For Fighters: Do More, Please.

My friends, these are perilous times we’re living through. They began more than a decade ago, and my seven-year-old daughter has lived her entire life through the worst of them. Wars, terrible unemployment, increasing violence, floundering education systems, huge government cuts, failing social welfare… these are tough times. Of course, you already know this because you are living through these times, too. No matter what your station in life, as a youth or parent, teacher or business tycoon, you have felt the impact. Those with fewer resources at the beginning have felt it most. The reports keep pouring in, too, that things are bad and getting worse all the time.

A lot of people find themselves wondering what they can do to change things. A lot of us read self-help books about changing our lives, watch do-it-yourself shows about fixing our things, and look to hopeful movies to get regular injections of positivity in grim times. Other folks are simply throwing their hands up in frustration and giving up. It’s tough being out of work for months at a time, having to rely on friends and family for charity and understanding, or simply for support while you bite your fingernails at the prospect of layoffs at work. Television offers salve, and hikes through the woods calm your soul when it’s most worked up. But for you and I, these things aren’t enough, none of them.

We are fighters. Growing up in fat times, we learned quickly to wean ourselves from the dependence many people have on exterior recognition, internal placation, and cultural subjugation. We became vegans, bought locally, and drove less. We shared meals and greeted strangers, volunteered and opened nonprofits, and wrestled with the social demons that a lot of people ignored. When I started traveling to light up the youth movement, you took a job as a social worker, you brought up three kids on your own, and you helped people learn about how to take care of themselves. Thank you for what you have done and what you are doing right now. We are fighters, and we have been doing great things.

However, our ranks seem to be surrounded, and the enemy seems to be moving in. How can we simply keep going? My answer is this: We don’t. We don’t give in, we don’t give up, we don’t turn around, and we don’t just keep on keeping on. Now is the time to switch up our style and go faster, further, and more; now is the future.

If you have been working with youth, work with them more.
If you have been raising your own kids to be active, start teaching them to be activists.
If you are a teacher, teach better.
If you are a fighter, fight harder.

We need more education for everyone, everywhere, all the time. More hungry mouths exist than ever before- take personal responsibility for feeding them. Offer rides to strangers, especially if they are moms with flocks of kids standing at bus stops in the rain. If you have power, make jobs and employ the unemployed- not people who are hopping from one job to the next, but the unemployed. Lend friends and family anything you can. Share dinner at your house, volunteer at the food bank, talk to the stranger on your way to coffee. Teach a class at the library in your favorite topic, or find your local free school. But do more, please.


Here are Five Steps to Change the World, NOW.

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

Funding Youth

The question is coming more and more often. For almost the entire decade I’ve been running The Freechild Project website, I’ve been flattered to be a resource to youth-serving organizations around the world who are looking for resources- especially money. But now it’s coming more often. And for a long time the majority of these requests have come from African nations who were looking to move forward – but now that tide has turned, and the majority of the requests for information and resources are coming from the US, Canada, and European nations.

I am not a funder, and The Freechild Project has no money to give.

However, I have worked hard to collect a significant list of resources for youth-led activism, which are located on Freechild’s page on “Funding Social Change Led By and With Young People.” The other thing that I’d add is that I have operated Freechild as a not-for-profit learning website for a decade, all along the way seeking to find the best way to sustain this venture. Working in nonprofits for 10 years before that, and while running CommonAction as a 501c3 nonprofit, I became rapidly familiar with the problems inherent in funding youth work of all kinds, and particularly with youth involvement. There are VERY LIMITED streams of money to support youth involvement, youth voice, youth activism, and youth engagement. Period. Those that do exist are extremely limited, and extremely small amounts, relevant to the overall field.

So I’m going to suggest two things to anyone working on funding youth involvement:

Read those links and think about what I’m talking about. Then reply to this post or email me directly with your thoughts – adam@commonaction.org

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

Co-Opting the Radical Instinct

In summer 2000, Tom Hayden released the following essay. It’s powerful historical revelation still moves me, and may help you understand further what we’re up against. Even if you don’t see yourself as a radical, read it – it can help anyone in nonprofits, schools, and throughout our communities. – Adam

Co-opting the Radical Instinct, by Tom Hayden.

I think that you all might want to know something about how the other side sees you.

