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

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.

Limitlessness

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.

Inspiration

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.

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Strategies for Social Change

Following are different strategies I have identified for social change led by and with young people. These strategies can be approached individually, but are often entwined as they show different aspects of social change. Note that these are broad strategic frameworks for understanding social change; they aren’t necessarily specific activities or methodologies. I might explore those in another post.Most of these strategies reply on youth acting on issues defined by and affecting young people and their communities by meaningfully involving them in the design, implementation, and evaluation of social change.

15 Strategies for Social Change Led By and With Young People 

  1. Youth Voice is any expression of any young person anywhere, at any time. This can include expressions that are verbal, written, visual, body language, or actions; expressions that are convenient and inconvenient for adults to listen to; and intentional as well as unintentional expressions. Youth Voice does not require adult approval or acceptance. [Learn more]
  2. Youth Participation is the active attendance of young people in any mode throughout their lives or communities. Youth participation can happen through active decision-making, sports, schools, or faith communities. It can also happen in homes and among friends. Youth participation can be formal or informal; when its formal, youth may not choose to attend something, but they choose whether to participate. When its informal, youth choose to join in on something.
  3. Youth Involvement is any deliberate effort that centers on young peoples’ ongoing attendance in personal, social, institutional, cultural, and other forms of structural action throughout society. Youth involvement is generally formal, often including specific roles, education, and outcomes. [Learn more]
  4. Youth Engagement is the sustained connection young people hold towards a particular thing, whether an idea, person, activity, place or outcome. That sustained connection can be social, emotional, educational, spiritual, sentimental, or otherwise as long as its sustained. [Learn more]
  5. Youth Empowerment is the attitudinal, structural, and cultural process whereby young people gain the ability, authority, and agency to make decisions and implement change in their own lives and the lives of other people, including youth and adults. [Learn more]
  6. Youth Leadership is the practice of young people exercising authority over themselves or others, both in informal and formal ways. There is youth leadership beyond the scope of what adults recognize, appreciate, or foster; there is also youth leadership which is guided by adults.
  7. Youth/Adult Partnerships happen when young people are fully equal with adults while they’re involved in a given activity. This is a 50/50 split of authority, obligation, and commitment. One of the realities of this is that there isn’t recognition for the specific developmental needs or representation opportunities for children and youth. [Learn more]
  8. Youth Equity is the pro-active rebalancing of relationships between youth and adults to allow for appropriately empowered roles between youth and adults. It allows for a 40/60 split of authority, while everyone involved- young people and adults- are recognized for their impact in the activity, and each has ownership of the outcomes. [Learn more]
  9. Youth Mainstreaming is a public policy strategy that acknowledges the roles youth can play and the issues affecting them across various sectors such as health, finance, economic development, housing, justice, foreign affairs, education, and agriculture. [Learn more]
  10. Youth Infusion is the active, deep, and sustained integration of youth throughout an organization or community’s structure and culture.
  11. Youth Organizing is an approach that trains young people in community organizing and advocacy, and assists them in employing these skills to alter power relations and create meaningful institutional change in their communities by employing activities such as political education and analysis, community research, campaign development, direct action and membership recruitment. [Learn more]
  12. Service Learning uses meaningful service throughout the community to help youth achieve clearly stated learning goals. [Learn more]
  13. Project-Based Learning infuses deliberately planned hands-on activities focused on teaching and learning to foster youth success. [Learn more]
  14. Experiential Learning is the process of making meaning from direct experience, which may or may not be planned and does or does not have specific learning goals. [Learn more]
  15. Community Youth Development combines the developmental instincts of young people as they naturally desire to create change in their surrounding environments by partnering youth and adults to create new opportunities for youth to serve their communities while developing their personal abilities.
Some of the specific methods for engaging young people in action include Participatory Action Research, Youth-Driven Programming, and Independent Living Skills. Here are some different roles young people can have through many of the strategies listed above.
In understanding social change, its important to recognize that none of these are competing approaches. I have also learned that they aren’t necessarily better or worse than each other. Instead, they’re appropriate terms that acknowledge different times and places where action can happen.
To learn more, check out The Freechild Project Guide to Social Change Led By and With Young People that I wrote with Joe Vavrus, and as always, visit The Freechild Project website.

Special thanks to Roslyn Kagy for a conversation that inspired this article! Woohoo!


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

Empowerment and Engagement

My friend Lori works with youth in the Midwest. She recently asked me, “In the scheme of things, how do we motivate the youth to be empowered rather than entitled?” I’ve learned that motivation comes through our own experience and example more than anything else. We have to actively demonstrate to young people our engagement, our empowerment, and our leadership more than any attempt to motivate them.

When we work in high-pressure environments with young people who really, really need us to connect with them, adults who work with young people need high-efficacy approaches to engaging those young people, ways that will lead to their personal empowerment. That means that engagement happens before empowerment, and this cycle happens before engagement.

The Cycle of Engagement

The Cycle of Engagement, which I originally wrote about in my booklet, The Freechild Project Guide to Social Change Led By and With Young People
The Cycle of Engagement, which I originally wrote about in my booklet, The Freechild Project Guide to Social Change Led By and With Young People.

