"This Isn't An 'Ah-Ha' Moment" by Adam Fletcher for Freechild Institute for Youth Engagement

This Isn’t An “Ah-Ha” Moment

In the last few weeks, the United States has seen a resurgence of interest in youth engagement. Young people from Parkland, Florida, have led the charge and created a stir among the media by calling out politicians and pundits in public forums, including social media and press events. They’re advocating sophisticated responses to the violence that tore apart their school, and demanding people pay attention. Its working.

However, this isn’t an “ah-ha” moment. Despite how the media is treating it, this isn’t a glorious revelation about the power of youth or the need for systems change. Instead, it’s the continuance of decades of youth-led social change across the United States. This article highlights how that’s true, and what we can do to KEEP youth changing the world!



Youth having been changing and challenging the United States to change for more than a century. From the newsboys’ strike of 1899 to the anti-gun activism enlightening the nation right now, young people have led the way for a long time. Here are a few issues they have covered:

Child Labor—In 1903, a few hundred children marched from the coal mines and textile mills of eastern Pennsylvania to Washington DC to demand politicians take action for labor laws. Led by Mother Jones, an infamous suffragette, the group shook Congress to the bones, leading to the passage of the first national child labor and compulsory school laws in the country.

Youth Rights—In the 1930s, a group of high school and college age students formed the American Youth Congress to lobby for recreation, education, food and work rights for their generation. They presented the The Declaration of the Rights of American Youth [pdf] to the US Congress in 1935. Working with Eleanor Roosevelt, in 1936 their work led to the formation of the National Youth Administration. Although it was dismantled shortly after, the American Youth Congress launched campaigns for racial justice, increased federal spending on education, and an end to mandatory participation in the college-level Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC).

Cultural Diversity—During World War II, racial hatred and white supremacy led to the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles. During these terroristic battles, Hispanic and Latino young people led cultural battles to express themselves, while white supremacists beat them down and stripped children and youth of their clothes to suppress youth voice. This kind of cultural activism serves as a strong call for the rest of us.

Civil Rights—Nine months before Rosa Parks, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin became a pioneer in the civil rights movement when she refused to give up her seat for a white woman on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Not prepared to capitalize on the moment or recognize her leadership, movement makers didn’t promote Claudette’s actions. However, Colvin testified at the US Supreme Court trial that ended with a ruling against segregated busing and the end of the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Self-Expression—The stories continue after that, too, with Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, leading a generation towards activism in the early 1960s; the teen-led organization Youth Liberation Press in Ann Arbor, Michigan printing radical tracts about youth rights, freedom and justice in the 1970s; and the emergence of hip hop youth activism in the 1980s.

Global Youth Action—Youth engagement in social change has increasingly gone global, too. In the 1980s, the student-led movement against South Africa apartheid was openly credited by Nelson Mandela for contributing to the end of the regime of terror that segregated that country. After the turn of the century, the United Nations recognized the essential nature of engaging youth in international development plans. Youth in Australia gained a massive footing in their state educational decision-making around 2003 with the implementation of the Victoria Student Representative Council. Their actions created a foundation that’s still being built on internationally.

I have researched and written about dozens of other issues too, sharing examples and more, as well as actions taken and strategies employed to foster social change. THIS IS HAPPENING NOW.



Today, we’re seeing a shift in the battle over guns that has gripped the American soul with the murders of thousands of children and youth in the last 25 years. Whether shot by gangs, parents, stray bullets, police, or mass murderers, young people today are faced with increasingly hostile learning environments, with politicians who are seemingly intransigent to the threats they face. Luckily, they aren’t standing for it.

Inspired by activist youth from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where the latest mass murder happened, young people across the country are organizing on-the-ground, practical campaigns to end gun violence forever. They’re confronting politicians, partnering with parents and teachers, and planning massive school walkouts, rallies and demonstrations.

Like others before them, this generation is calling the American soul to the carpet. Young people today want us to feel their anguish, understand their suffering, acknowledge the collective trauma facing them, and to take action and make change.

However, there can be more to this moment than ever before. Rather than being a flash-bang instance of youth-led activism and instead of a media-driven hysteria focused on the appeal of middle class white suburban youth screaming for change, we can transform the very perception of young people in society in three ways.