There’s a study done by the Cattlemen’s Society. Now, you may think they’re an irrelevant, marginal group, but they’re quite crucial to the frontier mentality that built this great country on the backs of the native people. They are a big special interest group, and they pay good money to find out who these activists are. A few years ago they did a study. The question was: How do we contain and stop this direct action movement? It wasn’t called the direct action movement then; it was the civil disobedience movement, the protesters, the environmentalists, all the rabble that they were concerned about at the time.

They created a chart. At one end were the radicals, defined as people who believe that the system itself has to be changed. A radical would he anybody who understands that globalization is a system with many fronts and many issues. Their prescription for the radicals was to isolate and discredit them, not because there was something inherently radical in their behavior, but because they were pointing out that it was a system. So, the first goal, they said, was to discredit the radical analysis.

The second group on the spectrum were the idealists. These are people who want to give the system a chance. They believe in the same social justice values that the radicals do, but they’re idealistic; they don’t have a cold, cynical view that nothing is possible under the system. So, it’s extremely important, the study said, that the idealists don’t become radicals. In order to keep this from happening, you raise the stakes of radicalism so that people are afraid to become radical, because they then get smeared, discredited, and worse. You have to give the idealists occasional victories in order to keep their hope in the system alive.

Third on this continuum came the pragmatists. The pragmatists are former idealists who’ve won some victories, who start to believe that the system works. So, they said, it’s extremely important for the idealists to have victories — not because of justice, but because that way they become pragmatists. And you want the pragmatists to be able to say: See? The system works. Be pragmatic.

And the final part of the spectrum — the culmination of your future, if you follow this plan — is that you can become an opportunist. An opportunist is a former pragmatist. An opportunist, they said, is a pragmatist who gets attracted to the money, the glamour, the status, and the power. And then they had a whole workshop on how this could be done. How to discredit the radicals, cultivate the idealists, make them pragmatists, and then find the opportunists among the pragmatists. And there — you have the story of my generation, the 60s generation.

You have millions of people who have radical instincts but little expectation, who have lowered their expectation. You have millions of people who are former idealists, who have become pragmatists. And you have plenty of people who are opportunists. My question is: How can you break this cycle? It’s the most important cycle to break. You can’t break the cycle of poverty; you can’t break the cycle of violence; you can’t break the cycle of corporate expansion; you can’t break the cycle of the arms race; you can’t break the cycle of imprisonment, if you don’t break the cycle by which radicals are isolated, idealists are turned into pragmatists, and pragmatists into opportunists. I have not found an answer to this problem, but I’m here to tell you it is the problem. And you are its answer.

Tom Hayden cofounded Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1959, and in the early 1960s he co-authored the highly-influential Port Huron Statement. After the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, he was indicted with the Chicago Seven and later acquitted. Tom Hayden is currently a state senator from Los Angeles and has authored over 175 measures, including animal welfare, campaign finance, education, environmental, prison reform, and worker safety initiatives.

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

Evolving Roles for Young People in Democracy

“Education should not be the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a flame.” – William Butler Yates

In the early 1800s it was common for non-enslaved Blacks in the United States to take the last name “Freeman” as a testimony to their freedom. Since that time young people have become bound by the ongoing structuring of society, through school, afterschool programs, church activities, and family life. These shared legacies led a group of youth activists and allies to create a new youth empowerment resource organization called The Freechild Project in April 2001. Today, Freechild is an internationally-renowned advocacy organization.

 


About Freechild

Freechild’s mission is to advocate, inform, and celebrate social change led by and with young people around the world. The organization serves as a not-for-profit learning space, think tank, resource center, and advocacy group that facilitates networking, training, resource-sharing, and technical assistance for young people and youth-serving organizations around the world.

By establishing a network of local and national organizations that includes Gateways for Incarcerated Youth at The Evergreen State College, Fremont Public Association in Seattle, National Youth Rights Association in Washington, DC, and the United Nations Development Programme in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Freechild has reached tens of thousands of young people and their adult allies around the world. We have created dozens of unique publications, resource databases, and popular education workshops that promote children, youth, and adults working as equal partners in democratic social change.

