The Voices of Youth in Crisis

Youth in crisis are young people who face imbalanced challenges due to circumstances beyond their control. Through the concern of international, national, state and local governments around the world, the voices of these youth are being engaged like never before. Few people are talking about how that happens though.


My own experience

As a child, I experienced routine homelessness as my family constantly moved to escape my dad’s demons of alcoholism and post traumatic stress disorder. When I was a youth, I was constantly subjected to violence in my gang- and drug-infested neighborhood. As the only one of four siblings to graduate from school on time; as the first in my family to go to college; and as a one-time homeless youth struggling with depression and a sense of purposelessness in the world, I know what it means to be a youth in crisis coming from a family in crisis. These issues resonate with me deeply.

However, as you may know from my speeches and books, the topics of youth voice, youth involvement, youth engagement and youth empowerment matter to me a lot, too. My first job working with youth was as a teacher/assistant director in a theatre program when I was 14, which I continued for three summers and which set my life’s work trajectory in this area. I started a neighborhood youth council when I was 17, and learned about all this when I was 24. Its almost 20 years later, and I’m still celebrating the positive, powerful potential of young people! This matters, too.

For the last 20 years, I’ve been contracting with nonprofits, government agencies, K-12 schools and other organizations across the United States and Canada to build youth voice, foster youth engagement and support meaningful youth involvement. I have spoken, trained and advised more than 500 organizations in 200 communities, at hundreds of conferences, and to more than 1,000,000 youth and adults. The entire time, while I’ve sought to help all youth everywhere, I’ve focused my conversations on “nontraditional youth leaders” and young people who are historically denied opportunities to share their voice. In addition to young people of color and low-income youth, I was talking about youth in crisis, I was working with youth in crisis, and I was struggling for youth in crisis to become engaged as full partners within their communities rather than being treated as passive recipients.

This month, I began a national and international scan of youth voice among services for youth in crisis. Following are my initial findings from that scan.


Basic terms

Voices of Youth in Crisis by Freechild Institute for Youth Engagement

 

When I talk about youth in crisis, I am talking about young people who are:

  • Homeless
  • Ran away from home
  • Dropped out
  • Violent
  • Thinking suicidal thoughts
  • Are abused
  • Hungry
  • Pushed out
  • Bullied
  • Experience violence
  • Experience self-harm
  • Neglected
  • Experience sexual explotation
  • Abandoned by a parent or guardian
  • Experiencing eating disorders
  • Suffering from a substance abuse, or
  • Have mental health issues

Youth who are from these areas are generally seen as “highly vulnerable populations” and as “at risk youth;” alternatively, they are also addressed as “opportunity youth” and “youth at hope.”

I’ve found that terms, ideas and concepts supporting and aligning with the idea of youth voice and meaningful youth involvement in this area include:

  • Youth voice and choice
  • Youth empowerment
  • Youth leadership
  • Peer support
  • Youth/adult partnerships
  • Youth engagement
  • Youth-led programs
  • Youth as partners
  • Peer-to-peer
  • Youth-driven activities
  • Youth led prevention
  • Youth in policy
  • Youth-run programs

Some of the specific issues include: Community, family, and youth voice; Client engagement; Family and youth advisory boards; Collaborations throughout communities; Whole family empowerment programs; Internet engagement; Youth as trainers; Participant service evaluations; and more.

Specific activities include engaging youth as advocates; youth as trainers; youth as evaluators; youth as planners; youth as decision-makers; youth as facilitators; youth as policy-makers; and more.

 


Efforts to engage youth voice

Places to Engage the Voices of Youth in Crisis

 

A lot of people are concerned about youth in crisis. However, my recent scan shows that few of them are specifically, directly and concentratedly concerned about fostering youth voice or promoting youth engagement. Organizations and agencies that address these issues consistently focus on prevention, intervention, education and empowerment.

Currently, in governments and nongovernmental agencies across the globe, fields addressing these issues include:

  • Social service agencies
  • Human service agencies
  • Courts and the legal justice system
  • Crisis response
  • Child welfare
  • Juvenile justice
  • Zero youth incarceration
  • Youth homelessness
  • Family advocates
  • Educators
  • Public health
  • Religious organizations
  • Community organizations

National nonprofits

For instance, Safe Families for Children is a national advocacy organization with chapters nationwide, including in WA. They work across the spectrum, including with churches, and occasionally address youth voice in service provision, including in their Family Friendly Handbook. Another organization called USA Cares provides financial and advocacy assistance to post-9/11 active duty US military service personnel, veterans and their families. However, there is little evidence they have focused on youth engagement or youth voice specifically. The National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors represents the organizations receiving government money that make up the public mental health service delivery system. Representing state mental health commissioners/directors and their agencies, this organization works with states, federal partners, and stakeholders to promote wellness, recovery, and resiliency for people with mental health conditions or co-occurring mental health and substance related disorders across all ages and cultural groups, including youth. A hugely influential organization, they focus on youth voice in several documents, but do not highlight it on their website or overall.

The National Safe Place Network works to ensure an effective system of response for youth in crisis through public and private partnerships at a local, state and national level. National Safe Place Network envisions a world where all youth are safe; however, the organization doesn’t talk about youth voice. They are concerned about youth empowerment though, and there’s a track about it at their annual conference. The Child Mind Institute is an independent, national nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of children and families struggling with mental health and learning disorders. However, I can’t find reference to youth voice, youth empowerment and related topics in their materials online.

