The Future of Youth Engagement

Society evolves. As young people and communities grow, there are more opportunities for youth engagement than ever before – and more opportunities for youth to become disengaged, too. More sophisticated usages of technology, transformed processes, and varying thresholds for what engages young people have to be acknowledged all the time. This happens from generation to generation and across different communities for all kinds of reasons.

Youth engagement happens, no matter what. Adults may not like what it focuses on or how it happens, but it happens.

Here are three ways that youth engagement will happen in the future:

  1. Subjective relationships—If adults want to continue to expose them to specific issues and activities, or seek particular outcomes from youth engagement, it will be necessary for them to adapt and transform their approaches. 
  2. Equal relationships—Another way is for adults to decide to value the things that young people engage in on their own volition. These youth engagement approaches entail adults meeting young people where they are currently, rather than insist that children and youth come to where adults want them to be in the future. 
  3. Equitable relationships—The middle ground between these two approaches to youth engagement requires active evolution and transformation. It requires that adults learn to see young children and youth as equitable partners in their work, and to treat them accordingly. 

Luckily, no matter which approach adults choose, youth engagement will continue to exist in the individual lives of young people, where they see fit and how they see fit. The sustained connections that young people make will never be solely dependent on technology, and youth engagement will never rely solely on government agencies either, or nonprofits, faith communities, schools, or other specific spheres and systems explored above.


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

What Is Youth Engagement?

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.

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

How Does Youth Engagement Happen?

“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.

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

Factors Affecting Youth Engagement

factors
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.

 

Where Does Youth Engagement Happen?

Youth engagement happens in a variety of places. Each place where youth engagement happens isn’t necessarily a physical place or a set of activities. Because of this, I call these “Spheres of Youth Engagement.”

Youth Engagement can happen within a person, including their emotional, psychological, or physical well-being. In other cases, young people are seen as disengaged when they aren’t sustainably connected to their family, peers, faith communities, school, and other community settings. There is generally little concern when young people aren’t seen as connected to society, as these areas are generally seen as places for adults to be engaged. These locations including mass media, industry and the economy, social services, their neighbors, and local politics.

  • Self: emotional, psychological, or physical well-being 
  • Families: home, recreation, decision-making, food and nutrition, culture 
  • Community: peers, faith communities, school, and other community settings 
  • Society: mass media, industry and the economy, social services, their neighbors, and politics 

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

What Supports Youth Engagement?

All the individual spheres of youth engagement are parts of a generally unspoken system. This system surrounds all young people from the time they’re born through adulthood, and beyond. A system is “a set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole, in particular.”

Systems of youth engagement are the broad ways young people experience sustained connections throughout their lives. There are many different ways to envision these systems operating. Here, I focus on the formal and informal institutions throughout the lives of young people that drive, affect, or impact the sustained connections they have throughout life. These systems can include, but aren’t limited to, their family, education, health, social services, recreation, faith communities, cultural activities, work, civic action, mental health services, and juvenile justice. Other systems can include transportation, food and nutrition, housing, business, and the environment.

When these systems function well, there are communities full of engaged children and youth. When they do not function well, young people experience disengagement in any or all of these spheres. The fewer sustainable connections a young person experiences in each and all of these spheres, the more disengaged they become throughout their lives. The more disengaged a person is as a young person, the more likely they’ll be disengaged as an adult; the more engage a person is when they’re young, the more engaged they will become when they’re older.

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

The Freechild Project Publications

You know The Freechild Project offers training for youth workers, educators, and young people. Did you know we publish our own materials too? We have dozens of booklets, articles, worksheets, and other tools available to help you learn and teach others about youth voice, youth engagement, social change led by young people, and more.

Following is a list of The Freechild Project’s publications. What would you like to see us write about in the future? Add your comment at the end!
The Freechild Project Books
The Freechild Project Articles
The Freechild Project Tools, Worksheets, Tip Sheets, and More

The Freechild Project Book Reviews

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

Youth Voice EVERYWHERE!

As any expression of any young person about anything, anywhere, at any time, Youth Voice happens in countless places in every community every day. This includes schools, businesses, alleys, sidewalks, libraries, city halls, government agencies, afterschool programs, summer camps, foundations, nonprofits, community centers, at home, on the streets, and in parks. Youth Voice happens in these places; whether its heard is another question altogether.