Freechild believes that as a collective body within a global community, children and youth around the world are subject to segregation, alienation, and injustice without parallel. Further, as members of distinct ethnic, racial, and socio-economic groups, many young people suffer unequalled oppression as the targets of genocide, hunger, and war. It is no wonder that in these times when the health of democracy is sacrificed for commercial gain and familial vendetta, many people find it hard to have hope.

 


Building the World House

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of the “World House,” it is almost certain that he didn’t intend for children and youth to inherit a decrepit house, slipped from its foundation, stripped of its siding, plastered with billboards, and crumbling apart inside.

What is that slipped foundation upon which the World House is built? Is it a higher authority charged with morality and righteousness, or a man-made composite of economy and education, government and military? The Freechild Project believes that it is Community, that common connection of diverse people for a collective purpose. The citizens of modern communities tend to neglect or deny that collective purpose; worse still, many people deny that young people have any purpose at all.

Popular culture seems to exacerbate this situation repeatedly by constantly railing against youth. While corporate marketing to children and youth infiltrates every facet of our culture, movies simultaneously glamorize and degrade the collective image of young people today. Two recent books summarize young people today as “The Scapegoat Generation,” and as “The Abandoned Generation,” while a popular website portrays them as a shapeless, placeless, and an unknowable “Fluid Generation.”

Other culprits to perpetuating negative stereotypes about youth include politicians and government officials who continually attempt to pin vandalism, loitering, and other crime on young people. It is ironic that this demonization actually benefits, and is sometimes perpetuated by, the very nonprofit agencies that purport to provide prevention and intervention programs for young people. Finally, in this period of federally-mandated and locally-supported standardized testing, it is of little surprise that children and youth themselves are often blamed for the failures of the education system. This, despite the reality that most students never have the actual opportunity to make significant decisions or advocate for what is important to themselves in schools.

Demonstrating the wisdom of youth, one young leader recently said, “I’ve never met an apathetic young person, [but] I’ve met a lot of hopeless and discouraged young people, who think that they are not big enough to change things.” This assessment summarizes the raison d’etre of dozens of youth-driven groups in Washington today. Benefiting communities across the state, young people and their adult allies are working together to engage children and youth as social justice activists, action researchers, community planners, popular educators, democratic decision-makers, and as empowered advocates as never before. They are calling for the knowledge, experience, ideas and opinions of young people to get heard now, for their own benefit and for the benefit of democracy.

The issues that young people are addressing across today are as diverse as the children and youth who are engaged. Coming from every walk in society, young people are addressing issues of economic injustice, racism, education reform, sustainable agriculture, disproportionate incarceration, affordable housing, gay youth rights, lowering the voting age, homelessness, among hundreds of topics. Their action is sophisticated, appropriate, and increasingly sustainable; by creating media, joining community boards, distributing foundation funding, creating global technology networks, activating the hip hop community, and politicizing traditional youth programs, young social change agents are radically transforming two pillars of society’s treatment of children and youth: namely, adults’ expectations and the role of young people in democracy.

It is said two different people will rarely interpret a master’s art the same way. Social change led by and with young people usually has the same effect. Some adults scoff at children and youth who lead action, declaring their actions idealistic and simplistic, while many others maintain the standard of ignoring their contributions totally. Some see young social change agents as anarchists and rebels, while others see them as peons and kiss-ups. Fortunately for our society as a whole, still other adults proclaim that engaging young people is a matter of effectiveness, civil rights, youth development, and ultimately, ensuring democracy.

 


Examples from the Evergreen State

The following examples from Washington can provide a proving ground for readers to decide for themselves what this action really is.

The Olympia Youth/Teen New Media Fest seeks to foster the vitality of the Olympia community by providing a venue for vivacious and creative youth. This festival is a weekend long celebration of youth-teen culture; showcasing films, videos, comic books and zines, websites, spoken word and bands made and performed by folks 21 and younger. Young people express their opinions, ideas, knowledge and experience by becoming the creators of media that reflects their true beliefs.

Anak Bayan is a collective founded in 2000 by Filipino and Filipino American youth and students who are concerned about the global oppression of their people. According to their website they study and educate others about the culture and heritage of the Filipino people. They also study, expose, and oppose US imperialist intervention in the Philippines. Through this action, the young people in Anak Bayan are engaged as teachers and advocates, and are driving social change that can enrich our state’s cultural heritage and promote social justice for all people.

