Introduction to Youth Councils

Researching for a presentation in 2013, I identified fewer than 40 youth councils connected with city governments across Washington State. This state has over 280 municipal governments. There were also fewer than 10 counties that had youth councils, and only one state agency reported a youth council, in addition to the Washington Legislative Youth Advisory Council.

Here is the presentation I made:

Youth are everywhere! According to the United Nations, young people between the ages of 12 and 21 account for more than 25% of the world’s population today.

In the United States, the Census reported in 2011 there are over 73 million people under 18 in the United States. 10 to 19 year olds make up more than 14% of the US population.

At that same point, the Census reported that young people ages 10 to 19 make up 13% of Washington’s population.

There are more than 281 municipalities in Washington State, including incorporated towns and cities. Research conducted by the Washington State Legislative Youth Advisory Council has found that only 35 of those municipalities have Youth Councils.

Youth Councils have vast differences, and many different possibilities. Some of the differences depend on where they are located, who is on the Councils, and what the local municipality needs from them.

However, the missions of many Youth Councils aren’t generally informed by research-driven best practices, national trends or patterns, or other factually-based decisions. Instead, they are determined by well-intentioned adults who want to do the right thing, but are limited by their own imaginations, by their city or town leadership’s vision, or the way that everyday people see young people.

However, and luckily, we’re not limited to negative or challenging perceptions of youth. As one community organizer said, “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.” The way they’re going to do this? Youth Councils.

A youth council is a formal or informal body of young people that is driven by advocacy and decision-making. They address the absence of youth involvement in decision-making for any age of young people, with kids as young as 7 and young adults as old as 24 being involved in Youth Councils across Washington State.

There many different kinds of youth councils, including those sponsored by local governments, including towns, cities, and counties; state government agencies and legislatures; local nonprofit and community organizations; and national organizations.

Communities with Youth Councils in Washington

  • Auburn
  • Bellevue
  • Camas
  • Cheney
  • Colville
  • Des Moines
  • Everett
  • Federal Way
  • Grandview
  • Issaquah
  • Kirkland
  • Lacey
  • Lakewood
  • Liberty Lake
  • Marysville
  • Mercer Island
  • Mill Creek
  • Millwood
  • Mukilteo
  • Oak Harbor
  • Puyallup
  • Redmond
  • Renton
  • Sammamish
  • Seattle
  • Shoreline
  • University Place

The Washington State Legislative Youth Advisory Council had:

  • 22 students
  • Ages 14-18
  • All corners of Washington
  • All walks of life.
  • Two-year term.
  • Meet up to four times per year in Olympia.
  • Hold monthly conference calls to discuss projects and goals.
  • Hold an annual Action Day to meet with legislators and testify on important youth-related bills.
  • Advocate for youth-related bills. In 2013, lobbying efforts helped move three bills to be passed into law.
  • Partner with youth groups and organizations.

Other types of organizations have youth advisory councils. They include:

  • Community Development
  • Labor
  • Workforce Development
  • School Districts
  • Neighborhood Associations
  • Faith Communities
  • Ethnic and Cultural Groups
  • Performing Arts Orgs
  • And many others

Alfie Kohn once said, “Youth should not only be trained to live in a democracy when they grow up; they should have the chance to live in one today.” Youth Councils allow young people to experience democracy in realtime.

The context for youth councils comes from many places. I find poetry inspiring, and in particular, Langston Hughes’ poem Freedom’s Plow:

Thus the dream becomes not one man’s dream alone,
But a community dream.
Not my dream alone, but our dream.
Not my world alone,
But your world and my world,
Belonging to all the hands who build.

Would you build with young people? Youth councils provide one way to get that done.

Youth Work on AutoPilot

Thinking can feel like a luxury.

In times when we’re deep in the work we do and the ways we get it done, it can be nearly impossible to take care of ourselves. We are so busy meeting the needs of the kids, filling out forms for our bosses, or writing up the report for our funders that thinking can feel like a luxury.

As a result, we go on autopilot. Day in and out, we punch the clock and get the job done, struggle through challenges and hustle through fun. We get off work, head to our next job or go home and crash, only to do it all over again tomorrow.