In reflecting on my own practice with young people and after researching youth work for so long, I identified a cycle that seems to consistently work to engage young people. This cycle works in a long-range, program-wide way, but more importantly, in a direct, one-on-one approach too. The more times we go through this cycle with young people, the more it expands and the deeper the returns are. Those results include trust-building, effective communication, and empowerment.
 

1: Listen

The first thing we can do to engage young people is to listen to them. This means opening a a safe space where young people can tell the truth without fear of judgment, criticism, or rejection.

Important points about listening to children and listening to youth:

  • Not just a physical place, listening to young people requires an interpersonal connection between adults and young people where facades can soften and young people feel accepted and accepting.
  • Listening to young people requires that they feel free to share their feelings, work through conflicts, and experience that they are not alone.
  • Adults can facilitate these spaces intentionally and successfully, at home, in community programs, and at schools, and that is what is required to listen to young people.
  • If you don’t know how, learn more about nonviolent communication and compassionate listening.
  • Listening isn’t necessarily verbal, either, as young people have many ways of communicating about their lives, ideas, emotions and feelings, experiences, wisdom, power, and oppression.
  • In becoming responsive, adults learn about these expressions too. Listening is the first part of the cycle of engagement.

2: Validate

After we’ve listened to young people, as adults, we need to learn to validate children and youth.  You’ve heard adults say it, and you might have said it yourself: “Oh, that’s really nice.” We try to say “nice” in just the right way, but to young people it seems really insincere. We think we’re doing the “right thing” by encouraging young people move forward, but in our heads we really thinking about the time we fell flat on our face from the same approach.

Important points about validating young people:

  • Instead of actually acknowledging what they shared when we listened to them and instead of hiding our true thoughts, adults should to honestly validate what young people say or do by honestly responding to it and sharing how we sincerely feel or think about it.
  • If we think a young person’s ideas are off-base, or an initiative will fail, or that more information is needed, we should always say so.
  • Validation means disagreeing or agreeing with young people in open ways, and asking more questions when we need to.
  • This acknowledges their authentic humanity, their real selves.
  • Validation is the second part of engaging children and youth.

3: Authorize

After adults have listened to children and youth and validated what they’ve expressed, if we truly want to engage them we must authorize young people. Authority is a powerful word that can intimidate people who aren’t used to it.

Important points about authorizing children and youth:

  • Without authority, young people are just whispering in a loud argument.
  • Authority means giving young people the ability to tell their own story, and it happens through informal and formal education and positioning.
  • Education means building the skills of children and youth to engage in democracy.
  • Positioning means telling young people they can do a thing and giving them explicit permission.
  • Authorization builds the capacity and ability of young people with actual powerful, purposeful, and rewarding knowledge and opportunities.
  • As young people apply their new skills and knowledge to practical action, young people can make a difference in their own lives and in the lives of others.

4: Act

As they gain ability through authorization, the next step is revealed as youth action. Youth action is about young people creating change, either in their own life or in the lives of others. Learn about what youth can do to change the world, and how they can take action.   Important points about youth action:

  • Young people, especially those experiencing multiple depths of oppression, rarely take action in ways that help themselves or their communities for fear of failure, retribution or punishment.
  • In situations where young people are deeply oppressed and disengaged from changing their lives and changing the world, taking action for requires children, youth, and adults working together to make the space, place, and ability for young people to create change.
  • Action can – and should – look different everywhere: from identifying the challenge, researching the issue, planning for action, training for effectiveness, reflection on the process, to celebrating the outcomes, youth action is totally flexible.
  • The purpose of youth action is always to create, support, and sustain powerful, purposeful, and meaningful lives.
  • An important caution: Action is often seen as the most important step of this cycle. That’s not true, and all parts of this cycle are equally important.

5: Reflect

Finally, while youth action is underway and when its finished, reflect. However you reflect, the important part is that you are making meaning of what you’ve gone through by identifying what you’ve learned and suggesting how you might apply that to future activities. Learn to facilitate reflection in ways that reach diverse young peoples’ desires, expectations, and abilities in order to be effective. Important points about reflection with young people:

  • Reflection is an ongoing process that can deeply, sustainably engage children and youth.
  • When young people and adults critically assess and analyze their lives together, learning becomes a vibrant, intricate, and powerful tool for personal change and community transformation.
  • Reflection activities used should be appropriate for diverse learners, and include opportunities for talking, writing, acting, creating collages, and building activities, among others.
  • Once you’ve finished reflecting, those lessons should be incorporated into the next listening activity, to support a cyclical approach to engaging young people.

Closing

When this cycle is done as a whole, these parts of youth engagement lead to youth empowerment. The parts can be done with individual young people in single interactions, or with groups of young people over the course of a program year. Ultimately, they lead to children and youth discovering the positive, powerful relationships they can form with adults, and create intentional youth/adult partnerships that can change lives, and ultimately change the world.

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Youth Hyperbole of the Day

Two murders by two sets of teens within a week in two towns somewhere in America: Get ready for the onslaught of generalizations, hyperbole, and overall negative news about the state of youth today.

