Rethinking Youth Empowerment

So many adults say they want to empower youth.

When they say this to me, I’ve learned to simply hear them, because its usually those adults who most want to be empowered. So, before you strive to empower a young person, I want you to consider that you might want to be empowered yourself.

Right now, take a moment and think about what that means for you. That’s not a value judgment statement or a condemnation; its just an opportunity for you to think about it.

When I write the phrase “youth empowerment”, I’m talking about young people of all ages, including very young children and very old teenagers.

A long time ago, I wrote a definition of youth empowerment: “Youth empowerment is an attitudinal, structural, and cultural process whereby young people gain the ability, authority, and agency to make decisions and implement change in their own lives and the lives of other people, including youth and adults.”

However, if you work professionally with young people, I want you to understand that there is not one single definition of youth empowerment.  There’s no single power that all adults can give all youth. Its not simply ability, authority, and agency, because there’s both more and less to it than that.

The simple fact is that all children and youth are endowed with an innate power that they alone possess, and they alone can own. There are no proper words to express what this power is or how it acts. Youth power is literally larger than words.

As adults, every single one of us needs to acknowledge that we can and frequently do oppress youth power. However, none of us can restore it. We can open doorways that help young people reclaim their power, and those doorways can become gateways to lifetimes of empowerment; but adults cannot reclaim youth power for young people.

When I write the phrase “youth empowerment”, I’m talking about young people of all ages, including very young children and very old teenagers.

Adam F.C. Fletcher

I have come to understand that decision-making opportunities are doorways to youth empowerment. So are leadership, teaching, and other activities that position young people in places of genuine and appropriate authority over their own lives, and influence in the lives of other people. However, its also a place of authentic personal understanding: one part motivation to three parts ability, youth empowerment is a personal awareness of the intrinsic nature lying within all people to change the world and change themselves.

Because of the depth of this reality, “youth empowerment” is often misunderstood, misconstrued, and ill-implemented. Many adults simply put young people into positions of authority without ever attending to that authentic personal understanding that needs to be intact. Well-meaning parents give their kids the keys to the house without locking the liquor cabinet, while well-meaning youth workers form youth councils without facilitating training about leadership or self-awareness for youth participants.

Remembering that there’s no one single way that all adults can empower all young people, its also true that all youth empowerment is subjective. That means that what works in one community won’t work in the next, and what works with one teen in a family may not work with younger children in the same family. All young people have their own oppressions that need to be overcome, and if youth empowerment is meant to help overcome those oppressions, adults need to cater to their realities.

There are many, many ways that adults can oppress all young people; oppression is an objective fact. This is true of the youngest among us, as well as the oldest youth in our lives. All young people are discriminated against because of their age, and that is an unquestionable fact. Parenting, schooling, governing, and many more functions of society serve to oppress people whom they’re designed for; whether by intention or coincidence doesn’t matter.

If young people come to believe that their oppression is fair, or that their oppression is their own fault, then they won’t think of themselves as oppressed. Adults routinely work to convince young people that their oppression is the result of biological fact, social norms, or cultural customs, rather than the fault of individual adults whose actions and choices oppress children and youth.

5 Steps to Rethink Youth Empowerment

Finally, if you’re concerned with action, here’s a last thought for now: The only way to really, really understand the relationship between youth empowerment and oppression is to observe it directly in your own life. Here are 5 steps you can take to rethink youth empowerment right now.

  1. Begin and look directly from where you stand right now and observe how you oppress young people, children, youth, teens, kids, tots, infants, babies, any or all of them – because we all do.
  2. Acknowledge that adults oppress young people as parents, teachers, youth workers, neighbors, aunts and uncles, counselors, all these roles.
  3. When you’ve acknowledged that, dig further into your own life and look at your teenage years.
  4. Acknowledge how you were oppressed as a youth, then name your oppression as a child.
  5. Name each instance and type you can think of.

This is hard work, but the first step to uncovering your role as the oppressor and the oppressed.  

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Radical Transparency with Children and Youth