Maybe you’re bobbing your head right now, or maybe you’re thinking that people need to get their acts right. Either way, reality is that thinking can feel like a luxury in youth work.

After spending 10 years in the field as a line-level youth worker, I started training people like me and working with organization leaders to help them think about how to more effectively do their work. That has led me to action, over and over, focused on helping people who work with young people do their jobs more effectively.

If you were in a workshop with me right now, I’d walk you through the following steps, or something like them.

Step One: Claim Your Brain

Today, right now, I want you to give yourself a minute to think. If you wanna do it on your own, maybe just sit in your seat and chill for a few minutes on purpose. Try it now. If you want some guidance, maybe think about these three questions:

  • Why do you do the work you do right now?
  • What would you rather be doing?
  • How can you get from here and now to there?

Step Two: Discover Some Options

Want a few more? Here are some tools I created that you can think through:

Step Three: Do Things Differently

Once you’ve gone through those tools, or if you skip those and want to just do something different, here are some resources I’ve created for you:

Looking for more still? Keep your eyes open and you’ll see more action, information, and ideas coming soon!

You Might Like…

Olympia—Partners Needed for a Youth Event

Talking with a number of young people in Olympia in informal settings, I recently discovered there is a desire for a youth leadership training for them. However, without money to attend, these “nontraditionally engaged” youth don’t feel like they can do it. So I’m going to pull together a one-day youth action training here in Olympia focused on The Freechild Project Youth Action Kit.

Right now I’m calling for volunteers and partner orgs for this one day event at the end of June.
Provide nontraditional youth leaders the opportunity to build their skills and knowledge on how to change the world.
In late June 2013, I am going to facilitate a one-day, nine-hour training for youth and adults focused on youth leadership in changing the world. This is a skill-building, knowledge-sharing event that will increase participants’ abilities to successfully take action for social change. The main target group is local youth of all stripes from the Thurston County area. 
This will be a hands-on, interactive, fun event that focuses on actual action to change the world. I do not talk down to youth, and I’m not a hype-man; instead, I facilitate practical, meaningful action by young people working with adults as partners. The goal of the training is to promote youth engagement in practical, powerful, and positive social change.
  • Up to 100 participants will be accepted to come individually or in groups.
  • There is no cost to participate, and there are NO requirements beyond pre-registration. 
  • Certificates can be given that designate the number of hours attended and topics covered.
  • Youth ages 12 to 19 will be invited directly.
  • Local youth-serving programs and organizations will be invited.
  • Adult allies of all kinds, including teachers, parents, youth workers, counselors, business people, elected officials, government workers, and others will be invited to attend.
TBD. Suggestions are welcome.
Freechild needs co-sponsors for this event. I am facilitating it for free and I’m 
not collecting any fees. I invite YOU and your organization to provide any of the following:
  • Participants
  • Logistical support
  • Location 
  • Event planning
  • Food
  • Promotion
  • Flip chart paper
  • Markers
  • Photocopies & printing
  • Give-aways
  • ?????
The topics for this training are still being determined, but will definitely cover how to organize Youth Action as I’ve written in The Freechild Project Youth Action Kit. They may also cover topics from The Freechild Project Youth Engagement Workshop Guide, which is focused on youth taking action to change the world.
  • What do I get for partnering? If you choose to partner with me for this event, I will include your logo on materials and acknowledge your org or business during the event.
  • How often will this happen? Its a one-time training.
  • How much does it cost? Its free.
  • Is there a program supporting it? This event is not program-centered.
  • What is it going to cover? This is a general skill-building and knowledge-sharing training event, and not a train-the-trainer event.
  • What are the outcomes? It may inspire participants to go out and take action in the community, and they’ll received materials to support that. It may inspire participants to change their own lives. It might just be fun for a day.
  • Are there other programs doing this? WASC, based in Oly, offers a statewide student leadership training statewide program doesn’t reach the generally disengaged youth population of the area. Voices of Youth is program-driven youth voice with a specific agenda focused on school health.
  • Why do you think you can do this? I have trained thousands of youth in hundreds of topics for more than a decade, and have developed youth leadership development programs in 50 communities nationwide. Learn more about me at my website.
  • Is there any real need for this beyond a few youths’ opinions? I love Oly’s youth programs, and have supported each of them by donating my time and money and volunteering for more. Currently, I know of no programs offered by CYS, GRuB, Together, Stonewall Youth, or the even among the city’s state agenciesthat  provide leadership development for their participants focused on general social change. Instead, they’re all topic-specific, if at all. So yes, there’s a real need, and generally speaking, local nonprofits don’t have the resources or staff to facilitate this kind of training. I’ve also done this 6 times before in Oly.
  • Why do you REALLY want to do this? Basically, I do all this work nationally and want to contribute back to the city I live in by volunteering my time, knowledge, and ability.
  • How can I get involved? Give me a call at (360) 489-9680 or email
  • I’m not from Oly—can I still come? YES! Get in touch. 
  • How can I get this in my city? Contact me.
  • How can I get more info? Sign up for the CommonAction newsletter, the Freechild facebook page, or send me an email.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

