More History of Youth Voice

I told you this has been going on for a little while! Following is an excerpt from the introduction to the New Youth Voice Handbook, with links for your entertainment:

For more than a century youth voice has brought the front pages of newspapers across the United States to life. Examining the New York Times archives shows that as early as 1885 the paper reported about a youth in Arkansas with a headline shouting, “Youngest Mayor a Murderer,” after the youngest leader of any town in the U.S. shot a man during an argument. Schools have been an important focus of youth voice since at least 1937, when the Times reported that, “Children Protest School Transfer: 200 Stage Demonstration in CityHallPark and One Airs Grievance to Mayor.” In 1950 the paper celebrated youth voice as it announced, “Jersey Youth Leads Advisory Council.” Almost appearing surprised, in 1960 a headline stated, “Teen-Agers Blunt at State Discussion of Their Problems,” while in 1963 the paper finally determined that, “Teen-Agers Take Action on Urgent Social Issues.”

Note that in this section I’m trying to introduce events that have gone past my radar in the past, which has included the Newsboys Strike of 1899, the various activities of the American Youth Congress, the Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society, and the pamphleteering of Youth Liberation of Ann Arbor, Michigan. And all of that says nothing of Sonia Yaco, Vice-President Agnew’s sympathy with the Youth Liberation Movement, or calls for a “youth nation” within the U.S.

I am ready to admit it: I have become a history geek. I know, I have written about it before. But a

fter recent conversations with a few colleagues here in New York City I have decided to put my energy into writing during this next period of time. There are too many stories, too many lessons and too many opportunities to forward youth involvement that we just shouldn’t loose. Writing is one of the best ways I know to share them.

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

Two Year Anniversay

January marked the two year anniversary of this blog. Its seen an interesting period in my personal and professional career, as I’ve transitioned so much. Here are some of my reflections from the last period:

  1. Building a nonprofit organization is hard. There is a particular skill set, level of energy and commitment that it takes to start something from scratch, and if those requirements aren’t in place it is difficult to succeed. Acquiring those skills, that energy and commitment while your running (e.g. “building the plane in flight”) is nearly impossible, too.
  2. Moving entrenched systems cannot be done alone. The nature of systems is that there are multiple people and structures in place whose job it is to ensure that that structure remains intact. One individual striving for change throughout that system will have a difficult time fostering transformation.
  3. Take nothing for granted. I know this cliche is thrown around, but its true – nothing is constant but change. Communities constantly change. Young people constantly change. The ways we work with young people should constantly change. We should constantly change. Relying on sameness will only disappoint us, and the young people we want to engage in changing the world, and the communities that are dependent on the change we may create.
  4. The puzzle is made of pieces. While it seems obvious, I have only recently recognized that a large component of my work requires those pieces in order to work. We must foster long term visions, but make them inseparable from current day-to-day practice.

That’s all for now. Look for the book soon.

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Expanding Youth Participation

A group in the United Kingdom just put out a useful PDF documenting a “pathway to participation.” YoMo is a “community interest company” that is committed to youth participation. Their work across the UK looks great, and I am enjoying reading their website and blog, and looking forward to reading their materials soon.

In the meantime, I have dug into their PDF and the blog entry about it and have decided that they are on the way to discovering something powerful. The author talks about creating this “pathway”:

The ‘pathway’ is the ‘journey’ that young people are able to take through the organisation – its how young people are able to progress from their initial involvement and then on to whatever positions of responsibility/involvement the organisation can offer them.

The challenge for me here is the linear thinking represented by the imagery of a “pathway.” One thing experience has shown me is that youth participation – in all of its vibrant, divergent and chaordic ways – is not linear. That means that in no way can – or should – young people and adults working together in partnership be expected move from “here” to “there” in a predictable way, no matter what adults want. There are rhythms to their involvement, patterns that emerge and submerge that can be sussed out and made obvious. But as for a pathway, I think it may be too elusive, to say nothing of confining, to predict.

Hart’s Ladder of Children’s Participation is predicated on this notion of linear involvement. The dilemma inherent in that popular tool is that sometimes it may appropriate for young people to merely participate as consultants rather than full partners – just as the opposite is true, too. We have to move past this kind of oversimplification and recognize that if the building is burning down we don’t need to build consensus – we just need to get outta here. The same is true at different times in different parts of our communities, and these types of models just don’t evidence that reality.

My most concentrated attempt thus far is the Freechild Measure for Social Change By and With Young People. In this piece I simply reinterpeted Hart’s rungs and laid them out in a spiral form. When I originally laid this out in 2005 I thought it was fine, but now I see that there is a lack of elegance and applicability in it, and perhaps that what draws me back to Hart’s Ladder itself. Its also why I can appreciate YoMo’s thinking, because frankly, I have tried to say the same thing myself.

We need new dreams, new visions for how to move this movement forward, instead of spinning our individual and collective heals, no matter which side of the world we’re on.

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

Adultism in Parenting: The Terrible Twos

The so-called “Terrible Twos” are a myth.

