Race and Responsibility

I live in the little city of Olympia, Washington. Its tucked away at the bottom of the Puget Sound, connected to the ocean but seeming a world apart from a lot of America. That is, until two days ago when two African American men were shot by a white officer.

Suspected of stealing beer from a grocery store, they were identified as suspects and confronted by a solitary officer. He has reported that one of them attacked him with a skate board, and to defend himself he shot the assailant. The second suspect was shot soon afterwards.

Overall, young Olympia regards itself to be a liberal group in a generally progressive town. The incident of a white officer shooting two black men for stealing beer doesn’t bode well, and consequently there was a march within 18 hours of the incident featuring many, many white people chanting “Black Lives Matter” and calling for justice in this case.

Much the same as the protesters yesterday, I am all concerned with the obvious pattern of police militarization, the criminalization of African American men, the school-to-prison pipeline and other clearly heinous acts of prejudice and discrimination against people of color by white people in America today.

However, I think we’re missing something.

One month before he was assassinated, Malcolm X said,

“All my life, I believed that the fundamental struggle was Black versus white. Now I realize that it is the haves against the have-nots.”

Most of us have yet to understand this.

I do believe in the power of Black solidarity. History teaches us through examples like Black Wall Street, Harlem, and my beloved North 24th Street in Omaha.

The fact is that it’s a white power structure that formed, molded and sustained the rotten economy of haves and have-nots in the US, and now more than ever, worldwide. Malcolm X wasn’t releasing anyone of their responsibility for the despicable condition we find ourselves in, and I refuse to as well. My fellow people of European descent appear largely incapable of imagining and implementing a world without inequity and disparity.

That said, the way forward is not based on race, per se. Its based on unity and umoja between races focused on the economic structure enforced by white privilege. Using our hands, hearts, minds and souls, we have to work together to dismantle prejudice, whether it is economic, social, cultural, racial, educational or otherwise.

Just beyond that, all of us everywhere on this planet have to realize that there really is no “them” and “us” – there’s only us. We actually are all in this together, and we are all completely interdependent upon one another.

But between here and there, I don’t think there’s a crime in recognizing culpability, complicity and connectivity. It all started somewhere, its going somewhere and almost all of us are going along with it, until we don’t anymore.

What we’re missing is that each of us, no matter what our race, has a role in doing something right now. If you’re a white mom at home, go meet people of color and introduce your kids to them. If you’re a person of color going to a predominantly white college, go meet some white people you never thought you would and just talk to them without educating them on race or economics, just listen to them. If you’re a Irish person in France go spend your money in businesses belonging to Middle Eastern immigrants. If you’re young, hold a sit-in in your school and teach people about overthrowing the white wealth structure that benefits white people – no matter what your skin color is. If you’re old, listen to some conscious hip hop and really let it teach you.

No matter who you are, DO something. Let’s stop acting so innocent through our ignorance and inaction, and start acknowledging our complicity and responsibility. Only then can we meet James Baldwin’s insistence that we can,

“insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others … we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”

We HAVE TO change the history of the world. Starting… NOW.

Beyond Taylor Wilson

Taylor Wilson is a 17-year-old nuclear physicist from the U.S. A few years ago, it was reported that he was the youngest person to ever build a nuclear reactor.

In March 2012, TED posted an introductory talk by Taylor where he describes his attempt to build a star when he was 14 years old. I just watched another video where Taylor gets really deep. He’s particularly smart about physics and has accumulated a great deal of ability in his field. He’s also a good presenter.

Taylor is operating in a really rarified space. He’s a mixture that’s rare among human beings, and especially among young people. He is highly engaged, posses expert knowledge, is highly capable, and as witnessed by the media machine behind his work, he has broad exposure to the “right” audiences.

That is why I’m interested in moving beyond Taylor Wilson, and the other Taylor Wilson’s in the world.