How to keep youth changing the world by Adam Fletcher for Freechild Institute for Youth Engagement


3 Ways Youth Can KEEP Changing the World

  1. Create sustainable roles—There have to be positions, policies and practices in your organization and community that are long-ranging, impactful opportunities for youth specifically.
  2. Foster lifelong engagement—Engagement must not end at 15, 18, 21, 25 or beyond. Instead, there should be a continuum of opportunities for young people to see themselves engaged and then become that way throughout their lifetimes.
  3. Call forth the positive powerful purpose of youth—Don’t continue to make youth come to adults and insist change. Instead, reach out directly to young people and appeal to their sense of purpose, power and belonging, and then be ready to take action.



Its already happening. For more than a decade, youth have been fighting for social change in dozens of areas, like local farming, stopping smoking, challenging white supremacy and ending zero tolerance policing practices. Students have been partnering with teachers to improve schools, working with parents to build healthy families, and struggling against entrenched perceptions throughout society. That’s all happening right now, and we need to expand these practices.

We need to sustain and uplift the current actions young people are taking to change the world. Instead of creating more opportunities for involved youth to become more involved, we need to create new spaces for disengaged youth to become involved. Whether youth or adults, we can do this by changing the attitudes of individuals around us by confronting adultism (bias towards adults) and challenging ephebiphobia (fear of youth) wherever we see it.

Whether youth or adults, we can do this by transforming the structures we live in and operate throughout everyday, including families, schools, nonprofits, government agencies and bodies, and businesses, including all of the policies, practices and procedures we follow everyday. Whether youth or adults, we can do this by navigating and negotiating our culture, including the mainstream culture that paint youth as incapable non-adults; traditional cultures that treat young people as sometime to be seen and not heard; or socio-economic cultures that rely on youth repression in order to assure the social orders they rely on.

Ultimately, we must engage every youth and every adult in every community, everywhere, all the time. My own professional experience dovetails with history to show us that we must embrace, sustain and expand youth engagement. In more than 250 communities nationwide, I have worked with K-12 schools, nonprofits, government agencies and other organizations to transform the roles of young people in their programs, policies and operations. By facilitating professional development for adult staff members; training children and youth in myriad youth engagement skills and issues; planning programs and evaluating outcomes; as well researching and writing curriculum, I have sought to move the needle from seeing youth as the passive recipients of adult-led decision-making towards engaging youth as partners throughout our communities. I have spoke at dozens of conferences, providing motivational and educational expert speeches for young people and adults to see each other as allies, not enemies, by breaking down generational assumptions and understanding the power of youth.

Most importantly to me, I have stayed at it: For more than 17 years, I have run the Freechild Institute to share examples and tools for youth-led social change worldwide, while directing SoundOut, which focuses on meaningful student involvement throughout education. Recently, I joined the Athena Group, a collective of consultants focused on systems change nationwide. Our work will continue to move youth engagement into the mainstream today and in the future.

When you see the headlines, experience the momentum and feel the demand for youth engagement today, I hope you consider the history that’s come before, and understand the efforts underway to continue these actions today and beyond. Youth engagement is our greatest hope, and you can help build it right now.



You Might Also Be Interested In…

Elsewhere Online


Resources on Transformative Youth Engagement in Juvenile Justice

There are many resources on juvenile justice in the world, and I’ve spent almost 20 years collecting tools for youth engagement. Following is a collection of resources I’ve identified that address transformative youth engagement in juvenile justice. Do you have resources, tools, examples or more to share? Leave me a comment below!




Next Posts


You Might Also Like…

Why Youth Empowerment?

Sometimes, there are things to understand and know that aren’t necessarily agreed with by society. There are beliefs, ideas and activities that don’t make sense to a lot of people. As an advocate, I’m not compelled to do what others think I should; instead, I follow my heart and mind and take inner guidance on where I’m at and where I’m going.

Taking Away Youth Power

Reflecting on more than 20 years of working with children and youth across the United States, I realize that I have seen a generation of youth who constantly strive, constantly achieve and constantly exceed society’s wildest expectations of them. However, young people are doing this with the barest minimum support from society-at-large. We barely fund the schools they attend; we scrape up just enough money for low-income young people; we routinely profiteer off locking up youth who offend the law in order for private companies to make money off them; and just as soon as we can, society throughs young people into war, college or the workplace in hopes that they’ll make it all on their own.

