Leelah’s Murder Is OUR Fault

Leelah Alcorn’s death was practically a murder. It shows how America’s legal system, which enshrines parental rights above children’s rights, has killed another young person.

More importantly though, we need to see that Leelah’s murder is our fault. We have not done enough, taught enough, said enough, or worked hard enough to stop this horror from happening. And it is a horror, and it was preventable.

Discrimination Against Youth

Leelah’s story shows us- yet again- the discrimination against youth that seems inherent in our society. The horribly preventable circumstance that led to Leelah’s death are unfortunately the norm for every single American youth today, regardless of how they identify. The fact that Leelah identified as trans exacerbated that reality for her. Follow me: Every single American youth today is targeted in the most malicious ways throughout society simply for being young. This is the case whether they are cis, straight or queer; wealthy, poor or working class; academically gifted, creatively driven or athletically poised. Youth are singularly denied their rights, oppressed for their identities, conscripted for their abilities, and completely downtrodden because of their because of their ages and our society. And its merely and entirely about their age.

Add distinguishing factors to their age such as race, gender identity, socio-economic class, and academic ability, and youth move from being “merely” enslaved to entirely oppressed. The enslaving factory of this adultocracy is so deeply entrenched that parents, teachers, youth workers and many many people who call themselves youth allies merely perpetuate it without ever knowing it. My book focuses on helping these individuals see beyond their own lenses and aspire to be something greater.

Personal Action

The most effective piece of this article focuses on you. Its what David Bond from The Trevor Project said at the end of the piece:

However, Bond told me, even just one supportive adult in a LGBT teen’s life decreases suicidal ideation. “Be consistent in that person’s life and check in in a genuine way – and don’t be afraid to ask if they’re thinking of killing themselves,” Bond advised would-be allies.

“There’s a misconception that if you ask the question you’re going to put the idea in someone’s head. But it’s more often a helpful question than a harmful one.”

Whatever the answer – and I believe more states banning so-called conversion therapy and easier legal and financial avenues for emancipation, especially for older teens, should be a big part of that – we need more action now.

“A year feels like forever when you’re young,” PFLAG’s Sanchez told me. It’s no longer good enough to remind LGBT kids that “it gets better”. We need to figure out more legal, safe alternatives for those who can’t wait that long.


Everyone of us can take action and do something about this, but we have to face the reality that everyone of us is responsible for Leelah’s death (and the unnoted deaths of so many other American youth) first, and then work from that place. THAT is the work to do, no matter who we are.

And none of that is meant to take away, minimize or otherwise continue the oppression of trans, cis, or anyone who identifies as “other” throughout society. Its meant to highlight the compounding factors that are attempting to decimate peoples’ senses of ability, possibility and hope. We can do better than mere survival, and Leelah’s story demonstrates another way that can happen. Each of us can take action.

Legal Action

America’s legal system must act to do several things:

  • Stop allowing abusive parents to kill youth;
  • Stop devious judges from profiteering off youth imprisonment;
  • Stop racist and classist educators from reinforcing the school-to-prison pipeline;
  • Stop social workers from placing youth in harms way;
  • Stop police from arbitrarily enforcing laws against youth;
  • Change laws to allow all youth everywhere to choose their living situations;
  • Develop a guaranteed income for all youth, everywhere;
  • Prevent youth oppression by acknowledging the full personhood of children and youth from birth.

When these things happen, horrific and preventable deaths like what happened to Leelah Alcorn will not happen again. But not before then. If you really want to change the situation, join the struggle to end discrimination against young people.

Thanks, Kate, for calling me to write about this.

Six Reasons Youth Disengage

After almost 15 years of consulting nonprofits, K-12 schools, and government agencies across the United States and Canada, last year I took a position coordinating a dropout prevention program in the Pacific Northwest. Hungry to examine a different support system for youth I wasn’t familiar with, I chose this program because it supports young people ages 14 to 24 who are re-engaging in school, training, and the workforce.

Since then, I’ve had the privilege of partnering with dozens of agencies serving thousands of youth. Meeting young people of all ages, working with seasoned and new youth workers and agency leaders, and learning new insights into youth disengagement and dropout have highlighted my experience so far.

For all my years of consulting, I’ve focused on youth engagement in communities and student voice in schools. I learned a lot through my research and practice, and from colleagues across the nation and around the world. However, I’ve had many new lessons in my current position, too.

