On Youth Liberation

There is a portion of youth advocates who believe all young people should be allowed to choose their own way all the time, and that this is equivalent to social justice. 

I believe that translates to allowing all young people in all schools, community centers, places of worship, and neighborhoods around the world to do whatever they wish, whenever they wish, wherever they wish, however they wish. I can hear certain readers say, “Surely there is nobody who is really like that, right? No one believes all those things to that extreme!” 
To them I say that surely there are, and I’ve learned a lot from them, calling many good friends and close allies. Those good friends are reading this, too, and wondering exactly where I’m heading here, as we’ve often converged with our thinking.

Let me say that I believe in youth liberation; however, I believe in it in the same sense I believe in freedom (thus, the “Freechild Project”): we are all complexly interwoven into a fabric of interdependence, and because of that we have to rely on one another for our independence. An aboriginal activst group in Australia in the 1970s came up with a creedo describing this idea far better than I ever could: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come to because your liberation is bound up in mine, we can work together.”

I also believe that the main station/duty/responsibility/right of young people is to learn- whether from each other, from adults, from culture or wherever. I would go so far to say that is a privilige of youth, that ability to focus on that task. I don’t believe in the compulsory, forced obligation we thrust upon young people today, making them attend schools and participate in educational programs in which their volition is inherently compromised. I think that is nothing less than a failure of adults who have no idea how to make education a fun, engaging and powerful experience that young people should be compelled to participate in because of their own will rather than that of adults. However, I do believe young people have that responsibility to learn, to grow and to be themselves.

So its a tricky path that currently offers me no clear resolution and few absolutes. However, I believe that this idea of youth liberation as complete emancipation from adults is disingenuous, to say the least. I will continue to explore that notion later.

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

US Students Take Over College

The following is reposted from my ally and friend Dana Bennis’s blog on Democratic Education. The student takeover of The New School in Manhattan is an important development that we all need to give our attention to. I will write an analysis soon.

Students at The New School are taking action as I write this (Thursday evening, December 18, 2008) to raise the profile of their objections to The New School President Bob Kerrey and other university leaders, and to call for greater student voice in decision-making.  The students have taken residence in the school cafeteria and have quickly put together a website called New School in Exile,” a New School in Exile blog (which is being updated several times an hour), a Facebook group, and a document (PDF) outlining their position and what they are seeking.  Students are apparently coming and joining from other institutions as well.
I’m still trying to learn the background to this situation and what the issues are.  I’ve generally thought highly of Bob Kerrey, the little I knew of him as a politician and President of The New School.  And while I can’t say I support all the various wishes of the students without learning more, those advocating for democratic education can strongly identify with those that call for greater student voice and socially responsible actions, specifically:
  • Students, faculty, and staff elect the president, EVP, and Provost.
  • Students are part of the interim committee to hire a provost.
  • Intelligible transparency and disclosure of the university budget and investments.
  • The creation of a committee on socially responsible investments.
  • Money towards the creation of an autonomous student space.
  • Money towards scholarships and reducing tuition.
  • Money for the library and student life generally.
Rich Gibson of The Rouge Forum provides some interesting perspective in an email message sent out this evening as an “extra edition” to the regular Rouge Forum Update:
Students at the New School in New York City seized their buildings and are holding out for the demands listed below.
This direct action follows student uprisings in Greece and France in the last ten days and parallels the sit-down action by workers at Chicago’s Republic Works.
The building seizure is precisely along the lines that the Rouge Forum urged for a decade and shows, once again, that student action can spark social resistance–and reasoned analysis– involving poor and working people who hold the power to bring real transformation.
You can find links to coverage and videos of The New School in Exile group at their site and blog, and I’ll look to add updates here as they come.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Generations are Fictions

In 2005 writer Jeff Chang published Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A history of the hip hop generation. This book was a landmark in the community for many reasons, including its unique and powerful insights. Tonight I want to share the Prelude Chang wrote, which serves as a great introduction to the book and provides a wonderful reason for any of my readers to go out and buy a copy of the book.

