This Isn’t An “Ah-Ha” Moment

In the last few weeks, the United States has seen a resurgence of interest in youth engagement. Young people from Parkland, Florida, have led the charge and created a stir among the media by calling out politicians and pundits in public forums, including social media and press events. They’re advocating sophisticated responses to the violence that tore apart their school, and demanding people pay attention. Its working.

However, this isn’t an “ah-ha” moment. Despite how the media is treating it, this isn’t a glorious revelation about the power of youth or the need for systems change. Instead, it’s the continuance of decades of youth-led social change across the United States. This article highlights how that’s true, and what we can do to KEEP youth changing the world!



Youth having been changing and challenging the United States to change for more than a century. From the newsboys’ strike of 1899 to the anti-gun activism enlightening the nation right now, young people have led the way for a long time. Here are a few issues they have covered:

Child Labor—In 1903, a few hundred children marched from the coal mines and textile mills of eastern Pennsylvania to Washington DC to demand politicians take action for labor laws. Led by Mother Jones, an infamous suffragette, the group shook Congress to the bones, leading to the passage of the first national child labor and compulsory school laws in the country.

Youth Rights—In the 1930s, a group of high school and college age students formed the American Youth Congress to lobby for recreation, education, food and work rights for their generation. They presented the The Declaration of the Rights of American Youth [pdf] to the US Congress in 1935. Working with Eleanor Roosevelt, in 1936 their work led to the formation of the National Youth Administration. Although it was dismantled shortly after, the American Youth Congress launched campaigns for racial justice, increased federal spending on education, and an end to mandatory participation in the college-level Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC).

Cultural Diversity—During World War II, racial hatred and white supremacy led to the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles. During these terroristic battles, Hispanic and Latino young people led cultural battles to express themselves, while white supremacists beat them down and stripped children and youth of their clothes to suppress youth voice. This kind of cultural activism serves as a strong call for the rest of us.

Civil Rights—Nine months before Rosa Parks, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin became a pioneer in the civil rights movement when she refused to give up her seat for a white woman on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Not prepared to capitalize on the moment or recognize her leadership, movement makers didn’t promote Claudette’s actions. However, Colvin testified at the US Supreme Court trial that ended with a ruling against segregated busing and the end of the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Self-Expression—The stories continue after that, too, with Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, leading a generation towards activism in the early 1960s; the teen-led organization Youth Liberation Press in Ann Arbor, Michigan printing radical tracts about youth rights, freedom and justice in the 1970s; and the emergence of hip hop youth activism in the 1980s.

Global Youth Action—Youth engagement in social change has increasingly gone global, too. In the 1980s, the student-led movement against South Africa apartheid was openly credited by Nelson Mandela for contributing to the end of the regime of terror that segregated that country. After the turn of the century, the United Nations recognized the essential nature of engaging youth in international development plans. Youth in Australia gained a massive footing in their state educational decision-making around 2003 with the implementation of the Victoria Student Representative Council. Their actions created a foundation that’s still being built on internationally.

I have researched and written about dozens of other issues too, sharing examples and more, as well as actions taken and strategies employed to foster social change. THIS IS HAPPENING NOW.



Today, we’re seeing a shift in the battle over guns that has gripped the American soul with the murders of thousands of children and youth in the last 25 years. Whether shot by gangs, parents, stray bullets, police, or mass murderers, young people today are faced with increasingly hostile learning environments, with politicians who are seemingly intransigent to the threats they face. Luckily, they aren’t standing for it.

Inspired by activist youth from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where the latest mass murder happened, young people across the country are organizing on-the-ground, practical campaigns to end gun violence forever. They’re confronting politicians, partnering with parents and teachers, and planning massive school walkouts, rallies and demonstrations.

Like others before them, this generation is calling the American soul to the carpet. Young people today want us to feel their anguish, understand their suffering, acknowledge the collective trauma facing them, and to take action and make change.

However, there can be more to this moment than ever before. Rather than being a flash-bang instance of youth-led activism and instead of a media-driven hysteria focused on the appeal of middle class white suburban youth screaming for change, we can transform the very perception of young people in society in three ways.


