American Institutes for Research Technical Assistance Program

From 2009 to 2013, Adam consulted the American Institutes for Research (AIR) Technical Assistance Program focused on youth involvement in systems of care. Supported by SAMSHA, this project was designed by AIR to provide nationwide support for youth in foster care as they became systems advocates for transforming, sustaining and advocating change in their lives and the lives of those who came after them.

Adam consulted in many roles for AIR, including providing expert guidance for staff and grantees across the country, and co-writing a national guidance manual. He also keynoted several national gatherings, trained local grantees, and assisted in the evaluation and reporting of activities.

“Adam truly cares about people; nowhere is this more evident than in his passion for creating inclusive communities with a space for everyone. His passion for youth engagement is contagious and I appreciate his ability to challenge us be our better selves so that we can live in better communities that support and honor us all.”—Reyhan Reid, Program Coordinator, American Institutes for Research

 


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Systems of Youth Engagement

Our society is filled with systems. A lot of them affect youth. A system is any group of coherent connections resulting in a predictable result.

Whether we’re talking about obvious systems like education, health care and juvenile justice, or less tangible systems like culture and families, it is important to understand how each of these systems affects youth engagement.

Systems are made of many factors, including people, policies, procedures and possibilities. There are eight factors in the graphic below.

The systems of youth engagement include formal and informal, obvious and subtle and practical as well as theoretical spaces. This graphic shows where and how they might exist.
The systems of youth engagement include formal and informal, obvious and subtle and practical as well as theoretical spaces. This graphic shows where and how they might exist.

While I’ve worked with schools, nonprofits, government agencies and other orgs over the last 17 years, I’ve explored how and these systems operate. I’ve seen “under the hood” in dozens of communities, watched the bad and the good arise in times of crisis and seasons of apparent ease… and every time I’m reminded of the systems at work.

Wherever they’re sustainably connected, youth engagement happens in systems.

  • Education—Education systems are formal and informal, apparent and subversive. Youth engagement starts in the space where they’re learning.
  • Sports—The youth athletics system includes rules, teams, scores, morals, codes and more
  • Culture—The cultural system all youth belong to includes obvious and not-obvious rules, behavior, attitudes and beyond
  • Economics—The youth employment system exchanges goods and services for money and more

Other systems of youth engagement include school, faith, justice, health, family, civic action, social services, mental health, recreation, or other systems, ALL youth EVERY where can experience the positive, powerful potential of youth engagement. Let’s explore that together!

Systems of Youth Engagement by Adam Fletcher

I’m offering a new series of training and speeches on Systems of Youth Engagement. If you’re interested in learning how I can help you, your organization or your community, call me today at (360)489-9680 or send me an email. Want to learn on your own? See the links below.


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The EGOsystem/ECOsystem dynamic as illustrated by Adam Fletcher
This article, “EGOsystems or ECOsystem in Education” by Adam Fletcher is available.

Part 2: Transformative Youth Engagement, Not Reform

Rachel Jackson is a youth advocate in California who once talked about the juvenile justice system, saying, “Our youth are not failing the system; the system is failing our youth. Ironically, the very youth who are being treated the worst are the young people who are going to lead us out of this nightmare.”

That was more than a decade ago, and since then her words have infiltrated the corridors of power. After successfully showing lawmakers, judges and other that…

  • The average daily cost of incarcerating a young person ($241) compared to that of an effective, community-based alternative-to-incarceration program ($75);
  • That Black youth are incarcerated in state-run youth prisons at five times the rate white youth are, and;
  • How 60,000 young people under 18 are incarcerated in juvenile facilities on any given day,

…organizations including the ACLU and others have declared that the juvenile justice system is beginning to change. There are other reasons, too, including corruption, violence and youth voice.

In my research, I’ve found that the juvenile justice system has began moving toward holistic, positive and transformative youth engagement. This is happening through the laws, legal bodies, and processes that are used to prosecute, convict, punish and rehabilitate young people who commit criminal offenses. Ultimately, transformation focuses on building the capacity of people, policies and programs throughout the juvenile justice system to engage young people in positive, purposeful and powerful ways.

