Voices of the Damned Youth

damnedyouthWe should never give up on any young person, or any person as far as that’s concerned. There is nobody – absolutely nobody – in our society who is too far gone to simply relinquish them to the trash can of society. Especially children and youth.

In reality though, many young people are born into indifference, apathy, and intransigence. Depression, inability, and oppression are holding legions of children and youth from realizing the dreams they could have.

They face families, communities,and nations that are wholly indifferent to their realities. Because of this, these children and youth struggle with society’s norms, cultures, customs, and behaviors. They can be gifted or struggling, adult-pleasing or anti-authoritarian. A few times, they lash out. Mostly, they internalize.

I know of this because its lived experience for me. Identifying in turns as an impoverished homeless immigrant child, white-kid-grown-up-in-an-African-American-neighborhood, nearly dropped out, couldn’t-pay-for-college, been-a-youth-worker-all-my-life kinda guy, I have struggled with those senses of alienation all of my life. My story has been told by a half-dozen journalists who think they should expose the scars as well as the stars in my life. Its not their story to tell though, its mine.

The same is true for many youth today. Their stories deserve—mustbe told, but not by well-meaning adults. Not by reporters or grantwriters, poets or politicians. Instead, we must make space for damned youth to speak for themselves.

To be specific, I want you to know that I believe we should routinely, systemically, and completely engage the voices of young people who identify as academically failing. Poor, Low Income, and Working Class. Homeless. Minority culture. GBLTQQ. African American, American Indian, and other communities of color. Immigrants. Runaway, foster, and Ageing Out. Incarcerated. Court-involved. Juvenile Delinquents. Addicts and Abusers. And many, many others.

We shouldn’t deny any young person the opportunity to share their voices, and I’m not suggesting that we shut down one youth in order to create another. I am fully in support of expanding every possibility available throughout our society in order to create more space for the voices of youth. Youth Voice includes any expression of any young person anywhere, anytime, about anything. (Luckily) It doesn’t depend on adult approval. I’m suggesting that we, as adults, make space for youth voice, and especially those of the damned youth.

These youth are damned because they’re inconvenient for adults to listen to. They’re damned because they say things we don’t want to hear in ways we don’t want to listen to. They’re damned because adults are the majority culture and youth are the minority culture. They’re damned because they’re youth. More importantly though, they’re not really damned at all.

In sharing my own voice, I learned that I wasn’t damned; moreso, I am vastly privileged. I believe my younger brothers and sisters must learn this too, and so I call for them to have the space I was fortunate enough to experience as a young person, no matter how rarified it was.

Voices of the damned youth require:

  • More youth voice from the children and youth who we don’t routinely hear from.
  • More youth involvement from the historically disengaged.
  • More empowerment for youth who are oppressed.
  • More democracy for everyone.

Then we’re going someplace spectacular, together.

Youth Engagement Tips

fctoppper2013.jpg

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.

You?

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?

 


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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.