How To Be Radically Transparent With Children and Youth
  1. Start when they’re young. While young people are still young, that’s the time to make be radically transparent with them. Having a transparent conversation with a 17 or 18 year old can be difficult, if only because they’re conditioned to accept adults obfuscating. By starting early, you weave into your relationships with young people your own ability to be honest, and show your expectation that your relationships with children and youth are motivated by fully mutual accountability.
  2. Take issues one at a time. When creating a radically transparent relationship with young people, go in steps. Being completely open and honest all at once can be really difficult and daunting. Every time you would typically keep information to yourself, ask yourself, “Why can’t I share this with young people?” Unless you come up with a strong argument against it, opt for openness. But in increments.
  3. Make time to explain your logic. As a radically transparent adult ally, you must be honest and fair. Young people need to understand how you came to your decisions and why. Be ready to spend a huge amount of time with children and youth explaining everything. The extra time will pay off, when ultimately, your effort will inspire trust and respect.
  4. Clearly outline the steps for action. Radically transparent organizations need clear ways for young people to take action. You might set specific goals or show young people which skills and outcomes they can be developing. Being fair in this process prevents you from expecting any young people to do something beyond their abilities. Make sure your organization is focused on process more than product, and let young people know that’s the case.
  5. Question your own discomfort. Making traditionally adult-only information available to young people naturally stirs up discomfort. A lot of the time its uncomfortable because it’s never been done before. Whenever you hesitates, ask yourself if sharing that information would help or engage the young people you’re working with. If it would, do it. Once it’s out in the open, discomfort quickly fades. If it doesn’t, its trying to show you more.

There is no such thing as genuinely non-coercive relationships with young people. The best writing about that topic is full of coercion and attempts to get kids to do things, but from particularly obtuse or obfuscated angles. There’s are political causes behind everything- not party politik, but philosophical politics.

Those philosophical politics inform all our ways of being, including and especially our relationships with young people. Its from this place that philosopher/theorists like Freire, Illich, and even Neill become so relevant. However, they represent different perspectives, and as a critical theorist I hang my hat closest to Freire.
It is from this perspective that I find myself wondering lately about the notion of radical transparency with children and youth. Growing up in the mire of post-naive capitalism, I have grown to deeply appreciate attempts to reveal the political considerations of the systems and society I occupy and participate in. The dark forces of gross consumerism routinely pile up cheap plastic crap around us in piles so big we can’t see what’s going on around us. 
Those piles are formed of the detritus of our lifestyles, including the stuff we buy and the places we attend. However, they’re also made from the shady forces of popular culture which seek to block us from seeing why things around us happen the ways they do. 
Given an opportunity to identify clearly what they see in the world around them, I believe young people have the innate capacity to discover and examine why things are the way they are. They can also identify how things operate, and how they can be transformed. With consistent and relevant exposure throughout their lives, all children and youth could gradually, purposefully, and truly become operative democrats—that is, fully engaged citizens in a democracy—at much younger ages than we afford people now.

The believe that there’s a static experience of childhood that should be preserved through ignorance and limited exposure to the world is idyllic and has been proven misguided, if only because we know that for all intents and purposes, that experience is limited to so few young people. Right now it seems as if the domineering modus operandi in society is to “throw them to the wolves” of pop culture consumerism that defines their identities for them. I want young people to be able to choose their identities, connections, and engagements, rather than allowing corporations to choose for them.

I don’t think transparency equals full access or authority. It may lend itself to that, and when it’s appropriate it will. But I’m not inclined to hand over the keys to the house and invite everyone in, as it were. If a young person wanted more of an institution at will and of there own volition, that’s something different. But rather than foist everything upon every young person all at once, I wonder of there’s a need for degrees of transparency. Is transparency only necessary/appropriate when young people request it? If that choice isn’t radical transparency, then what is? Cynicism is popular in some communities, while in most others there’s gross apathy. What other options are there?

Writing about this, I think it’s important to clarify that I’m thinking mostly about social institutions like families, schools, policing, the economy, government, nonprofits, religions. What if Toto ran up and pulled back the curtain on any of those institutions? What would young people themselves see? Can we be that revelatory and transparent?

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

Silencing Youth

One of the ways adultism affects young people is through silencing. Silencing youth happens when adults take away the ability of young people to speak. This happens directly, such as when adults tell youth to be quiet or take away their instruments for communication. It also happens indirectly, like when youth are seeking adult approval and adults don’t offer it.

Adults Silencing Youth

As adults, we routinely abuse the trust, admiration, and acceptance young people bestow in us through silencing. Sometimes we consciously do this, and other times its by accident. In my many capacities working with youth over my 20+ year career, I often silenced youth inadvertently and on purpose. When I ran a youth center in a suburban American city in the late 1990s, a group of young teens asked if they could make a newspaper using the youth center’s resources. Without asking my boss or even taking stock of what they were asking for, I quickly dismissed them and said no. I automatically assumed there would be nothing good to come of their work, and didn’t value what they were going to say enough to investigate further.

All young people experience sincere silencing, simply because of their age. That is the effect of adultism in our society. However, its well documented that low-income youth and youth of color are disproportionately affected by silencing. Their voices are routinely and systematically eliminated from many conversations, frequently through the error of omission, but even more often through crass determination and blind segregation.

Activities Silencing Youth

Sometimes activities that are intended to engage youth voice can have the reverse effect. Channeling the conversation and discourse young people naturally have into adult-approved topics with adult-approved youth can stifle, negate, or otherwise show disapproval of youth. This can have the effect of chilling or ending youth voice. This goes back to my earlier writing about convenient and inconvenient youth voice.