A nonprofit organization in Kent, Washington is engaging young people as advocates for democracy through poetry/nonviolence workshops. The Institute for Community Leadership (ICL) works to empower children and youth to create a vision of a more just nation and world. Their website, www.icleadership.org, features stories of programs that develop and sustain strength, hope, leadership, and relationships for young people and adults in schools, community organizations, and governmental programs.

A variety of communities across the state have opportunities for young people to engage in government decision-making activities. Cities including Lacey, Colville, Kirkland, Vancouver, and Spokane have youth councils that engage diverse young people in making important and meaningful decisions affecting youth throughout their communities. Several American Indian tribes in Washington also have opportunities for youth to participate in decision-making activities, including Port Gamble S’Klallam tribe, Yakama Nation, and Muckleshoot tribe.

The Seattle Young Peoples Project (SYPP) is perhaps the most vibrant organization in Washington state providing opportunities for young people to lead social change. Their fifteen-year-old organization has provided resources and support to youth-led initiatives throughout the city that have engaged thousands of young people, including conferences, workshops, concerts, and more. Their activities reflect the diversity of Seattle’s youth: whether focusing on queer youth rights, African immigrant youth solidarity, or young womens’ empowerment, SYPP continues to be a powerful example of the effectiveness and ability of youth-led social action across Washington.

The benefits to democracy in Washington, across the United States, and around the world are innumerable.

 


Stay Awake to Youth

Social change led by and with young people provides individual children and youth with important opportunities to experience and impact democracy first-hand; allows adults the chance to relax and learn from young people by working with them, instead of for them; and it gives our communities hope by developing lifelong expectations and opportunities for everyone. One of those expectations is that there are communities worth living in for everyone, including youth. One of those opportunities is that democracy needs to be constantly reinvigorated through social change.

In his last book before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote,

“One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. Today, our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.”

Activists, educators, youth workers, young people, and all people across Washington must stay awake and vigilant to the challenges facing society today. The need to strengthen democracy has never been greater, and the resources have never been so limited. Communities can no longer afford to ignore the power of children and youth, either morally or fiscally. As Henry Giroux writes, “The stakes have never been so high and the future so dark.” Young people provide light in that darkness – let’s encourage their flames to grow.

 


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Each Others’ Dreams

In my decade-long exploration of the motivations of service, I have found several different keys to understanding why people help people. One of the pinnacle reasons is solidarity. For several years I have struggled to explain the premise of solidarity, because being too basic under-emphasizes the extreme nature of solidarity. It’s deep, man! What I’ve come to say is that solidarity is the completely mutual, completely holistic sharing of benefits and struggles between people for the purpose of mutually benefiting everyone involved.

I first understood solidarity at the insistence of a best friend and colleague named Heather Manchester. Heather, who has long been involved in the struggle for youth power, has long cited Ecuadorian author Eduardo Galeano, who once wrote that, “Unlike solidarity, which is horizontal and takes place between equals, charity is top-down, humiliating those who receive it and never challenging the implicit power relations.” This juxtaposition helped me “get” solidarity, and since I first began reflecting on it ten years ago, I’ve come to understand it much better.

Today I was listen to John Legend and The Roots play Marvin Gaye’s beautiful classic, “Wholy Holy,” and with his lyric I came to understand a new definition of solidarity, one that I can readily wrap my heart and arms around: Solidarity is living in each others’ dreams.

This is the pinnacle of youth/adult partnerships.

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

Waiting, or Working?

I’m flying right now and thinking about my roots in youth engagement. One of those roots grew about 20 years ago when I was a teenager living in Omaha, Nebraska. The year I was 15 I was invited to go to Chicago for an anti-youth violence conference. It was my first conference, my first airplane ride, and my first youth action training.

My neighborhood was torn up my youth violence, with drive-bys and getting jumped as daily staples of our social reality. The news slammed us, too, constantly portraying our blocks as terrible and terrifying. If I’d known differently I might’ve agreed; but I didn’t- this was my home and I was tired of the parents of my school friends who wuldn’t let their kids come to my house because it was in “that” neighborhood.