How to keep youth changing the world by Adam Fletcher for Freechild Institute for Youth Engagement


3 Ways Youth Can KEEP Changing the World

  1. Create sustainable roles—There have to be positions, policies and practices in your organization and community that are long-ranging, impactful opportunities for youth specifically.
  2. Foster lifelong engagement—Engagement must not end at 15, 18, 21, 25 or beyond. Instead, there should be a continuum of opportunities for young people to see themselves engaged and then become that way throughout their lifetimes.
  3. Call forth the positive powerful purpose of youth—Don’t continue to make youth come to adults and insist change. Instead, reach out directly to young people and appeal to their sense of purpose, power and belonging, and then be ready to take action.



Its already happening. For more than a decade, youth have been fighting for social change in dozens of areas, like local farming, stopping smoking, challenging white supremacy and ending zero tolerance policing practices. Students have been partnering with teachers to improve schools, working with parents to build healthy families, and struggling against entrenched perceptions throughout society. That’s all happening right now, and we need to expand these practices.

We need to sustain and uplift the current actions young people are taking to change the world. Instead of creating more opportunities for involved youth to become more involved, we need to create new spaces for disengaged youth to become involved. Whether youth or adults, we can do this by changing the attitudes of individuals around us by confronting adultism (bias towards adults) and challenging ephebiphobia (fear of youth) wherever we see it.

Whether youth or adults, we can do this by transforming the structures we live in and operate throughout everyday, including families, schools, nonprofits, government agencies and bodies, and businesses, including all of the policies, practices and procedures we follow everyday. Whether youth or adults, we can do this by navigating and negotiating our culture, including the mainstream culture that paint youth as incapable non-adults; traditional cultures that treat young people as sometime to be seen and not heard; or socio-economic cultures that rely on youth repression in order to assure the social orders they rely on.

Ultimately, we must engage every youth and every adult in every community, everywhere, all the time. My own professional experience dovetails with history to show us that we must embrace, sustain and expand youth engagement. In more than 250 communities nationwide, I have worked with K-12 schools, nonprofits, government agencies and other organizations to transform the roles of young people in their programs, policies and operations. By facilitating professional development for adult staff members; training children and youth in myriad youth engagement skills and issues; planning programs and evaluating outcomes; as well researching and writing curriculum, I have sought to move the needle from seeing youth as the passive recipients of adult-led decision-making towards engaging youth as partners throughout our communities. I have spoke at dozens of conferences, providing motivational and educational expert speeches for young people and adults to see each other as allies, not enemies, by breaking down generational assumptions and understanding the power of youth.

Most importantly to me, I have stayed at it: For more than 17 years, I have run the Freechild Institute to share examples and tools for youth-led social change worldwide, while directing SoundOut, which focuses on meaningful student involvement throughout education. Recently, I joined the Athena Group, a collective of consultants focused on systems change nationwide. Our work will continue to move youth engagement into the mainstream today and in the future.

When you see the headlines, experience the momentum and feel the demand for youth engagement today, I hope you consider the history that’s come before, and understand the efforts underway to continue these actions today and beyond. Youth engagement is our greatest hope, and you can help build it right now.



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New History Books Series!

North Omaha History Series by Adam Fletcher Sasse


In my speeches and writing, I often allude to the neighborhood where I grew up. North Omaha, Nebraska, is a predominantly African American neighborhood with a rich history and powerful culture that make it dynamic, powerful and marginally frightening to a lot of white people. As a goofy low-income Canadian kid, my mentors, neighbors and friends there made me who I am. I wanted to explore the reasons why this place is so dynamic, so I spent a few years researching and writing about it.
I’m excited to share that I have a new book series available. Here are the details:

There is hidden, neglected, denied, lost and forgotten history in North Omaha, Nebraska. Home to the majority of Nebraska’s African American population for more than a century, the community also has a brilliant history among Omaha’s Jewish population, Swedes, Italians, Irish and more. Its history with working class, low-income, upper class and everyday people is enriched by the religious, social, cultural and economic diversity of the area, too.

In these three books, internationally recognized youth expert Adam Fletcher Sasse shares the story of where he grew up. He exposes the hyperlocal history of a community built on privilege, torn by racism, and reweaving itself through determination. Carefully tracking more than 200 years, Fletcher Sasse shares his research on a variety of topics, including the fur trade, Native Americans, pioneer towns, European immigrants, and the development of the community.

