The Power of Youth Engagement

Adam Fletcher speaking by Michael Kleven 8
Here I am talking at a youth forum in 2014.


Beyond the research, statistics and reports, there’s a simple truth about youth engagement: When young people experience sustained connections to the worlds within and around them, their lives become better, and the lives of those around them improve, too.


For a long time, I forgot to say that. Instead, I focused on the studies that said youth engagement improves youth development, helps adults get our jobs done, and can foster social justice in communities. I shared research-proven examples that identified important pillars of youth engagement, identified deep routes for youth/adult partnerships, and showed effective ways to infuse youth voice throughout organizational transformation.


But I left out this slice: Youth engagement saves lives. I’m not talking about hypothetical situations either; I’m talking about my own life, and the lives of many young people I’ve worked with over the years. 25 years of experience in this field has shared a lot of learning with me. One of those lessons is that when you’re young, disenfranchised, and growing up in a depressed community, youth engagement can embed three important things in your life: Purpose, Power and Passion.


I know that because before I was engaged, I hadn’t experienced those three things in any substantive ways. However, after I became senior patrol leader in my Boy Scout troop, I felt purpose like never before. Spending the decade before that mostly homeless with my family, there didn’t seem to be a purpose to life, a purpose for doing anything, or a purpose for breathing beyond survival. When my dad told me he and I were going to sleep on the roof of an empty Habitat for Humanity house to protect it from being vandalized, I felt empowered to impact the negative circumstances I found myself in. And after I spent three summers working with a mentor to teach drama in public housing projects in my city, I felt a passion for sharing power like never before, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.


What’s your purpose? Where have you found power? How do you share your passion?


Answer those three questions and you will become engaged in what truly matters to you…

10 Ways Motivators Stay Motivated


What drives the people who encourage people to stay motivated?

Recently, I’ve been considering what keeps motivating people motivated. Whether you are workplace supervisors, social workers, professional speakers, parents or classroom teachers, if you are a motivator you have to stay motivated. How do you do that?

I have spent a career working with people who motivate people. Sometimes they do it on accident, and other times they do it on purpose. In my workshops with more than 10,000 motivators over the last decade, I’ve learned many ways these people stay on top of their game. Following are some of them.

1. Avoid the Motivational Traps.

There are three traps facing every person who motivates others: 1) All style and no substance; 2) Knock but nobody’s home, and; 3) Believing the hype. About the first, don’t try to be something you aren’t. With the second, practice being there for others by being present and avoiding distractions. And regarding the third, remember that the seductive powers of flattery are always looking for a victim; you can stand beyond their reach by staying humble, practicing gratitude and constantly acknowledging and accepting your mistakes, and correcting them if possible.

2. Lookout for Cynicism – Your Own and Others. 

Unmotivated people look for fraudulence and gimmicks using cynicism as a knife. They see through fakery and deceit quickly, and challenge incompetence. If you know the subject you’re working on, constantly seek to expand your knowledge, gain practical experience however you can, and be empathetic to learn from the people you’re serving.

3. Find the Motivation BEHIND the Motivation. 

There is always something within us that drives us. If you are reading this article, there is something driving you. But behind that drive lies a deeper reason. Through concentrated self-reflection, you can find the motivation behind the motivation for you. When you’ve found that place, you’ll be able to relate to others in a more genuine way.

4. Get Real.

Stay away from anything that’s too intellectual or theoretical. Avoid speaking in hypotheticals and veer away from hyperbole. People want what is real, because that’s what they can relate to. If you want to stay motivated you have to stay grounded on the earth with the people you’re trying to motivate.

5. Don’t Try to Motivate Other People. 

Speak your truth, and others will be motivated by you. If you seek to motivate others, you will come off as shallow, disrespectful and even callous. Share your authentic self by sharing what drives you, what fears you have and how you actually overcome challenges, instead of spouting out cliches.

6. Don’t Try to Be Positive All of the Time.

Somedays even the most motivated people wake up on the wrong side of the bed. Motivated people are merely focused on what drives them; positivity is a happy by-product of living your passion. Don’t try to be a happy machine; be a real person, and let yourself have bad days when they come. Challenging times don’t mean we’re not motivated; they mean we have another motivation beyond the obvious.

7. Let the Well Run Deep.

People who motivate people have something within them that’s deeper than what shows on the exterior; however, that doesn’t mean motivators need to wear that on the outside. On the contrary, sometimes we have to hold our cards close to our chest. But we should still acknowledge to ourselves what the deepest things inside us are that drive us and allow us to motivate others.