Suppose that adults in schools are led to believe that when students scrawl negative things about their teachers on lockers or desks, they don’t mean it. Young people, then, will not be understood by adults to be sharing feedback about teaching, even when they are. If certain types of feedback to adults in schools are acceptable when others are not, adults become the people who determine when youth voice is valid and when it is not. This silences youth and reinforces for them- and adults- that adults are the only worthy arbitrators of youth voice. Sharing feedback about the situations they’re in is a speech act, a way of doing something with words. Adults undermine youth voice when we take away the ability of young people to use their voices by calling them wrong, incorrect, or insincere. This is actively silencing youth.

We passively silence youth when we take away their access to the vocabulary to express their claims. This is done when adults (and youth) eschew the language of adultism, instead flattening the experience of youth and adults by addressing age discrimination against youth as ageism. It also happens when youth organizations don’t teach youth workers the language of youth voice. It may not be intentional or assertive, but its still has the effect of silencing youth.

Youth Silencing Youth

Through this type of conditioning, and others, young people sometimes learn to embrace silencing and use it as a weapon to fight back at adultism and oppression in general. As Paulo Freire wrote, “The oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors.” There’s a power in silence that we can call upon ourselves, within ourselves, and for ourselves. However, that same power cannot be forced onto another. When exerted with indiscretion, silencing youth is a tool of oppression that denies young people their natural abilities and takes away from them further developing their capabilities.

There are lots of purposes for silence in communication; if we want to be adult allies to young people we should be aware of what our intent, affect, and effect is when we’re quiet.

How It Happens

Here are some ways adults silence youth:

  • Ignoring youth voice that makes us uncomfortable
  • Believing stereotypes of youth
  • The silent treatment
  • Censorship
  • Graffiti bans
  • Forced spiritual practices
  • Compulsory education
  • Taking away cell phones, iPods, and other handheld tech
  • Taking away computer use or the Internet
  • Rerouting youth conversations from topics adults are uncomfortable with back to familiar grounds
  • Stifling political speech
  • No votes under 18
  • No right to banking under 18
  • Stopping creative expression
  • Managing types of challenges presented by youth
  • Youth councils
  • Curfews
  • Traditional youth leadership activities
  • Punish political expression
  • Punishing student expression on the Internet
  • Telling kids not to tattle
  • Encouraging kids to tell us things they’ve heard
  • Ending cultural studies in a school district
  • Corporal punishment
  • Yelling at young people
Does youth voice make adults uncomfortable? Absolutely. Is it okay to silence youth, ever? No. Imagining a world with uninhibited youth voice makes many adults shudder. That’s not their problem- its ours. Adults need to deal with our limited capacity to listen to youth, and not expect young people to limit their capacity in order to appease us.This list could become inexhaustibly long. Share your thoughts in the comments and add ways that adults silence youth!

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!

Actively Not Knowing

There have been times in my life when I have actively sought to not know something. Working with young people to honor them as humans has been a great way to learn this humility. In our society adults constantly assert their knowingness over that of young people, especially in schools and youth programs. In youth voice work, which focuses on actively involving the ideas, wisdom, actions, and knowledge of young people, adults and youth have to keep in mind that adults don’t know it all. I have learned to apply this throughout my life.

I do not know it all, and I regularly assert that.

However, on the flip side of this is actively knowing something. There are many times in life when we have to do this, as adults, as workers, as humans. A lot of people aren’t cued into the amount of knowingness they have, as they take for granted their ability to learn, discern, critique and reinvent constantly. This happens in the grocery store, while surfing the web, and while walking down the street. A trillion times a minute neurons in our brains are firing and synapses are connecting, choices are being made and knowingness is happening.

Have you ever spent time with people who actively did not know things they actually did know? It may seem as if they are choosing not to choose, deciding not to decide. This is inactive not knowingness, and it’s different from the other two scenarios I’ve painted. In this scene the character leaves behind their abilities to make decisions, simply suspending their judgment- better or otherwise- while not knowing they’re doing this. They may appear incapacitated or indifferent to the choices that face them, allowing their knowingness to dissipate or surrendering their knowingness to others.

The reasons for this may be myriad, oftentimes the outcome of traumatic experiences or other dynamic situations.

However, in our day and age I am concerned that young people themselves are being routinely subjected to mass incapacitation of knowingness, largely but not exclusively dependent on their socio-economic backgrounds. They’re growing up in homes where parents have assumed majority decision-making responsibilities throughout heir childhoods and youth, to the point where these young people become whole incapable of knowing what they know- or what they’re supposed to know. Then they attend schools that have reduced learning to rote memorization, devoid of critical thinking, and then they attend colleges where corporate foundations donate mass amounts of money to ensure curricula are devoid of resistance.