10 Steps To Youth Integration

Challenging youth segregation can be tricky.

Anyone who advocates for youth involvement, youth engagement, youth voice, youth empowerment, or youth rights is ultimately calling for the same this: the integration of young people in our society. As it stands, young people are routinely segregated from a lot of places. This includes the institutions that serve them directly, such as schools, nonprofits, governments, and faith-based communities. It also includes their homes, as well as places where they should be treated without bias but aren’t, including businesses. Ultimately, youth integration has to happen in all relationships between young people and adults.

This work has been underway for more than two decades, and needs to unite now. It starts with re-envisioning the roles of young people throughout society. In the last decade, I’ve worked in more than 200 communities across the US to help them re-envision their work with young people. Its been successful in some ways, challenging in others.

Through my efforts with The Freechild Project, along with similar programs across the country, a generation of young people and their adult allies have come to believe that our society can do more than simply do things to young people. Instead, we can co-create the world together. This notion reflects the wisdom, “Nothing about me without me is for me.”
Studying my own work and the vast library of literature I’ve collected focusing on this approach, I’ve devised some key points for integrating youth throughout society.
10 Steps to Youth Integration
  1. Think Sustainable—Identify practical ways to ensure youth keep being integrated after an initial planning period. Begin by sitting down with a group of adults young people together and talk about the world today, their specific lives, and what they think needs to change. From the beginning, infuse youth in facilitation, evaluation, research, decision-making, and advocacy right into the culture of your group. If you must involve children and youth in a one-shot activity, let them know of real opportunities for them to be integrated with adults in their lives outside your group.
  2. Clear Purpose—Name a clear purpose for integrating young people in your community. Come up with a mission statement. Let youth and adults, organization leaders, parents, community members, and local schools know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Clarity of purpose is often missing from young people’s lives, as school is done to them, family is done to them, and stores are done to them. Anywhere in society looking to actually integrate young people needs to let young people know the world be done with them, and they should know why that’s important.
  3. Integrate The Non-Traditionally Engaged—Create space and help children and youth who haven’t been especially engaged in your community to become integrated. Actively integrating both traditionally involved young people and non-traditionally involved young people can radically transform your community in all sorts of ways. If you don’t know how to do this, get trained; if you need a reason, read this.
  4. Real Connections—When young people see themselves in your program, real connections are happening. When real connections happen, children and youth become engaged. While they may have obvious expertise or interests in a specific topic, its important for your group to help young people discover what they know right now, and to see what they know inside what you’re doing.
  5. Equity, Not Equality—Develop equitable roles between young people and adults.  This means that groups don’t pretend all things between children, youth, and adults are 50/50 split equally, because in our adult-centered society that is simply never true. Equity allows young people and adults to enter into responsible relationships that acknowledge what each other knows and doesn’t know, and to work from that place instead of assuming everyone has equal ability and capacity. We’re all different; let’s not pretend otherwise.
  6. Grow Their Capacity—Grow the existing capacity of children and youth to become involved in planning. Both young people and adults can learn from training about work styles, assumptions, skills, and more. 
  7. Make A Clear Plan—Having a specific pathway for young people to see how their integration will change their community. Are they contributing to an existing program? Opening a brand-new course of action and learning? Working with the same adults in new ways, or partnering with new adults? Its important to remember that creating a youth integration plan is not the culmination of work, but the starting point of a group’s efforts to create a more democratic society. A clear plan should include: 1) Practical next steps; 2) Roles and responsibilities for youth and adults; 3) an integration structure for your community; 4) group member evaluation opportunities. Setting priorities, using timelines with dates, and developing clear benchmarks for measuring success in each area can also enhance your community.
  8. Get SystemicEncourage youth integration beyond your group. Young people can be engaged in researching their community, school, nonprofit program, or anything through PAR. They can facilitate, teach, and mentor peers, younger people, and adult. They can evaluate themselves, their organizations and communities, workplaces and businesses, and other places. They can participate in organizational, family, community, or other decision-making. They can advocate for what they care about. Ultimately, they can be engaged throughout society in every way you can imagine.
  9. Connect The DotsEstablish deep youth/adult partnerships wherever possible. Collaborations that reinforce learning will deepen any effort to integrate youth. The partnerships established in this process can deepen efforts through the future, and mutually support youth and adults throughout your community.
  10. Eyes Wide OpenOpen the doors to critical examination. Use critical lenses to examine your assumptions and effects in your group. Identifying strengths and weaknesses allow groups and communities to improve the overall integration of youth, especially through your particular effort. Make space by giving young people permission and skills they need to be partners in mutual accountability with adults. In your group, set clear benchmarks and agree on celebrations when they’re met and consequences that young people can see for when those benchmarks are not met.