Each of these places has a special assignment for children and youth:

  • In schools, young people are assigned to be students
  • In businesses, youth are assigned youth to be shoppers
  • In libraries, young people are assigned to be readers
  • In alleys, youth are assigned to be vandals, thieves, or street artists
  • In summer camps, youth are assigned to be campers
  • On the streets, young people are assigned to be innocent, gang members, or bad drivers
  • And so on…

All of these expectations are not inherently bad; they show that young people are seen. The issue may be that they aren’t seen fairly, or justly, or accurately, or according to their own self-identification. Instead, they’re assigned roles by adults that generally benefit adults.

But they do offer an opportunity to identify where Youth Voice can happen. There are other places where young people never go, but that affect them every day. Adults don’t often consider it, but these sorts of

places are all over:

  • City halls makes decisions about laws, regulations, planning, and programs affecting young people
  • School district offices make decisions about classes, budgets, and curriculum for students
  • Hospitals focus their services on young patients
  • Community centers and neighborhood associations are for young people
  • Businesses choose what young people will like and sell them on wanting it

Again, these places are not bad, only under-informed.

Youth Voice Is For Living

Youth Voice can—and does—happen throughout our society, in the places where young people belong and the places that affect them. That includes large geographic areas; small learning communities; outdoors in nature, and in homes, hospitals, hospices, and hallways in our neighborhoods, schools, halls, legislatures, and across the state.

Youth Voice happens in different types of institutions, organizations, and communities across our communities, too. Following are several different types, as well as considerations for those Youth Voice activities.

  • Youth Voice Where Young People Live: Youth Voice begins at home. There are a lot of ways that young people can contribute to decision-making that directly affects them every single day. This can include helping plan meals and decorating their own bedrooms, as well as decisions that affect the whole family, like whether moving across town is a good idea, or when its time to buy a new couch, comparing buying a new one versus a used one. Youth Voice at home is encouraged by having children advocate for their own needs (with consideration to others’ needs), speak up for themselves to adults, and by adults advocating for their children when needed. Where Youth Voice happens has to do with where young people actually live. Young people who live in suburban areas have different circumstances to consider than those who live in large cities, rural towns, or island communities. Those differences are significant, and they matter when trying to engage children and youth. 
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  • Youth Voice is for Suburban Communities: On the outskirts of cities around the world, suburban communities face unique challenges engaging young people. These sometimes include trying to connect with families who are new to the area. Suburban youth may feel they lack a focus or reason to making Youth Voice real, as they may see many of their needs already met. It can be difficult to physically involve young people who are physically disconnected from each other by lack of roads or public transportation. Suburban communities may also have high numbers of young people who are at home alone after school and who lack parental support for participating in Youth Voice programs. It is also difficult to incubate Youth Voice in communities that lack a physical center or downtown. Belonging is central to Youth Voice.
  • Youth Voice is for Rural Communities: Small towns and remote areas share some issues in common with suburban communities. They both have challenges with transportation, and getting to any central geographic “hub” can be tough. These communities face other challenges as well, including what some people call “brain drain.” This phrase usually summarizes the loss rural communities feel when large percentages of young people move away because of a lack of opportunities. Young people who stay in the area may feel like they live in a “black hole” where their voices, their dreams, and their lives never escape. Small, local economies suffer when there is a blow to the area, such as the loss of an important industry or lack of highway access. The resulting poverty can make it difficult for young people to feel hopeful, as if they don’t have any ability to create change in their lives or the lives of their communities. Hope is central to Youth Voice.
  • Youth Voice is for Urban Communities: Inner-city areas rely on hope. The experience of many urban youth shows that urban neglect, a common issue in inner-city neighborhoods across the state, can steal hope. For many young people it is hard to feel hopeful when you don’t have food on the table. Safe schools, glaring financial inequities, and negative relationships between youth and police are a sampling of the issues urban youth face. Other communities where there are particular challenges and rewards of engaging young people. They include isolated communities in extremely rural areas, Native American reservation communities where culture and heritage is strong, and military base communities with largely transient populations.

