Expanding Children’s Rights in the US

Bound up in this ongoing conversation about youth engagement is the question of who has the right to be heard. In the United States, there are two distinct conversations that happen regarding the rights of children and youth; one is protective (Children’s Defense Fund) and the other is liberatory (National Youth Rights Association).

Children’s Ombudsman Offices are independent, impartial public officials with authority and responsibility to receive, investigate or informally address complaints about government actions, and, when appropriate, make findings and recommendations, and publish reports. Their roles are almost wholly interpreted to be protective, with few reports indicating that they’ve done anything related to liberating young people.

Twenty-two states in the US have official children’s ombudsman offices that deal with children’s rights issues. Have you ever heard of these offices in Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Washington, California, Texas, Utah, Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Iowa, Nebraska, Arkansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Oklahoma, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Delaware, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, Montana, Ohio, South Carolina, or Virginia?

You can learn about these offices, including what they specifically do and how they operate, from this website.

I would like to see these offices, along with state-level Children’s Cabinets and local and state Youth Councils, assume leadership towards promoting youth voice, youth engagement, youth leadership, and youth empowerment across the country, and that includes children, too.

This would create relevant, meaningful opportunities for young people of all ages to engage in democracy. It would also catalyze vibrant conversations in many places where discussions about children’s rights, youth rights, and civic engagement are dead.

What is ahead? Expanding children’s rights in the United States may be the next route to take.

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

Youth Segregation: What It Looks Like

One of the main points of youth involvement activities is to foster a deeper connection between young people and the communities they are part of. They become connected physically by spending time; mentally by sharing their thoughts; emotionally by sharing their feelings; and in many other powerful ways too. Whether they are involved in schools, nonprofits, government programs, or faith-based communities, all children and youth deserve opportunities to become deeply connected.

There are many challenges to youth involvement though. Society has a legacy of routinely and systematically excluding young people from many substantive opportunities for them to become engaged. Rather than be a conspiracy that’s designed by few and inadvertently compelled by the masses, segregating children and youth is a blatant design in our society. This segregation defeats many well-intended youth involvement activities.

Here is what youth segregation looks like in five places.

  • Education System. Everyday around the world, young people are separated from their families and neighbors and placed within specially designed environments that segregate them from mainstream society, simply because of their age. Within those confines, they’re segregated again by age and measured ability, both of which are arbitrary markers of their capacities to learn. Oftentimes this is made into a bigger issue because of racial and socio-economic segregation. Schools can overturn this ignorance by actively integrating young people with each other in recognition of their differences. They can also infuse learning throughout communities through service learning, internships, place-based learning, and other approaches—for all ages, everywhere, all the time.
  • Childcare. Before and after school, many young people face receiving care in isolated facilities that are operated to stop them being at home alone, and relieve the concerns of parents who can’t be there with their children. Regardless of size, these locations almost always segregate children and youth from mainstream society, instead relying on a few well-meaning adults to guide young people during this time.
  • Youth Programs. Nonprofits, community groups, government agencies, and schools all provide programs for youth during out-of-school times. They may be recreational, educational, social, or faith-based, but most of them depend on separating children and youth from adults in order to affect them. The idea that young people should be segregated from their families and the rest of the church started with youth schools, spread to youth programs, and is now in commerce, recreation, and media. Young people are now routinely ghetto-ized.
  • Jobs. While age discrimination in the workplace is prohibited for older people by federal law, there are few protections for young people. Well-intended child labor laws met the end of abusive employment practices that exploited child and youth workers. However, there is rampant age-based isolationism in workplaces that causes youth workers to only be able to work with other youth. Ephebiphobia and adultism make unwritten practices in workplaces that segregate youth workers the norm, while marketers make youth consumers an isolated clientbase too. All that says little about the few number of jobs actually available to young people anymore. As the economy went south, jobs that used to be for youth went to adults while programs that funded jobs exclusively for youth were shut down with bipartisan support. 
  • Cultural Programs. The very programs that are designed to sustain our culture and society are oftentimes ones that most deeply segregate young people from adults. Ironically, children and youth are expected to learn about history devoid of the people who’ve actually lived it. Instead, they’re expected to study it and examine it alone, or with the guidance of a well-meaning but frequently poorly equipped teacher. A 1998 study from the William T. Grant Foundation says, “There is a portrait of youth that is not only misleading, but harmful. We ought to correct the record out of a sense of fairness, as well as accuracy. These young people desperately need a chance to get started in responsible careers. Instead, they are frequently saddled with the image of being uninterested and unwilling to assume responsibility. Complaining about youth is all too common.” This is correct, if not even more exacerbated, in cultural programs of all types.