Aside from ethical considerations for youth integration, there is a practical basis to integrate youth throughout society. A variety of recent research demonstrates that there may be no parallel to making schools, youth programs, government agencies, and even families more effective. The most intuitive outcome is true: Integrating young people throughout society changes young people who experience integration. 

Less obvious are the effects that youth integration has on adults throughout our communities. When they’re actively infused throughout the broader community, young people can actually affect the broad community beyond your group in a variety of ways over the short and long term. The effects include lifelong civic engagement, and developing strong and sustained connections to the educational, economic, and cultural values of their neighborhoods and cities. Youth integration can dream no higher goals. (See here, here, and here for some studies.)

More importantly though, this pathway shows that youth integration is feasible. What are you doing to get it going in your community?

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Good News for Pittsburgh Youth!

Adam’s note: This is the second of many posts I’m writing for a blog called AfterschoolPGH. I’m taking the privilege of reposting it here for your reading pleasure and my future reference!

The news doesn’t generally tell us is how excellent youth today are. Despite the pressures of a crumbling economy and failing social safety net, more than ever, youth are thriving. From my experience and research traveling the nation, I have directly observed that civic engagement, volunteering, community action, and social change led by young people are soaring. I’m not simply talking about those kids either: Instead, there’s a rampant movement afoot across our nation to engage all young people in changing the world.

Allegheny County is no exception. Across the area, there are countless youth working with adults to make their neighborhoods, the whole area, and our entire world a better place. One excellent example is Strong Women, Strong Girls (SWSG). This nationally recognized multi-generational mentoring program fosters leadership skills, a sense of female community, and a commitment to service among three generations: elementary-school girls, undergraduate women, and professional women. Another is Unified for Youth in Pittsburgh (U4Y). An annual conference boasting over 70 participants, U4Y is the only conference of its kind in Pittsburgh, bringing together youth, adult allies and educators for two days of safe schools training in LGBT issues.

Powerful activities like these serve as role models for other organizations and communities throughout Allegheny. They also change the narrative about youth by forcing the media to see young people in Pittsburgh as powerful contributors to making the world a better place.

Other examples come from the City of Pittsburgh Mayor’s Youth Council. Their goal is to serve as a liaison between youth and the Youth Commission on issues affecting youth. The Council encourages the positive growth and development of young people by involving them in social, cultural, recreational and other drug and alcohol-free activities. Upon request of the Mayor or City Council, the Youth Council shall provide advice and assistance on matters concerning the needs of youth from the perspective of young people.

When NAACP President Benjamin Jealous recently spoke in downtown Pittsburgh, he challenged young people to see that groups of committed, principled people can always overcome organized money. So many examples throughout Allegheny County demonstrate exactly how that’s happening, especially because youth are partners.

