Youth engagement happens when young people have sustained connections anywhere in their life. Youth engagement can happen throughout the lives of children and youth, including within themselves, in the immediate world around them, throughout society in general, and across the entirety of the world. The sustained connections they make can be emotional, psychological, or cognitive and can happen personally and socially.
What Youth Engagement Is Not
There is a growing amount of confusion about what youth engagement is and is not. Many national nonprofits and international NGOs are promoting youth engagement as involvement by youth in social change.
However, as the definition above shows, youth engagement is not the same as youth involvement in social change. Young people can be engaged through Youth-led research, Youth service, Youth leadership, Youth decision-making, Youth philanthropy, Youth civic engagement, Youth organizing, Youth media, or any of these strategies for social change led by young people. However, those are not the only ways youth are engaged.
“Engaged youth” are generally labeled that way because they are experiencing sustained connections in ways that adults approve or acknowledge. These young people are typically identified in places like schools, nonprofit youth programs, and athletic programs. Their engagement is generally awarded by adults with incentives, including good grades, certifications of participation, and varsity letters.
“Disengaged youth” are generally young people who aren’t engaged in ways adults have determined are in the best interests of those young people. They can be found in a variety of places that adults don’t approve of or recognize the value. These include at home playing video games; at after school jobs; at a friend’s house after dropping out of school; or by joining gangs, hanging out with friends on the streets, or playing pickup basketball at night and on the weekends.
There are several factors that affect youth engagement. However, today’s popular forms of youth engagement generally don’t acknowledge those factors. Whether or not a young person is going to become engaged is determined by three things:
Social and economic environment
Physical environment, and
Individual characteristics and behaviors
The ways young people live determine their engagement. Because of this, blaming youth for being disengaged from particular activities or issues or crediting them for being engaged in ways you approve of is inappropriate. Youth are unlikely to be able to directly control many of the factors affecting youth engagement.
Today, The New York Times employed the opinions of Laurence Steinberg to answer the question, “When do kids become adults?” My question is about this article is, “When will adults grow up?”
The “reality” of age-based segregation is eroding every day as since continuously shows that both childhood and adulthood are simply made-up constructs that have no practical place in developmental, psychological, or educational practices. Instead, they are political and economic devices used to manipulate the marketplace and governance of our society. Adults need to grow up and see the truth.
I have been conducting a study with The Freechild Project since 2001. My research has centered on my hypothesis that the roles of young people are rapidly transforming throughout society and in turn, the impact of young people is greater than ever before. This is happening because of many things, despite the popular adult conception of youth as incapable. The majority of adults in American society cannot see this because we are too immature, as witnessed in comments in The New York Times article and the vast majority traditional youth studies.
The majority of Steinberg’s argument relies on the tiredly predictable tenets of subjective neurological theorizing. However, he gets to the point when he proclaims, “Alas, age boundaries are drawn for mainly political reasons, not scientific ones.” This is the premise behind much of my teaching about youth engagement. Our political positioning- not in terms of parties or theories, but practices and purposes- determines how we relate to young people.
This is why I teach about convenient and inconvenient youth voice. This is why I teach about traditional and nontraditional youth engagement. Relying on predictability, we chomp at the bit to make sense of the young people we face in our community programs and classrooms every day. Our politics allow us to do this.
However, these same personal politics and shared cultural politics also disallow us from seeing the reality of young people today, let alone the potential of children and youth throughout society. Wanting to make a more subjective case, I have hurled tons of evidence at my students, both young people and adults, over the years. I have waved flags and shared case studies, called out quantitative research and elaborated on findings. None of this has worked.
Steinberg is on the side of expanding our understanding of youth at least. Today, the Times has brought along a group of madhouse advocates and opponents to joust about this question. Joining Steinberg are Kevin Noble Maillard from the Syracuse University College Of Law; Jenny Diamond Cheng, a lecturer at Vanderbilt Law School; John M. Mccardell, who is the president at the University Of The South; Jamie Kitman from Automobile Magazine; Barbara Hofer, who is a professor of psychology at Middlebury College; and Michael Thompson, who is the author of a book called “Homesick And Happy”. (Apparently, absolutely no youth of any kind were available to write on this topic.)
This crew proceeds to push around the question of whether the roles of young people should change in American society. They talk about drinking, driving, and other typical topics that should make the National Youth Rights Association happy. However, never once in a half dozen articles do they consider that the premise of their argument is flawed: The role of young people shouldn’t change because adults want it to, it should be recognized as changing because it already is. We, as adults, are behind the eight ball on this one, just as we’ve been since the political construct of youth was invented in the 1930s and reinforced by marketers starting in the 50s.