8. Recognize Different Responses. 

Some people are motivated by flash and bang, while others are motivated by depth and substance. Some people have loud, abrasive or aggressive approaches while for others, their presence is presence enough. None of those are right or wrong; they’re only different. Motivated motivators recognize different responses and make appropriate adjustments that fit their own styles.

9. See that Everyone Has the Potential to Motivate Others.

Some people run away from their potential while others actively suffocate and smother it. Others embrace it and flash it so loudly so brightly it burns out. Still others walk with it, gently and consistently, building it and stoking it slowly and with consistently until its a constant in all of their life, all of the time – and that’s what I’m working for. Whatever your approach is, see that everyone can motivate others, whether they’re doctors or fast food workers, poets or presidents.

10. Live Your Truth.

Whether you motivate clients from behind a desk everyday or walk the streets trying to motivate a sale, live your truth as much as you can. Don’t be two-faced, tell lies or act like you’re something that you’re not. If you don’t think you can motivate people today, stop trying for the day. But remember the rest of the steps I outlined here, then get on your horse again tomorrow. If you think you can motivate others but aren’t, stop waiting and get to it! Starting with your kids or friends, be a motivated person whose example enlivens and motivates others.

These lessons aren’t just made up.

I know these are real partly because they’re based on my conversations with other people and learning from what they’ve done. However, I also know they’re real because they are the lessons I’ve learned. I have stumbled and fallen, felt unmotivated and disappointed people before. I learn though, and that’s what I want to share here.

Do your work and be who you are, and if you motivate others they’ll let you know. If you want to motivate others, don’t set yourself on a pedestal and expect your followers to be instantly motivated. Instead, spend time building your expertise and deepening your know-how. There will come a point when you’ll know its time.

If you’re already a motivator, I hope this article has reminded you how to stay up. If you want to become one, I hope this has given you some ideas.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

How to Recruit Youth Today


Youth have many choices to make today.

Let’s say that you’re 18 years old. You left school before graduating, and your friend’s mom is letting you stay in their garage.

You have many choices, and they’re stacked like this:

  • Apply for jobs
  • Break into a car to steal something
  • See if your old girlfriend wants to have sex

What’s going through your mind right now?

Curiosity floods your brain. Even if you’re not sure you can get a job, you know its something you should do, compared to stealing something or having sex. You know what the right thing to do is, but you’re not sure why this job application would be different from any others.

If you truly wanted immediate satisfaction, you’d find an easy car to break into, right? Or you’d give that girlfriend a call. You wouldn’t even take a glance at the job form.

But that’s not how we are built when we are young people.

Years ago, I consulted with an organization that taught youth adult living skills for students who dropped out of high school. They would take high risk (high hope) youth around local colleges and show them three types of programs: One offered job training and job placement; another offered a GED, job training and placement; and another that helped them earn a diploma, get into college, through college and placed in a career. And then they were asked if they were interested in the college program.

You bet they were. You would be, and so would I—we’d all be curious about what allowed people to get into and through college if we never knew it.

Youth choose your program in a vacuum or by comparison

Simply opening a youth program doesn’t make youth attend it. We’re clear on that, right?

That’s because youth choose your program in a vacuum or by comparison.

Let’s look at choosing youth programs in a vacuum.

Say a teenager decides to smoke weed in her free time. She’s been taught about the dangers of drugs, has a stable home with two parents and has a bright future ahead of her.

She’s not asking why at this point in time, because she has a of joint in her hand given to her by her best friend who is sitting right across from her, so she’s making a decision in a vacuum.

The same vacuum concept applies to your youth program, too.

Let’s say you’re passionate about using theater to empower youth. You launched an afterschool drama program for teens in your neighborhood that lasts two hours every night, and youth aren’t showing up.

Sure, they looked at the flyers you posted around the neighborhood and sent home to parents. If they talk to you, you’re incredibly exciting.

When you pour over your grant application and promotional materials, everything screams for youth to come through the door, and yet they aren’t. They are working in a vacuum.

However, when youth look at your program flyer, they see the date and time and think of all the other things they could do, even if we don’t acknowledge those things. Youth who sit on the couch watching TV are choosing that, as are youth who spend hours surfing the Internet with no purpose.

Would you have more youth showing up if they could playing video games? Theoretically speaking, yes. So why not add video game time? Or better yet, offer video games and offer pizza every day? Would you have more youth show up then?