A faith-based community in the region that focuses on seeing youth past the news is called the Pittsburgh Youth Cluster with Adults, or PYCA. This effort of the Unitarian Universalists focuses on building an interdependent web of youth in the greater Pittsburgh area (hereafter referred to as the Cluster) through spiritual, social action, and community building activities. They say, “We are youth organizing youth!”

A large engine in Pittsburgh moving youth past the news is the Heinz Endowment. Through strategic targeting, they’re funding campaigns led by and with youth focused on air quality, education reform, and much more. The reports linked to here cover more than a dozen organizations, and are well worth exploring.
One way that young people themselves are addressing media bias against them is by creating their own media. In Allegheny County, a coalition called Pittsburgh Youth Media is creating opportunities for young people in the region to engage in both traditional and non-traditional forms of media, using the tools, skills, practices and technologies that professional media outlets use, thereby enabling them to participate thoughtfully in reporting on current events and issues. Pittsburgh Youth Media is a coalition of education, media and community groups formed in early 2012. Members include Carlow University, SLB Radio Productions, Inc., The Consortium for Public Education, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Community Television, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, WQED Multimedia, Allegheny Conference on Community Development. These organizations and the individuals involved are concerned enough about how the traditional media portrays youth to create a new narrative with youth as partners.

Congratulations Pittsburgh- you’re beginning to see youth past the news. Keep it going!

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Safe Spaces for Young People

When adults speak about safety, we’re often referring to the scourge of physical violence that is redefining the lives of all children and youth across the United States today. With the horrors of school shootings, the terror of gang violence, and the rage of bullying tearing apart families and communities everyday, the presence of physical danger seems more real than ever before (and not without consequences, either.)
Unfortunately, adults often neglect to understand the real need to safety in the lives of young people today: Psychological well-being, or the very thought of being safe. Without this reality, young people often revert to simply surviving, and cannot thrive in any respect. 

Walking into an youth program environment, young people feel safe because of a variety of factors. In more than two decades experience working in a variety of youth spaces, I found that these factors include:
  • Trusting relationships between adults and young people.
  • A strong bond between young people and the purpose of the program.
  • Opportunities for young people to share their honest feelings and participate in making a difference in the program.
  • Facilitating regular small group activities. Removing economic barriers to participation.
  • Engaging parents, families, and schools opportunities to connect with our program.
  • Build trust with parents, families, and communities.
  • Ensuring effective communication between the program and home.
  • Conducting home visits on a regular basis.
  • Acting as a connector between young people, families, and social services when necessary.
  • Frequently making the afterschool program available as a community building opportunity.
None of this is to diminish the resiliency and survival instinct that all young people need in order to succeed as adults. I believe these factors and this concentration on safety in youth spaces builds that resilience.
Here are some resources I’ve found to support making youth spaces safe:
Let me know if you have anything you’d add to the mix.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

3 Tips for Excellent Youth Programs

“Some programs suck,” said Latisha as she sunk into her chair, arms folded.