The few young people who do break free of these environments of ignorance become cynical of the culture and society that raised them. In turn, they abandon the democratic ideals that fostered their families’ ascendencies into middle class in the first place, and they join the growing mobs of anarchic thinking apathetic minorities. All because they didn’t know. They didn’t know what they knew, and when they discovered what they should’ve known they rebelled against not knowingness.

Where in your life do you actively suspend your knowingness? Where do you passively close your eyes and go along for the ride? Take a moment and consider your family, friends, workplace, neighborhood… We all do it, whether or not we’re aware of it. Where do you not know…?

CommonAction is available to train, coach, speak, and write about this topic across the US and Canada. Contact Adam to learn about the possibilities by emailing or calling (360) 489-9680.

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

It Is Not Fear You Are Feeling

I have become severely disinterested in fear-based living. Fear-based learning, fear-based love, fear-based religion, fear-based friendships… There is a lot of discussion out there about how we are internally afraid of so much, and we need to address that and face it and become not afraid. That does not seem useful to me.

Choosing Fear

I teach that we choose all the time. Our lives are made of a series of choices, day in and out, from morning to night, during our sleeping and waking hours. We choose all the time.

My work with young people over the last 20 years focused on decision-making in all kinds of positions in their lives, including their personal lives, their family and social lives, their educations, and all over. As adults, we constantly face decision-making opportunities, too. Constantly.

A lot of the choices we make are unconscious. They are driven by instinct and intuition that are unspoken, unacknowledged drivers throughout all of our life. Many others are conscious decisions chosen from amid fields of options, opportunities, and potentials.

There is a small plethora of psychologists, spiritualists, counselors, coaches, and other knowledgeable types who are out there promoting the idea that fear drives many of these unconscious and conscious decisions. Many of these folks frame our lives as being based in fear. I want to make it abundantly clear that I disagree with them, particularly about “fear” being a subconscious/unconscious motivator of a great deal of our decision-making. I don’t believe that is a particularly useful framework for understanding why we choose what we do, or for explaining how we come to the places where we are in life.

There is a role for acknowledging fear. When I directed ropes challenge courses I was taught the dictum about reasonable versus unreasonable fear. Reasonable fear is being chased by a man with a gun down a dark alley. Unreasonable fear is to be afraid of all alleys in any city anywhere anytime of day. After testing that rule on ropes challenge courses, with boys and girls and men and women hundreds of feet in the air with ropes and teamwork supporting them, I came to see it’s relevance for them and for me. After continuing to test the rule in daily living and when teaching it to youth and adults in other settings, I found it had diminishing value. At this point in my life I have come to understand that there is almost no value to elevating fear’s level of control in our lives, because almost all of the time, we are not afraid.

What Fear Really Is

As a noun, fear is “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” When defined as a verb, fear means to “be afraid of someone or something likely to be dangerous, painful, or threatening.

What we understand to be fear is often intuition screaming at us. Our safety radars have varying degrees of acceptability for stimulus from outside sources, and they respond according to that stimulus in ways that get our attention best. We may get sick, leave relationships, quit jobs, move houses, stop friendships, or otherwise disconnect, and we may be tempted to attributing that to fear. But it’s not.

We each do the right things for ourselves in our world. If a person must frame a response as fearful and that’s useful for them, then by all means I do not want to take away another person’s comfort. But if fear does not serve you as a useful way to see the world today, then consider this permission to see it for what it is: Fear is an intuitive response to extraneous stimulus designed to keep us safe.

When we begin to understand fear for what it really is, we can discover that it is not fear that is keeping us from our relationships or jobs or love or friendships or success or a new home… Instead, there are many other factors at work. We can lump all of those under the heading “fear”, or we can see fear for it’s component parts. But generally speaking, “fear” is not what is actually at work.

I am not trying to take away fear, either, or say that it does not exist or that it does not harm you. You can feel fear or imagine feeling afraid all you want. I am simply suggesting there is another way.

Living On Purpose

If you want to choose to see fear differently, I would suggest becoming more realistic about your life. Approach decision-making deliberately, and choose to makes choices on purpose. While you make choices, see the different factors that influence you. Studies have shown us our choices are affected by:

  • past experience 
  • cognitive biases 
  • age and individual differences 
  • belief in personal relevance, and 
  • escalation of commitment

None of these include fear. See what fear is, see how you have raised it too high on your life’s radar, and choose differently. It is that easy. Choose differently. Harriet Tubman once said, “Children, if you are tired, keep going; if you are hungry, keep going; if you want to taste freedom, keep going.”

Let me add, “If you are fearful, keep going.”

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