You see what’s happening here, don’t you? As the frivolous things increase, your desire for the program goes down. That’s because you’re no longer working in a vacuum – you’re working on comparison.

You’re comparing your original program focused on theater with every other activity that was added onto it. And you compared your interest in theater to your interest in video games and pizza.

Right now, if you’re still determined, you’ll not only focus on theater, but you might even choose a specific style of theater you’re passionate about, like street performing or children’s theater.

But there’s a reason for that, and its called—and it’s called comparison.

Two distinct choosing phases

When young people choose anything, they’re almost always going through two distinct phases. The first phase is when they consider choices in a vacuum. Youth have been told to go to a program by their mom or teacher, but they have no clue why they should attend.

With all these options staring at them, young people simply pick the most immediate thing that fulfills their needs.

Using the ever-popular Maslow’s Hierarchy as a framework, it’s easy to understand why, after they have their survival and safety needs met young people aren’t automatically selecting to spend their time in your program.

You could start promoting your program on the basis of belonging. You could start telling them what it will do for their esteem. You might even appeal to their desire to make their hopes come true through your program.

But when you start illustrating those benefits clearly, young people are no longer working in a vacuum. Instead, they are comparing the benefits of what your program offers with what they’re doing with their time right now. They are comparing your organization to their friends, families and neighborhoods. They are even comparing the benefits of your program against each other by choosing which is more important to them according to Maslow’s Hierarchy.

If you make the case, at some point they will compare playing video games, eating pizza or smoking weed to your program—along with everything else at hand. Then it dawns on them that the most unusual thing they can choose, your program, is also the most beneficial—but now it doesn’t seem so unusual.

The best thing to do—attend your program—is now the most obvious thing to do, and they will choose it, but only in comparison.

So, how should you promote your program?

If your program operates where few others do, you can stop trying to be everything to every youth all of the time. Instead, focus on one thing and do that thing excellently.

If you’re competing for the attention, energy and time of young people then you’ll have to play by their rules. Listen to them, validate what they’re saying, authorize them to do something, take action and reflect on it with them.

However, if you have a lot of time where you’d offer your program regularly and you’re looking for something else to do to serve youth, then you can have several versions of your program or other programs to offer. Young people can then move from comparing your program to other programs in the neighborhood toward comparing your program to other programs you offer.

For example, if you run a theater program, young people can choose from your agency’s theater program, which is short and fun, and your fiscal education program, which is longer and more intellectual.

Even in a very competitive neighborhood where your program is competing with other youth programs, gang membership, ample youth jobs and sitting around the house, you want to create a situation where they have stopped considering everything else and are now choosing from your organization’s range of programs.

If you’re offering a program where there’s nothing else like it in your community, then there’s still a reason for creating a comparison structure.

Youth will look around and choose whether to get involved based on how you appeal to their needs according to Maslow’s Hierarchy — even if they’re comparing apples to oranges.

For example, if you were to recruit for a program on outdoor education and a program on service learning, they aren’t particularly similar. Yet, the benefits of one program influences how youth look at the benefits of the other program.

And even if a young person selects one program your organization offers this time, next time they may move to your program, depending on your ability to benefit them.

Create that comparison

Whether you’re recruiting youth for a photography course, youth employment program, interpretive dance workshop, or GED classes, the one factor to remember is that young people either choose in a vacuum or in a comparison structure.

You want to get them to compare. Once you’ve gotten them to pay attention to your program, you should then have a series of benefit comparisons on your own flyer and website.

Create that comparison. Even if you don’t have a range of programs yet, get started moving in that direction today.

When you do, you can still list (or decrease) the list of benefits to appeal to youth. Remember that they want to make choices, and they do not want to be told what to do.

It’s at that point that youth comparing benefits becomes a strategy, by discouraging them having a knee-jerk reaction.

And it’s at that point that you getting youth through the door en masse. That will make you—and the youth you work with—a lot happier.

Great Poetry Series: “To Be Of Use”

This is the 20th entry in CommonAction’s “Great Poetry” Series. Marge Piercy is is the author of seventeen novels and eighteen volumes of poetry, and a critically acclaimed memoir. Born in center city Detroit, educated at the University of Michigan, the recipient of four honorary doctorates, she has been a key player in some of the major progressive battles of our time, including the anti-Vietnam war and the women’s movement, and more recently an active participant in the resistance to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We honor her work by featuring her spectacular work that speaks so deeply to the work of engaging people to change the world: “To Be Of Use”.

To Be Of Use
Marge Piercy

The people that I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to be natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seal
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

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