A lot of organizations concerned with youth involvement, youth voice, youth empowerment, and youth engagement are concerned with youth who are Taylor Wilson, in any respect. They want young sports players, junior political leaders, natural teachers, and youth activists to have the tools, opportunities, and avenues they need to get any level of exposure similar to Taylor. Others want to reach young people who are at best in one of those spaces, or some mix between those spaces, not necessarily expert but definitely highly capable.

My work keeps coming back to a different part of the spectrum though. After growing up how I did and spending a career working with the people I have, I want to reach the “every youth”, the “typical teen”, and the “new normal”. Those are really subjective terms, but they’re meant to capture the un-Taylor Wilsons of the world.

I’m most concerned with how to reach those young people and increase their engagement, their knowledge, their ability, and their exposure.

Taylor’s story is definitely inspiring. But instead of replicating him once or twice straight across though, how do we move all people closer to that space?

By the way, I want to reach these young people, by the way. And this one. And the millions of others like them.

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

Getting Schools Closer to Malala


Yesterday, Malala Yousafzai spoke at the United Nations, detailing her experience and passion for education. As I watched and listened, I couldn’t help but wonder about this gulf that exists. Somewhere between North America, where so many students absolutely rue school, and Afghanistan where Malala is from, there is a gap of understanding, opportunity, trust, and engagement in learning. 
This young woman was willing to die in order to attend school; so many American and Canadian students are ready to simply slump their way out of school in order to never go back again. What is causing this gulf?
In my years working throughout the education system and in community-based learning environments, I’ve seen the gulf a lot. In the States, it’s often reflected of socio-economic class, where middle- and upper-class put a relatively high value on schooling, while lower- and working-class students devalue it. I’ve also seen it exist in learning environments that are have huge ability gaps between teachers, where some really, really engage with students, while others could give a rat’s patooty about the students in their classrooms.
I believe the gulf is about student voice.
The Power of Student Voice
When adults learn to value the expressions every learner shares about education, students will value schools more. That’s different from student leadership activities, which aren’t synonymous with student voice. That’s different from student engagement measurement tools, which almost have nothing to do with student voice.

Instead, it’s about student voice activities that balance different students’ voices. Those don’t necessarily have to be along the lines of race, socio-economic status, or similar lines either: balancing student voice can mean achieving and non-achieving students; dropouts and graduates; non-college bound and college bound; etc. This avoids the pedestaling effects of so many student voice activities.

In New York, I taught the schools concerned with democracy in education that the places they could most affect democracy were:

  • How their buildings framed student voice,
  • The ways educators frame it and,
  • Students’ understandings of student voice for themselves

Ultimately though, the only avenue towards engaging student voice in democracy isn’t through student voice at all. As a simply expression, student voice can never be democracy. Only through intentional engagement in a larger concept can student voice affect democracy, and that’s why I developed the frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement. True engagement throughout the educational system is required for student voice to not be just another program in schools, and for students to experience democracy in education.

The North American Problem

The problem with schools in the United States and Canada, where I’ve done the vast majority of my work, is that they aren’t for students themselves – they’re for adults. They generally believe that students have the right to their opinions, and adults within the education system have a responsibility to engage those opinions. However, they don’t believe students have a right to share opinions adults don’t agree with. That isn’t democracy. This makes obvious the reality that adults generally don’t think all the way through what they’re doing with students. For lack of exposure, background research, or training, in their well-meaningness many adults actually do more harm to students through student voice activities than help them.

Malala’s schooling experience isn’t exclusively for students, either. They’re for her families, her community, her culture, and her nation too. Also, Malala understands that. North American students generally don’t, and haven’t for a very long time. In a society that values consumption over education, we don’t see the relevance of learning beyond its earning potential. If we come from cultures within our society that don’t value consumption or are seen as “failed consumers”, schools become worthless.

Student voice can be embraced within education systems towards the goal of building democracy, but not as democracy itself. As I frequently advocate for, it can be infused in educational leadership, integrated in classroom teaching and management, and acknowledged for its role in school culture. However, the simple act of student voice should never be confused for the complexity of democracy.

This particular problem allows adults to draw a lot of conclusions. Adults decide students are incapable of contributing meaningfully (e.g. how we want them to) towards school improvement. 