Highlighting the history of North Omaha’s African American community as well, this series exposes Omaha’s systematic and long-standing attitude and actions towards this population. With precise details and dynamic writing, Fletcher Sasse reveals some shocking events, demonstrates intriguing patterns and enlightens a bright pathway towards the future of North Omaha’s history.

I’m excited to share these books with the world, if only because the history of the neighborhood I grew up is so neglected, so forgotten and so denied! Here are descriptions of each book in the series.

North Omaha History: Volume Three by Adam Fletcher Sasse

North Omaha History: Volume Three – (292 pages, 2016) In the final book of the North Omaha History series, Adam Fletcher Sasse reveals more of the lost, hidden, neglected and denied history of this predominantly African American neighborhood. He shares biographies of historical crime bosses and an old woman who smoked stogies; details the role of transportation, and dives deep into the architecture in North Omaha. At the end, he shares a timeline of important people in the community’s history, including political, social, social, athletic, educational, economic, criminal and other figures. The book finishes with a bibliography and comprehensive index. Press Release

North Omaha History: Volume Two by Adam Fletcher Sasse

North Omaha History: Volume Two (282 pages, 2016) From the outset, this book shares the history of education in North Omaha, including pioneer schools, Catholic schools, segregated schools, and more go on display. Fletcher Sasse then pays homage to his love of nature borne in North Omaha. The book details each cemetery in the community, as well as the complete history of lead poisoning in North Omaha. It revisits the civil rights movement, as well as other events such as the 1913 Easter Sunday tornado, mob terrorism, and more. The ending of the book includes a few important tours of the community, as well as a massive timeline of North Omaha history and a comprehensive index. Press Release

North Omaha History: Volume One by Adam Fletcher Sasse

North Omaha History: Volume One (274 pgs, 2016) The opening tome in the North Omaha History series, this book is a powerful intro this predominantly African American community. The book includes the histories of racism; community leaders; and an African American newspaper, as well as a section on 1960s rioting. Red lining in North Omaha is exposed, along with backgrounds on several historic neighborhoods. The appendices include more than 20 tours around North Omaha and a comprehensive index. Press Release


On sale now at, ask your local bookseller, or inquire at your library. Links

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The Evolution of Society


Children and youth have been treated as apolitical and passive throughout time.

They are viewed as immature, irrational, untamed, incapable, dependent, inexperienced, victims, compliant, under-developed, unacceptable, manipulable, unknowledgeable, compromised, uncultured, and unfinished for what seems like eons.

Treated as less-than-human, non-members of society, and as adults-in-the-making, children and youth have experienced generations of indifference and neglect simply because they were not perceived as adults.

This view of children and youth is not science; it is bias. It is bias towards adults, which is the definition of adultism.

Over the last 40 years, young people have boldly challenged this view. In the last 10, they have more loudly challenged it through activism and technology than ever before. THAT scares adults for many reasons, primary among which is that the historical order of society is continuing upheaval. That upheaval is quickening though, and as ethically responsive adult allies, it is our obligation to advocate and guide this change in every part of society.

Adultism has become more oppressive as a response to this evolution. More than ever before, the systems, cultures, and attitudes that treat children and youth without regard for their full humanity are becoming obvious. Parenting, friendships, schooling, social services, community groups, governments, faith communities, legal systems, economic systems, health care, nurseries, and playgrounds are among the institutions throughout our society that are being revealed for their biases towards adults.

At the core of the discrimination young people face are the historical roots of adultism:

  • Paternalism. Paternalism is when a child or youth is controlled with the claim that they’ll be better off or protected from harm. It’s ugly enforcer is patriarchy, which is protectionism on a grand level.
  • Segregation. Setting young people apart from other people because of their age is segregation. It’s ugly cousins include alienation, which happens when children or youth are segregated from a group or an activity they should be involved in; demonization, which happens when young people are portrayed as evil, deviant, or malicious; and criminalization, which makes children and youth illegal because of their age, like age-based curfews do.
  • Adultcentrism. The belief that adults are superior to young people is adultcentrism. It’s obvious outcome is adultocracy, which is the system of structural and cultural controls adults use to impose their authority, domination and supremacy over children and youth. The linear outcomes of adultcentrism and adultocracy are their ugly children, gerontocentrism and gerontocracy, which are focused on seniors.
  • Fear. The fear of children, which is pediaphobia, allows adults to segregate them; the fear of youth, which is ephebiphobia, gives adults permission to demonize and criminalize them. These responses to so-called deviance are dove-tailed with infantalism, which is the ascribing of behaviors that are perceived to be “child-ish” to children, youth, and adults.

