Youth Engagement Tips


Working with more groups around the world has caused me to constantly revise and refine my processes. The following thoughts were shared with me by a group of youth as advice to adults who want to successfully engage youth. We can all strive to use them as guidelines in youth engagement work.

Youth Engagement Tips

  1. Make room for youth to talk first. Adults often feel compelled to start conversations or answer questions first. Let youth talk first.
  2. Do not force youth to talk. Sometimes you don’t have things to say. Sometimes youth don’t have things to say. Don’t try to force anyone to talk, and just sit in uncomfortable silence if you have to. 
  3. Remember one youth doesn’t represent all youth. All youth are individuals with their own perspectives, backgrounds, and realities. Youth aren’t all the same.
  4. It is okay to not know everything, even if you’re an adult. It is okay to be uncertain, express doubt, and ask questions. It is also okay to believe youth.
  5. Don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable with youth. If we’re talking about things that cause you discomfort, don’t make us change the conversation. Be uncomfortable.
  6. Speak your truth to youth. Don’t hide behind titles, age, positions, degrees, or other appearances. Tell us what you know and have done, and be human.
  7. Listen for understanding, not affirmation. Sometimes youth won’t support your conclusions and decisions, and that’s okay.
  8. Do not try to “fix” youth—they aren’t broken. Young people can come from broken homes or depressed communities, be incarcerated or homeless, but they’re not broken. They are whole people; treat them that way.
  9. Take appropriate risks when you’re talking with youth. Challenge yourself to stay engaged with young people exactly as they are right now, instead of making them come to where you’re at.
  10. Avoid just listening to youth voice. Take action. 


What else would you add? Where can this page grow or change? Leave your comments below!

Cultural Appropriation & Youth Voice

photos for posterThe other day, my 10-year-old daughter and I went out to dinner.

We were sitting in a booth at a Mexican restaurant downtown, and out of nowhere she asks what makes it okay for people in the US to make Mexican food. I asked her what she meant, and she asks what makes it okay for people who aren’t Mexican to make or eat Mexican food. She said, “Isn’t it theirs?”

So we talked about how people take things with them wherever they go, and sometimes, people from other places come to some places and take things with them when they go. I explained appropriation to her, and she asked about things like clothes and all that.

Developmentally speaking, starting around age 3-4 kids develop an acute awareness of fairness, and I think this was her application of her understanding across a complex situation. Funny to remember all the people in college I knew who were still wrestling with that concept. I guess I still do, too, some days.

Reflecting on it more, I wrestle with the relationship of cultural appropriation and youth voice. How do you think they tie together?

Why Challenge Neoliberalism?

fraying rope

The word neoliberalism describes anything making money from democracy. It is a philosophy in action across the US and around the world right now that is selling off the public good every single day.

In these days of rampant neoliberalism, there is no place safe from the infiltration of capitalism and the marketplace ideology that is decimating the democratic fabric of our society.

I have been committed to the public side of social change since I was a teen. As a student, I have experienced the rise of the privately-funded public university. As a worker, I experienced the continued infusion of right-wing corprocratic methods into all levels of government. As an activist, I have seen allies fall to the gradual reform of public schools as they become propaganda tools for money-making. As a community member, I have been in the fallout from the obliteration of the public commons. 

I found those situations more than negotiated – they were tremendously compromised. Seeking a middle ground, I wanted to work for the social good through networked and grassroots teaching opportunities. I started consulting and speaking as a result. As more people sought me out, more people became willing to pay me for my services, and that’s where my business came from. I provide more than 50% of all my income and time to non-profit generating activities; however, billing myself as a speaker/trainer/freelance writer/consultant allows me to do that.

I don’t have a perfect model, and I know there isn’t one. However, as I’ve spent a lifetime living this evolution, I have found that its important to stay sane and solvent, especially in times of struggle. Working the ways I do allows me to continue challenging neoliberalism, or feel as if I am.

Maybe its a myth I tell myself in order to feel better. However, since there isn’t a perfect work, I continue committing myself to imperfection. That’s the nature of this human work, commitment to the unfinished. That’s why I challenge neoliberalism.


Reflecting on 2013

Adam Fletcher in Seattle

This last year has been a spectacular journey in my professional life. Throughout the year, I’ve discovered new heights of learning and opportunities, while remembering the roots I’ve grown from more deeply.

I spent a lot of 2013 in a writing cycle, alternately working on manuscripts for 7 publications, 3 of which are now in print. That’s been an exciting path, working diligently on finishing my biggest writing yet, Ending Discrimination Against Young People. I’m really proud of that work. Within the next week, I’ll also be launching a new publication, An Introduction to Holistic Youth Development. I’m pretty excited about that, too.