We need to join the rest of the world, which increasingly sees youth as the cultural phenomenon it is: A made-up social construct designed to restrain and subjugate people according to their age in order to secure the social, political, cultural, and political roles of people older than them. When we begin to understand this as reality, we can begin to see the roles of youth for exactly what they can be today and in the future. Until then, we’re lost in a construct that actually fails to benefit us as adults, as well as young people themselves.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or calling (360) 489-9680.
These days are all about being free and teaching others how to do the same. Not some jingoistic, anemic freedom, but depth of soul and meaning of life. This is really what I want.
Throughout our lives we have countless opportunities to become more and more free. There is no person in Canada or the United States who starts life in absolute slavery. We can be born into challenged circumstances that were oppressive, but nobody here was born a slave. From that perspective, all of us are born free, and it is only a disservice to people on our planet who are actually born into slavery to claim otherwise. However, with that freedom as a basis of understanding, every single person can become more free throughout their life. There are few people among us who are absolutely free, although there are growing numbers of people who desire true freedom, rather than the “Made In America” version.
This freedom is liberation of thought and action. It’s the ability to reach further within and outside ourselves than ever before. Many people experience internal resistance to a lot of things. We feel incapable of speaking in front of groups, dancing the wildest salsa, or raising successful children. In a different but related way, we argue with mainstream media, despise our representatives in government, and demean public institutions. Others still negate politics, put down youth, or frown at people of different races. While all of these are choices, every single one of them represents very limited decision-making. They show narrow constraints of mind that limit, rather than free us.
By sustainably connecting to the world within and around us, we can discover the true freedom that is ours by birthright. That means that just because we are alive, we are fully capable of being free! Including you.
Reach within Heartspace and explore what makes you come alive, what enthralls you. Find the things in the world around you that you are concerned about and reach towards those, find out what connects you to them, and get into them more. If you are concerned about building community, have your friends over for a party. If you know you could be the next Michelangelo, paint your Sistine Chapel ceiling. If there are things within you that you are afraid of, go towards them on purpose. Afraid of being poor? Give all your non-essential money to charity. Scared of the dark? Sleep with less and less light until you are at peace without seeing. All of our imprisonments are roadways to freedom that are waiting to reveal themselves. Our job is to remove the barriers to those roadways. We are all capable of that.
This is the depth of soul and meaning of life, and it frees me to share it with you. This is my liberation. Brazilian educator Paulo Freire once wrote, “The greatest humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves…” Whether you see your oppression or not, this task applies to you, too. Heartspace can be your road to liberation… ready to travel?
Starting today, CommonAction Consulting, home of The Freechild Project and SoundOut, is offering free 30 minute coaching sessions to youth workers who are out of work or seeking new employment. Speaking directly with Adam Fletcher, the president of CommonAction and a 20-plus year veteran of the youth development field, participants can:
Review their career aspirations
Identify new career goals
Determine next steps for a successful career
Examine their current resume
For more information or details send an email to the CommonAction office at email@example.com.
These kinds of inadequate responses are typically led by well-meaning adults who are uncomfortable with nontraditional, inconvenient expressions of youth voice. They want structured, familiar, controllable opportunities for young people to share what adults want to hear, when they want to hear it, where they want to hear it and why they want to hear it. This isn’t completely wrong; however, it’s mostly off-the-mark, no matter what the situation. These approaches to youth engagement imply that young people are incapable of expressing themselves in ways that are appropriate, focused or otherwise useful to community-building, organizational development and/or personal expression. That’s completely false, no matter what the situation.
I have had many conversations with adults who say that they hand over the mic to youth and never get the responses they want to hear. “Sometimes I’ll even hand over the floor and they won’t say anything at all!” I think this is a straw man argument that relies on youth being uncomfortable with speaking up for themselves, which in turn generally relies on the force of adultism throttling their voices. If adults didn’t constantly create and reinforce the barriers that Youth Voice faces all the time there wouldn’t be an issue with young people expressing themselves.
Writing about turn-of-the-century America, anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote, “In time, the experience of the children of immigrants became the experience of all American children, who now were the representatives of a new culture living in a new age.” We, as adults, are living in a new culture in which we’re immigrants. For too long we’ve treated youth as alien; however, our society now embraces their norms – language, culture, economy and sociology – as normative behavior. The experience of young people online, including self-driven learning, entertainment-driven engagement, and youth-led culture-making, is becoming typical of the daily experience of all young people around the country, all of the time. Adults need to adapt and respond accordingly.
Part of the adaptation that needs to make falls on the shoulders of youth involvement advocates today. We must invent, reinvent, critique, examine and reconstitute our current youth involvement activities in order to become, maintain and sustain the relevance of learning about Youth Voice for young people. Only then can we buck the reliance we’ve developed on the past, and begin to see into the future. Only then can we unmask the past when it’s masquerading as the present.