All of this allows adults to maintain their power over young people in the most dramatic and simplistic ways. Without any voice in the matter, young people are routinely treated apathetically, pitifully, sympathetically, and charitably. This is despite the fact that all adults have been young. Our social programming disallows adults from remembering our younger years, which would lead us to empathizing with children and youth.

What may be needed is that farthest point on the spectrum of perceptions of young people, which is solidarity. More on that later.

I want to end this post by acknowledging that a massive evolution of young people is underway right now. Technology of all kinds is facilitating it, starting with the electronic transfer of communication, knowledge, ideas, and preparation for action. It is underway thanks to academia, where sociology and education have been on transformative bents for years in order to acknowledge authentic realities of young people, rather than their historically subjective judgments. It is underway in social settings too, including homes and neighborhoods and faith communities.

There’s an exciting future ahead, past these dark days. That’s because the evolution of childhood and youth is underway right now, and that’s because of you, right now. That’s why you just read this blog.

The Developmental Reasons for Adultism

Childhood became predictable through adultism…

Over the last few years I have spoke and trained extensively about adultism, which is bias towards adults, and subsequently, discrimination against young people. Here I explain the roots of adultism, and how they relate to changing the world.

Note: All of this is based in broad generalizations, and those are inherently discriminatory. All models are flawed. My bad.


Adult Bias

Adults are pretty biased. Developmentally speaking, as we get older we like an increasing amount of predictability and sameness. As we age, the human brain generally loses capacity for retention. This causes us to rely on predicable patterns of familiarity and a deepened sense of similarity. In other words, adults want things to stay the same. This happens unconsciously at first, with it becoming an emerging concern on the part of adults as we grow older.

Predictability matters to adults, so we codify predictability. Our laws and rules and policies and regulations enforce commonality, consistency, and conformity. This is neither inherently good or bad; it just is what it is. For time immemorial, adults have used religions, governments, occupations, and schools to ensure that young people succeeded them accordingly. That is how societies and technologies have spread through the ages, and more than one sage has declared that the treatment of youth shows the priorities of a society, and can predict its downfall.

Predictability, sameness, familiarity, and commonality are some of the developmental reasons for adultism.


Actual Experience

Juxtaposed against this developmentally is the experience of youth. As teenagers, young people strive to do several things in the course of growing: Youth push against the rigidity of their childhood in an effort to explore the larger world beyond their homes and neighborhoods. They react against social conformity as they test the boundaries of behavior, language, appearance, and more.

Generally, that is the developmental pattern of all youth. It is enforced through broad cultural promotion, acceptance, and retention. This means adults think that’s the way it should be, we encourage it, and we make sure it exists for succeeding generations. It is not generally codified and formalized, insomuch as unspoken cultural norms ensure that young people have the room they need to become who they are.

Couple this with the reality that young peoples’ experiences of time is elastic. Learning to appreciate both the past and the present more, the future appears limitless in its ability and potential, and with that in mind anything is possible. They do not generally see the future in the long arc of adults, and this enables them to focus directly on immediate outcomes. They also do not feel the burden of the past so heavily, either. The inheritances of the ages are generally lost on young people as they experience what simply already exists, rather than understand where it came from.


Familiarity Rules

Adultism happens because adults are compelled towards familiarity. Youth are the known unknown, and adultism ensures they stay that way.

If we are to successfully challenge the prevalence of adultism throughout society, we have to become fully aware and focused on the developmental reasons behind it. That prevalence is negating the effectiveness of our family structures, youth work, education systems, social services, and more. Let’s do something about it, right now.


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Order FACING ADULTISM by Freechild founder Adam Fletcher at
Order FACING ADULTISM by Freechild founder Adam Fletcher!