Starting in September, I began coordinating the Pacific Mountain Workforce Development Council youth services, including $1,000,000 in grants and a youth council. I’d been working with their Youth Alliance through 2012 and 2013, and now I’m co-coordinating that with the awesome Todd Johnson from ESD 113. That professional collaboration, along with many others, is greatly increasing my depth of knowledge of youth as economic agents, including youth entrepreneurship, youth workforce education, and many more areas. Its exciting.

Throughout the late fall, I’ve had excited opportunities to reconnect with my longtime colleagues Heather Manchester and Sadie Schnitzler. We’d all worked together, along with Mishaela Duran and a few others, in the highly-selective Youth Ambassadors program operated by the Points of Light Foundation back in 2000-01. Its been exciting reconnecting with both of them, Heather after living in Northern Ireland for 6 years, and Sadie after living in Tibet for a decade. They’re both awesome people, and good for my brain.

My partnerships this last year were interesting, especially working deeply with Lois Brewer at Seattle Public Schools and Kyla Lackie, formerly of SOAR. I really miss Kyla now that she’s moved on to work with Highline Public Schools, but I know she’s doing good work there, and I’m definitely happy for her. Lois and I continue to work together to promote service learning and youth engagement at Cleveland High School and throughout the district. Collaborating with me extensively on that work has been the awesome Teddy Wright. Teddy and I continue finding new ways to partner, adding to more than 5 years of our collaboration. I’m also still drawn to my friend Mike Beebe’s work, who partnered with me in southeast Washington this year as we launched a SoundOut Student Voice Program there.

I continue to admire and talk with many of North America’s leaders in this work, as well as stay connected to the international field. Its been my privilege to contribute to Roger Holdsworth’s Connect magazine in Australia throughout the year, and to find a new outlet in Hazel Owen’s Ethos Consultancy blog out of New Zealand.

The year has taught me patience, and has encouraged me to gather my forces for the near future. The efforts out there to distract young people from their true engagements throughout life are mighty, and only getting stronger. I want to work to re-engage them, and all of society, in what matters. 2014 will be an exciting, exhilarating path towards that mission.

I’m taking a blogging break for the rest of the year, and will launch my writing fresh again in the New Year. I am coming back with a new style focused on quick, easy news and views. STAY ENGAGED, and have great holidays!

Yelling Into A Vacuum: The World Is Busy Changing


There are a lot of people working to change the world right now. They’re caught up in writing the Great Handbook, building the Perfect Website, organizing the Ultimate Protest, and securing the Most Support for whatever they’re doing. Everyone thinks they’re doing their part, hopes they have the most effect, and wants to make a difference.

I’m one of these people. For most than two decades of my life I’ve been working to change change the world. Starting as a young man, I was involved with movements for environmental justice, self-empowerment, anti-racism, and youth voice. My career has built on that action, and has focused on youth engagement, student voice, and community empowerment. I have continued volunteering and donating my resources towards those causes too.

I’m at a point in my life when much of this action seems like its no longer effective, and some part of me struggles with whether it actually was. I even wonder who reads this blog anymore, since I rarely hear from anyone.

In my 20s, I heard a lot of older people harp on the notion of acting locally and really focusing energy on local change. I blew that out of the water with my world-focused work through Freechild and SoundOut, as well as my national and international consulting practice. Now, I understand why they insisted on acting locally; otherwise, you feel like you’re yelling into a vacuum.

The noisy, noisy world doesn’t allow us a lot of room for comfort, if we’re engaged authentically within ourselves. It insists we learn to get quiet and do small things, rather than trying to scream over the din of daily life.

This work of changing the world reminds me of the lesson about the seekers: “Not knowing how close the truth is to them, Beings seek for it afar — what a pity! They are like those who, being in the midst of water, Cry out for water, feeling thirst.”

The world is already changing, and a new world is being born every day! Let’s take comfort in that, and allow everything to be what it already is. The world is changing, changing, changing… Is there anything more we need to do?


You Might Also Like…


In Honor of Willa Cather’s Birthday

song of the larkToday is Nebraskan author Willa Cather’s birthday. Born in 1873, Cather wrote a dozen novels and many collections of stories. Her most famous works were O’ Pioneers! and My Ántonia.  

Growing up in Nebraska during my teens, I had a preacher friend who was from her hometown. He revered her, frequently quoting her in Sunday morning sermons and making light of his affection for her, as well Red Cloud, Nebraska, where they were both from. It took me a while to understand why he loved her so much. Since I was 16, I’ve read about eight of her books, and fell in love with a short story collection I owned. I certainly know now why my friend was enamored with her: Willa Cather is awesome.

In The Song of the Lark, Cather wrote, “Success is never so interesting as struggle.” I’ve always found her down-to-earth ways enlightened, and that is why: She never forgot her roots, her people, and her land.

In my own attempts at writing, I’ve struggled with finding a voice that reflects a true sense of purpose and roots for me. Maybe that’s because my roots are so muddled, and because I’ve always sensed the people around me shared that predicament. Whatever the reason, settling into my voice in its uncertainties and inabilities has been part of the gift Willa challenged to me when I was young. It was about being true to oneself and what they understood of the world.