So many people are working so diligently to engage youth in society, or re-engage them in culture-building activities, completing school, getting training, finding employment, recreation, or civic engagement activities. So why are youth still making the conscious choice to leave these programs? Here are six reasons youth disengage.

 

Six Reasons Youth Disengage

1. Youth Are Taught To See Themselves As Failures. Between parents who are too busy or too depressed to care, teachers who are too overwhelmed to focus on them, and lawmakers too beholden to give them the supports they need to succeed, many youth are actually taught to see themselves as failures. That comes from the culture surrounding them, including tv and music; schools they attended, including teachers and curriculum; and the social safety net that allows them fall to low, low heights.

2. Many Adults Have Given Up On Many Youth. Driven by standardized testing, mandatory evaluations, prescripted youth programs, and byzantine policies, many youth workers, teachers, government officials, and others have given up on many of the youth they’re supposed to serve. Instead of believing “youth are the future”, they believe youth are merely numbers to achieve program goals, or ineffective contributors to the economy, civic society, and world around them.

3. Traditional Youth Activities Serve Traditionally Engaged Youth, And Fail Everyone Else. Youth leadership, community service, and even traditional youth empowerment programs actually fail to serve a lot of young people today! Too reliant on youth complacency and obedience, these programs are failing to foster modern thinking, implement accurate strategies, and create successful cultures that engage disengaged youth. This is happening in epidemic proportions in many, many communities, especially affecting low-income youth and youth of color.

4. Most Adults Expect Youth To Change To Meet Today’s Needs. Rather than acknowledging that the economy is changing, the job market is realigning, and needs and wants are different now than ever before, most adults expect young people to change to meet today’s needs in the economy. This is carryover thinking from an old education model, which sought to mold students into the types of learners teachers were capable of teaching. This is a disingenuous perspective, because the future economy depends on nimble thinking, transformative action, and creative realities.

5. Youth Engagement Isn’t Really The Goal. When most adults talk about youth engagement, they’re actually talking about youth obedience. They want young people to comply with the expectations, values, perspectives, and realities of adults, and not their own. They couch their expectations by talking about activities being youth-led or youth-driven, but in reality, they only make programs for youth who comply with adult expectations or desires. In this way, they seek conformity, not engagement.

6. They Are Already Engaged. Whether or not adults want to see it, youth are already engaged right now. They are 100% human, choosing where, how, when, and why they want to engage. Albeit, they might be engaged in things adults don’t approve of, including sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, or any of a plethora of other activities (smoking, video games, graffiti, basketball, driving, etc). This shows that youth engagement isn’t limited to things adults approve of them doing; youth engagement isn’t just compliance. Instead, its any sustained connection a young person has to the world around them. Adults need to learn that simply because youth aren’t engaged how adults want to be doesn’t automatically invalidate the things youth are engaged in. Instead, it challenges us to meet them where they’re at, instead of insisting they come to where we want them to be.

 

These six reasons have sunk into my skin slowly, because I’ve done these things too, whether inadvertently or on purpose. However, I believe its our responsibility as ethical practitioners—youth workers, teachers, social workers, government officials, and community leaders—to respond to the need for authentic youth engagement.

What steps can you take to ensure youth stay in schools and our community programs?

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.

No Ms. Smith, There’s No Such Thing As Troubled Youth

Dear Ms. Smith,

I recently read your blog the other day about “troubled youth”, and felt compelled to respond.

I know you meant well, but the way you framed the problem was diminutive and belittling of the teens you are talking about. Unfortunately, most writers do it this way, because that’s the way mainstream society frames the argument.

I take umbrage with this, because there isn’t a youth on this planet who is “troubled”. There are a lot of incapable adults who are ignorant of how to reach young people of all kinds. I’m not saying those as mean words either, but as accurate descriptors.

These adults are parents who don’t know how to parent, teachers who don’t know how to teach, a society that doesn’t know how to be a community.

That doesn’t make the situations they’re in the fault of these so-called troubled youth, but of the society we share. It’s our problem. We’re the troubled ones, especially the voters who allow services to go unfunded and the politicians who are beholden to the prisons where “those kids” get sent off to, or the service industry jobs they end up in for a lifetime of indentured servitude.

They aren’t troubled youth; we’re a troubled society. We need to accept that responsibility. As Jiddu Krishnamurti wrote, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

These young people could be canaries in a cave, as it were. What are they telling us?

Sincerely,

 – Adam

Post Script: It was just announced that George Zimmerman is not guilty of six charges in the murder of Trayvon Martin. I will let this post stand as my tribute to that situation, and will write more at a later date.

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