Letting Our Personal Histories Teach Us


Lately I’ve been diving back into history, and it increasingly strikes me that we have to teach more about this aspect of our lives and our work in community engagement.We owe a lot to history.


Whether we know it or not, young people and their adult allies who are calling for the world to change and actively struggling to make a difference today are the successors of generations who have been at work doing the same. We also have our own personal histories, including our family history, our community’s histories, and our personal life stories.

All of these drive our understandings of what is going on in the world, what change needs to happen, and how that change can and should happen.I’ve done a few things to get a hold of my own life’s history. My brain doesn’t naturally proceed in linear thinking patterns, so it takes a little mining for me to pull out chronological pasts for myself.

When thinking about the activism and community organizing in my life, I usually start when I was 14 and first exposed to conscious critical action: A group of anti-war protesters asked my dad to read some of his poetry to them at a  gathering at Omaha’s War Memorial park. I don’t remember much about the occasion beyond the expression my dad poured into his recitation, and the appreciation of the folks afterwards. That was in the spring of 1989, since then I have seen, participated in, and led dozens and dozens of actions focused on changing the world.

However, I only learned that was where my roots are by doing this conscious naming of my own history in social action.Looking further back, and getting more personal still, I find that experience has led me in a determined course towards this moment in my life, this time when I stand at this precipice. From here I look back and see so many roots, be they childhood homelessness and poverty, border-crossing and living “illegally” in the United States, and many other experiences that gave me more than a superficial awareness of oppression, among many other lessons.

Sure, a lot of them sucked- but that is where I came from. Denying these roots doesn’t feel right to me; embracing them, while hard, is a way I build my sense of personal power and capability: I don’t leave the past behind and ignore it ever happened.

Instead, I acknowledge the impact on who I am, how I am, where I am, and what I do. I am the sum total of everything I’ve ever done, as well as everything I’ll ever do! This is the first step to letting our history teach us.

How To Embrace Your History

  1. Make a list of the work you have done to change the world.
  2. Make a list of the experiences you have had in life that have changed your world.
  3. Draw a picture that shows how those two sets of experiences are connected, either directly or indirectly.

Let me know how your personal history teaches you, and I’ll keep writing about how mine is teaching me.



History of Youth Action: 1930s to 1970s

As I continue studying the roles of young people throughout society, I find more places where the roots of youth voice, youth action, youth-led organizing, and civic youth engagement were growing a long time ago. After showing how these roots extend all the way into the Victorian Era, today I want to start in the 1930s when a different type of youth-led community organizing began to rise.

Suddenly, basic welfare and human rights were not enough. Instead, these youth were focused on political power. It was as if they knew Eduardo Galeano was going to write,

“I don’t believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is vertical, so it’s humiliating. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other and learns from the other. I have a lot to learn from other people.”


Rising Within the Depression

It was the Great Depression, and the American Youth Congress produced the Declaration of Rights of American Youth, which they presented in front of the U.S. Congress. This group succeeded in getting a concise youth-focused agenda in front of elected officials, if not nominating youth suffrage or other rights. Their approach led to the creation of the National Youth Administration.

However, they didn’t represent all youth: The educational and economic rights of Southern black young people were ignored; American Indian children were being actively ripped from their families to be “assimilated” into “American culture”; other young people of color were routinely discriminated against; and poor young people throughout the country were subject to the oppressive machinations of middle class American values, which insisted on gentrification.


Challenging White Supremacy

In addition to this age-based tension, racial awareness among young people was rising. The Zoot Suit Riots during World War II were led by youth. The Civil Rights Movement included a lot of brash leadership by young people. Claudette Colvin was 15 when she refused to give up her seat for a white woman, 9 months before Rosa Parks’ famous launch of the modern movement.

The students at the Greensboro Sit-ins were 18 and 19 years old, only in their first year of college, and their actions informed the creation of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The Birmingham Campaign, focused on challenging the cultural, political, economic, educational, and social discrimination blacks faced in that Alabama city, was most successful when organizers from the SCLC actively engaged child protesters. It was during these times that Dr. King wrote,

“One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. Today, our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.”

This was true of young people in these times, as it continues on through history. During this same era, working class and middle class white youth were creating new identities through Beat generation lifestyles and rock and roll, both of which relied on the appropriation and blending of cultural norms to redefine popular culture.