Social Responsibility

I’m of the firm belief that our society should take responsibility for the decisions we make. All of the experiences of children and youth today are not the fault of their families or the fault of young people themselves. Instead, they are the outcomes of our society as a whole. Childhood homelessness? Society. Childhood hunger? Society. Failing students? Society. Abused young people? Society. Youth offenders, dropouts, child prostitutes, child slaves, child labor, all of this? Society.
However, its not just the actions of young people that society is responsible for; its also the feelings and beliefs of young people. As a society, we drive children and youth to think and feel the ways they do. That means that when young people feel distrust, apathy, despair, depression, hopelessness, hurt, anger, frustration and any feelings that make adults uncomfortable, its not just their job to “pick themselves up by their bootstraps” and make themselves feel better. Society must take responsibility for what we’ve done.

Transforming Power

I want to change this crummy situation. I want to see things be radically different for children and youth today than ever before. After more than 20 years working in education, social services and government to promote the health, welfare and empowerment of young people, it is my responsibility to demand more. While there are many, many ways to get that done, I believe one of the most responsible and genuine ways to transform our society is by enfranchising every child everywhere with the right to vote in every election all of the time.
Given the right and responsibility of the vote, children and youth can begin to hold society responsible for the attitudes, actions, beliefs and outcomes that it has routinely dumped on young people for thousands of years. One of the constructs in our society has been to see young people merely as adults-in-the-making, rather than seeing them as full humans right now. As voters, adults will not be able to deny the capabilities of young people; they won’t be able to deny the validity of young people; and they won’t be able to deny the power of young people AS young people, which is what they’ve always done.
All youth, everywhere, all of the time should have the right and responsibility to be empowered today.

Related Articles



You’re Responsible for Your Freedom

For the last few days, I’ve been in a dialogue about the nature of freedom. I’ve been asked several questions, and I’ve answered them openly. I’m reducing the conversation down to the key questions, and I want to share those answers with you here.

Question One: “Is someone free if they need someone else to free them?”

I’m afraid the answer to this is a bit esoteric. For thousands of years, people have been trying to teach that freedom has to begin inside us. Governments can grant all the freedoms they want, and tyrants can take them all away, but neither matters to the person who is truly free. Gandhi, MLK and Mandela all said so.

I believe that when people of any age have opportunities to access the knowledge, skills and ability to create change in the world, they internalize the truth about freedom. That truth is that freedom is an inside job, and not otherwise.

That said, there are countless ways our world can be more free, less oppressive and authentically engaging. Connecting young people with opportunities to challenge sexism, racism, white privilege, classism and adultism is essential to not only their freedom, but the freedoms of everyone, everywhere, all the time. That’s because as we recognize the reality we’re wholly interdependent, we become wholly independent – but not the opposite. Our understanding has to work in tandem like that; as does our freedom: The more I help another person realize their freedom, the freer I become.

My freedom is inextricably bound up with yours, and yet, your freedom is wholly independent of mine. No person is free until all people are free, and yet, no person has to wait for anyone to make them free.

Question Two: “Some of the language of ‘connecting young people with…’ says to me that young people are in need of someone to connect them, being in a deficit situation.”

When I wrote “connecting young people with social change”, I was not perceiving a deficit; its actually quite the opposite. As an adult social change agent I have led The Freechild Project for 15 years, with that very objective. Rather than seeing one thing as a negative and the other thing as a positive, with that specific statement I seek to acknowledge that society is in need of change, and young people have some of the resources needed to foster that change. In this way, youth are the asset, and society is in deficit by neglecting, denying, or otherwise silencing their abilities, knowledge, and skills.

Question Three: “Tell me more tangibly about how we are inextricably bound…”

Dr. King did that better than I ever could in his last book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” Tangibly speaking, he wrote, “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.”

In this same way, children, youth and adults are bound together in numerous practical ways every single day. Young people are primary purpose and focus of many of our society’s occupations, including parenthood, teaching, social services, commercialism, and entertainment. Many adults depend on young people for their entertainment and education, as students bring new knowledge into the household, as youth master technology, and as children expose new realities in their play and work everyday. Similarly and not shamefully, children and youth are dependent on adults for many things, too.

