The Voices of Youth in Crisis

Youth in crisis are young people who face imbalanced challenges due to circumstances beyond their control. Through the concern of international, national, state and local governments around the world, the voices of these youth are being engaged like never before. Few people are talking about how that happens though.


My own experience

As a child, I experienced routine homelessness as my family constantly moved to escape my dad’s demons of alcoholism and post traumatic stress disorder. When I was a youth, I was constantly subjected to violence in my gang- and drug-infested neighborhood. As the only one of four siblings to graduate from school on time; as the first in my family to go to college; and as a one-time homeless youth struggling with depression and a sense of purposelessness in the world, I know what it means to be a youth in crisis coming from a family in crisis. These issues resonate with me deeply.

However, as you may know from my speeches and books, the topics of youth voice, youth involvement, youth engagement and youth empowerment matter to me a lot, too. My first job working with youth was as a teacher/assistant director in a theatre program when I was 14, which I continued for three summers and which set my life’s work trajectory in this area. I started a neighborhood youth council when I was 17, and learned about all this when I was 24. Its almost 20 years later, and I’m still celebrating the positive, powerful potential of young people! This matters, too.

For the last 20 years, I’ve been contracting with nonprofits, government agencies, K-12 schools and other organizations across the United States and Canada to build youth voice, foster youth engagement and support meaningful youth involvement. I have spoken, trained and advised more than 500 organizations in 200 communities, at hundreds of conferences, and to more than 1,000,000 youth and adults. The entire time, while I’ve sought to help all youth everywhere, I’ve focused my conversations on “nontraditional youth leaders” and young people who are historically denied opportunities to share their voice. In addition to young people of color and low-income youth, I was talking about youth in crisis, I was working with youth in crisis, and I was struggling for youth in crisis to become engaged as full partners within their communities rather than being treated as passive recipients.

This month, I began a national and international scan of youth voice among services for youth in crisis. Following are my initial findings from that scan.


Basic terms

Voices of Youth in Crisis by Freechild Institute for Youth Engagement

 

When I talk about youth in crisis, I am talking about young people who are:

  • Homeless
  • Ran away from home
  • Dropped out
  • Violent
  • Thinking suicidal thoughts
  • Are abused
  • Hungry
  • Pushed out
  • Bullied
  • Experience violence
  • Experience self-harm
  • Neglected
  • Experience sexual explotation
  • Abandoned by a parent or guardian
  • Experiencing eating disorders
  • Suffering from a substance abuse, or
  • Have mental health issues

Youth who are from these areas are generally seen as “highly vulnerable populations” and as “at risk youth;” alternatively, they are also addressed as “opportunity youth” and “youth at hope.”

I’ve found that terms, ideas and concepts supporting and aligning with the idea of youth voice and meaningful youth involvement in this area include:

  • Youth voice and choice
  • Youth empowerment
  • Youth leadership
  • Peer support
  • Youth/adult partnerships
  • Youth engagement
  • Youth-led programs
  • Youth as partners
  • Peer-to-peer
  • Youth-driven activities
  • Youth led prevention
  • Youth in policy
  • Youth-run programs

Some of the specific issues include: Community, family, and youth voice; Client engagement; Family and youth advisory boards; Collaborations throughout communities; Whole family empowerment programs; Internet engagement; Youth as trainers; Participant service evaluations; and more.

Specific activities include engaging youth as advocates; youth as trainers; youth as evaluators; youth as planners; youth as decision-makers; youth as facilitators; youth as policy-makers; and more.

 


Efforts to engage youth voice

Places to Engage the Voices of Youth in Crisis

 

A lot of people are concerned about youth in crisis. However, my recent scan shows that few of them are specifically, directly and concentratedly concerned about fostering youth voice or promoting youth engagement. Organizations and agencies that address these issues consistently focus on prevention, intervention, education and empowerment.