You Can’t Blame The Youth

The tension took shape with the creation of the Students for a Democratic Society, which challenged the very belief Americans held about the impetus for their nation’s existence. With the writing of the Port Huron Statement in 1962, young people took new ownership over their own roles throughout society. They emerged as a political force, and within a decade had succeeded in amending the U.S. Constitution with the passage of the 26th Amendment, lowering the voting age across the country to the age of 18 in 1971.

The entrenched radicalization of youth became widespread at this point, supporting the creation of the Youth Liberation Press, based of Ann Arbor, Michigan, which printed materials for youth activists across the country. Youth ran for school board seats, and activities were sponsored by the U.S. government to further entrench young people’s participation throughout society, including the National Commission on Resources for Youth. These were largely successful efforts for their times, and led to further growth over the next 30 years.

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History of Youth Action: 1400 to 1880

Through my ongoing study of the roles of young people throughout society, including youth action, youth voice, youth involvement, and youth engagement, I have learned that we have seen children in a charitable light since the Victorian era, when they were first placed on a particular pedestal by the upper class.

In this position, children were seen as sub-human, incomplete and undeveloped, in need of protection and yearning for safety. Simultaneously, lower class children were seen as miniature adults, incapable of working as hard as adults, but still responsible for taking care of themselves and their families.


Youth As Adults

During the four centuries between 1400 and 1800, teenage youth weren’t particularly identified as such: Young women were married off as young as 12 years old, and young men routinely joined the military, struck out on their own, or (rarely) went to college at the age of 14. They were apprentices in the trades who were growing into professionals, and frequently they occupied the same roles in society as people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. They attended town hall meetings, served in capacities as teachers and ministers, and even ran for elected offices.

There was discrimination against age, though, and it was rampant. In arguing against the popular vote, future President John Adams wrote in 1776,

“Depend upon it, Sir, it is dangerous to open so fruitful a source of controversy and altercation as would be opened by attempting to alter the qualifications of voters; there will be no end to it. New claims will arise; women will demand the vote; lads from 12 to 21 will think their rights not enough attended to; and every man who has not a farthing, will demand an equal voice with any other, in all acts of state. It tends to confound and destroy all distinctions, and prostrate all ranks to one common level.”

Now, it’s important to see that Adams was contextualizing youth discrimination with gender discrimination and discrimination against poor people (he didn’t even fathom the prospect of people of color voting). This actually shows what was happening in America, and throughout the Western World, at that crucial turning point in civilization. This turning point was the beginning of the Industrial Age, which in turn collided with the colonization of western North America. Immediately after the U.S. Civil War, in which the U.S. and the confederates regularly enlisted child soldiers, adults began to change their minds about how to treat children and youth.


Values-Driven Youth

The values of life in the North America quickly changed to accommodate newfound prospect of getting rich. With adult immigrants suddenly flooding their countries, the U.S. and Canada forced assistance into the lives of children and youth, and subjugated them as never before. Poor kids who copied adult behaviors were pitied; slave children were disallowed from being educated for fear of their desire to have better lives.

This was a crucial turning point for the roles of young people throughout society: Where before poor children and youth were left to fend for themselves, suddenly there were advocates and activists rallying to place them in orphanages and rectories across the hemisphere. Instead of having to rely on kids to work in factories and mines in the East, suddenly there were schools and movements to get students into those schools (John Gatto has written extensively about this).

Rather than letting teens get married, there were suddenly social norms and laws preventing early marriage, as well as getting them off farms and into high schools. Instead of being able to hold office, lead families, make a living and manage their own money, children and youth were suddenly relegated to sub-human treatment and almost fully incapacitated from making decisions on their own, and incapable of affecting change in the world around them.


Charity Cases?

From this place, a charitable attitude towards young people arouse. The Children’s Aid Society started it in the 1850s. It took further form by way of schools and the Big 7 youth organizations, all of which grew popular in the early 1900s, in addition to the Children’s Rights Movement, which held that there were basic . This consciousness continued to grip America through the 1970s, when organizations like Children’s Defense Fund and other groups began “crusading” on behalf of children and youth in North America and around the world.