Other national and international nonprofit organizations focusing on youth and families in crisis which should provide information about youth voice but apparently don’t include the National Association of County and City Health Officials. NACCHO does provide info on injury and violence among youth, but not on the role of youth voice in solving the issue. The World Bank has a report called “Children and Youth in Crisis Protecting and Promoting Human Development in Times of Economic Shocks,” but doesn’t generally provide information on youth engagement for youth in crisis.

The online resource databases related to youth in crisis don’t seem to address youth voice, either. One of the most interesting resources available today is called “Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development.” A registry of evidence-based positive youth development programs, it seeks to promote the health and well-being of children and youth. Blueprints is hosted by the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence (CSPV), at the Institute of Behavior Science, University of Colorado Boulder, and is funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Another resources is called Connect Safely Resources for Youth In Crisis is a list of opportunities for youth provided by a nonprofit focused on safety, privacy and security.

Federal agencies

For its 50+ programs that deal with the issues related to youth and families in crisis, the US federal government provides little information on youth voice, youth engagement, youth empowerment and youth-led programs. They do, however, provide substantial information on the issue of youth and families in crisis. For instance, the Children’s Bureau in the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services hosts the massive Child Welfare Information Gateway promotes the safety, permanency, and well-being of children, youth, and families by connecting child welfare, adoption, and related professionals as well as the public to information, resources, and tools covering topics on child welfare, child abuse and neglect, out-of-home care, adoption, and more. Its a powerful tool. I have to similarly applaud youth.gov. Its a massive U.S. government website that helps organizations and individual people create, maintain, and strengthen effective youth programs. There are a lot of youth facts, funding information, and tools to help assess community assets, generate maps of local and federal resources, search for evidence-based youth programs, and keep up-to-date on the latest, youth-related news. Its a great source of information, and even features a significant collection of information about youth engagement specifically from the working group that coordinates it, as well as from individual agencies like SAMHSA. The The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention is an office of the United States Department of Justice and a component of the Office of Justice Programs, and they offer some related info at the OJJDP website.

National and international foundations

Some of the foundations that reportedly support youth voice in the area of youth and families in crisis include the MacArthur Foundation, Kellogg Foundation, Arnold Foundation, Annie Casey Foundation, and the Ford Foundation.


Greatest hope?

Youth MOVE National and its chapters advocate for youth voice and rights in mental health and other systems that serve young people, for the purpose of empowering youth to be equal partners in the process of change. Youth Motivating Others through Voices of Experience (M.O.V.E.) National is a youth and young-adult led national advocacy organization that wants to change the world. The organization is devoted to improving services and systems that support young people. They focus on empowering young people to partner with adults to create meaningful change in mental health, juvenile justice, education, and child welfare systems. The organization represents 77 chapters (link is external), consisting of 9,000 members across 39 states.

Perhaps Youth MOVE is the greatest hope we have to build meaningful involvement for youth in crisis. Helping people understand the power of youth voice, the potential of youth engagement and the purpose of youth-led programs to serve youth in crisis is essential.

There is also a lot of action happening at the local level nationwide, with a smaller amount at the state level. Internationally, I’m still scanning for agencies, programs and organizations addressing youth in all kinds of crisis. If you know of any specific efforts locally or internationally, or on the national and federal levels in the US, please share them in the comments below!

Let’s move this forward!

 


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Elsewhere Online

 

These are the Principles of Youth Parent Partnerships, created by a group of 500 youth in Durham, North Carolina in 1998.

Youth Engagement at Home

Youth engagement starts at home. This post offers some of my thoughts about that reality, as well as steps to ensuring that youth engagement happens in your family. I also share some of the experiences I’ve had with youth engagement at home.

 

Basic Thoughts

These are barriers to Youth Engagement at home identified by youth and parents in my last workshop.
These are some barriers to Youth Engagement at home identified by youth and parents in my last workshop.

 

I’ve started defining the word engagement as choosing the same thing over and over. There are many kinds of youth engagement at home:

  • Psychological engagement
  • Physical engagement
  • Emotional engagement
  • Intellectual engagement
  • Social engagement
  • Cultural engagement

…and so on. Within their homes, youth can be engaged with their families, including parents, siblings or other family members; their physical spaces like their bedrooms or backyards; activities like housework or video games; feelings like love and security; ideas like belonging and importance, and; many other things.

With all those possibilities, its easy to see how youth engagement starts at home. The elements of our family life determine how we engage with the world beyond our front door, including at school, in our communities, at work, in public, and everywhere else. If youth experience crappy engagement at home, youth are more likely to be disengaged in their lives – not always, all the time, but often in many ways.

Through my research and practice, I’ve found there are three things all parents can do to build youth engagement at home:

  • Listen to youth. Your offspring are yearning to be heard, no matter what age, what space and what condition your family is in. They might not show that desire, they might act the opposite of caring, and they might not be aware they have a voice—but they want to be heard.
  • Take action with youth. Don’t stop at listening to your kids—actually do things with them! Make, build, clean, connect and show your care and connection by being with youth directly, in each others’ spaces and sharing each others’ time.
  • Think about it. Youth engagement at home requires critical thinking about yourself, your parenting, your beliefs and your future. Is this how you want youth to live? Are these the things you want to do in your family? Be critical of your parenting and take action to change it.

As parents, we all screw up. The difference between the conscious parent and the unthinking parent is the energy they spend becoming more fair, just and equitable. We don’t want equality between youth and parents, we want equity. There’s a difference, and youth engagement at home makes us think about it.

 

My Experience

These are questions I asked related to Youth Parent Partnerships.
These are questions I asked related to Youth Parent Partnerships.