I live far away from that neighborhood now- but my memories are fresh in my imagination. I remember my little sister’s friend Fish who was as powerful a leader as any I’ve ever met even though his skills were mostly applied in dealing illicit narcotics. There were my best friends Joe and Tracy who dropped out of Scouts as soon as they realized it wasn’t cool – even though they were as good, if not better than me, and should’ve got Eagle Scout, too. The stories in my family, among our friends, and throughout that neighborhood stay here, too. They keep me company in long state government meetings, during marathon writing sessions, and on another cross-country flight, like right now.

I can’t sit waiting, hoping that some other reality will come along and steal my imagination to make me it’s own. Instead, I continue to work, giving room for my memories to meet my present, and allowing my past to inform my future. How about you- are you waiting, or working?

— This is Adam Fletcher’s blog originally posted at http://www.YoungerWorld.org. For more see http://www.bicyclingfish.com

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

Connecting Youth Rights and Youth Involvement

There is a moral imperative inherent in youth rights and youth involvement. Rather than seeing the situation as a purely charitable consideration, or a civic responsibility, I believe it is a soul-wrenching mistake to deny young people the full rights of citizenship, effectively making them second class citizenry. That’s because denying anyone is wrong.

It is from this place that I want to propose an economic strategy to bring awareness and conscientiousness to the related, but not identical, movements for youth rights and youth involvement. The youth rights movement is primarily concerned with securing more civil rights for youth – the rights to voting, better education, etc. The youth involvement movement focuses on the same, but more along the lines of systemic integration that focuses on more youth councils, more youth forums, youth research, youth teachers, etc. The commonality between these two movements is that they both focus on participatory rights for young people, rather than the right to protection, which is what many old-line children’s rights organizations focus on.

Because of this commonality of these efforts I propose that the connection between these two movements be made more explicit and drawn more acutely. This would mean identifying the key principles that connect the two arenas connection, and drawing out the opportunities for collaboration and communication.

Later I will post a draft set of principles I am proposing in order to begin this dialog. I’d love to know what you think!

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

On Youth Involvement in Social Justice Movements

In 2003 I was interviewed by a doctoral candidate at an Ivy League school for her dissertation on youth involvement in social justice movements. Following are some thoughts I shared with her worth sharing.

Question: So many of a person’s ideas and opinions about the world change- sometimes radically- over the course of childhood and adolescence. In your experience, how old does a person generally need to be before their understanding of issues is “sound”? Have you known children who were, say, younger than 8, who you felt had firmly-grounded and informed opinions of social justice issues?

Adam: I have learned that a person’s depth of understanding about social justice isn’t limited to age.  As a youth I had a lot of friends who had deep experiences with discrimination, alienation, and segregation; lacking the verbiage to express their oppression, they turned to the language of action, creating community in gangs, generating income with drugs, expressing frustration through graffiti.  Conversely, I’ve sat in rooms full of adult educators and youth workers and listened to self-proclaimed “youth advocates” pontificate about “us” and “them,” while they launched into diatribes about the ways young people act, dress, and talk…  Ignorance knows no age, either. 

In my experience, the “soundness” of an individual’s understanding about social justice is directly related to the amount of critical reflection they have engaged in.  This can be both self- and community-reflection that questions our assumptions, values, and perspectives as we’ve experienced them in our own life.  Paulo Freire, an acclaimed father of popular education, long espoused the necessity for oppressed peoples to critically examine their own actions as well as those of their oppressors.  I have shared this experience with several groups of young people in their teens, and have heard about it done with younger people.  The results of this may lead in many directions, including the “firm-groundedness” of which you speak.  Many educators, including authors Ivan Illich and John Holt, have cited other outcomes, including broadened questioning of schools, government structures, and other social institutions.  Personally, I’ve gained deeper ownership, commitment, and hope for the future through critical reflection.

Regarding your question about denoting an age of understanding, I think that there is a particular danger in saying, “[X] is the age.”  That would give many adults permission to continue bombarding young people with the purposeless and meaningless activities that fill so much of their time already.  I have seen extremely young people with extremely intelligent perspectives about social change; and again, I’ve seen many adults with extremely shallow understandings.  Age shouldn’t be the determining factor for engaging people in social change work; interest and investment should be.

Question: It’s very common to see young children holding signs or shouting slogans at all sorts of social and political actions — from KKK rallies to pro-life demonstrations to anti-war marches. How would you distinguish between adults allowing and encouraging children to share their voice, and adults using children as propaganda for their own causes?