They worked to feed hungry kids, stop child labor, get students into schools, provide healthcare for poor kids, and stop child abuse. These advances, though, marked the end of progress on behalf of children in many ways. However, as Saint Augustine wrote, “Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”

I first found an awareness of injustice caused by age emerge among young people in the 1880s. Starting in that decade, children working for the newspaper empires in the American East began seeing that the adults they worked for didn’t have their best interests in mind. These 8-12 year olds, called newsboys, protested in 15 major cities, managing to shut down the distribution of several major newspapers.

They continued random efforts for more than 50 years after, forming a longstanding campaign for youth justice. For the first time in I can find in recorded history, young people were organizing for the benefit of young people.

This is the beginning of the movement for youth voice, youth involvement, youth-led activism, youth organizing… and the place from where our society planted the roots that have become a global phenomenon that is re-envisioning the roles of young people throughout society.


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Co-Opting the Radical Instinct

In summer 2000, Tom Hayden released the following essay. It’s powerful historical revelation still moves me, and may help you understand further what we’re up against. Even if you don’t see yourself as a radical, read it – it can help anyone in nonprofits, schools, and throughout our communities. – Adam

Co-opting the Radical Instinct, by Tom Hayden.

I think that you all might want to know something about how the other side sees you.

There’s a study done by the Cattlemen’s Society. Now, you may think they’re an irrelevant, marginal group, but they’re quite crucial to the frontier mentality that built this great country on the backs of the native people. They are a big special interest group, and they pay good money to find out who these activists are. A few years ago they did a study. The question was: How do we contain and stop this direct action movement? It wasn’t called the direct action movement then; it was the civil disobedience movement, the protesters, the environmentalists, all the rabble that they were concerned about at the time.

They created a chart. At one end were the radicals, defined as people who believe that the system itself has to be changed. A radical would he anybody who understands that globalization is a system with many fronts and many issues. Their prescription for the radicals was to isolate and discredit them, not because there was something inherently radical in their behavior, but because they were pointing out that it was a system. So, the first goal, they said, was to discredit the radical analysis.

The second group on the spectrum were the idealists. These are people who want to give the system a chance. They believe in the same social justice values that the radicals do, but they’re idealistic; they don’t have a cold, cynical view that nothing is possible under the system. So, it’s extremely important, the study said, that the idealists don’t become radicals. In order to keep this from happening, you raise the stakes of radicalism so that people are afraid to become radical, because they then get smeared, discredited, and worse. You have to give the idealists occasional victories in order to keep their hope in the system alive.

Third on this continuum came the pragmatists. The pragmatists are former idealists who’ve won some victories, who start to believe that the system works. So, they said, it’s extremely important for the idealists to have victories — not because of justice, but because that way they become pragmatists. And you want the pragmatists to be able to say: See? The system works. Be pragmatic.

And the final part of the spectrum — the culmination of your future, if you follow this plan — is that you can become an opportunist. An opportunist is a former pragmatist. An opportunist, they said, is a pragmatist who gets attracted to the money, the glamour, the status, and the power. And then they had a whole workshop on how this could be done. How to discredit the radicals, cultivate the idealists, make them pragmatists, and then find the opportunists among the pragmatists. And there — you have the story of my generation, the 60s generation.

You have millions of people who have radical instincts but little expectation, who have lowered their expectation. You have millions of people who are former idealists, who have become pragmatists. And you have plenty of people who are opportunists. My question is: How can you break this cycle? It’s the most important cycle to break. You can’t break the cycle of poverty; you can’t break the cycle of violence; you can’t break the cycle of corporate expansion; you can’t break the cycle of the arms race; you can’t break the cycle of imprisonment, if you don’t break the cycle by which radicals are isolated, idealists are turned into pragmatists, and pragmatists into opportunists. I have not found an answer to this problem, but I’m here to tell you it is the problem. And you are its answer.

Tom Hayden cofounded Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1959, and in the early 1960s he co-authored the highly-influential Port Huron Statement. After the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, he was indicted with the Chicago Seven and later acquitted. Tom Hayden is currently a state senator from Los Angeles and has authored over 175 measures, including animal welfare, campaign finance, education, environmental, prison reform, and worker safety initiatives.

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