 

I’m a dad for four kids between the ages of 10 and 15. They are beautiful, strong-hearted kids full of all the challenge, vigor, suffering and joy of youth, and I love them. However, I screw up too, and I’ve learned to accept that. I learn a lot from my experience as a parent.

If you’ve followed me for a while, you’ve heard the tenants of my life: Childhood homelessness; family PTSD; Vietnam veteran father; poverty-stricken family that moved into low-income lifestyle; generational depression; minority neighborhood background; academic struggles; found my soulcraft at age 14; only kid in family to graduate high school on time; first in family to earn a bachelors degree; built my life’s work from The Freechild Project and SoundOut focused on youth engagement and Meaningful Student Involvement; wrote 50+ publications; spoke and taught and consulted around the world; still screwing up every day.

Throughout 2018, I’ve been facilitating the Parent-Youth Connections Seminar in King County, Washington, where Seattle is surrounded by suburbs, exurbs and more in all of its explosive boom-era angst and glory. Along the way, the community has chosen to investments on infants, children and youth throughout the county. One of these investments is through the King County Superior Courts, and its the program I’m facilitating.

For several years, the project taught parents and youth about youth development and adolescent brain development as a diversion to prevent youth incarceration. A successful project, it operated for several years and successfully kept a lot of young people out of jail.

Early this year, I was contracted to facilitate the program. In my initial contact with the courts, I explained that rather than taking the tact they’d traditionally espoused, I was going to veer toward youth engagement. These are some of my findings so far. There’ve been more than 100 participants in these 12-hour sessions so far, coming from a variety of racial, ethnic, cultural, linguistic and economic backgrounds.

Stay tuned as I learn more and start distilling all this into actionable change. My first product related to youth engagement at home is called the Parent Youth Engagement Seminar, and I’ll be launching it soon.

 


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ECOsystems or EGOsystems of Education?

Systems of Youth Engagement by Adam Fletcher
CLICK HERE to read “Systems of Youth Engagement” by Adam Fletcher

 


To say that schools are changing right now is a gross understatement.

Between technological, social and cultural transformations happening right now across the U.S., there are new trends becoming apparent everywhere, schools included. This paper puts the massive changes happening throughout the education system into context to help readers understand what’s happening, and why its happening.

 

 

Lots have said it, many see it, but few have called it out: for a century, our education system has revolved around ego. As we become an evermore interdependent and transparent society, this is inherently at odds with the future. This article explores the former EGOsystem of education and identifies an emerging ECOsystem taking its place. It also shows what the future might look like.

 


An EGOsystem of Education

When I first started working in education 15 years ago, I discovered quickly that educators in schools are most often the ones who school worked well for. After barely graduating from high school and taking eight years to get my BA, it was glaringly obvious to me that I was surrounded by former star students and others whose learning styles, socio-economic statuses and cultural backgrounds were being perpetuated by the system. This formula generally holds true for politicians who make educational policies as well as social service staff who support student success outside of schools.

These students often go on to work in schools as teachers and administrators; in districts as administrators; and in state education agencies as program directors, assessment officials and curriculum experts. They are successful in their careers, embraced by their institutions, and generally, reveling in the ways things are. If they are aware of how things are going for students who are most often failed by schools, they see these learners from a position of noblesse oblige, looking down on them from on high.

The system that created these workers has engendered particular school cultures that ensured succeeding generations of familiarity. Despite technology and social changes of many sorts, in many schools, learners who time travel from a century ago can find similar patterns of teaching, classroom management and testing. This is because the education system revolves around the ego, which is a person’s sense of self-importance or self-esteem.

 


Four Phases of Transition

Educators have relied on fulfilling their sense of self-importance and building their self-esteem through their work for more than 100 years. Through my studies, I have seen four phases in America’s education system.

The EGOsystem/ECOsystem dynamic as illustrated by Adam Fletcher

 

1) The Control Phase

Initially relying on a high control environments, schools were initially places where teachers controlled students. The Control Phase looked like this:

  • Teachers could literally physically abuse students for not complying with their every intention.
  • Students who innately complied with teachers were awarded with increased amounts of autonomy and access to learning opportunities.
  • Educators sought to wrangle authority from communities and parents by illegitimating self-education and learning from life.
  • Education policymakers make child labor illegal at the same time legal and cultural systems were created to ensure government authority over learning and teaching.
  • The Control phase radically dismantled community-based and home-based learning opportunities, secured the function of a controlled curriculum, and imposed the meaning of grades and scores on students.
  • Voters supported this model enough to enable schools to emerge as a dominant force in society.
  • The Control Phase relied on the EGO of educators, as it enabled teachers to control large groups of students with minimal enforcement.
  • Administrators were able to control massive groups of students with few teachers, and were capable of ensuring teachers success through compliance.
  • The Control Phase served to break down the EGO of students in order to ensure students would learn what educators wanted them to. Academic honor societies were available only to the highest achieving students and student governments were almost nonexistent.
  • This phase displaced young people from their positions in communities, positioning them as dependents of schools for their learning. It attempted to strip students of self-leadership in order to secure the role of adults as leaders in learning and teaching.
  • All of these factors weighed together to create an EGOsystem in schools dependent on control. This phase evolved towards the Competition Phase. People who benefited from the Control Phase of American education saw the transition towards the Competitive Phase as logical, predictable and favorable progress.