A Drunken Postmaster

Supposedly coined by a drunken postmaster in the 1800s, the phrase has become ubiquitous among new parents everywhere I hear anyone talking about children. I have raised a child through them and participated in the upbringing of a number of nieces and nephews, and every adult in my circle agrees that the so-called “Terrible Twos” are simply not real. Now, there are many terrible days when you are raising small children, days that are filled with excrement and urine and vomit, and I am under now misunderstanding those days are terrible. So are the days when my daughter, who is four, demonstrates her strong will beyond anything acceptable by adults. But there is no such thing as the Terrible Twos.

Adultism Expressed

WHY do I bring that up here? I believe that the labeling of the Terrible Twos are the near beginning of the lifelong scheme each of us face throughout our childhood, into our youth, and as young adults. That scheme is adultism. Meant to describe any bias towards adults and against youth, adultism casts a wide net over the hypocrisy and alienating practices in schools today. I firmly believe that no child should agree with everything a parent tells them, and because of that we should expect resistance. That resistence is often labelled “terrible twos”; unfortunately, the only thing terrible about it is the discrimination inherent in the label.

Moving Forward

Let’s move past our own adultism and embrace the new roles of children in our society. Instead of seeing screaming and yelling as resistence, let’s hear them as voices. Not all voices are comfortable or easy, and not all voices are easily pacified or understood. However, all voices should be heard. Among two year olds we should hear them as a child’s indication that they have a want or a need to be interpreted by adults – that’s our jobs. From there we can move forward.

3 Steps

Here are three steps we can all follow to move past our own adultism:

  1. Acknowledge Your Adultism. All parents are biased towards adults. We go to adults for advice on childraising, we learn how to change diapers from adults and we have many things for our kids that were made by adults for children. All parents are biased towards adults.
  2. Confront Your Own Injustice. If adultism in your parenting seems unjust to you, confront yourself. Check your bad behavior or attitudes. Watch your language and see your biases. When you address your own adultism, you will be a more effective ally to your own children. Discover new ways of being with your own children.
  3. Check Others. Don’t allow adultism among parents to go unchecked. Instead, call out others’ bad behaviors, wrong attitudes, unfair language and discrimination against their own children. Help them learn new ways of being that aren’t adultist.

After you’ve taken those steps, you’ll be farther ahead than the vast majority of people in our society, especially parents. That’s a place to start.

The Simplicity of Engagement

I admit it, I am guilty. For years I’ve been working to over-complicate youth engagement. In my partnerships with some of the leaders in the field of youth engagement we have sought to identify, explore, examine, re-identify, re-explore, and re-examine youth engagement in its parts and particulars. We have been looking for the sophisticated components, the complex inner-workings of a rather simple thing.

The closest I’ve come to finding that simplicity has been with my friend Greg Williamson, who used to be the student engagement guru at Washington State’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, and who is now among the best independent consultants in the Pacific Northwest, among other things. A few years ago during one of our brainstorming meetings Greg proposed a simple measure for determining youth engagement from a young person’s perspective. He said we could ask children and youth a really easy question, and let their testimony be the marker for determining whether youth engagement does or does not exist. That question? Do you feel engaged or do you feel detached?

In our conversations we decided that was the most simple, most apt way to illustrate the nature of youth engagement.

Now, I know there has to be some framing done, perhaps to the extent of asking the participant what their personal definition of “engagement” is or even sharing a definition with them, but I think this is a good start to finding an authentic, powerful, and simple way to get to the heart of youth engagement: Its about the young people. I want to get back to that place.

Oh, and thanks to Doug Smith for kicking out this graphic, and the others I’ve used throughout this blog.

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

Essential Reading for Volunteers

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the popularity and misconceptions many people and organizations have about volunteerism. Like the disease of alcoholism or the compulsion of adultism, it seems like there is a segment of American society that simply wants to volunteer – without knowing exactly why or how. I’m simply not sure about dispelling the myths within that assumption, but I do a lot of people have written and talked a lot about it. Here are some links if you want to learn more:

To Hell With Good IntentionsA 1968 speech by Ivan Illich focusing on the injustice perpetuated by American volunteers working in Mexico, and when contextualized in the light of modern “service” work, offers a startling analysis of the volunteer movement in America.

Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? – In 1967 Dr. Martin Luther King laid out a clear analysis of the painful divide facing activists and community organizers. The problem is that we’ve fulfilled his worst fears. 1960s Connections he drew between Black Power, affirmative action and American segregation provide a clear glimpse into modern American apartheid; his prescriptions for community building, nonviolence and unity offer a roadmap for a different America.
Mentoring the Mentor – This book is a written conversation between Paulo Freire and a number of promoters, practitioners and detractors who have beef with his analysis. “The fundamental task of the mentor is a liberatory task. It is not to encourage the mentor’s goals and aspirations and dreams to be reproduced in the mentees, the students, but to give rise to the possibility that the students become the owners of their own history. This is how I understand the need that teachers have to transcend their merely instructive task and to assume the ethical posture of a mentor who truly believes in the total autonomy, freedom, and development of those he or she mentors.” (from Chapter Sixteen: “A Response” by Paulo Freire).

