult partnerships beyond planning. 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 the systems that prevail in every part of their lives.
  9. Connect The Dots—Establish community/school connections if possible. Collaborations that reinforce young people’s learning and support in-school learning only benefit youth programs. The partnership established in this process can deepen efforts through the future, and mutually support young people in and out of school time.
  10. Eyes Wide Open—Open the doors to critical examination. Use critical lenses to examine your assumptions and effects in your program planning. Identifying strengths and weaknesses allow programs and organizations to improve the overall effectiveness of youth engagement, 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 program planning activities with youth, 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.

My experience engaging young people in program planning can benefit you. What would you add to the list from your experience?

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!