 

2) The Competition Phase

With time, schools became high command environments that relied less on forcefulness and abrasion and more on leveraging authority for outcomes. During the Command Phase, schools looked like this:

  • Students were compelled to participate in classes because of government orders and nothing further.
  • The Competition Phase sought to essentialize schools by making graduation diplomas requirements for workplaces.
  • Conversely, during this phase post-high school opportunities were minimalized for non-graduates.
  • Voters initially supported this approach because they saw that when more people succeeded at schooling, more people succeeded in their careers; more successful careers led to more successful communities, which led to better schools.
  • In the Competition Phase, pragmatic acceptance reigns as students, educators, administrators, policymakers, politicians, parents and voters become acclimated and accustomed to the EGOsystem that has formed within the education system.
  • As schools became judged for their success according to graduation rates, students EGOs were recognized as helping motivate academic vigilance. This phase saw the widespread prevalence of honor societies and student governments in order to satiate those EGOs.
  • With the decreased emphasis on teacher EGO in the classroom, this phase saw the emergence of powerful teacher unions that ensured the authority of educators.
  • Student connections outside classrooms were ignored or seen as irrelevant to teaching, learning and leadership in schools.
  • This phase positioned students as the subjects of teachers, securing the hierarchal relationship between adults and students in schools.
  • All of these factors weighed together to create an EGOsystem in schools reliant on competition. This phase evolved towards the Connection Phase. People who thrived in the Competition Phase were threatened by the transition towards the next phase and saw it as the devolution of schools.

 

3) The Connection Phase

When social change insisted, schools modified their approach to include connection between students, among educators, within the curriculum and throughout the education system. During the Connection Phase, schools looked like this:

  • Rigorous demands imposed on schools coupled with decreased school funding led to increased attempts to ensure community connections with schools.
  • Cross-curricular approaches to teaching and learning were recognized as essential in some areas.
  • Student connections outside classrooms were recognized and mass amounts of homework were assigned to utilize out-of-school time.
  • Students work and family responsibilities outside school time were dismissed.
  • The EGO of students becomes central with honor rolls, honor societies, extracurricular clubs and other student voice and student leadership clubs being perceived as elite or otherwise disconnected from mainstream student populations.
  • The EGO of educators is struggling due to having diminished authority throughout the education system.
  • In the Connection Phase, placing self above all others is the norm. opportunists have the most authority as they maximize connectivity in order to ensure their personal gain.
  • The EGO of education policymakers is peaked from their increased authority over educational outcomes and avenues.
  • The EGO of education textbook, assessment, preparation and advocacy organizations is peaked from their influence on education policymakers.
  • Voters become resentful from subsequent generations going through failed phases of American education and stop supporting schools with levies and pro-public school advocacy.
  • This phase fosters a sense of independence with an awareness of the larger whole.
  • All of these factors weighed together to create an ECOsystem in schools contingent on connection. This phase evolved towards the Collaboration Phase. People who benefited from this phase saw the emergence of the Collaboration Phase as a relief from the pressure of connection and competition.

4) The Collaboration Phase

Today, we’re in the midst of moving from EGOsystems towards ECOsystems of education. This movement is happening through collaboration fostered by technology, social change and other evolution that holds great possibilities.

  • Connectivity is recognized as key to successful learning, teaching and leadership with all partners recognized for their potential, purpose and power.
  • Students are recognized as full partners in learning, teaching and leadership throughout education.
  • While technology was initially frowned upon, connections among students outside of school time became an imposition on classrooms. Educators were essentially required to recognize student connections outside of schools and the effects they have within schools.
  • In the Collaboration Phase, placing self above others is becoming increasingly unacceptable as more people identify with the whole.
  • Students who work and have family responsibilities are recognized for the legitimacy and authority of their learning outside school time, and receive high amounts of support to ensure their successful academic growth.
  • Academic learning, liberal arts and community living skills are recognized with equitable authority throughout the lives of young people.
  • The EGO-driven era of education ends as learning is recognized and embraced as a community-wide, lifelong endeavor for all people everywhere all of the time. This leads to the ECOsystem of education.
  • Voters reinvest in education because of the re-asserted vitality of schools in the health and well-being of democratic society.
  • This phase nurtures a sense of increasing interdependence with strong awareness of the effect of individuals on others.
  • All of these factors weighed together to create an ECOsystem in schools revolving around collaboration. This phase is currently evolving and emerging. Everyone in society should benefit from the emergence of the Collaboration Phase and will embrace the ongoing evolution of learning, teaching and leadership.

The emerging ECOsystem of education is harder to see than previous phases. From my work in schools and throughout communities over the last 15 years, I have seen some aspects of it becoming apparent. Following is an exploration of some patterns that are becoming apparent.

 


An ECOsystem of Education

Right now, there’s a new picture of schools that is coming into focus. Across the horizon of testing, standardization and the school-to-prison pipeline are learning, teaching and leadership opportunities for all people everywhere in which love prevails and pessimism stops. With beautiful balance between critical thinking, cultural uplifting and participatory infrastructure, learning mirrors life in a balanced, holistic way that honors difference, embraces hopefulness and builds through equitable partnerships among everyone involved, regardless of their ages.

When considering the ECOsystem of education, its important to remember what constitutes an ecology. An ECOsystem consists of the interdependent and interacting components of a learner’s environment. There are living elements like teachers and other students throughout, and non-living elements like the building, computers and textbooks. Air and light cycles through an ECOsystem, as well as talking, music and paper ripping. Material elements also cycle through an ecosystem via cafeterias, heating plants, and other pathways.

 


New Realities

As the ECOsystem of education continues to emerge, we will need new guideposts to know where we’re at. In the 300+ schools I have consulted over the last decade, the following three trends represent the new realities in education. These can serve as guideposts to ensure students, educators, administrators and others are on the right track to ensure the healthy, whole, successful and sustainable transition underway.