Once again, we’ll see the media overhype these particular situations to serve their own purposes.

In reality, young people murder young people every day in the US. Young people murder older people, old people murder young people, and old people murder old people. People of European descent murder people of African descent, people of African descent murder people of European descent, people of European descent murder people of European descent, people of African descent murder people of African descent. Rich murder poor, poor murder rich, rich murder rich, poor murder poor.

Guess which of these will get news coverage? The ones that makes the most profit for the media, the advertisers, and the manufacturers who buy advertisements.

On the other end, parents and teachers, youth workers and counselors across the country and even reaching around the world will be left with the further disenfranchisement of their young people. All because a few people will make many dollars off a few particular circumstances that are strung together in a convenient package to form a false image of the state of youth today.

If it isn’t violence, there is a litany of other topics focused on children and youth that are hyped by the media too, including education, healthcare, pop culture, toys, fashion, employment, and much more.

This makes media outlets no different from the rappers they frequently disparage, or the politicians who demonize these events in order to further their careers. However, instead of sensationalizing youth violence today, we need to be talking about how, why, and where discrimination against young people is happening today.

In my new book, Ending Discrimination Against Young People, I explore how the media, schools, governments, and others work together to make their hyperbole sell web ads, mold politicians, drive school agendas, and generally blow up democracy and public well-being every single day.

That’s the real conversation we need to have.

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

Stop Attacking Youth!

Another day, another article slamming young people for not being activists. This one comes from the Left, effectively making its author a fremeny to youth activists today. (He joins these hallowed ranks with Todd Gitlin, among others.)

This well-meaning, but poorly informed narrative generally leaves readers with the following points:

  • There isn’t any/enough youth activism today.
  • The world is hard.
  • Young people are held down by the world.
  • There are logical reasons why they’re held down.
  • Things will never be as good as they were in the past.
  • Youth today will never be as good as they were in the past.

Its that last point that sounds so familiar. Given the long shadow cast by false generational analysis over the last 20 years (thank you Strauss and Howe), its no wonder why the Left attacks young people in equal measure to the Right. People who are progressive or liberal must must depart from this bad ideology and find consensus in post-modern analyses focused on socio-economic realities, instead of arbitrary age markers.


Realize this: Young people are working to change America like they never have before, using effective, sustainable ways that take time, energy, and commitment. Anti-democratic and uneffective roguish rock-throwing and police harassing only ever goes so far, and that’s why there’s very little left of the 60s and 70s youth movement. Today’s youth movement is a lot more sophisticated and is creating long-lasting change. Bad analyses, like the one cited at the beginning of this entry, mislead people into believing otherwise. However, there’s plenty going on right now.

The reason why we need to see what’s really going on is that it’s mostly young people of color and low-income youth who are deeply activating and making change happen. Mainstream media and mainstream academia isn’t going to promote what’s actually happening because they’re deeply invested in sustaining the status quo. Portraying youth in a true light, including their inspired organizing and powerful outcomes, challenges that status quo.

By comparing generations, conservative news sources and neoliberal academics effectively perpetuate disingenuous support of the past by lionizing those activists, while demonizing and demoralizing young people today. The vast majority of these authors don’t see the level of efficacy, depth of action, and breadth of engagement that’s going on out there.

Calling for the rallying of masses of young people, these authors are perpetuating a disillusion myth about the past. The masses of youth were never truly activists in any social movement, particularly in the 1960s and 70s. For every young person on the front lines holding picket signs and teach ins, how many others were mere moochers on the movement who joined in so-called “love-ins” and smoked pot in order to enjoy the escapism those activities offered? True adult supporters of youth activists shouldn’t be concerned with those masses of youth. Well-positioned upper class and middle class kids get all the coverage in the media and from many of the world-changing youth programs they want. They don’t need our interest or support, because they have very little authentic motivation to change anything. They do it for reasons that I don’t personally connect with, and that I don’t think are fair to the world we live in today.

Its the young people who don’t have any choice but to change the world, who will be swallowed up by the abyss of consumeristic self-interest, those are the ones I’m most interested in. Those are the ones the Left should really keep an eye on, because while they’re the ones most in need of social change right now, luckily, they are the fighters who are most deeply engaged in the struggle right now.

In order to see these youth activists, the Left has to stop framing young people and making their disengagement the issue. Doing this the Left perpetuating the horribly minimalistic and defeatist misconception that’s been popular in mainstream media and academia over the last 15+ years. The reality that’s been waiting to be seen is that young people are changing the world right now in positive, powerful ways. They could really use the support of the Left in all its myriad forms.

Here’s what’s really happening right now:

  • There is a lot of youth activism happening today.
  • The world is changing for the better, right now.
  • Young people are partially responsible for the positive, powerful change happening.
  • Youth activists today are not recognized for the hard won successes happening.
  • A new world is possible, and young people are ushering that world in.
  • Youth today stand in solidarity with the past, while ushering in the future.
  • They could use adult support. All youth can.


Let’s look at the whole picture instead of hen-pecking according to popular assumptions and projections. Let’s support young people, for real.

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