“Prelude” from Can’t Stop Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang. 
Generations are fictions.
     The act of determining a group of people by placing a beginning and ending date around them is a way to impose a narrative. They are interesting and necessary fictions because they allow claims to be staked around ideas. But generations are fictions nonetheless, often created simply to suit the needs of demographers, journalists, futurists and marketers.
     In 1990 Neil Howe and William Strauss- both baby boomers and self-described social forecasters- set forth a neatly parsed theory of American generations in their book, Generations: The history of America’s future, 1584 to 2069. They named their own generation “Prophets,” idealists who came of age during a period of “Awakening,” and their children’s generation “Heroes,” who, nurtured by their spiritually attuned parents, would restore America to a “High” era. In between were “Nomads” inhabiting a present they described as “Unraveling.” What Howe and Strauss’s self-flattering theory lacked in explanatory power, it made up for with the luck of good timing. The release of Generations intersected with the media’s discovery of “Generation X,” a name taken from the title of a book by Douglas Copeland that seemed to sum up for boomers the mystery of the emerging cohort.
     Howe and Strauss’s book was pitched as a peek into the future. Cycles of history, they argued, proceed from generational cycles, giving them the power to prophesize the future. Certainly history loops. But generations are fictions used in larger struggles over power. 
     There is nothing more ancient than telling stories about generational difference. A generation is usually named and framed first by the one immediately preceeding it. The story is written in the words of shock and outrage that accompany two revelations: “Whoa, I’m getting old,” and, “Damn, who are these kids?”
     Boomers seem to have had great difficulty imagining what could come after themselves. It was a boomer who invented that unfortunate formulation: “the end of history.” By comparison, everything that came after would appear as a decline, a simplification, a corruption.
     Up until recently, our generation has mainly been defined by the prefix “post-.” We have been post-civil rights, postmodern, poststructural, postfeminist, post-Black, post-soul. We’re the poster children of “post-,” the leftover in the dirty kitchen of yesterday’s feast. We have been the Baby Boom Echo. (Is Baby Boom Narcissus in the house?) We have been Generation X. Now they even talk about Generation Y. And why? Probably because Y comes after X…
     …There are many more versions to be heard. May they all be.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

5 Ways You Can Help Youth This Holiday

Want to help youth this year? There are budget cuts all over the country, crime against youth is rising, youth joblessness is booming, youth homelessness is rising, more young people are dropping out of schools than ever before… Reality shows that young people have a ways to go towards equity and parity with adults. Here are five ways you can help youth this holiday season.

5. Learn about youth activism. All young people have the power to change the world; unfortunately only a few are using it. Learn about them, what they care about, what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. 
4. Discover new ways to show youth you care. Young people don’t need more well-meaning, poorly-acting adults in their lives. Its not enough to care – we have to do something. Learn new ways that adults are helping young people right now.
3. Change the way you treat youth around you – right now. Every adult who considers themselves an ally to young people has an ethical responsibility to examine and re-examine the ways they interact with youth. This process is never complete, and requires deliberation, reflection and critical thinking throughout our interactions with all children and youth – including the children in our families, the students in our classrooms, the youth in our programs and the neighbors in our communities.
2. Make a commitment to a youth and ask them to keep you accountable. Everyday young people are made to pay attention to the will of adults: attend school, don’t misbehave, turn in your homework, go to tutoring, graduate, go to practice, attend choir practice, finish your homework, mind your manners, get to bed on time. When was the last time a child or youth held adults accountable? The promises we make, the stories we tell, the deals, the attitudes, the ideas, the activities… all of these are done by adults, for young people, without young people being able to hold us accountable. Turn the tables and give them the opportunity – the power – to change our minds and keep us true to our words.
1. Ask young people how you can help them. Its an unfortunate reality that many adults think Youth Voice simply means talking about what young people think. We have an ethical responsibility to go out and connect with youth directly by creating honest and open environments where their sincere concerns, critical thinking, and powerful ideas can influence, direct, guide and lead the activities that affect them everday. 
And that’s it. Let me know what you are doing to help youth this holiday – and everyday of the year.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Peter Levine’s Rule for Organizers

Peter Levine is the director of CIRCLE, the nation’s foremost research organization committed to youth civic engagement. He’s a great person, and I’ve enjoyed the limited conversations we have had in the past. Studying this stuff all the time affords Peter some insights that I think we can all learn from, and the other day hopping on a plane he tapped out these Rules for Organizers:

10. Never provoke conflict to prove one’s strength or importance or to guard one’s turf.

9. Hold no grudges.

8. Never resent or complain about not being invited to a meeting, but try to attend meetings to which one is invited.

7. Minimize one’s use of air time in conversations and meetings.

6. Conserve scare resources, such as grants, that others could use if you didn’t have them. Minimize all forms of overhead.