New Learning

While more students opt to learn from home, more schools rely on BYOD and tablets-as-textbooks, and classrooms integrate more with communities, schools will have fewer and fewer options for retaining students in desk chairs. Instead, they will be forced to embrace disruptive learning technologies of all sorts, including experiential education, service learning and integrate CTE that positions elementary and middle school students in applicable, pragmatic problem-centered learning to address real world challenges.

With more adults actively infusing throughout the school day as both co-learners and co-leaders with students who are transforming communities, the role of student will be actively redefined. No longer the plaything of classroom tyrants, students will be recognized for their essential role in the American democracy as the foundation and implementation of lifelong civic identity and engagement. Students of all ages will freely co-learn, co-teach and co-lead communities in quintessential learning communities that are infused with vigor, vim and vitality.

New Teaching

By actively taking control of the things they want to learn, students are actively moving from being the passive recipients of teaching towards becoming active partners in learning and leadership. Each individual student will develop and implement their own course of learning from their youngest years in schools. Learning about their roles as active learning partners, they will also assume more responsibility throughout their communities for teaching their elders. In turn, today’s teachers will continue towards become learning coaches and facilitators to the willing. Students will gain full authority through true interdependence, and communities will become fully integrated throughout their local education systems.

New Leading

The effect of dispersed learning and teaching are already rippling throughout the education system. Technology is actively pushing students out of the forced irrelevance of age- and interest segregated classrooms and towards their broader communities, while schools have to reach deeper towards their local communities in order to cover budgets. This is drawing students towards meeting real community needs through authentic leadership and away from falsely important student governments. In turn, this is forcing schools to reconsider engaging those students in educational leadership. In the ECOsystem of schools, education uses all members of the community in order to drive, transform and sustain learning. Students become researchers, planners, teachers, evaluators, decision-makers and advocates throughout communities, which in turn recognize their legitimacy as contributing members of society.

This rekindles community investment in education, which further enriches the educational environment. Racial inequities are eagerly addressed by communities, and the school-to-prison pipeline is dismantled. Every student creates their own learning plan with strategic systems of learning supporting their implementation. Restorative justice engenders new cultures of respect, trust and ability throughout schools, while nutrition, school buildings, athletics and other activities become safe supports for learning and teaching. All of this happens through new leading.

 


Forward

As schools move forward through the phases, a natural ECOsystem of learning will emerge. There is a growing awareness of this transformation. Some people see a complete destruction of traditional, EGO-driven schools, while others see an ongoing evolution towards ECOsystems of learning, teaching and leadership. If we deliberately identify the systems supporting education, we can make this shift intentionally.

As the entirety of the system moves forward, there will be resistance and denial. People who’ve upheld the first and second phases will resist the inevitably of this transformation, while others who’ve embraced the third and fourth phases might actually deny the need for the system to move forward. Those who resist and deny are actually representing the EGOsystem of education that has become entrenched by the powers that benefit most from the EGOsystem. However, truncated by the inevitable transformation fostered by ongoing social change, its inevitable for the EGOsystem to die.

In order to move it forward, its important for educators, students and others to make an honest assessment of where their own personal expectations lay; where their schools’ realities are; and what the gap is between those two areas. Schools will never do more than we are willing to do in them. If a person is young, then its imperative to establish genuine expectations for their own experience. This comes through reflection and critical thinking. If a person is older, its vital to engage in critical self-analysis as well as self-engagement in a project for school improvement. For anyone, its important to get active. Research what exists right now. Work with others to plan for alternatives. Teach people about options, no matter what age you are or they are. Evaluate and critically examine what exists, what could exist and what the gap is between those two spaces. Get involved in decision-making wherever there’s an opportunity, including on committees, in forums and in other spaces. Finally, everyone must advocate for the future of schools and the emerging ECOsystem of education. This has to be brought forth on purpose, and the only way to do that is to encourage individuals, organizations and communities to move towards the ECOsystem on purpose. Advocate for that.

Learning is a beautiful, nature and evolutionary approach towards expanding our human potential. The ECOsystem of education moves us towards powerful possibilities for all students everywhere all the time. You should come with.

 


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Personal Engagement Tip Sheets by Adam Fletcher

The Crisis of Disengagement

In places throughout our society, people are wrestling with a challenge that feels insurmountable: People just don’t care, they aren’t showing up, or they’re not doing what we need them to, what they’re supposed to do, or even what they want to do.

 


Causes of Disengagement

First obvious in schools, in the 1970s this was originally identified as a dropout problem. After struggling through early community action agencies, Rock the Vote type projects, and national service programs, in 1999 a sociologist named Robert Putnam put a face to the problem when he published Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community

Putnam successfully diagnosed the problem with society’s social capital, which is a metaphor for the interactive networks people keep with other people who live and work around each other. Since we’re constantly exchanging these visible and invisible gestures in conscious and unconscious ways, social capital is what allows our society to actually work.

 


What Disengagement Causes

Wonder why it feels like our society doesn’t actually work? According to Putnam, its because social capital isn’t being circulated like it used to be. Given the emergence of anarchistic capitalism and hyper-libertarianism, I believe we’re reaching a fever pitch and revealing the real problem, which I am calling the Crisis of Disengagement.

Psychologists talk about this as a phenomenon that needs addressed through intrinsic-extrinsic motivation theory and goal theory, and the need to investigate the gaps between people, as well as what possible ways to maintain or stimulate peoples’ motivations to exchange social capital. They believe environments can be intentionally maintained to enhances the self-concept, social efficacy, and a sense of volition as well as self-determination to circumvent the demise of social capital. And all that’s fascinating to me, and I’m going to continue studying it to learn more.