Instead, let’s think like Malala and actively engage diverse student voice. By doing this, adults in schools can demonstrate that diversity in every activity can stop the belief that one student or group of students can or should represent all students. That’s closer to democracy, and closer to Malala.

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

Freechild Project Youth-Driven Programming Guide

This guide is an introduction to youth-driven programming for nonprofits, government agencies, and other youth-serving organizations. The booklet gives a definition and compares approaches, and then provides planning tools, evaluations and assessments, and more. It includes the Ladder of Youth Voice, rubrics for assessing youth-driven programming, and links to examples and resources that readers can explore on their own.

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5 Ways To Stop School Shootings

Change begins with each of us individually. Here are 5 things you can do to stop the next school shooting:

  1. Know a Young Person. They’re all around you, whether or not you care. Well, start caring. It may be hard because you might need to learn new behaviors and they might challenges your assumptions. But you can do it: Just know a young person.
  2. Get Active in Their Lives. If you want to stop the next school shooting, get active in the lives of children and youth. If you’re a parent, get to know your kids right now in the ways they’d have you know them and not just on your terms. If you’re not a parent, volunteer to a neighbor, friends, a community agency, schools, or somewhere else.
  3. Learn New Ways of Being. There are reasons why young people disconnect from the adults in their lives. With conservative media portraying youth as always apathetic or always violent, and so-called liberal media infantalizing and incapacitating children and youth, its no wonder why young people withdraw. Learn new ways of being around young people through good books, training, and more.
  4. Challenge Adults With Bad Attitudes. If you are or want to be an ally to young people, you must must must learn to challenge adults who talk about, treat, or see young people poorly. We have to challenge discrimination against children and youth because it drives them to disconnect. Forced to be on their own in an indifferent world, we encourage young people in the worst ways. Stand up to adults bullying young people.
  5. Be Hopeful. There is a lot of discouraging news in the world. With more people living on the planet, more crime happening among children and youth, and more apparent pain than we’ve ever known, its hard not be hurt, and for some people, hateful. We must challenge hopeless in others, but most importantly within ourselves. We have to be true to what we know is reality: Young people are the brightest lights of the present and the future, and we shouldn’t surround them with darkness just to let them shine brighter.

Name Your Motivation

Every one of us can stop being strangers. Every one of us can start being friends. If being around young people is too hard for you, then reach out to an adult neighbor or a senior housing resident. Build community however you can. But for goodness sake, please do not pretend that we don’t know what to do next.

Its been two days now, and like many parents and people around the world, I’m sitting with my grief. Early this year, 20 kids and eight adults were murdered by a 20-year-old gunman at an elementary school in Connecticut. Watching it unfold changed my life.

Growing up surrounded by violence and neglect, my childhood was never easy. Of the drive-bys, gang fights, random beatings, and domestic violence that ravaged the neighborhood I grew up in, few were ever featured on the nightly news. When they were, newscasters made sure viewers knew how angry, painful, and mean the primarily African American, low-income neighborhood I lived in was. Friends didn’t come to visit. Cops didn’t stop when we were fighting. Drugs were all around. There were no public vigils for the suffering our families, friends, enemies, and neighbors knew.

So when I saw the horror of a parent unfold in front of me, I was surprised by my own response. Instead of my typical shrug and rather than the apathy of my young years, I was moved to mourn, not through prompting on t.v., but through my empathy while reading the story that emerged. My heart was ripped open and poured onto the floor, when in the past it would’ve buttoned up and become indifferent. The anesthetizing truth of growing up in an urban battle front in America is finally starting to wear off, and my view of this tragedy had changed from in the past.

The ways people relate to each other in the U.S. constantly change. From being strangers who stole lands from strangers, some of whom stole other strangers from their lands, to becoming strangers who live next door and with other strangers and have intimate relationships with strangers on video games and social media, we are strange people. We choose relationships based on what we can get out of them instead of ones we can put something into. We are strange people.