Jennifer piped in, “Yeah, teachers can just be rude and get away with it.”
“Ah man, I had this one who tried to pick a fight with me just because I had to go to the bathroom,” volunteered a guy everyone called Bee.
This was part of a conversation I had last week at the National Service Learning Conference in Denver, Colorado. There to co-facilitate a presentation of a project I’m involved with in Seattle, I made a point of connecting with several young people who were attending the conference too. At lunch one day I sat down with a group of African-American students. Speaking frankly, I reassured them that I was a safe adult to talk to, and started asking them about the programs they attended in their hometown of Minneapolis. A little while into that conversation the above dialog came out.
I believe it’s because of perceptions like the ones above that youth programs are absolutely essential to the vitality and success of communities in the United States today. Faced with an unending barrage of challenges from the neighborhoods they serve, K-12 schools across the country today are under assault from all sides. Their budgets are getting cuts and their problems are stacking up.
Don’t get me wrong: I know that youth program providers aren’t having it a lot easier. However, there’s are many reasons why our nonprofit, government, and faith-based programs are going to make it a lot further than their K-12 comrades in schools, and one of the primary reasons is excellent facilitation. Following are a few tips for how to facilitate excellent youth programs.
3 Tips for Excellent Youth Programs
  1. Don’t be evil. Afterschool programs are not business, and nor should they be. They do not generate fiscal profit, and rely primarily on donations from individual and foundation donors, as well as government funds. This means that the 200,000 young people under 18 in Allegheny County aren’t consumers and the aren’t products. Instead, they’re humans. They’re imbued with emotions and ideas, feelings and beliefs. They ask questions, observe, critique, praise, examine, explore, identify, deny, and play, often insatiably. Excellent afterschool programs don’t squelch or repress these instincts; instead, they uplift and support them. They ensure that ultimately they’re serving young people where they’re at, and not insisting they go somewhere else. Don’t be evil with children and youth.
  2. Do not harm. All children are born with a love of life. It doesn’t matter what family you’re born into or what the conditions are that you are raised in; children want to dig into living and grow. After years of increasing instruction and guidance and leadership by adults, young people can feel the love of living squeezed out of them. They’re exposed to the realities of poverty and the tension of popular culture, all of which seems determined to make them into successful consumers. Excellent afterschool programs foster the love of living within their participants, no matter how old they are. Teenagers become successful community leaders when they’re in great afterschool programs; elementary students become determined learners. Do no harm by lifting the love of life into the highest part of your heart and mind, and engaging young people in doing the same thing.
  3. Make things better. Its a cynical age that divests in afterschool programs while increasing funds for private juvenile incarceration companies. Young people in low-income homes are parents by moms and dads working two and three part jobs to make ends meet, while middle class children and youth are becoming latchkey kids again. Seen primarily only as lower-income consumers and service workers, businesses are withdrawing their support for young people too. When they invest in empowering and engaging young people, excellent afterschool programs step head and shoulders above their peers. Make things better by serving children and youth in substantive ways that changes lives. We can’t afford for you to do any less than that.
Afterschool programs have had to rely on excellent facilitation for their entire existence. Without the compulsory attendance laws governing schools, we’ve had to rely on appealing to kids from a more base level in order to recruit, engage, and retain participants. Providers can’t be jerks, autocrats, or mean, because children and youth will simply stop attending their programs.
The steps above are just a start; I wrote an article called “Becoming An Excellent Facilitator” that you may appreciate. Find other great resources, and make your youth program an excellent one.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Youth Involvement in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania

Adam’s note: This is the first of many posts I’m writing for a blog called AfterschoolPGH. I’m taking the privilege of reposting it here for your reading pleasure and my future reference!

Since the 1970s, there’s been a national movement to promote youth voice. Funny enough, there’s never been just one definition of youth voice, so its not surprising that the movement never really took off. I wrote the my Short History of Youth Voice in the United States back in 2005, and since then I’ve uncovered a lot more history. Historical writer Phillip Hoose has contributed extensively to these findings too. However, he and I aren’t really writing about a movement, per se, but instead, incidents. In 2004, the National Youth Leadership Council invited me to think about the question of whether the youth voice movement was dead, and almost 10 years later I know the answer.
I came to Pittsburgh in 2011 to share the basics of Youth-Driven Programming with almost 50 providers from across Allegheny County. The year before the University of Pittsburgh’s Youth and Family Training Institute brought me to State College to talk with youth providers from the systems of care movement. Throughout my times with these different program workers, organization leaders, and others, I learned about many different ways youth voice is engaged throughout Allegheny County. Before I explore some of these examples, let’s define some terms.

  • Youth Voice. I define any expression of any young people anywhere, anytime, about anything, as youth voice. This wide-open definition allows for the broad diversity of children and youth to be acknowledged, and makes it so that youth voice is not contingent on whether or not adults want to hear it. Listening to youth voice is a step towards youth engagement, but they’re not the same. 
  • Youth Engagement. After reviewing the research literature and writing a variety of summaries about it, I defined youth engagement as the sustained connection young people feel to the world within and around them. This includes all types of connections, from interpersonal to intrapersonal, animated to stagnant, social to personal. Youth engagement is required for youth-driven programming, but can exist without YDP. 
  • Youth-Driven Programming. YDP is a guiding philosophy and practice for organizations that integrates youth as partners in a variety of ways throughout organizations and communities. YDP is among the deepest forms of youth integration that can happen in nonprofits, government agencies, and faith-based community. 