5. Evaluate the effectiveness of organizations but commit to people even if they are not always effective.

4. Don’t gossip; celebrate other people’s work.

3. Charitably interpret other people’s positions and treat differences of opinion as assets.

2. Use every opportunity to help other people develop skills and reputation.

1. Care about whole people, not just about their opinions or their work.

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

The Role of Intensity in Youth Activism

Empowering young people to create social change happens best in intensely personal, intensely local, intensely focused opportunities that engage children and youth in deliberate, meaningful action and learning. None of these things can happen independently of each other.

One of the best examples illustrating this is a recent entry on the Highlander Center blog that details what happened at their “Seeds of Fire Youth Leadership Camp” this July. This is how it fit the bill:

  • Intensely personal: There were 20 youth and 6 adult allies
  • Intensely local: Youth represented the immediate region around Highlander
  • Intensely focused: Participants studied Dr. King’s nonviolence program, learned about social justice movements worldwide, and focused in on issues from their region

I first uncovered this formula in 2005 when I began researching youth action programs for the Washington Youth Voice Handbook. In that study I sought to uncover the threads that bind together all the different types of youth engagement activities that happen in this state. I have only seen that pattern repeat itself since then, as studies from the Movement Strategy Center (pdf), Barry Checkoway and Shawn Ginwright, among others, continue to show.

The role of intensity goes beyond the frequent and adultist attribution of the emotional state of young people. In this sense intensity makes an appropriate approximation of the depth and value given to the words its attributed to: The personalization, location, and focus of youth activism must be intense in order to demonstrate to participants the value of their energy, to foster the direct outcomes required in order to sustain interest, and to identify that depth and value. All those reasons make the role of intensity in youth activism über-valuable.

Take a moment to acknowledge the role of intensity in your own life. Where do you feel intense? When do you feel intense? Why do you feel intense? When we begin to uncover the value of intensity in our own lives, our own work and our own motivations we can begin to understand the power of youth activism in our communities.

CommonAction staff is available to train on Youth Activism and much more. 
Contact me to talk about the possibilities by emailing adam@commonaction.org or calling (360)489-9680.

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

My Review of “Bringing It Together”

Bringing It Together: Uniting Youth Organizing, Development and Services for Long-Term Sustainability was written by K. Zimmerman, M. Chow and T. James for the Movement Strategy Center. This is my review for The Freechild Project.


The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the a rush of youth-led activism in America, focusing a variety of issues including social justice, school improvement, and so-called “youth liberation”. The issues were highlighted through a variety of actions, including protest marches, rallies, and teach-ins, with riots, arrests, and curfews as regular results. Analyses within various efforts identified corporatization, militarism, and elitism as the forces to fight against.

Unfortunately, many people today- including youth and adults- bemoan the lack of those specific actions in these dangerous times. Many well-meaning liberal activists collectively yearn for the action embodied “back in the day.” However, after leading The Freechild Project for five years, I have consistently found that while youth activists share analyses with the past, the actions of youth organizations are more sophisticated than ever before – and that’s a good thing. A new report from the Movement Strategy Center calledBringing It Together: Uniting Youth Organizing, Development and Services for Long-Term Sustainability gives ample evidence that youth activism has “grown up” – and beyond a hunch, they show exactly why that is right and good for young people and communities today.

Similar to their popular youth co-created report Making Spaces-Making Change, [read a review here] in Bringing It Together the Movement Strategy Center spotlights six organizational case studies from youth-led and youth-driven organizations on the West Coast. As the subtitle of the report states, there are many correlations between youth organizing, youth development, and youth services. Throughout this piece the authors show how a growing number of organizations are intentionally uniting those approaches to provide a more holistic, supportive, and sustainable model of social change “as part of a very long-term vision for social justice movement building and healthy living.” If only more youth-serving organizations were so intentional.

The organizations featured here work in diverse communities, including Latino/a migrants, African American teens, an American Indian reservation, inner city communities, and LBGTQ youth. The issues are just as disparate: cultural awareness, women’s empowerment, education reform, voter registration, immigrant rights, and a bevy of other topics. That is what makes the authors’ findings about the common approaches to innovation between these groups that much more startling: the threads weave together to create a strong, empowering, and sustainable course of action. More importantly, they form a brilliantly effective strategy for social change on multiple fronts, including community organizing and cultural awareness, youth development and community services.

Throughout the report, the depth of analysis and possibility for field movement becomes startlingly clear. By clearly delineating each program’s history, goals, approaches, structure, partnerships, and progress, the authors continually move beyond the current rhetoric and postulating popular among numerous youth organizing intermediaries. Their observations and recommendations succeed in creating a vibrantly accessible and teachable framework for an integrated approach to youth action.