Take Action

I am a strange person. Instead of retreating from this human catastrophe, I wrapped my arms tightly around my own daughter and held her closer. Yesterday we reveled in her childhood together for the whole day, and today I continue to enjoy her life together with her. The moms and dads in Connecticut who won’t get to do that suffer because of our strangeness. We are strange because we pretend we don’t know.

We pretend we don’t know young people like the young man who shot up the classroom. We pretend we don’t understand the dynamics that would lead a person to do such a horrific thing. Worst of all, we pretend like we don’t need to do next.

I don’t want to oversimplify the problem, but WE DO KNOW WHAT TO DO. Every single one of us, right now, can take steps to prevent another school shooting. Starting right now, each one of us can stop being a stranger. We can reach out to our neighbors, to the children within our homes and throughout our neighborhoods, and across our society. Each of us, right now, can engage a young person. If we do not do that, we’re not doing enough, and worse yet, more tragedies are headed our way.

Surely, lawmakers need to limit access to the murderous weapons, schools need more practical security precautions, and young people need to be empowered to know what they can do to prevent horrors like this, because there are things they can practically do. But we can all do something right now. Stop talking, start doing. I hope these five ways were useful.

Call or email me if you want to talk about any of this. We’re not strangers anymore.

 


You Might Also Read…

  • Youth Engagement: Support People or Change Systems?
  • Safe Spaces for Young People
  • Ending Youth Violence

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

Youth Kicking Butt in 2012 (for Brad)

Across the United States there are a number of innovative youth leadership programs that excite me. I get to interact with them sometimes, and other times I merely study them, read about them, or just hear about them from my friends and colleagues in the field.

For just over a decade, I’ve been working to support an decentralized movement of young people and adults working around the world. This movement has many different guises, including youth-led activism, youth voice, youth mainstreaming, youth engagement, intergenerational partnerships, and youth empowerment. All of them include youth leadership, in all its myriad forms. Another thing they do is center on transforming the roles of young people throughout society, and that has been my main interest, action that actively evolves society.

One of my favorite organizations for early 2012 is the Pennsylvania Student Equality Coalition. PESC is an entirely youth-led and youth-run organization. They work statewide on issues affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth. Comprised of leaders from youth-led LGBTQ organizations across Pennsylvania, PESC works in schools and nonprofits to raise LGBTQ young people on the radar. Learn more about them at http://pennsec.org.

Another is School Girls Unite. Wendy Lesko is one of my favorite people in the world. After a long career focused on national advocacy for youth action, she began actively supporting a group of young women in her city in Maryland. School Girls Unite was formed as an organization of students and young women leaders in the United States and in Mali. They quickly became focused on working to advance the U.N. Millennium Development Goals related to gender equality and universal basic education, as well as child marriage prevention and other human rights issues. In late 2011, they succeeded in getting the United Nations to declare that October 11, 2012 will be the first International Day of the Girl Child. Learn more about them at http://dayofthegirl.org.

Catalyst Miami came storming onto Miami’s youth leadership scene this year with the launch of the SoundOut Youth Action Curriculum. I have provided more than 35 hours of training for facilitators of this program, which works in a diverse high school in the city to deliver the capacity-building service learning program for students. Catalyst has tied the program together with their well-established programs focused on parent leadership and children’s leadership, and is seeing excellent results. Find some information at http://commonaction.blogspot.com/2011/10/classroom-characteristics-supporting.html.

The indefatigable Joshua Gorman is behind Generation Waking Up. A global campaign to ignite a generation of young people to bring forth a thriving, just, sustainable world, the organization facilitates powerful training workshops across the country, networking thousands of young people to change the world. Learn more about them at www.generationwakingup.org.

A local organization, the Seattle Young People’s Project (SYPP) is a youth-led, adult-supported, social justice organization that empowers young people (ages 13-18) to express themselves and take action on the issues that affect their lives. They’ve always been a cutting edge model, and this year has been exemplary. Learn more at http://sypp.org.