 


Essential Learning

However, I think we need an accessible approach to the Crisis of Disengagement for everyone, not just academics. So let me name and define what I think we’re talking about here:

  • Engagement is any sustained connection anyone has to anything in the world around them and within themselves.
  • Disengagement is the absence of sustainability in our connections.

That said, the Crisis of Engagement is a solvable problem, much like poverty and war. As Nelson Mandela said,

“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

Disengagement is a solvable problem.

My work is about helping YOU solve the Crisis of Engagement. Check out the rest of the Personal Engagement Tip Sheets to learn more!

 


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Adam Fletcher is available to train, coach, speak, and write about Personal Engagement across the US and Canada. Contact him to learn about the possibilities!

51 Ways Employers Disengage Employees

 

From the sales floor to the board room, a growing number of businesses are focusing on employee engagement. After studying more than 3,000 examples of places where people say they’re engaged and reviewing 350 research studies on the issue, I summarize all the various definitions of engagement this way: Employee engagement is the sustained connection a person has to the work they do within them and the workplace around them.

 

Engaging employees often comes as an afterthought to well-meaning managers and business owners. However, the science shows a particular necessity for focusing on it: Gallup’s 2013 “State of the American Workplace” survey showed almost 80% of all employees feeling disengaged from work in some way. That means that 4/5ths of all employees don’t have a sustained connection to their work. That is a massive problem.

 

Disengaged by Engagement

Toward that end, a lot of companies have instituted employee engagement programs designed to address the problem of worker disengagement. However, they generally suck, or as Inc. magazine says, “Most so-called employee engagement programs are misbegotten, unwieldy, ineffective rolling caravans of impractical or never-going-to-be-implemented PowerPoint presentations.”

 

Here are some ways employers fail at employee engagement

 

51 Ways Employers Fail to Engage Employees

  1. Managers see and treat employee engagement like a special activity that only fits in a certain place at a certain time.
  2. Managers ask one particular employee over and over to participate in activities with managers.
  3. Managers talk about employee engagement without actually talking to employees.
  4. Managers treat employees favorably for becoming engaged in ways that managers approve of, while employees who take initiative to become engaged on their own are reprimanded for not following expectations.
  5. Managers consistently ask employers to speak about being an employee in manager meetings or at special planning sessions without doing anything about it.
  6. Managers only engage employees for certain issues at work instead of addressing everything employees are concerned about.
  7. Managers will implement employee engagement programs to employees, without letting employees implement programs for themselves.
  8. Managers hold a celebration dinner for managers at the company and invite five employees to join 500 managers.
  9. Employees are only asked about topics that affect them directly, rather than the entire company or industry as a whole.
  10. Employees are not taught about issues, actions, or outcomes that might inform their perspectives regarding becoming engaged.
  11. Managers tell employees they have a voice and assign them the specific ways they are expected to express it.
  12. Employees concerns are listened to specific issues seen as worker-specific challenges like company uniforms, picnic themes, workplace bullying, and technology.
  13. Managers install specific employees in traditionally managerial positions without the authority, ability, or background knowledge managers receive in those same positions.
  14. Managers constantly tell employees about their experiences when they were workers, instead of listening to actual current workers’ experiences.
  15. A single employees’ busiest time of year revolve around the industry calendar—outside regular company activities—because they’re attending conferences, meetings, summits, and other industry activities that require managers to invite them.
  16. Managers don’t tell employees directly the purpose of their involvement in workplace committees or industry conferences, except to say that they are The Employee Voice.
  17. Workers are told that sharing their voice is as good as it cans get.
  18. Employers control who hears, sees, or communicates employee concurs.
  19. When employees walk into a meeting, every manager knows there are employees attending without knowing their names, where they’re from, or what jobs they do.
  20. During a meeting managers expect one employee or a small group of employees to represent all employee and to be fully engaged.
  21. Employees and managers see that employees are being tokenized by management without doing anything about it, thereby undermining employees’ engagement further.
  22. Employees are treated as if or told it is a favor for them to participate in decision-making.
  23. In meetings, employees are given little or no opportunity to formulate their own opinions before speaking.
  24. Employees are not taught about the economic necessity of employee engagement.
  25. Employers invite employees to share their knowledge, ideas, opinions, and more, and then ignore what they say.
  26. One employee is invited to talk at an industry conference, at a board meeting, or in an article written for the company website.
  27. Employees who attend an industry conferences are singled out for their attendance.
  28. Employees only invite workers who are not likely to assert themselves, make demands, or complain, to manager meetings or other activities.
  29. One worker is treated as unique, infallible, or is otherwise put on a pedestal by managers in the name of employee engagement.
  30. Managers take employees away from regular jobs for employee engagement activities without giving workers any recognition in the form of time served during the activity.
  31. Employers only choose articulate, charming employees to inform management activities.
  32. Workers are given representative roles that are not equal to manager roles in employee engagement activities.
  33. Employer/employee power imbalances are regularly observed and not addressed in workplaces, while employee engagement banners and programs hang all over.
  34. Employers are not accountable in any way to employees in employee engagement activities.
  35. Employers refuse to acknowledge the validity of employees they disagree with.
  36. Employees are punished when employer engagement activities don’t meet manager expectations.
  37. Companies use employee engagement activities to address some issues, and ignore it regarding others.
  38. Employers take pictures and videos of employees in the name of employee engagement without listening to what those same workers have to say.
  39. Employers seek out a small percentage of workers for an employee engagement program and claim to engage all their employees equally.
  40. Employees are not given the right to raise issues or share their unfettered opinions with management.
  41. Employee surveys are used to back up management problem-solving without actively engaging employees in problem-solving.
  42. Nobody explains to employees how they they were selected for an employee engagement activity.
  43. Employers allow employees to talk on their company’s Facebook page or twitter account but not to participate in company decision-making or board meetings.
  44. Managers interpret and reinterpret things employees say into language, acronyms, purposes, and outcomes that managers use without acknowledging the validity of exactly what was said.
  45. Employees become burned out from participating in too many employee engagement activities.
  46. Employees are not seen or treated as partners in the workplace by managers.
  47. Employees think its obvious they have a lack of authority or power or that their authority is undermined by managers.
  48. Managers don’t know, state, or otherwise support the purpose of engaging employees and the relevance to organizational success.
  49. Employees are limited to becoming engaged on the local building level, but not in the district, regional, national, or international corporate activities.
  50. Employees don’t understand which whether they are supposed to represent themselves or all of their peers.
  51. Employees are asked to become engaged one time and that activity is never repeated.

