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 Learn more at!

Why Should We Engage Kids of Privilege?

Why should we try to engage young people who have everything they need already? For a lot of the time I was growing up my family struggled to meet it’s basic needs, and although we usually had food, water, shelter and clothes, there were days and weeks where we went without. As I’m growing older and my socio-economic status is changing though, I’m finding myself increasingly surrounded by young people who grow up without want for toys, let alone basic needs. Why do these youth need any of my energy?

In a society that relies on social inequities in order to perpetuate negative economic patterns, there is no apparent end to the oppression faced by the disenfranchised. I am under no illusion that there are grave inequities and there are apparently frivolous injustices; however, in a world with limited time and ability to affect the great numbers with a message of hope and ability, we must start anywhere and go everywhere. With that thinking I believe that the work of enriching the lives of young people of privilege gains value, as long as it’s rooted in building consciousness and ability towards fighting oppression. All young people regardless of socio-economic background need to learn about the oppressive forces they perpetuate and suffer under; whether this focuses on racial, gender, age, economic, sexual orientation or other inequities, everyone needs to learn the realities that face us in this world. In learning the realities that face others and identifying the roots of the situations they find themselves in everyday, young people of privilege can become allies in the struggle against oppression, and grow in their ability to sympathize rather than pity those who are different than them. Dr. King once wrote,

“True altruism is more than the capacity to pit; it is the capacity to sympathize. Pity may represent little more than the impersonal concern which prompts the mailing of a check, but true sympathy is the personal concern which demands the giving of one’s soul.”

As Dr. King frequently said, and folks like Paulo Freire, bell hooks and others continue to insist, we need a soulful revolution based in love. Building the capacity of all young people to engage in this work should be our mission. The question of how to engage these youth is for a different post; here I’m only trying to answer why we should. Share your thoughts…

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

Personally Challenging Adultism

What can YOU do to challenge adultism, right now? Here are five ways to start:

  1. Talk directly with all children and youth you meet. Listen to what they say, tell them what you think and feel, and focus on respect and trust-building every time you talk with them. Focus on the conversation and don’t be distracted. Respond accordingly when it’s appropriate.
  2. Integrate young people throughout your world. Actively involve children and youth throughout your life and throughout your community. In your home create active, meaningful and deliberate opportunities for your children. Throughout your neighborhood treat your young neighbors as you’d treat any adult neighbors- or better. At least don’t ignore them. At work lobby for and lead efforts to actively involve young people in decision-making, no matter what you do. Across your whole community advocate with young people to actively integrate children and youth in everything, everywhere, all the time.
  3. Change yourself then change the world. How do you behave in adultist ways? Do you talk down to young people? Making decisions with young people people requires having young people at the table – are they there? When was the last time you had a meaningful conversation with children and youth? Change yourself first. Change the world second. We shouldn’t expect others to do something we aren’t doing ourselves.
  4. Don’t humiliate young people. If you wouldn’t say it to an adult in front of adults, don’t say it to children and youth in front of children and youth. There’s an assumption that we should call out young people in front of their peers in order to “teach them a lesson.” While we may think we’re teaching them to behave, we’re actually teaching them that humiliating other people is okay. That’s not okay, and as responsible adults we should not humiliate young people. Ever.
  5. Teach young people that their community belongs to them. Our society is actually yearning for people to actually dig in their hands and do the work of social change in all kinds of areas. We have to teach young people that along with adults they’re directly responsible for the outcomes of their communities, both by role modeling and by taking action.
These are some early steps. What would you do next? Learn more at and search this blog for the topic “adultism”. 

CommonAction is available to train, speak, and share about this topic and many others. Contact me to talk about the possibilities by emailing or calling (360)489-9680.

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

*Interdependent* Living Skills

Independent living skills, or ILS, programs are run by nonprofits and government agencies for the purpose of “disadvantaged” youth what they need to know in order to be “successful” adults. Working with foster, homeless, and formally incarcerated youth, these programs focused on teaching young people about finances, the education system, maintaining a household, and other topics adults think are invaluable to youth. I taught in an ILS program for a YWCA in the Midwest for a year and a half back in the 90s.

After I started Freechild in 2001 I was invited to speak to a conference of ILS program managers here in Washington. Still green behind the ears with meeting the needs of my audience, I began my speech with a story about a homeless teenager I worked with in my program. This guy was determined to live well on his own, and had nothing less than the highest hopes for himself. But over the course of 6 months he’d lost 3 apartments and 4 jobs, and didn’t understand why he kept failing. I’d been talking with him the whole time – he had an ILS counselor who was his mainline, but I was “special” because I was the only male teaching in the program – so after the last time he got fired he came to me again. This time was different.