Adam: I think that by focusing on the whether young peoples’ involvement is authentic, a lot of adults are let “off the hook” because they don’t know how to give children and youth their own space to speak, or how to engage them in community space.  This is a form of scapegoating that easily reinforces the supposed “enigma” of involving young people.

The real questions here may be, “Do we really want to hear the voice of young people?” and “Are we really looking for young people who take risks and make decisions?” 

After all, getting our adult ideas out of young people’s mouths is a ventriloquist’s trick, not a sign of meaningful involvement and young people’s autonomy.  As a whole, society has so many attitudinal and structural barriers to young people’s participation that the question of whether or not young people participate at all needs to be answered first. 

Another question that should be asked is why are we considering young peoples’ involvement in protests and rallies, and not their further infusion throughout the “movement” as a whole?  Where are young people in the planning and decision-making processes?  In the recruitment and training of organizers and participants?  My experience has shown me that it is vital to young peoples’ participation to move beyond tokenism and decoration, and their further involvement as leaders, teachers, and organizers throughout social justice. 

I have found that youth involvement in activism is regularly trivialized by well-meaning adults who, without conscious effort, often perpetuate discrimination through “ageism,” patently denying young people the opportunity to participate meaningfully simply because of their age.  The movement for peace and social justice must move from seeing children and youth as decorations and start seeing them as partners.

The Freechild Project’s webpage at http://freechild.org/SIYI is packed with useful tips on how to involve young people throughout organizations and activism.

 Question: When the U.S. underwent school desegregation, armed guards sometimes had to escort children into school lest they be attacked. During anti-apartheid demonstrations in the 1970s, white anti-riot police were photographed beating child protesters with clubs. Even in non-violent demonstrations, people are often injured by objects thrown by counter-protesters, or merely because of crowding. So children involved in actions have, in some instances, faced real threats to their safety. Do you think that it’s appropriate for children’s safety to be put at risk by involving them in marches, picketing, and similar actions?

Adam: As a way of re-envisioning this question, let me ask: Is it appropriate that in the richest country in the world, every night tens of thousands of kids go to sleep without a roof over their head?  Is it appropriate that there are sweatshops across the U.S. that rely on child labor, 60 years after it was banned? Millions of young people across the country routinely attend schools that are falling apart, go to classes with teachers who are apathetic to their students and underpaid for their work, and rely on leadership from politicians who attend to their highest bidder instead of their constituencies.  Are any of those situations appropriate?  In many cases it has been up to young people to bring adults’ attention to issues of injustice. In one particularly poignant example, young people in the Philadelphia Students Union have led their communities in organizing for increased school funding, alternative school curricula, teacher pay raises, and more.

Another poignant example from the civil rights movement:  In 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. explicitly allowed and encouraged young people to march along with him for the first time during protests in Birmingham, Alabama.  On May 2, 1963, over one thousand black children descended upon Birmingham. Close to nine hundred students were arrested, but a reserve army of close to twenty-five hundred demonstrated the following day. Bull Connor, who had up until this point “restrained” from violence against protesters, ordered firemen to use their hoses on the protesters and onlookers. As the youth fled from the power of the hoses, Connor directed officers and their dogs to pursue them.  Guard dogs were sent into the crowd.  Because people saw pictures on television and in newspapers, the whole world was horrified.  A month later President Kennedy said he was introducing a civil rights bill to Congress that promised freedom for all.  While no singular act moved Kennedy to take action, the images of children and youth being treated savagely pushed the majority of Americans over the edge.  For the first time the average white American saw that the ravages of racism reached beyond the grown African Americans of the South and into the youngest members of society.  Was putting those young peoples’ safety at risk worth it to the movement? 

And therein lies the crux of the issue – whether or not young people truly understand why they are protesting.  Similar to many adults, children and youth often believe that they are doing something for the “good” of doing it, often without exploring the meaning or purpose of their actions.  This is how missionary-style service work has grown so popular in the U.S.  Many community-based organizations actually exploit the oppressions of low-income communities and people of color in order to further their “service” work!  In many of these same organizations young people are used as “safe” volunteers, picking up trash, serving homeless people meals, coloring pictures for grocery stores and politicians to hang in their windows.  Is this meaningful activism?  No.  Is it “safe”?  Yes.  Are young people told that it is valuable?  Sure!  And these things do have value – to the adults who are leading the activities they reinforce their power over children!  To the recipients of the service they exhibit young peoples’ “proper” places in society (seen and not heard, etc).  While this sounds sarcastic, I hope you understand the point I’m trying to make: young people need to be seen and heard.  A youth-led organization in the San Francisco Bay area has a t-shirt slogan I love, “Young people can be the leaders of tomorrow – if we procrastinate.”  And that’s the truth.