 

fail

Why Employers Fail at Employee Engagement

Many of these employee engagement programs lead to a reality called tokenism. While many people associate tokenism solely with gender or racial representation, the term actually applies to any situation where one person has authority over another. In the case of employee tokenism, employers (including supervisors, managers, owners, shareholders, and others) include a small number of workers in managerial, oversight, or similar type activities in order to give the appearance of employee engagement within a workplace.

 

With the increased interest in employee engagement today, tokenism is bound to happen throughout workplaces. Tokenism happens whenever employees are in formal and informal roles only for employers to say they are engaged, instead of purpose, power, and possibilities to create change at work. Without that substance, employee engagement is little more than loud whisper into a vacuum.

 

When managers appoint employees to represent, share, or promote employee engagement, they are making a symbolic gesture towards engaging employees. This step is generally meant to increase or demonstrate employee engagement in ways managers think they need to be engaged through. It can also be meant to appease employee advocates and stop people from complaining.

 

When employees specifically seek to represent, share, or promote employee engagement, they are generally seeking a portion of control over their workplace experience. In many companies, agencies, and organizations, this can look like joining a committee, starting a special activity, or holding an event related to work.

 

Unfortunately, these approaches to employee engagement actually reinforce employee disengagement. They do this by reinforcing employers’ power over their employees and highlighting the inability of employees to actually change anything of substance within their workplace without their employers’ permission.

 

Tokenism happens in organizational policy and through activities in the workplace every day. It is so deep in business that many managers never know they’re tokenizing employees, and employees don’t know when they’re being tokenized. Employees often internalize tokenism, which takes away their ability to see it, and managers are very invested in it, which takes away their ability to stop it. It is important to teach employees and managers about tokenism in the workplace and how it can affect employee engagement.

You’re Responsible for Your Freedom

For the last few days, I’ve been in a dialogue about the nature of freedom. I’ve been asked several questions, and I’ve answered them openly. I’m reducing the conversation down to the key questions, and I want to share those answers with you here.

Question One: “Is someone free if they need someone else to free them?”

I’m afraid the answer to this is a bit esoteric. For thousands of years, people have been trying to teach that freedom has to begin inside us. Governments can grant all the freedoms they want, and tyrants can take them all away, but neither matters to the person who is truly free. Gandhi, MLK and Mandela all said so.

I believe that when people of any age have opportunities to access the knowledge, skills and ability to create change in the world, they internalize the truth about freedom. That truth is that freedom is an inside job, and not otherwise.

That said, there are countless ways our world can be more free, less oppressive and authentically engaging. Connecting young people with opportunities to challenge sexism, racism, white privilege, classism and adultism is essential to not only their freedom, but the freedoms of everyone, everywhere, all the time. That’s because as we recognize the reality we’re wholly interdependent, we become wholly independent – but not the opposite. Our understanding has to work in tandem like that; as does our freedom: The more I help another person realize their freedom, the freer I become.

My freedom is inextricably bound up with yours, and yet, your freedom is wholly independent of mine. No person is free until all people are free, and yet, no person has to wait for anyone to make them free.

Question Two: “Some of the language of ‘connecting young people with…’ says to me that young people are in need of someone to connect them, being in a deficit situation.”

When I wrote “connecting young people with social change”, I was not perceiving a deficit; its actually quite the opposite. As an adult social change agent I have led The Freechild Project for 15 years, with that very objective. Rather than seeing one thing as a negative and the other thing as a positive, with that specific statement I seek to acknowledge that society is in need of change, and young people have some of the resources needed to foster that change. In this way, youth are the asset, and society is in deficit by neglecting, denying, or otherwise silencing their abilities, knowledge, and skills.

Question Three: “Tell me more tangibly about how we are inextricably bound…”

Dr. King did that better than I ever could in his last book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” Tangibly speaking, he wrote, “We are everlasting debtors to known and unknown men and women…. When we arise in the morning, we go into the bathroom where we reach for a sponge provided for us by a Pacific Islander. We reach for soap that is created for us by a Frenchman. The towel is provided by a Turk. Then at the table we drink coffee which is provided for us by a South American, or tea by a Chinese, or cocoa by a West African. Before we leave for our jobs, we are beholden to more than half the world.”

In this same way, children, youth and adults are bound together in numerous practical ways every single day. Young people are primary purpose and focus of many of our society’s occupations, including parenthood, teaching, social services, commercialism, and entertainment. Many adults depend on young people for their entertainment and education, as students bring new knowledge into the household, as youth master technology, and as children expose new realities in their play and work everyday. Similarly and not shamefully, children and youth are dependent on adults for many things, too.