Scanning throughout society at the places where young people are and adults aren’t, there are many more innocuous and a few more nefarious examples I could draw on. However, I’m going to leave you with this opportunity to imagine them yourself. Answer these questions:

  • Am I interested in stopping youth segregation?
  • Do I think age segregation of all kinds is valid?
  • How do I discriminate against young people?
  • What am I willing to sacrifice in order to stop youth segregation?
When you’re done answering you can see where you are, and where you want to go. Be realistic.
For more information visit The Freechild Project website.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

10 Ways Adults Can Show They Care About Student Voice

Just telling students you care about student voice isn’t the way to engage students in schools. As a teacher, principal, counselor, or other adult in schools, you set the tone and create the climate for student voice to be an effective tool in the school improvement arsenal. Check out the following 10 Ways Adults Can Show They Care About Student Voice.

  1. Commit and follow through with the idea that student voice should be as student-driven as possible.
  2. Fun and laughter are requirements for successfully engaging student voice.
  3. Create awareness around different problems throughout the education system and seek to engage your students as active partners who can help solve these problems.
  4. Provide examples of ways that students have made a difference. See www.soundout.org, www.youthnoise.com, www.freechild.org, and www.takingitglobal.org for examples.
  5. Connect individually with your students about their thoughts about your class, school, or program as frequently as possible and demonstrate that you actually care about their specific thoughts and feelings about school. 
  6. Encourage students and help them to find opportunities to engage in school that use their strengths, talents, interests or skills. Create those opportunities as often as you can.
  7. Make sure your students are using their friendship networks to find out what their friends think about schools.
  8. Promote student voice in happy, friendly and accessible ways when appropriate. When necessary, confront adults who are resistant, and challenge apathy or disregard for student voice.
  9. Promote the benefits of student voice to students – both personal benefits and the potential final results.
  10. Provide opportunities for students to socialize and just talk about student voice.
This isn’t a deep prescription, but it does provide a place to start. Check out http://www.soundout.org for more useful info about student voice in schools!
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

I’m Enmeshed in Busy-ness

Hey all. I’ve spent the last two weeks enmeshed is strategic planning for two state agencies, writing a Summer of Service guide for a national nonprofit organization, action planning for a state coalition I help run, and rewriting an internationally-renowned guide to getting youth on boards. My brain is exhausted and my fingers are numb… which won’t stop me from blogging! It just slows me down a bit. In all of this I’ve continued twittering as best as I can, and you can see my thoughts are meandering across the topics I’m addressing on any given day.

As I’ve delved into inter-agency relationships at the state level here in Washington, I’ve extensively considered the roles and applications of meaningful youth involvement within the state government apparati. It seems daunting, and has caused me to fall back on the question, “What would youth do?” Well, in order to answer this I am going to convene the first meeting of a statewide youth cadre here in Washington soon. The dilemma with that, as always, is who is at the table, and what their interests are. Promoting the homogenization of youth voice seems inevitable in these types of activities, and that is an inherent challenge in involving youth in state and federal government decision-making.
The work of operating a statewide coalition is challenging, to say the least. For the last year I’ve been the co-chair of Washington Action for Healthy Kids, a group of volunteers who are challenging obesity by promoting physical activity and nutrition in schools. Its been a reach for me, as my interest in the topic is tangential at best. I do see the value of it, as my own daughter attends public school and I do have the opportunity through my position at the state Department of Health to learn more about the effects of these issues on the education of young people. The experience of operating this coalition is what I’m after. So far I’ve learned a great deal so far, but this last few weeks has been a heap of learning for me as I’ve worked with our national team service rep to create an action plan for the state. Its interesting to think of the sophistication and deliberation of so many of these types of groups in relationship to their actual operation: instead of a finely honed instrument of democracy actively engaging 1000s in the operation of a movement, its one guy and one woman on the phone and Internet carving out a plan that will affect the masses – if its approved. Fascinating.
Finally, Youth On Board has contracted me to rewrite the wonderfully short and accessible guide to involving youth on boards they originally wrote for BoardSource in the late 1990s. Its a real pleasure to work with Karen Young on this, as her guidance and our conversations have helped shape and drive my work in new directions over the years. I do have to admit though that whenever I work on their materials I find myself challenged to stay focused on the topics at hand: my brain spins in so many directions whenever I think about engaging youth in decision-making. There are so many nuances and subtlties that I know Youth On Board understands as an organization, but that I think youth-serving organizations don’t understand in general. Those are the issues I want to address, that I regularly blog about, that need curricula and guides and websites dedicated to it. If I could find the funding or the interested organization that is surely the route I’d go.
I will unpack all this more in later posts, as I tend to see each of these activities as a potential rabbit hole; note my treatment of the Summer of Service section, which was so nice it had to be its own post. However, this is meant to catch you up on where I’ve been and where I’m going – look for more soon.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!