Through 2010 and ’11, the US Department of Education ran a suave youth engagement program under the deft hand of Alberto Retana. With his guidance, the agency engaged with thousands of young people across the U.S., and actual students were positioned in places of direct consultation to the Secretary of Education and even the President. While Alberto left the agency late last year, the program is continuing on. Its best to learn about it on their Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/pages/ED-Youth-Voices/136786839692361?sk=wall.

Honorable mentions in the “2 Kewl 4 School” category PUEBLO, or People United for a Better Oakland, which conducted a powerful youth-led study of high school students in Oakland in 2011 regarding their perceptions of police. The survey is provoking serious conversations in the city about improvement. Information is at http://www.peopleunited.org/cspa/. Another is Students Speak Out, a social network working both online and offline for students influence policy conversations by co-defining public problems and co-creating solutions. They’re after my heart. You can learn more about them at http://www.citizing.org/studentsspeakout/. Also, a big shout-out to Vote 17 Lowell, a youth-led initiative to lower the voting age in Lowell, Massachusetts’s municipal elections to 17 years old. The Vote 17 campaign is unlike any similar past or current bill as it calls for the initiative to appear on Lowell’s local election ballot after full State House approval. Teen organizers are asking that the state legislature allow the voters of Lowell to decide on an issue that has already received full support from all levels of Lowell’s city government and its statehouse delegation. They made huge in 2011, and I’m looking forward to seeing them storm forward in the future. They’re online at http://vote17lowell.tumblr.com/.

Me discussing youth kicking butt wouldn’t be right if I didn’t give props to adults who are actively allying with young people to get the good work done. I want to start by giving mad respect to the Perrin Family Foundation in Connecticut. For more than a few years now they’ve been focused on providing real dollars to youth voice programs across their state that are doing cool, cool things. Check out their strategy at http://www.perrinfamilyfoundation.org/strategy.html. They’ve also been blogging about it, and getting the word out is a significant part of the work. I really like their blog, which is at http://perrinfamilyfoundation.blogspot.com/. (You may have read my recent blog, Foundations Fail Youth By Design. Perrin is completely not included in this analysis.)

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the King County Youth Engagement Practitioners Cadre. Funded by the Seattle Youth Engagement Zone, I’m partnering with a coalition in Seattle called SOAR to facilitate this learning community for 22 youth engagement experts from across the county. We’re working together to share what we know, figure out what we don’t, and shore up the capability of King County to support substantive youth leadership work far into the future. It rawks.

Worth mentioning, too, is Jessica Taft’s book, Rebel Girls: Youth Activism and Social Change Across the Americas. Although it came out in 2010, it really impacted their field in 2011. It tells the powerful story of young women, uniquely positioned agents of social change.

IMPORTANT NOTE: There are literally THOUSANDS of butt-kicking examples of young people changing the world right now all across the country, not to mention the MILLIONS of youth around the world who are doing it. AND IT IS WORKING! This is only a small survey of what I remembered quickly and off the top of my head. Please respond and tell me what I have missed!

Props to all young people of color and low-income youth struggling for leadership, power, and justice across the United States and around the world. I stand with you. Much love to the adult allies who support them. I have great respect for every young person who is deeply committed to changing the world, no matter what their background is. Everyone can be engaged, and that is right. Adults working in partnership with these young people, please keep doing what you do. Finally, here’s a reminder to anyone who has read this far: Get engaged in yourself, first, and seek to engage other people after that. Never the reverse. Learn more.



CommonAction is available to train, coach, speak, and write about this topic across the US and Canada. Contact Adam to learn about the possibilities by emailing adam@commonaction.org or calling (360) 489-9680.

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

Hatred Of Youth Is Real

Antipathy is extreme dislike or hate.

Antipathy toward youth is spreading wider throughout our society than ever before. Often cloaked in cynicism, antipathy is a dangerously current phenomenon. Politicians mocks young people, teachers eschew their jobs, and even parents share a kind of pathetic “buyers remorse” for the people they brought into the world.

There are all kinds of reasons that are expressed and underexpressed for this. Sociologist Mike Males has long contended that the ephebiphobia– extreme fear of youth- that rips up our society is the product of racism, and the reality that America is becoming predominately people of color. I believe antipathy has those exact same roots, with an extension beyond obvious skin color and towards the cultures that young people are influenced by, the education that young people are receiving, and the beliefs that young people express.