Transforming systems is different from reforming or simply changing the courts, police, detention facilities or voters minds. Traditionally, youth/law interactions have been transactional in nature: You do something wrong, you get punished. Throughout time, these punishments have been largely arbitrary, demonstrating the racist, sexist, classist and adultist biases of legal systems across the country.

I propose moving away from transactional youth justice, and toward transformative youth engagement. That requires seeing the entire legal apparatus as a system, and working to radically reposition the culture, structure and individual attitudes within that system in order to foster meaningful youth engagement within and outside of juvenile justice. I’ve been studying work already underway, and from what I’ve learned about the place where I’m living, I believe change is coming across the entire country.

 


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Praising Student Voice

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There should never, ever be a grade, score, or test for student voice.

Reading over a recent report, the researchers suggested a measurement for student voice that accounted for participation and engagement, as well as depth and awareness. I was appalled, if only because of the asinine assumption that there is any student ever who hasn’t shared their voice about schools. That is simply not true.

ANY and EVERY expression of a student about school, learning, or education is student voice. That includes:

  • Students who speak up in class and verbally express their responses to teachers’ questions. They are no more valid than students who never speak up. They are different, but they’re not better than other students at sharing student voice.
  • Students who get into fights, pass notes, or text answers to tests under their desks. They are no less valid than students who wear suits and ties to share grandiose visions for education reform with adults. They are different, but they’re not worse at sharing student voice.

The reason for both of these is that both of them are examples of student voice. So are emails sent anonymously to schools, student government, research conducted, gossip, art murals, students presenting at school board meetings, graffiti on lockers, student leadership programs, student/teacher designed curriculum, students skipping class, and any other expression of students focused on schools, learning, or education.

The Problem with Praise

Adults tend to fetishize students who answer the right questions in the right ways at the right times. We put them on pedestals, place them in positions of authority over other students, and subject them to the utmost pressure to stay on the “right track” in adult-pleasing ways.

The problem with praising student voice is that it reinforces for students that there is a right way and a wrong way for students to express themselves about schools. There isn’t. Instead, there are alternative ways, each of which has a consequence. Currently, we don’t act that way because of adults’ fetishizing “good” student voice.

We do this for familiarity and consistency, because developmentally in the minds and hearts of adults, we yearn for consistency. Unfortunately, this goes against the grain of young peoples’ development, because, while they yearn for the acceptance of adults, they are seeking freedom and independence more.

Alternatives to Praising Student Voice

There is a different way.

The best position for student voice is to be unfettered and actively engaged throughout the school environment. This means that students should have a voice in how curriculum is developed; where schools are built; how teachers are evaluated; where education is evolving towards; when classes happen; why education is relevant; when they graduate; why teachers fail; where they learn most effectively; and so forth. There are so many places on the highest level of education.

However, there are more opportunities, chances for every student voice to be actively engaged throughout their days in school and throughout their lives outside of school, too. Students can share their experiences and ideas throughout classroom curriculum as a matter of good teaching practice, and student voice can be infused throughout classroom management activities, processes, and outcomes too. Building leaders can create particular opportunities for students to teach teachers about technology and culture in ways that position student voice as especially vital for teachers. Teacher coaches can help teachers understand the frameworks for meaningful student involvement that I’ve developed, and parents can engage their children in critical conversations about learning, teaching, and leading education, as well as voting and politics. Youth leaders can teach students about the importance of learning while learning from students themselves, while politicians can actually engage young people about education.

The opportunities for student voice are limitless because student voice itself is limitless. Are we ready to stop praising student voice, and to start engaging student voice in genuine and authentic ways instead?

 

Change: Outside→In, or Otherwise?

The ways we decide to try to change systems should reflect the outcomes we’re seeking. This is another way of saying the means are determined by the ends.

When looking at the systems in our society that we can change, it’s relatively easy to see there is an inside/outside situation, no matter what system. Some systems include healthcare, economy, education, law, religion, food, and governments. These are systems because they have a structure, there is a certain way they behave, and they are interconnected both within and outside themselves. I believe they’re changeable because we’re a market-based democratic society with multiple levels of social transformation. 