Youth Voice Is For Learning
Learning in classrooms, after-school programs, at home, or around the community provides excellent opportunities to engage young people. Children and youth can share responsibility for planning what they want to learn, how they want to learn it, and where they learn. They can work with adults to create realistic, tangible learning goals; when finished, young people can evaluate their accomplishments, learning experiences, and learning environments. In schools and community centers, young people can help teachers discover which teaching strategies are most effective and what methods work best. Youth Voice can help education administrators make student-centered decisions, and policy-makers create more effective laws and regulations that govern schools. young people are also engaged when students lead classes, research learning, plan new schools, and advocate for education.
  • Youth Voice is for Classrooms: The pressure is on schools to improve teaching and learning. As educators struggle to encourage achievement from kindergarten to twelfth-grade, they are discovering Youth Voice makes a difference.
  • Youth Voice throughout Schools: Students are also working to change schools in other ways. Out-of-school programs provide young people with safe, supportive environments to expand their learning in healthy, constructive ways. However, these programs share the responsibility schools have by needing to actively strive to engage young people in meaningful learning. Youth Voice can be a source for those experiences.
  • Youth Voice is for Community Centers: Youth Voice doesn’t happen in a vacuum. By involving young people in recreational activities with adults and seniors, our communities grow stronger and stay together longer. Dances, game nights, and block parties encourage youth to mix with adults in safe places; classes and training opportunities that bring adults and young people together help them learn from each other and see each other as partners, not enemies. Youth can also make good staff at community centers when they’re engaged in leading and growing programs.
  • Youth Voice is for Parks and Recreation Programs : Green spaces, play places, and nature are important to everyone—especially children and youth. Who better to help plan and grow outdoor areas than those who use them? Young people can learn through service projects in parks about biology, ecology, and neighborhood design; and park staff can discover what works best in parks. Youth Voice can also activate in parks leadership, advisory councils, advocacy campaigns for better parks, program evaluation and park redesign.
  • Youth Voice is for Libraries: Public libraries can bring together communities by making knowledge accessible to young people and adults. Young people are encouraged by youth-friendly spaces that are designed with young people. Featuring a section to the interests of young people, like popular culture and youth action, and hiring youth as staff, are both positive strategies. Youth have also served as full members on library guidance committees.
  • Youth Voice is for After-School Programs: Programs that affect young people most can engage young people most effectively, purposefully, and deliberately. After school programs for children and youth can focus on Youth Voice, responding to what young people see as their most pressing needs and fulfilling their grandest dreams. Rather than adults designing programs from their imaginations, program coordinators are looking to youth for inspiration, guidance, support, and leadership. Many programs have engaged young people as program planners, project leaders, and as program evaluators.

Youth Voice Is For Government

While youth programs and schools are logical places where Youth Voice happens, there are more public places where it is increasingly essential to infuse children and youth as partners with adults.

  • Youth Voice is for City Hall: Local governments are in the unique position of being able to foster and support Youth Voice as a benefit the whole community. Many towns and cities have created youth advisory councils where Youth Voice measures the impact of regulations and laws affecting youth. Other municipalities have actually created positions for young people on existing committees including parks and recreation, libraries, and community planning.
  • Youth Voice is for Government Agencies: Young people can be effectively engaged by local and state government administrators who are committed to serving communities. Research, program planning, budget decisions, and other activities have each been completed by children and youth serving on special committees, advisory boards, action councils, and in youth staff positions.
  • Youth Voice is for the State Legislature: A growing number of politicians, lobbyists, and state government officials are relying on Youth Voice to make their policy decisions more effective, responsive, and inclusive of their constituents.

Critical Questions

  • How often do young people actually think about, share, and act on their ideas, knowledge, opinions, and experiences in these places?
  • Where should Youth Voice be that it is not right now? 
  • Are the differences between types of communities important enough to note? 
  • How does Youth Voice need to change for your communities? 
  • What communities are missing from the Youth Voice conversation in general?

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

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

21st Century Community Learning Centers

For three years, Adam contracted with the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to facilitate professional development sessions for more 100 educators involved in the 21st Century Community Learning Centers across the state. Held as annual events in different locations across the state, he focused on three subjects.
  • Student Voice 101 – Understanding the basics of student voice can be challenging for 21CCLC programs. In this session, Adam Fletcher uses his The Guide to Student Voice to teach participants Who student voice is for, What student voice can do, Why student voice matters, Where and When student voice happens, and How student voice can transform their activities. This session is very hands-on, interactive, and practical, and uses reflection, group work, and examples to show how student voice can improve learning, teaching, and leadership for all students.
  • An Introduction to Youth-Driven Programming – Focused on practical action, this workshop teaches 21CCLC programs how to take Youth Voice and Choice to the next level! Focusing on Adam’s Youth-Driven Programming Guide, this workshop shares powerful tools, meaningful tips and hints, and substantive planning tools. Practitioners utilizing this approach consistently claim the highest levels of success with voice and choice, and this workshop will show why.
  • SoundOut Student Voice Curriculum  – Working with educators who were committed to adapting and facilitating the curriculum in their classrooms, Adam conducted train-the-teacher sessions. Walking through the facilitator’s guide, teaching different approaches for using the curriculum and otherwise preparing educators for different things that may come up in the curriculum was the goal.

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