There is always a fear of the unknown, especially when they’re knocking at your door or living under the same roof. The question is whether we are ready to become familiar with that which we don’t know, or if we’re going to shun, reject, deny, and punish that which we don’t know.

The Chinese Communists apparently have this same struggle. In the face of the aging Party leadership, they are struggling to instill and maintain the interest of young people in Communism, and not simply because they don’t know how. Apparently, there is a deep-seeded antipathy toward youth in China, with party leaders long criticizing and demeaning young people. They demanded a kind of social conformity and enforced a rigidity designed to malign the inherently progressive nature of young people while reinforcing the conservativism of their brand of socialism.

The dilemmas of antipathy toward youth are innumerable. Political antipathy toward youth is critically irresponsible, and is echoed across the aisle. During his campaign for president early this year former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich proposed legislated hatred, suggesting that, “It wouldn’t be bad to have a test for young Americans before they start voting,” making a comparison to the citizenship test new immigrants are required to take. This is a thinly veiled antipathy, suggesting that Gingrich believes all youth are suspect criminals who have to “earn” citizenship rights in addition to the qualification of age. It’s one or the other, not both. It’s bad enough that the political infrastructure of the U.S. reinforces second-tiered citizenship for American children and youth; Gingrich seems to believe that adding injury upon insult is more apt. That’s hatred at it’s best.

At it’s worse, antipathy towards youth gets very ugly, very fast. The War On Youth has been raging in this country for at least 30 years; some would suggest it goes back to the beginning of the Commercial Age. It is definitely the grand reinforcer of discrimination against youth, and certainly calls for a radical redefinition of values in this country if we are to defeat it. Recently we’ve seen antipathy toward youth take the form of defunding public education and healthcare for children; the criminalization of youth through curfews, dress codes, and raised driving ages; and myriad more examples. It’s mildly sickening, mostly because we know the outcomes from this type of rage. The 1960s didn’t happen by accident.

And ultimately, that is my concern: We are fomenting revolution in the U.S. today. Young people here aren’t going to sit idly by and watch the youth of the Middle East demand democracy while they suffer authoritarianism at it’s worst. Antipathy toward youth is enforced through authoritarianism towards young people, and both of those phenomena are on the rise.

Something must be done differently. Learn how.

SOME LINKS

  • I Hate Young People – “I Hate Young People is a website for those of us who are out of our cavity-prone years and tired of feeling marginalized by a generation capable of little more than whining, tweeting and playing “Grand Theft Auto.””
  • Why I Hate Young People” – A blog entry that includes, “Young people can be very annoying, and everyone knows this – even children…”
  • “Why Older People Hate Gen Y” – Australia’s Daily Telegraph published this jewel of an article back in 2008. “The gist is this: Old people frothing about how young people don’t work hard enough, have entitlement issues, are too goddamn optimistic and wear their pants too low.”
  • “I Hate Young People” – An 18-year-old shares his disdain for popular culture, which he masks as antipathy for his own generation. And hipster mag McSweeney’s gave him an award for it.
  • Do Adults Really Hate Young People?” – New Zealand’s Green Party wonders if its true, then lists all the ways it is, and still has the gall to ask if its so at the end.
  • I Hate Young People – Another website all about antipathy for youth, this one focused on pitching a tv show! “We want you to create a video of yourself explaining what you hate the most about young people. It’s your chance to rant and rave and vent about the younger generation.”
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

The Devestating Impact of Recession on Young People

There are too many ways to slice this pie, so I want to be brief here. The U.S. Recession of 2007-2008-? has had and will continue to have devestating impacts on children and youth. Here’s an accounting of those ways:

And the list goes on. Barack has talked about promoting national service and building new schools, but those initiatives just aren’t enough. We need real commitment from our local, state and national leaders right now, and I’m simply not seeing it. 

Write in and tell me how you think this economic blackhole is going to affect young people.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!