Question Four: “…No person has to wait for anyone to make them free?”

Again, I’ll let history speak for me. Nelson Mandela said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” Bitterness, hatred, cynicism, contempt, spite, and other feelings are exactly that: feelings. Many people, of all ages, are held captive to their feelings and thoughts. Mandela (and others like Freire, Horton, and even Buddha and Jesus) taught us that we can overcome our own feelings and thoughts to become more free. That is something that anyone can do, despite their conditions. Mandela recognized that after 27 years in prison; maybe we can do that no matter what conditions we live in.

Question Five: “Much of your work around adultism is to support policies and systems being more equitable for young people…policies and systems that currently prevent youth from being free. If I am an adult, and within these policies and systems am free, how am I any more free when I change the policies to allow youth to be free?”

If you are an adult within these systems who is earnestly and authentically working to transform those systems, you inherently must understand that your freedom is bound up with the freedom of children and youth. If you don’t understand that, not only are you not “free”, but you are actually captive to adultism yourself. Internalized adultism disallows us from actually treating children and youth as equitable partners anywhere in our society. Instead, it oppresses adults, perpetuating feelings and thoughts of pity and sympathy towards young people, rather than empathy and solidarity.

Malcolm X explained this best when he said, “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” In a similar way, I would echo that if we’re not careful, the systems that we serve young people through will have us hating young people, and partnering with other adults who hate young people, too.

When we confront our own internalized adultism, work through the oppression we faced as young people, acknowledge the oppression we’ve caused young people as adults, make amends for what we can and genuinely approach children and youth as full human beings who are completely capable of transforming the world around them through equitable youth/adult partnerships… then we will begin to see, experience, taste and touch freedom. But until then, we’re merely tricking ourselves in the worst kinds of ways.

Question Six: “If a policy that oppresses young people exists, and young people need adults to change that policy AND it is changed. Are those youth really free from that oppression?”

Part of the tension of our society is that nobody is ever truly free of any oppression until they understand for themselves that they are free. You can overthrow all the shackles of adultism, all of the confines of government, all the norms of society, and people will still be oppressed. That means that governments, schools, nonprofits, laws, rules, regulations and other forms of control aren’t the root of oppression. At the root of oppression is our personal, individual willingness to be oppressed. When we stop being willing to be oppressed, we can no longer be oppressed. That isn’t a “jedi mind trick” or anything like that; its a practical guide to freedom. As long as we wait or work to free ourselves from other things outside of ourselves, we are reinforcing the internal controls that obligate us to be held captive to those external things.

The practical application of that means encouraging young people to explore how they learn best and what they want to learn most AT THE SAME TIME they are working to transform the education system.

Question Seven: “Or are they only free when they have freed themselves…changed the policy themselves, absent of any adult action?”

Again, youth can challenge all the laws of any land and still never experience freedom. That has nothing to do with their age.

Condemning young people to having to work on their own without pragmatic partnerships with adults is a confinement that’s as oppressive as any policy they’re attempting to change. That’s because in every single part of our society, with only .00001% deviation, adults saw the need for the policy; adults created the policy; adults imposed the policy; adults enforced the policy; and adults handed out punishments to youth who violated the policy. Suddenly, youth are somehow supposed to magically come along and change the policy, wholly without the assistance of adults, and expect that to last?

After years of working with groups in all kinds of configurations attempting different forms of this work, I can tell you that my experience has definitively shown me that if and when that formula works, it isn’t long sustained. Without cultural and attitudinal transformation, wholly youth-led systems change simply doesn’t work.

THAT SAID, this reaches to the point I’m trying to make: If we don’t teach young people to find freedom within themselves, are we simply deceiving them, and ourselves? Methinks the answer is yes, yes we are. We have to go deeper in order to reach further.

Question Eight: “How does this theory translate to race?

Because it takes huge effort, determined practice and focused thinking, nothing I’ve written here is simple. To reduce the work of freeing yourself from your own bondage by calling it “simple” reveals bias against this, the hardest of work.

Several people have answered your question more eloquently than me, so I’m going to let them:

Paulo Freire wrote, “The greatest humanistic task of the oppressed: To liberate themselves.”

Buddha said, “No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.”

Frederick Douglass wrote, “No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.”