Rather than ask him what went wrong, I asked him what was right. Rather than concentrating on what was falling apart, we looked at what was sticking together. “Well, right now I’m living with some cool friends, and we’re all taking turns washing dishes and we’re keeping a list to make sure the bills are paid and yeah, that’s cool.” When I asked about the jobs he explained that the best part of all of them was getting to help other people, whether he was at a fast food restaurant or pushing the broom for a community center. This reminded me of something Dr. King had written more than 30 years before I was talking with him:

We are everlasting debtors to known and unknown men and women…. When we arise in the morning, we go into the bathroom where we reach for a sponge provided for us by a Pacific Islander. We reach for soap that is created for us by a Frenchman. The towel is provided by a Turk. Then at the table we drink coffee which is provided for us by a South American, or tea by a Chinese, or cocoa by a West African. Before we leave for our jobs, we are beholden to more than half the world. – Strength to Love(1963)

I began to understand that this program, and by extension, myself, was teaching this young man mythology: that by living on our own and striving for independence we can somehow find success in the world around us. This was driving my guy crazy, and I think he was just in his reactions! Coming from the background of a homeless teen who struggled in a family of addicts and a neighborhood of depression, the only way he was finding “success” was by relying on others – and now some of those others were trying to convince him that he only needed to rely on himself!

We brainstormed more and talked about what it meant to help others and be of use to the world around us. This particular conversation helped me screw my head on tighter, that’s for sure. Three months later he’d been working for the same food bank the entire time, and was still living with that last house where everyone shared the work. I moved onto another job shortly after, but still regard this guy as one of my greatest lessons. In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, he wrote, “Independence? That’s middle class blasphemy. We are all dependent on one another, every soul of us on earth.” That’s what was reinforced in my mind from this episode – that this web that binds is stronger than anything else.

This leads me to call for a concentrated program of interdependent living skills. Rather than teach disenfranchised people about the mythology of a world where they live, struggle, succeed and overcome “all on their own,” let’s help all people understand that we are woven together and that there is nothing wrong with depending on others. This program would foster communication, reinforce community, encourage conflict resolution, harbor hope, and encourage teamwork throughout the day, from home to work to play to struggle. And rather than being taught to youth by adults, it would be taught collectively to anyone who’d participate – no matter what the age or circumstance! Anti-segregationist, it would rally together people who were interested in a common quest for action in their own lives despite or because of their commitment to working together with their differences.

There is a higher goal to all learning, and to all of life. Learning interdependent living skills and reinforcing Dr. King’s understanding from so long ago can take us there.

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

My Review of “Beyond Resistance”

Beyond Resistance! Youth Activism and Community Change: New Democratic Possibilities for Practice and Policy for America’s Youth was edited by Shawn Ginwright. This is my review for The Freechild Project.

For youth workers with a preconceived notion about the roles of young people in society, this collection may be challenging. For teachers who think they know the power of students, Ginwright may be shocking. For young people who think they understanding “the movement”, this book may be eye-opening.

Ginwright collects dozens of the best examples of youth-led and youth-driven activism and refines them to their finest points, charging the reader to do more than complain about apathy or revel in cynicism. He leaves us no choice other than getting up to do something. Thanks Shawn – we need that. This book is an incredible read for anyone interested in the movement at any level.

Before this book the reader might want to see Global Uprising : Confronting the Tyrannies of the 21st Century : Stories from a New Generation of Activists; after it you might want to reference Future 500: Youth Organizing and Activism in the United States.


Order Beyond Resistance! Youth Activism and Community Change: New Democratic Possibilities for Practice and Policy for America’s Youth.

If They Swallow This…

“If they swallow this… ‘Empowermints’ – The tasty treat with a catchy name but no real content! Give them to your workers in place of raises, benefits, and respect.”
Let’s think about the implications of “youth empowerment”, that tired cliche we try to avoid by using phrases like “youth involvement”, “youth voice”, “youth engagement” and “youth activism”. Individually this phrasing may serve its purpose, depending on the level of understanding each practitioner has when they use it. However, as a body politik does the usage of these phrases mean anything more than youth empowerment? Particularly to young people themselves and unknowledgable adults? Or is there a better language out there? We must keep examining these assumptions.
RIP Northland Poster Collective, my favorite source for radically democratic marketing items for the last 10 years. Ricardo has taught me a lot, and their art inspires me. I encourage you to support their final days, and applaud Northland for being what its been. Thank you!
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