All that said, youth voice is a lot broader than YDP. YDP demands an integrity and commitment that a lot of organizations simply can’t make. However, all organizations can and should listen to youth voice. As simple expression, youth voice can be everything from youth on boards to graffiti and poetry, and from youth surveys to clothing and music. Youth voice is any expression of young people, and not just those that adults want to hear.

In Allegheny County, there are several examples of organizations that use YDP to effectively reach young people. Following are just a few.

  • CHANGE – The Children’s Hospital Advisory Network for Guidance and Empowerment (CHANGE) is a youth led and driven board which advises Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC about the youth perspective and issues that affect this population. It will work to ensure successful adult lives for youth who have special healthcare needs or have faced barriers in healthcare transition. 
  • Summer Youth Philanthropy Interns – Recognizing the need to incorporate a youth voice in its grant making, The Heinz Endowments again employed recent high school graduates as summer youth philanthropy interns. The program included eight teams of interns at local nonprofit organizations, each of which awarded $25,000 in grants. 
  • SITY (Systems Improvement Through Youth) – Comprised of 14 individuals, ages 16 through 25 years, who are active in or alumni of DHS and related child-serving systems including child welfare, drug and alcohol, education, juvenile justice, mental health and mental retardation. Building on the value of their personal experiences in the system, they will be assisted to develop leadership skills as advocates and system advisors, be provided with positive experiences of social service careers and policymaking, and be encouraged in their professional development. 

As each of these show, YDP is much more involved, sophisticated, and impacting than youth voice. They represent the next forefront of work for afterschool providers across the nation, and especially in Allegheny County. Here are several resources that might be useful for your own YDP efforts:


Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Neoliberalism in Youth Programs

Democracy is a practical, hands-on approach to operating our society. Everyday, every young person can contribute to the health and well-being of themselves, their families, their neighborhoods, the nation, and the world. That’s the power of democracy today: More than ever before, it’s changing the world.

But there are forces trying to undo democracy. Right now, neoliberalism is tearing at youth programs across the nation today. It’s happening so deftly and insidiously that most youth workers and organization leaders have no idea what’s going on. 

Here are some characteristics of neoliberalism in youth-serving programs. They can be found in nonprofit or government settings at the neighborhood, city, county, state, or federal level.

Signs of Neoliberalism in Youth Programs

  • Bean counting. Counting youth-adult “encounters” as a measurement of change. This makes youth-adult interactions transactions similar to the way a salesman encounters a customer.
  • Pay to play. Charging youth to participate in historically free programs, including educational, recreational, cultural, and similar activities. Reducing youth work to a fiscal transaction incapacitates youth workers and denies the human right all young people have to access the resources of their communities.
  • Pre-packaged programs. Increasing “impact” in the lives of youth through by increasing the number of adult-facilitated, corporate-produced, curriculum-driven programs. This makes youth attendance in pre-packaged programs consumption, like a candy bar that is filled with empty carbs and nothing healthy.
  • Racist implications. When the same organization offers wildly different programs in different neighborhoods to meet different youth needs, they’re being responsive. When they track poor youth and youth or color into different programs than white youth and middle class youth, they’re being racist. 
  • Tracking to fast food. Teaching youth that the only jobs they’re eligible to get and the only impact they can make on their families and communities is through fast food and other service sector jobs denies their democratic roles and responsibilities. 
  • Signed in blood. Using contracts between youth and adults as a basis for interactions. This makes behavior and attendance a consumer interaction, and equates it to a consumer contract enforceable by law.
  • Poverty pimps. Selling donors on the horrors faced by youth in their neighborhoods without exposing the reality they’re faced to, including deep neighborhood roots, strong family backgrounds, and positive adult role models, is neoliberal to the core. It relies on feelings of noblese oblige for donatinons, and sells the worst side of youth today.
  • Youth as consumers. Referring to and understanding youth or parents as consumers of programs. This reduces nonprofit programs into supermarkets, and sells youth on the idea that “The customer is always right.”
  • Dramatizing reality. Writing grant applications or recruiting youth by over-emphasizing neighborhood challenges or youth inabilities is responsible and belittling. It sells programs on perceived need and hysteria rather than practical applications and meaningful community building. 
  • Zero tolerance. Enforcing zero-tolerance rules, particularly in low-income communities and with youth of color, who attend youth programs. This makes youth who comply eligible to participate, and pushes those who don’t further to the fringes, promoting a youth program-to-prison pipeline.
  • Being buddy buddy. Partnering nonprofits and for-profits in relationships that emphasize company values, corporate ideas, or consumerist perspectives.
  • Not all that counts… Using rigid evaluations and assessments of youth, youth performance, and program impacts in order to justify funding, employment, and youth activities. This makes all the impacts that aren’t measureable largely irrelevant, and promotes a “what you see is what you get” mentality, undermining the fabric of community in order to maximize the look of programs.
  • Sleeping with the enemy. Using corporate volunteers from local businesses to teach youth about financial responsibility and equity is an easy way to infuse youth with anti-democratic ideology and community apathy.
  • Over counting. Measuring every single component of a program. This makes all program activities artificially responsible for impacting youth, when there are many activities that indirectly affect them or don’t effect them at all that need to be done.