Albert Einstein wrote, The Dalai Llama said, “Our task must be to free ourselves… by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and it’s beauty.”

My own flawed, imperfect answer is that indeed, when we’re ready to throw off the shackles of our oppressors, we must begin within and work outside ourselves, simultaneously. That’s why it’s true that nobody is free until everybody is free, and that as long as any of us are oppressed, all of us are oppressed.

We’re all in this together, no matter where we start or what we’re doing.

Adam’s Note: Rereading this, I’m happy that my thoughts are congealing more than ever. But I’m still flawed, and there are holes in what I’ve written here. Can you please share your thoughts with me about what you’ve read here? I’d love to get your opinion. Just hit “reply” to this email and we can talk through it. Thanks.

Adults Letting Go and Taking Charge

Recently, I wrote an entry on this blog called “The Gradual Release of Authority” in response to a series of conversations I’ve been having across the country. This issue continually comes up with adults who are grappling with moving young people from being passive recipients of adult-driven programming, whether in schools, nonprofits, government agencies or other places, towards becoming active partners throughout the world they are part of. Well, apparently writing that article wasn’t enough for me, and I had to create a video, too.

So here’s my latest video called “Adults Letting Go and Taking Charge.” Hope you like it; let me know what you think in the comments section on YouTube.

7 Alternatives to Youth Injustice


Much of my work is situated at the juncture of youth injustice and social change. I believe that young people are inherently discriminated throughout our society simply because of their ages. That doesn’t mean that all young people everywhere have it equally as bad, but it does mean there are some common things everyone, everywhere can do to bring justice to children and youth of all ages.

7 Alternatives to Injustice towards Young People

  1. Watch Your Mouth. Adults routinely say dismissive, demeaning and patronizing things to children and youth. “You are too old for that!” or “You’re not old enough!” “What do you know? You haven’t experienced anything!” “It’s just a stage. You’ll outgrow it,” and “You’ll understand when you’re older” are all examples. Watch your mouth and speak justly to young people. Say things that show concern without being inconsiderate; use respectful language; and assume ability, not ignorance.
  2. Make Room. Everyday decisions are made about young people without young people. Parents, teachers, youth workers, caregivers, police, judges, business owners and store clerks, and others are constantly choosing what is best for children and youth without ever asking them what they think is best for themselves. Make room for young people by sharing decision-making opportunities with them. Give them appropriate ability to affect outcomes without overburdening them with too much responsibility – but ask them to tell you how much is too much, without just assuming, because you know what assuming does…
  3. Build Their Abilities. Anyone who spends time with young children knows that just because a 5-year-old can’t see over the counter doesn’t mean they don’t want to know what’s there. Build their abilities by providing proverbial stepping stools when appropriate, whether in your classroom, at your program or in your workplace. Offer training and educational opportunities that build the capacities of young people to participate. Provide age appropriate reading opportunities and websites that help them navigate complex topics, and spend meaningful time with them helping them learn more.
  4. Stop Punishing, Start Teaching. Children and youth are punished in so many ways by adults throughout their lives that most punishments feel arbitrary and meaningless to them. They are routinely criticized, yelled at, invalidated, insulted, intimidated, or made to feel guilty by adults in all sorts of settings. This undermines young peoples’ self-respect and dismantles their better judgment, rendering their self-decision making abilities worthless. Stop punishing young people and start teaching them instead. Give multiple options and show practical outcomes to actions, and demonstrate positive decision-making constantly and on purpose.
  5. Share Real Control. What spaces, places, times and outcomes do children and youth really control? Do parents and guardians always have the ultimate authority over the behaviors, attitudes and ways that young people presentation themselves? Or can young people learn to control their own bodies, their space and their possessions? Stop kissing little children without their permission. Don’t touch a young person’s head without their permission. Don’t assume your teenager is doing evil things on the Internet. Allow your child to decide what they want to dress like for school. Share real control with young people and learn with them on purpose.
  6. Stop Being Afraid. There is nothing no more sinister, evil or forlorn about young people today than when you were young. In fact, children and youth are a lot like you were – curious, expansive, hopeful and passionate – before you got older. Stop being afraid of them, and of YOU. You were young once, too. Stop making adulthood sound so terrible and terrifying; its a reward to get here, and we should teach young people they should appreciate getting older, too.
  7. Challenge Other Adults. The last part of this formula is the worst, because it demands you not only do something about yourself and your actions, but that you challenge other adults to do the same too. If you’re a parent, don’t settle for your students being treated poorly by teachers. If you’re a supervisor, don’t treat your young workers as less-than simply because of their ages. Challenge other adults by advocating for full and equitable roles for children and youth in your home, at school, throughout your communities, in businesses, and across government agencies. Challenge other adults to stand up for what’s right and to stop youth injustice.