Question Four: “…No person has to wait for anyone to make them free?”

Again, I’ll let history speak for me. Nelson Mandela said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” Bitterness, hatred, cynicism, contempt, spite, and other feelings are exactly that: feelings. Many people, of all ages, are held captive to their feelings and thoughts. Mandela (and others like Freire, Horton, and even Buddha and Jesus) taught us that we can overcome our own feelings and thoughts to become more free. That is something that anyone can do, despite their conditions. Mandela recognized that after 27 years in prison; maybe we can do that no matter what conditions we live in.

Question Five: “Much of your work around adultism is to support policies and systems being more equitable for young people…policies and systems that currently prevent youth from being free. If I am an adult, and within these policies and systems am free, how am I any more free when I change the policies to allow youth to be free?”

If you are an adult within these systems who is earnestly and authentically working to transform those systems, you inherently must understand that your freedom is bound up with the freedom of children and youth. If you don’t understand that, not only are you not “free”, but you are actually captive to adultism yourself. Internalized adultism disallows us from actually treating children and youth as equitable partners anywhere in our society. Instead, it oppresses adults, perpetuating feelings and thoughts of pity and sympathy towards young people, rather than empathy and solidarity.

Malcolm X explained this best when he said, “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” In a similar way, I would echo that if we’re not careful, the systems that we serve young people through will have us hating young people, and partnering with other adults who hate young people, too.

When we confront our own internalized adultism, work through the oppression we faced as young people, acknowledge the oppression we’ve caused young people as adults, make amends for what we can and genuinely approach children and youth as full human beings who are completely capable of transforming the world around them through equitable youth/adult partnerships… then we will begin to see, experience, taste and touch freedom. But until then, we’re merely tricking ourselves in the worst kinds of ways.

Question Six: “If a policy that oppresses young people exists, and young people need adults to change that policy AND it is changed. Are those youth really free from that oppression?”

Part of the tension of our society is that nobody is ever truly free of any oppression until they understand for themselves that they are free. You can overthrow all the shackles of adultism, all of the confines of government, all the norms of society, and people will still be oppressed. That means that governments, schools, nonprofits, laws, rules, regulations and other forms of control aren’t the root of oppression. At the root of oppression is our personal, individual willingness to be oppressed. When we stop being willing to be oppressed, we can no longer be oppressed. That isn’t a “jedi mind trick” or anything like that; its a practical guide to freedom. As long as we wait or work to free ourselves from other things outside of ourselves, we are reinforcing the internal controls that obligate us to be held captive to those external things.

The practical application of that means encouraging young people to explore how they learn best and what they want to learn most AT THE SAME TIME they are working to transform the education system.

Question Seven: “Or are they only free when they have freed themselves…changed the policy themselves, absent of any adult action?”

Again, youth can challenge all the laws of any land and still never experience freedom. That has nothing to do with their age.

Condemning young people to having to work on their own without pragmatic partnerships with adults is a confinement that’s as oppressive as any policy they’re attempting to change. That’s because in every single part of our society, with only .00001% deviation, adults saw the need for the policy; adults created the policy; adults imposed the policy; adults enforced the policy; and adults handed out punishments to youth who violated the policy. Suddenly, youth are somehow supposed to magically come along and change the policy, wholly without the assistance of adults, and expect that to last?

After years of working with groups in all kinds of configurations attempting different forms of this work, I can tell you that my experience has definitively shown me that if and when that formula works, it isn’t long sustained. Without cultural and attitudinal transformation, wholly youth-led systems change simply doesn’t work.

THAT SAID, this reaches to the point I’m trying to make: If we don’t teach young people to find freedom within themselves, are we simply deceiving them, and ourselves? Methinks the answer is yes, yes we are. We have to go deeper in order to reach further.

Question Eight: “How does this theory translate to race?

Because it takes huge effort, determined practice and focused thinking, nothing I’ve written here is simple. To reduce the work of freeing yourself from your own bondage by calling it “simple” reveals bias against this, the hardest of work.

Several people have answered your question more eloquently than me, so I’m going to let them:

Paulo Freire wrote, “The greatest humanistic task of the oppressed: To liberate themselves.”

Buddha said, “No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.”

Frederick Douglass wrote, “No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.”

Albert Einstein wrote, The Dalai Llama said, “Our task must be to free ourselves… by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and it’s beauty.”

My own flawed, imperfect answer is that indeed, when we’re ready to throw off the shackles of our oppressors, we must begin within and work outside ourselves, simultaneously. That’s why it’s true that nobody is free until everybody is free, and that as long as any of us are oppressed, all of us are oppressed.

We’re all in this together, no matter where we start or what we’re doing.

Adam’s Note: Rereading this, I’m happy that my thoughts are congealing more than ever. But I’m still flawed, and there are holes in what I’ve written here. Can you please share your thoughts with me about what you’ve read here? I’d love to get your opinion. Just hit “reply” to this email and we can talk through it. Thanks.

Creating Meaningful Engagement, Anywhere, Anytime with ANYONE

Late last year the Mid-Atlantic Network for Youth (MANY) invited me to Baltimore, Maryland, to talk with nonprofit leaders from across the country. I joined a dozen other speakers in talking with these leaders for a day, and MANY recorded what I said.

I would love to hear what you think of this video. Please share your comments here, and PLEASE don’t hold back! Criticism, concerns, ideas, and anything else is welcome!