Currently, in governments and nongovernmental agencies across the globe, fields addressing these issues include:

  • Social service agencies
  • Human service agencies
  • Courts and the legal justice system
  • Crisis response
  • Child welfare
  • Juvenile justice
  • Zero youth incarceration
  • Youth homelessness
  • Family advocates
  • Educators
  • Public health
  • Religious organizations
  • Community organizations

National nonprofits

For instance, Safe Families for Children is a national advocacy organization with chapters nationwide, including in WA. They work across the spectrum, including with churches, and occasionally address youth voice in service provision, including in their Family Friendly Handbook. Another organization called USA Cares provides financial and advocacy assistance to post-9/11 active duty US military service personnel, veterans and their families. However, there is little evidence they have focused on youth engagement or youth voice specifically. The National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors represents the organizations receiving government money that make up the public mental health service delivery system. Representing state mental health commissioners/directors and their agencies, this organization works with states, federal partners, and stakeholders to promote wellness, recovery, and resiliency for people with mental health conditions or co-occurring mental health and substance related disorders across all ages and cultural groups, including youth. A hugely influential organization, they focus on youth voice in several documents, but do not highlight it on their website or overall.

The National Safe Place Network works to ensure an effective system of response for youth in crisis through public and private partnerships at a local, state and national level. National Safe Place Network envisions a world where all youth are safe; however, the organization doesn’t talk about youth voice. They are concerned about youth empowerment though, and there’s a track about it at their annual conference. The Child Mind Institute is an independent, national nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of children and families struggling with mental health and learning disorders. However, I can’t find reference to youth voice, youth empowerment and related topics in their materials online.

Other national and international nonprofit organizations focusing on youth and families in crisis which should provide information about youth voice but apparently don’t include the National Association of County and City Health Officials. NACCHO does provide info on injury and violence among youth, but not on the role of youth voice in solving the issue. The World Bank has a report called “Children and Youth in Crisis Protecting and Promoting Human Development in Times of Economic Shocks,” but doesn’t generally provide information on youth engagement for youth in crisis.

The online resource databases related to youth in crisis don’t seem to address youth voice, either. One of the most interesting resources available today is called “Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development.” A registry of evidence-based positive youth development programs, it seeks to promote the health and well-being of children and youth. Blueprints is hosted by the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence (CSPV), at the Institute of Behavior Science, University of Colorado Boulder, and is funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Another resources is called Connect Safely Resources for Youth In Crisis is a list of opportunities for youth provided by a nonprofit focused on safety, privacy and security.

Federal agencies

For its 50+ programs that deal with the issues related to youth and families in crisis, the US federal government provides little information on youth voice, youth engagement, youth empowerment and youth-led programs. They do, however, provide substantial information on the issue of youth and families in crisis. For instance, the Children’s Bureau in the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services hosts the massive Child Welfare Information Gateway promotes the safety, permanency, and well-being of children, youth, and families by connecting child welfare, adoption, and related professionals as well as the public to information, resources, and tools covering topics on child welfare, child abuse and neglect, out-of-home care, adoption, and more. Its a powerful tool. I have to similarly applaud youth.gov. Its a massive U.S. government website that helps organizations and individual people create, maintain, and strengthen effective youth programs. There are a lot of youth facts, funding information, and tools to help assess community assets, generate maps of local and federal resources, search for evidence-based youth programs, and keep up-to-date on the latest, youth-related news. Its a great source of information, and even features a significant collection of information about youth engagement specifically from the working group that coordinates it, as well as from individual agencies like SAMHSA. The The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention is an office of the United States Department of Justice and a component of the Office of Justice Programs, and they offer some related info at the OJJDP website.

National and international foundations

Some of the foundations that reportedly support youth voice in the area of youth and families in crisis include the MacArthur Foundation, Kellogg Foundation, Arnold Foundation, Annie Casey Foundation, and the Ford Foundation.


Greatest hope?