If these characteristics seem sensible or practical to you, you might consider what assumptions are driving your perspectives. That’s how neoliberalism works: Gradually taking over our conscience, we routinely and coincidentally perpetuate the very problems that caused our programs to need to exist in the first place. 

About Neoliberalism

In my work across the country over the last few years I’ve met and talked with many youth workers who are very concerned. They see their organizations faltering under pressure from foundations and donors, they’re watching young people become consumed by corporate identities and values, and they’re being laid off and replaced as workers caught in a seemingly never-ending cycle of hiring-and-firing.

At the same time, nonprofit organizations once committed to community development are now promoting consumerism and low-wage efforts to pipe up local economies. Executive directors and fund development managers have to pit corporate interests against the public well-being, often hiding sophisticated consumerist agendas behind simple-appearing neighborhood programs. They generally do this not from their own conscience, but as a response to threats from corporatized transnational foundations.

This is neoliberalism, which is a way the world is run. Neoliberalism places capitalism before social good, privatization before the public good, and business interests before the government. The ultimate idea of neoliberalism is to let capitalism run society, wholly eliminating the role of the government for the benefit of money-driven profiteers. 

In 2004, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said, “Privatization is a neoliberal and imperialist plan. Health can’t be privatized because it is a fundamental human right, nor can education, water, electricity and other public services. They can’t be surrendered to private capital that denies the people from their rights.”

Stop Neoliberalism

As my mentor and The Freechild Project advisor Henry Giroux has written, democratic education- which many youth-serving programs should be embodying- is under assault from neoliberalism in a huge way. But there are things we can do right now. 

  • If you’re a youth, stand up to neoliberalism by teaching your friends and educating youth workers. Share this article. Learn more about neoliberalism and work to stop it whenever, wherever you find it. Please.
  • If you’re a youth worker, stop neoliberalism by treating all youth as humans, right now. Stop enforcing dehumanizing zero tolerance rules, throw away company-mandated curriculum, and using your body to advertise for companies. 
  • If you’re a nonprofit board member, stand up to funders that are pimping your nonprofit for corporate gain. 
  • If you’re a neighborhood member or parent, check up on the nonprofits your youth is involved with or that serve youth and find out where their funding comes from, what it’s teaching youth, and how it’s being measured.

I offer websites, including The Freechild Project and SoundOut, social media, and outreach activities as weapons for this ongoing work, and I look forward to fighting with you along the way.

Long live democracy.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Freechild Project Youth-Driven Programming Guide

This guide is an introduction to youth-driven programming for nonprofits, government agencies, and other youth-serving organizations. The booklet gives a definition and compares approaches, and then provides planning tools, evaluations and assessments, and more. It includes the Ladder of Youth Voice, rubrics for assessing youth-driven programming, and links to examples and resources that readers can explore on their own.


Elsewhere Online