Adam Fletcher – The Freechild Project

Note: I just finished this interview for a community newspaper in New York City, and they gave me permission to repost it here. Enjoy

Adam Fletcher is the founder and coordinator of The Freechild Project, one of the world’s largest online repositories for information about social change led by young people. We talked with Adam over hot tea at a shop in Queens.

How did the idea for The Freechild Project come about?
The idea for The Freechild Project came about while I was serving as a “youth ambassador” in Washington State’s education agency as part of a program operated by a large national foundation located in Washington, DC. This foundation thought I should be promoting their traditional forms of youth involvement throughout communities, including youth councils, youth forums and youth on boards. I thought all that was cool, but not necessarily relevant to the young people in the types of communities where I grew up. I saw so many amazing examples of youth-led organizing, intergenerational activism and action-oriented service that I just couldn’t settle for the “company line” – I had to take it one step further. Rather than just limiting that to the state where I lived at the time, I decided it should be national and international.

When did you set up the program?
Set up The Freechild Project in 2001. In 6 years we have gone from zero to over 5,000 listings, 1,500 newsletter subscribers, and released a dozen publications.

What do you enjoy most about running Freechild?
What I enjoy most is finding really amazing examples I want to go interact with and then tell other people about. I have traveled across the United States, Canada, to Brazil, the UK and Ireland to work with some of them. My big plan is to take a year out to tour The Freechild Project into low-income communities around North America.

Are you involved much in the youth community across the United States?
Not particularly involved in anything here in New York City, yet, although I am looking forward to getting as deep in as possible over the next year. Went to my first school in the Bronx yesterday, the International School for Liberal Arts. They were deeply interested in empowering student voice, and I have trained their principal before. You really get a sense the school – especially the students – want to develop a wonderful learning space as quickly as possible. I will keep working with them through the end of the school year, at least.

What did you do last Saturday?
Last Saturday I actually moved into my apartment! I live in Floral Park, and have taken the last week to sink into my place, unpack boxes, and explore the area. It is wonderful to have space to spread out and a place that is peaceful enough to imagine, but still have the vibrant urgency of the city at my fingertips. I spent that night driving around Queens with a friend who helped me move out here, and yeah, it was a good day.

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

Looking for New Visions of Youth Leadership

It is difficult for me to listen to the experts and professionals preach about “youth leadership“. There is an inherent dilemma in that phrase and in the practices behind it that is repulsive. I have not met a program that bills itself as a youth leadership program that teaches young people how to survive the system, how to take control of their personal lives or how to challenge the messed up situations that many, if not all, young people live in.

Too often these organizations just focus on skill development: communication, leadership, conflict management, decision making, time management, and leadership styles. They sometimes teach action-oriented skills: project development, change management and volunteer development. Rarely do they put context to youth leadership, meaning that any discussion about depleting water supplies, parental abuse, the school-prison-military complex, police abuse, adultism or educational inequities is gone. Instead, the organizations that do teach these skills in context are marginalized by their assigned categories, like youth activism, youth media or youth rights. These groups might attach “youth leadership” in their descriptions, or buried within a grant application, but they don’t surface the title because generally they know what it implies.

What is most problematic about that is that whenever adults convene meetings or conferences or call for young people to become engaged in their communities, they put out general calls for “youth leaders”. They want the young people who shine to show up. What makes a young person shine? Why, anyone who acts just like me! Adults, 2.0 – you know the type. They know how to dress, act, walk and talk like adults. They can turn a phrase and spin an idea like the pros, and often make adults look silly because they are smarter and quicker than yesterday’s youth. (The training ground of “youthhood” is ironic, because as soon as you stop being young you become outdated, no matter what you do. That is how it is.) Meanwhile, young people who need skills different from the white, middle- and upper-class struggle to find accessible, appropriate and relevant opportunities to develop them.

When I was 16 I participated in a youth leadership program of the Urban League in Omaha. I remember it being a pretty intensive program that was filled with all kinds of sessions, maybe once a week for a quarter or something. It was a little awkward for me because suddenly I was sitting with the other people from school who lived in my neighborhood but didn’t talk with me. Oh, we saw each other: they were notorious bangers or the funny, smart, cynical people at the front of the class. But suddenly we were in the same class together, collectively seen as “youth leaders”. I don’t remember anything else from the class. I don’t remember writing it on any college applications, either.

But isn’t that the thing? We look for youth leaders who we know will succeed, who we can trust not to fail our expectations, because as adults our worlds sometimes seem so concrete, so firm. But our world is changing! We have to develop a different vision of what leadership is – there simply is not a choice. We need more than a next generation that just comes in here to hold up the roof so it doesn’t all fall in on us. We need young people – every single one – to come in here and work with us to show us that the roof needs taken down, and then to help us construct a new vision of our collective present and future, as well as to help us understand our past. We need new dreams – another world is possible.

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

My Background in Translation

There was a period of time, about ten years ago, when any discussion of “youth rights” automatically got me fired up. In 1997 I was working as an “adult living skills” instructor in a program for foster and homeless youth in Lincoln, Nebraska. That year I re-read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed for the second time, and still didn’t understand most of it. I also read Jonathan Caldwell Holt’s Escape from Childhood – which I absorbed and felt deeply.

Throughout Escape from Childhood, Holt extensively surveys the notion and reality of youth rights – although his analysis embraces children, as well. He pounds the nail on the head over and over, discussing the abuses of schools, families, government agencies, children’s rights advocates, even banks. Everything in it – the anecdotes, the powerful points – they all resonated with some part of my experience, and I was completely excited.

I sat on those thoughts and let them percolate over the next several years while I served two more AmeriCorps terms, coordinated a ropes challenge course, supervised a youth floor in a drug rehab center, worked at a nature center and coordinated a service learning program. Percolate. Then, in 2000, I was hired by Washington’s state education agency to promote youth involvement. It was that year in the national youth voice movement and service learning field that I saw Holt’s ideas come to fruition, with nominal but present efforts abounding designed to involve young people more thoroughly in the decisions that affect them most. I was, and am still, critical of these programs, because I believe they are mostly devoid of critical consciousness in general; however, I took hope.

So I started to use Holt’s language. Conferences, teacher workshops, state agency meetings, anywhere people were discussing youth engagement, youth voice or youth empowerment I mentioned youth liberation, youth oppression and youth rights. I built the original Freechild Project websites from this perspective as well. As you might guess, I quickly ran into brick walls. Matter of fact, I ran into them over and over.

These trials-by-fire led me, slowly but surely, to adapt my approaches to accommodate to my given surroundings. Later I will write more about how these experiences molded my work with SoundOut, and still inform what I do. But today I’m concern about translating for people so deeply indoctrinated by the ephibiphobics and adultcentrists that they simply do not see the realities young people faced today. Any insight is appreciated.

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The Freechild Project

Working with a group of youth and youth advocates across the nation, Adam assumed responsibility for creating and maintaining The Freechild Project and its accompanying website since September, 2001. 

Through Freechild, Adam has partnered with hundreds of organizations in twelve countries and 43 states focused on engaging young people in social change. The website reaches hundreds of thousands of users around the world every year, and the publications I’ve written for it have been downloaded more than a million times. As of September 2017, The Freechild Project Facebook group has more than 3,000 members.

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