Youth MOVE National and its chapters advocate for youth voice and rights in mental health and other systems that serve young people, for the purpose of empowering youth to be equal partners in the process of change. Youth Motivating Others through Voices of Experience (M.O.V.E.) National is a youth and young-adult led national advocacy organization that wants to change the world. The organization is devoted to improving services and systems that support young people. They focus on empowering young people to partner with adults to create meaningful change in mental health, juvenile justice, education, and child welfare systems. The organization represents 77 chapters (link is external), consisting of 9,000 members across 39 states.

Perhaps Youth MOVE is the greatest hope we have to build meaningful involvement for youth in crisis. Helping people understand the power of youth voice, the potential of youth engagement and the purpose of youth-led programs to serve youth in crisis is essential.

There is also a lot of action happening at the local level nationwide, with a smaller amount at the state level. Internationally, I’m still scanning for agencies, programs and organizations addressing youth in all kinds of crisis. If you know of any specific efforts locally or internationally, or on the national and federal levels in the US, please share them in the comments below!

Let’s move this forward!

 


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Elsewhere Online

 

Institute for Democratic Education in America

In 2008, I presented at the International Democratic Education Conference, or IDEC, in Vancouver, British Columbia. Facilitating several sessions on the possibilities of democratic education within public school systems, I shared my work on Meaningful Student Involvement and my findings from my work in Washington state’s education community.

IDEA

I was invited to join a conversation about founding a new organization that would take that idea further. Sitting in a room at the University of British Columbia, an idea was borne. A few years later, I joined many of the same folks at a retreat in rural Colorado, examining our beliefs about education and growing the potential for an organization. Less than a year later, the Institute for Democratic Education in America, or IDEA, was formally launched. Since then I’ve been a founding advisor with the privilege of sharing my thoughts with IDEA’s leaders occasionally.

In fall 2012, I was invited to increase my involvement by becoming a sort of consultant to the organization. As a “weaver”, my role is to increase interplay between the IDEA education organizing team and support the success of senior fellows in the organization. Today, I discern best practices and facilitate cross-interest learning in a variety of ways. Its an interesting experiment growing a national organization, and IDEA is on its way!

 

National PTA

I contracted with the National PTA in 2010 to plan and facilitate a Youth Leadership and Policy Institute.

The National PTA contracted with me to design a program focused on engaging high school and college students as education policy advocates. The National PTA Public Policy Team wanted to move students from being the passive recipients of school decision-makers to active partners. 
Writing the program from scratch, I worked with experts in PTA’s training office to refine the program and then piloted it at the 2010 National PTA Legislative Conference. The 16-hour curriculum was tested with a national audience of high school and college students.
This is Adam Fletcher in speaking in Chicago with Action for Healthy Kids in 2010.

Students Taking Charge

As a consultant to the national nonprofit Action For Healthy Kids from 2008 to 2010, Adam Fletcher coordinated a statewide youth-led action program in Washington state focused on youth improving nutrition and physical activities in K-12 schools.

Providing training, technical assistance and program support for 12 high school teams based around the state, Adam’s leadership in this two-year project included a variety of actitivies. They included social media management with more than 1,000 messages in 22 months; two dozen student-created school advertising campaigns; administering $20,000 in grant funds, and other efforts focused on building the ability of local schools to engage students in healthy lifestyles. The national organization also contracted Adam to write a proposal for a national youth advisory board, and to provide speeches at state and national events. Students Taking Charge culminated with student-led events in several communities. For his leadership in this program, Adam was awarded the “Healthy School Champion” award from National Action for Healthy Kids by former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher.

Recommendation

“Adam has many skills that offer him a diversity in many areas of education, health/wellness education, school health systems, and youth development. He is also skilled with providing professional development to school and afterschool staff. His style is more interactive; and his style is as a facilitator that guides the learning process instead of telling you what you should know. The content of his trainings have been applicable with strategies that allow the learner to make adjustments for their own instructional or leadership style.” – Racie McKee, Action for Healthy Kids Project Director at Omak School District

 


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