In that same book, The Song of the Lark, Willa wrote, “If you love the good thing vitally, enough to give up for it all that one must give up, then you must hate the cheap thing just as hard. I tell you, there is such a thing as creative hate! A contempt that drives you through fire, makes you risk everything and lose everything, makes you a long sight better than you ever knew you could be.”

Not only was she connected to the land and the people like the roots of the deepest bluestem grasses, she was fully aware of who she was and engaged within herself! This miraculous feat, which seemed so smothered through the late Victorian age where she emerged from, seems spectacular to me.

So, I want to thank Willa Cather for showing me who I can be, out loud for everyone to see. Thank you, and happy birthday.

We Are Limitless

I grew up around alchoholics, gamblers, cheaters, and liars. People who sold their souls and materials to serve their vanity, egos, narcissism, and greed were always around my house, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, sobering up and trying to move on with their lives.

In all my different work with young people, I have been around gangbangers and prostitutes, runaways and robbers, and cheats of all kinds. I’ve also spent time with adults so contemptuous towards children and youth that they’d never be allowed to be parents- and they were youth workers, teachers, and counselors!

But somewhere in the middle of all that hopelessness, all that suffering, and all that pain is a reality that few people involved actively spoke out loud, although everyone actually worked from it. The reality is that all human beings are limitless.


We’re all racing. Just like the atoms around us, we’re all scurrying about from place to place, person to person, being who we are and doing what we’re doing. Even when life is syrupy and slow, the atoms in us are still yearning for movement, drawing us towards the dishes that need washed, bills that need to be paid, and life that needs to be lived. None of us are ever truly still of body and mind, because all of us are truly made of motion. That motion compels us towards endless movement.

The only respite we ever truly have for the movement of our bodies is death. Between here and there, our waking and sleeping hours are dominated by the impulse to move, and within that movement, change. Nobody is ever truly done.

Because of that impulse, we have a limitless potential for growth, progress, transformation, and generation. Nobody can escape that impulse, and whether its within them or around them, each of us is always changing.

Young People

There’s a temptation to make this limitless into a thing that only children and youth experience. Folks who say that will also say that adults stop growing, and they often believe that’s true. It is not.

All humans are truly limitless, filled with unknown potential, untapped possibilities, unacknowledged power, and limitlessness of all kinds. Each and every single one of us truly has no bounds! This includes youth, who embody this limitlessness because they actively live it. However, it also includes very small children, who are often forced into boxes by their parents who habitually seek familiarity and predictability, so they try to make their kids just like them.

And then there’s adults, who are all truly limitless no matter what we believe. Those self-beliefs are often what limit our ability to see our limitlessness. However, that doesn’t make those beliefs true. Instead, it makes them another opportunity that we can break free and see who we truly are!

My Work

This is why I do the work I do the ways I do. Within each of us in an indomitable spirit, something that cannot be taken away by anyone else. That’s the freedom we have, inherently and implicitly, simply because we’re humans. Its a place that we could celebrate and elaborate and explore everyday, if each of us saw it.

However, many of us don’t, or haven’t been able to.  Instead, we’ve been held in our cages and tied to our conceptions of ourselves in our worlds. Much of the time, we become alchoholics, gamblers, cheaters, and liars. Seeing no other routes, we become gang bangers and prostitutes, runaways and robbers, and cheats of all kinds. At the end of the day, we’re locked into jails and sleeping in alleyways, hoping for another way out.

Our individual lot doesn’t have to be that conspicuous for us to be limited. We may be divorced, or single parents, or too-hard workers, or hard-hearted lovers. We may deny our youth, reject our grandparents, and forget ourselves. There are so many ways we try to limit ourselves.

That is why I do what I do: To help others break free of the limits we’ve instilled in our lives and times.


Luckily, we have many people to turn to for inspiration. Without knowing it sometimes, we look to Dr. King for inspiration, especially when he wrote things like this: “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

Other times we call out to heroes from other times, like Joan of Arc, who reportedly said, “One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. But to sacrifice what you are and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying.”

Maybe we are moved by modern times and the people who occupy them with us, like President Obama, who famously said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

Each of these, and so many other people, can inspire us to see the limitlessness potential of all humans everywhere.

So if you believe that people are who they are, and cannot change from who they are, let me tell you a story sometime, if you want me to. Let me tell you about Larry, a drunk cabby who never quit trying to quit. Let me tell you about Idu, who lived without in order to go within, and who is becoming reacquainted with his own greatness. Maybe I can share Meghan’s story, or Melinda’s. There was that group of kids in that one place… All these stories are real, from my own experience, and show the reality that I’m asking you to see here.

All humans are limitless. Join me in seeing that reality, please.

You Might Like…