Some systems can change within themselves. Ones that change continuously and on purpose are called learning organizations. Others require outside motivations, and even learning organizations require that push sometimes.
There are many ways to see this how this change works. Here are three:
  • Inside→Inside: For a brief time in the mid-2000s, I worked with the renowned Peter Senge. His emphasis on systems thinking had waned, but he was definitely known for it, and still is. He was the first person to lay down the notion that a group that continuously supported individual workers’ growth and systems change was by definite a learning organization. In learning organizations, change comes from within. 
  • Outside→Outside: This perspective reflects those working outside a system to affect people outside the system who want to change the inside of the system. In this case, anyone not directly employed or deeply affected by the system is an outsider. People within the system can also be seen this way too, so long as they don’t adapt the system’s predominant characteristics.
  • Outside→Inside: Working outside a system to affect the inside of a system means making the system you’re trying to change the location of your work to change it. This is also directly working to affect system decision-makers, leaders, and advocates, as well as leading programs for workers and other subjects within the systems in order to show them why the system needs to change.

In my work over the last decade, I have ascribed to the latter of these options. However, I have also participated in the first and second options, too. There’s no single right way for all times and all occasions, and depending on your personal perspective, you might adapt any approach at any given time.
 
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

The House Youth Voice Built

A lot of organizations don’t know where to begin with Youth Voice. They complain that young people don’t attend their activities, or that youth who do show up don’t have a voice. Building Youth Voice requires a deliberate strategy for action and transformation.

Eight Building Blocks For Youth Voice
The following can be a checklist. If you want to engage Youth Voice in your youth-serving program or organization, ask yourself if you have the following building blocks.

The Foundation: A champion. 

Do you have an individual in your organization who is leading youth engagement efforts? This person needs to be a champion who is knowledgeable, committed, and shares the experiences of youth you’re targeting. This is the most important step.

The Concrete: Commitment. 
Does your organization’s Board of Directors value youth engagement beyond gestures or language by having 1/3 to 2/3rds of the seats on the Board filled by people under 30?
The Walls: Connectedness. 
Are 50% of your Board members from the local neighborhood you’re serving? If you’re serving an entire city or county, do you recruit members reflecting the racial and socio-economic diversity of your area?

The Siding: Attachment. 
Have you hired local youth or young adults into relevant positions within your organization? They must have local high school experiences and direct interaction with young people, and relevant training.

The Front Door: Relevance. 
Does your organization have great programs relevant to youth in your area? They need a variety of educational, social, recreational, and other opportunities to be who they are, and to feel seen by your organization.

The Interior Design: Fun.
Do staff provide purely fun and social activities with no hidden agenda of selling them other programs or your organization’s goals? Do they fuse fun into the regular operating activities of the program?

The Yard: Broadening. 
Do your youth programs connect young people beyond just your programs for them? Do they have opportunities to learn or play with adults, participate in community conversations, or do substantive activities with diverse community members?

The Sidewalk: Building. 
No matter what your goals are, does your program seek to acknowledge the skills and knowledge young people already have and build upon them?

This is what has worked for the organizations CommonAction has worked with as we’ve founded more than 100 Youth Voice projects and programs in communities around the world.

What doesn’t work is using the same thinking that created the problem of youth disengagement to try to engage Youth Voice in your program or organization. Everything you’re doing is surely a necessary part of positive youth development, but just continuing on that pathway isn’t enough. Youth programs and youth-serving organizations cannot just be about any one issue anymore, and everyone has to focus on youth engagement. Engaging Youth Voice is a prime avenue to youth engagement. However, without these building blocks in place, young people will not be with you.

Finally, lead by example. Young people are watching everything you do right now, no matter who you are or what you do within your organization, community, or throughout your life. If you’re an aloof executive director who doesn’t make time to connect with youth in your organization’s programs, youth in your program will be that way too. If you’re a hyper-busy program worker with too much on their plate and little support, young people in your program will know that. So check yourself and lead by example.

Every program and organization can successfully engage Youth Voice, and its our ethical responsibility to do that. What are you gonna do today?!?

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