14 Standards for Youth Voice

“Standardization” is a scary word. Community-based youth workers often see it as the bain of the personalized and human effect they have with young people. However, standards can allow programs to aspire to more than the norm, more than intuition. Standards for Youth Voice may allow programs and organizations to:
  • Increase the effectiveness of their Youth Voice programs; 
  • Allow evaluation, assessment and research data from Youth Voice programs to be used across different settings; 
  • Expand choices for program planners
  • Enable organizations with similar programs to align according to stated interests and  desired outcomes; 
  • Encourage information-sharing among similarly-focused programs and organizations that otherwise compete for similar funding or young peoples’ participation;
  • Provides a benchmark for program and activity design;
  • Allows organizational leaders to identify which skills and what knowledge currently exist and which are in need within an organization in order to meet standards.
There have been few standards proposed for Youth Voice. Past efforts have often glossed over specific issues that affect young people and their communities everyday by being too vague, or too specific. Maybe that is the fault of taking a standarized approach. Working with young people and adults across the country over the last 10 years I have had repeated conversations about what these standards can look like. Following are 14 Standards for Youth Voice I am proposing.
  1. Youth Voice should be defined as the active, distinct, and concentrated ways young people represent themselves throughout society.
  2. Engaging Youth Voice requires being aware, acknowledging, and infusing diversity throughout every activity.
  3. First and foremost, Youth Voice is a tool to build democracy; learning, empowerment, engagement, and other outcomes are consequences of that focus.
  4. Not engaging Youth Voice is active discrimination against youth  and is not always a wrong, bad, or incorrect thing to do.
  5. Community problems should be addressed by communities, and not foisted on the shoulders of young people working alone.
  6. It is essential to engage Youth Voice in issues broader than those that only affect young people.
  7. Youth Voice already addresses a broad range of issues throughout our communities, and it is vital to acknowledge those current contributions.
  8. Young people have the same rights as adults to make their hopes, fears, dreams, and realities known to society.
  9. Youth Voice is the one bond that unites all young people throughout our society and around the world.
  10. The transience of youth is a foundation to be built upon, not a whim to be dismissed.
  11. Communities have different needs that can and should be addressed by and through Youth Voice.
  12. Young people and adults must build their personal capacity to engage and sustain Youth Voice.
  13. Every public institution in society is morally responsible for developing their structural capacity to engage and sustain Youth Voice.
  14. Youth Voice is an action that requires young people to speak by doing, and adults to speak by listening.
Standards can allow us to create more than a movement for Youth Voice; instead, they give us a foundation for establishing an entire field of practice. What do you think?
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Youth Development, Youth Service and Youth Rights

Somewhere out there in the Ether there is an tussle among youth workers. In this battle of wills and ego, its youth development versus youth service versus youth rights. I was historically engaged in this discussion; however, over the last few years I’ve come to seen this non-dialogue as passé and even trite. It now seems almost silly to me to contrast the three; now I have a different vision.

Let’s compare definitions:
  • Youth development is “…the ongoing growth process in which all youth are engaged in attempting to (1) meet their basic personal and social needs to be safe, feel cared for, be valued, be useful, and be spiritually grounded, and (2) to build skills and competencies that allow them to function and contribute in their daily lives.”*
  • “Youth service refers to non-military, intensive engagement of young people in organized activity that contributes to the local, national, or world community. Youth service is widely recognized and valued by society, with minimal or no compensation to the server. Youth service also provides opportunities for youth development, youth voice and reflection.”*
  • “Youth rights usually refers to a philosophical stance that focuses on the civil rights of the young. This is counter to the more traditional perspective held by child rights’ advocates that emphasizes youth entitlements, a viewpoint that usually rests on a paternalistic foundation… [Y]outh rights organizers seek equal rights with adults by having young people play central roles in crafting their own strategies and campaigns to change their status.”*
All that said, I’ve come to see the three of these as part of the same continuum of action. Without youth development, youth rights become the same pedantic conversation that only benefits those young people who already a lot of rights and access and authority and involvement. Without youth service, youth development represents a vertical and didactic relationship between youth and adults that is neither mutually beneficial nor arguably wholly beneficial for young people themselves. Closing that loop, youth service provides a “responsibility mechanism” for advocating more effectively for youth rights. It provides a logical “a+b=c” argument for folks who maintain that with rights comes responsibility, and given today’s generation’s proclivity for service, the conversation should be easy.
The interplay and entrainment of those issues among one another is not a complex analysis; more so, its rather simplistic in the grand scheme of things. However, it does allude to the more intricate nature of my own philosophy today, and why I’ve moved away from the competitive stance assumed among many advocates. Somewhere within these issues and actions, and the myriad others I’ve identified over the last nine years of my study in this field, there is a deep connectivity that transcends and enlaces all different perspectives into one spectacular phenomenon. I have been working for years to crystalize this vision into a thesis, and it is coming.
These ideas and inspirations are pouring forth lately, and I’d appreciate any thoughts you have on any of these ideas. Thanks.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

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