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

Is This A Movement?

One of the realities of this work focused on youth engagement/youth voice/youth involvement/youth empowerment is that it is going on everywhere, and it has been going on for a long time. Traveling the country for the last ten years I have seen a consistent surge of energy, only to be tampered now, during this economic downturn. But even now these efforts linger, waiting… But the existence of a bunch of stuff in a bunch of places doesn’t necessarily make it a movement, does it?

Recently several authors and theorists have posed the idea that movements today exist without leaders, per se. Theorists Negri and Hardt’s 2004 book, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, took that idea at its core to explain the rise of resistance around the world at that time. Seth Godin’s Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, takes what is essentially the same concept and applies it to business. In thinking about all I’ve seen with these efforts across the country and around the world, I wonder if we need to take a similar tact in describing this “movement,” too.

Some of you may remember a meeting I hosted in Washington, D.C. five years ago where I asked the same question as the title of this entry. We came to no conclusions then – but I’m closer. Stay tuned!

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

How Should We Engage Kids of Privilege?

The Internet, television, the mall… there are so many forces that apparently distract young people in America today. How do we go about engaging young people with access, authority and what seems to be power in creating positive, powerful social change?


As I wrote about yesterday all youth need to be actively engaged in this work of positively changing society, no matter what socio-economic stratus they come from. Engulfed by the rigamarole of popular society, many young people appear to be without a care for the world. They seem disconnected and unenthusiastic about the prospect of changing the world; rather, they’re concentrated on the immediate and the selfish. This is not intended to be an indictment of a generation or social class; rather, I base these observations on what many of the 1000s of adults I’ve worked with over the years focused on the topic of re-envisioning the roles of young people throughout society.


Before we address a problem we must name it. I believe that children and youth who are surrounded by stuff are faced with a more dire situation than we credit them for: given their inability to see the world beyond their immediate wants, they are effectively suffering a deficiency of interdependence, and are deprived the joy and authentic connectivity of community. It’s as if their neural receptors for empathy were severed young, or smothered as they grew. Maybe the televisions and computers and gameboys and new clothes and pantry constantly full of food and toys and stuff simply stifles the sense of urgency, connectivity and responsibility all people are inherently born feeling. At the same time, a growing number of these young people go forward with the successes of our culture: They become student council presidents and football captains; they lead service learning projects and vote when they’re 18. Others never connect in these ways, instead becoming young socialites or technology gurus, each of whom may be substituting deep connections with the temporary rush of the newest and latest friend or gadget. 


That said, there is a way to spark the connectivity of social change within the hearts and minds of these young people. In my experience it’s easier with children: closer to their hearts, many harbor a desire to see beyond themselves by connecting with the lives of others around them and the well-being of the planet they live in. Starting at this age, parents can foster awareness and connectivity by actively role modeling what engagement looks like for their kids. 


As young people get older they’re increasingly encouraged to disengage: the hypocrisy of spending 10 years of their schooling learning about the society around them without being allowed to actively engage with the society around them because they’re segregated into age-isolated schools is not lost on youth. More than role-modeling, these youth also need active, deliberate and meaningful opportunities to connect with the world they live in in proactive and positive ways. This means not simply presenting things to do – there are plenty of things for youth to do – but actually using the incentives of whatever institution you’re working in to do it. In schools teach social responsibility to students; in community centers develop youth involvement initiatives. Give classroom credit, provide stipends and public recognition, and do whatever is needed to get youth through the door. But once they’re there, don’t rob yourself and our world the opportunity to allow these young people to make meaning of the world they’re part of.


Young people are conditioned to respond to the world around them, just as we are as adults. Dr. King once said, “I am what I am because of who we all are.” That wasn’t true simply for his positivity and power; it was also true for his flaws and foibles. Young people are who they are because of who we all are. Let’s do something about that.

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