Through very approachable writing and research methods, the authors call the failure of many youth-serving organizations to put their work into a larger context to task in a very subtle way. As Paulo Freire often wrote, there is nothing neutral about our presence in the world, and before we can begin to change the world, we have to name it and critically understand it. Youth workers reading this report may find the authors’ explanation of the “Resource Power Triangle” particularly effective way of transforming their regular approaches into non-traditional action.

Getting back to the history: within 20 years, by the late 1970s, many observers and former participants from said that the American “youth movement” was dead. The American Indian Movement and the Black Panthers had been brutally suppressed; Students for a Democratic Society and Weather Underground imploded; Youth Liberation morphed, hippies became yuppies, and the rest is history.

Or is it? Since the late 1980s and early 90s the new movement has been growing. Today’s activists are standing on the shoulders of giants, yet creating space for themselves as well. The authors of this report note that “we are living at the end of the era of the New Deal.” George Bush’s so-called “ownership society,” paralleled by the increasing promotion of the importance of “social entrepreneurship,” is tearing apart the historical fabric of public responsibility in the US. This study shares scholar Henry Giroux’s analysis of the effects of neoliberalism on low-income youth and young people of color, as schools close, prisons swell, health programs end, and public programs become privatized.

The Movement Strategy Center’s new report illustrates- without a doubt- that youth-led community organizing is responsive, effective, wide-ranging, sophisticated, and powerful. This document is a vital contribution to further understanding, growth and hope for the future of our communities.


Title: Bringing It Together: Uniting Youth Organizing, Development and Services for Long-Term Sustainability

Authors: K. Zimmerman, M. Chow and T. James

Publisher: Movement Strategy Center

My Review of “Making Space – Making Change”

Making Space – Making Change: Profiles of Youth-Led and Youth-Driven Organizations was written by the Young Wisdom Project of the Movement Strategy Center. This is my review for The Freechild Project.


Responding to a crisis is not easy work. People who spend day in and out working for the good of other people are often taxed to the extremes: selflessness and empathy override their commitment to themselves. That is why it is so rare to capture a succinct yet powerful overview of youth activism today: democracy is in crisis mode, and those who are struggling for its life are being pushed to the extremes. That is why this is the most important document focusing on young people and social change to come out in recent times.

This new publication from the Movement Strategy Center in Oakland profiles five youth-led and youth-driven organizations from across the U.S. It provides insightful details on how these organizations started, how they build youth leadership and power, deal with challenges, and how they make real change in their communities. For readers of Paulo Freire, bell hooks, Peter McLaren, and other critical educators, there are many familiar points- but with an important focus on social change led by young people. Early in the introduction to youth-led action, the authors state,

 “Instead of approaching the question of youth-led organizations as an either/or situation, it’s helpful to think about youth leadership and governance as a continuum with a spectrum of possibilities – something that can develop and change over time.” (p 15)

This echoes bell hooks recent book, Teaching for Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, where hooks extols readers to look beyond either/or and towards with/and. The authors of this report provide an important bridge to many critical thinkers, applying much-needed theory to the powerful, practical work of youth activists.

Rather than simply providing another toolkit, this report allows the details to tell the stories. The feature on the Lummi CEDAR Project, as all of the stories, paints a vivid portrait of a community responding to the dilemma of keeping cultural pride and community alive by engaging youth. This project highlights the power of belonging and identity, a trait that consumerist culture increasingly denies to many young people. As in other stories, the report is frank about the challenges facing the CEDAR Project: Creating a youth-led structure for an indigenous context; adapting organizational development models; and creating a culturally relevant youth organizing model in a rural Native community.

However, the summaries are always hopeful – realistic, for sure – but hopeful. As one of the youth directors said,

“It’s really awesome to me because our community is a small tribal community, and we have eighty young people trained now. So we have a broad network living a healthy lifestyle, caring about their community, inspired, motivated, and have this drive to make a positive change in their community. And that impacts their family… We’re just building a collective movement…” (p 41)

Making Space – Making Change is an important tool for young people and adults allies who are ready to put their principles into practice. It is a more important tool in the growing library of publications that support young people leading social change. Important analysis, detailed findings, and powerful personal connections can only promote a stronger, more effective future for social change led by and with young people. Thank you to the Young Wisdom Project – we’re all moving forward because of your work.



Title: Making Space – Making Change: Profiles of Youth-Led and Youth-Driven Organizations

Author: Young Wisdom Project of the Movement Strategy Center