In the Service of What? The Politics of Service LearningIn 1994 a pair of university faculty wrote an academic analysis of service learning. They provided a basis for a lot of the modern criticism underway today, and allowed the service learning movement to breathe enough to allow critical thinking within its ranks. While that movement seems to have exhaled lately, Kahn and Westhiemer’s analysis is just as applicable today, and provides a great construct to learn from.

Purpose, Empowerment and the Experience of Volunteerism in the Community – In 2004 I adapted Hart’s Ladder of Youth Participation with a wider lens that attempted to explore volunteerism. Its an interesting glimpse into a few corners of my experiences that I need to look at some more.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

So-Called Juvenile Terrorism

We live in a time when being labeled a terrorist can lead a person to be indefinitely locked up in prison as a preventative measure designed to keep terrorists off the street. That’s what Guantanamo is for, and that’s what Mahar Arar suffered.

Mother Jones magazine has followed the long-standing diligence of the National Youth Rights Association to expose what they call a “School of Shock” where students who are labeled autistic, mentally retarded, and emotionally troubled are routinely treated like prisoners at Guantanamo, complete with food deprivation, isolation and electric shocks.

Out of the United Kingdom comes a story that proclaims that all “teenagers drinking, taking drugs and being aggressive” are “juvenile terrorists.” This from the country that brought us a large and damning study that shows how ephebiphobia – the fear of youth – is actually driving people to move away from the places they grew up. Oh, and let me correct myself – its not one story, or two, but dozens. Its not a new problem, either, and its not particularly English: a 2003 book exploring film making in the U.S. identified more than modern one film that uses “juvenile terrorism” as a plot point.

Now the American Youth Policy Forum thinks schools and youth development organizations should learn how to reach disaffected young people from the U.S. military, which is reportedly effective at doing that. Karen Pittman from the Forum for Youth Investment is helping them. Its discouraging to know that the leaders who purport to lead this field support institutions that systematically disenfranchise all of their members, meanwhile expecting organizations to learn from the very legion responsible for Abu Ghraib. That’s great.

KIDS ARE NOT TERRORISTS! EMPOWERMENT AND PREVENTION AND TREATMENT – NOT IMPRISONMENT AND DETENTION AND PUNISHMENT. Its so frustrating to have to consistently see this type of regressive, punitive and destructive thinking tearing at the heart of young people today. On top of the standardization they live in every single day, with the testing and the laws and the advertising and the programming directed at their every waking moment, now more than ever young people are the targets of demonization and alienation within the places they live! We’ve got to stop that. Got to.

Other items worth noting:

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Stop the Machine

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free the machine will prevented from working at all. – Mario Savio

I can think of no more suitable quote to express my frustration today than this one. There is so much that needs changed in this field where I work, and I need more avenues for action.

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Critical Questions for August

As I travel I write a great deal. My offices at home and work are filled with notepads where my ideas flow out, as are a pair of hard drives. Following are some of the critical questions I’ve written over the last month:

  • Can students be equal members of professional learning communities in schools?
  • Is the human capacity for learning unlimited?
  • What is the difference between “recycling knowledge” and “upcycling” knowledge?
  • If no one paints on an infinite canvas, what are the boundaries we don’t talk about?
  • What are the greatest educational practices that foster student voice and sustain the desire to learn throughout life?
  • How can the mechanisms that meaningfully involve young people evolve throughout a person’s lifetime to continuously, constantly and sustainably keep them involved?
  • Can role reversal activities be a useful learning tool for groups of youth and adult co-learners?
  • Can young people ever be truly disengaged in their own lives, or does living inherently require engagement of some sort?
  • Does engagement hinge on activities for young people, or the context in which they participate?
  • What are the significant “baby steps” a person/class/school can take towards meaningful student involvement?
  • What are the core differences between engaging historically disengaged students and engaging historically engaged students?
  • What are the core differences between meaningful involvement for young people in different community settings, i.e. schools, families, community organizations, government programs, etc.?
  • What is the apparent tension between focusing on meaningful student involvement in schools and fostering broad stakeholder involvement which includes, but is not exclusive to, students?
  • Why do teachers seek retribution against disobeying or nonconforming students?
  • When youth don’t speak up, is it okay for adults to speak for them?
  • Is there a false dichotomy between “youth voice” and “adult voice”?
  • Why isolate youth voice when youth are members of the larger community?
  • What are the effects of isolating youth voice and disallowing youth/adult interactions in critical conversations about place?
  • How can appropriate critical relationships between young people and adults be fostered?
  • Can equity exist without empathy?
  • Does every activity a young person participate in have to be “immediately” meaningful, or is there inherent value and “rightness” in activities where the meaningfulness does not become apparent until later dates?
  • Can students understand concepts, theories and practices better than adults?
  • Can students understand concepts when adults don’t understand them?
  • What is the outcome of students understanding concepts, etc., when adults don’t?

Feel free to answer any of these, or put me onto somewhere where I can learn more. Thanks.

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