Injustice for young people breeds injustice for adults, both in terms of accepting injustice and perpetuating injustice. We can do better than that, and by doing better than that we will challenge injustice for all times.

Just as importantly, when adults use practical, considerate alternatives throughout the lives of children and youth, we’ll get practical, considerate outcomes that reflect our investments. Because learning new ways to understand, exploring new ways to interact, and building new beliefs in the outcomes young people demonstrate are investments. They’re investments in our present times, and in the future.

Let’s keep that in mind. Learn more about youth/adult partnerships and youth voice today.

Leelah’s Murder Is OUR Fault

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

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

Discrimination Against Youth

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

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

Personal Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legal Action

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

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

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

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

Adam Fletcher in São Paulo

I Will See YOU in São Paulo!

On Monday I am flying to São Paulo, Brazil, to talk about my philosophy and practice through CommonAction, including SoundOut and The Freechild Project. It all began a few years ago, when Lilian Kelian contacted me. Working with a program called Jovens Urbanos (Urban Youth), Lilian asked if they could translate some of my publications and use them in the cities they work, São Paulo , Pouso Alegre, and Serra. Happily agreeing, I looked forward to seeing the finished product.

This summer, Lilian contact me again to invite me to come to Brazil and help spread the word about the publications and the ideas behind them. I am leaving Monday to spend next week in São Paulo!

Hosted by CENPEC, my trip is being sponsored by Fundação Itaú Social, a large foundation in Brazil. Among other things, I am facilitating a workshop and speaking at a conference. The conference, Seminário Internacional: Educação + Participação = Educação Integral, will be broadcast live online on Friday, November 14.

Here’s the poster for my workshop on Wednesday, November 12. I’m going to post things occasionally throughout the week. I am very excited for this opportunity, and I’m really looking forward to meeting people, sharing ideas and learning a lot while I’m there! What an opportunity! Woohoo!


Adam Fletcher in São Paulo


Binary Youth Engagement


Binary thinking is based in the belief that reality is based in either/or truths. We’re convinced in believing that it’s one way or the other, up or down, left or right. This thinking is damaging to young people today in many ways, including Youth Engagement at home, in schools and throughout communities.

Binary thinking leads students to be either forced to go to school or students getting expelled from school. The same goes with peoples’ understanding of youth rights: We’re made to believe that youth either have rights or they don’t.

This binary thinking is not accurate. There is no black and white perspectives in Youth Engagement. Instead, we’re all operating in shades of gray going through variations on the theme of democracy and civic action. That means that instead of believing a kid needs kicked out or needs to be able to leave, there are a lot of variations in between we should understand and be advocating for. I believe that all young people have an obligation, morally and socially, to the democratic society we live in to get educated by other people with varied experiences. Where that happens and how that happens should be the question – not if that happens or who that happens for.

The same thing with Youth Engagement: We shouldn’t be addressing these issues as “youth are engaged” or “youth are disengaged”. Instead, we should acknowledge the shades of engagement all of us feel all of the time throughout their lives, whether in school, at home, or throughout our communities. Instead of pretending that youth are disengaged, we should see what youth are actually engaged in right now, and work to extend their engagement instead of pretending they’re completely disengaged right now.

It seems to me that the whole piece where we keep getting hung up on either/or and this/that thinking is just idle wheel spinning that takes up time and energy that could otherwise be expended more effectively.

We CAN Solve Youth Apathy


A lot of employers think youth today are apathetic. Reading the news, surfing social media, and watching tv and the movies leaves them with the impression that young people are shiftless, with no momentum to move forward into the brave new future that’s waiting for them. Adults who around with youth everyday can be most worried, since our children, students, clients, and young employees can show our worst impressions are true.

What You THINK Youth Apathy Is

Educators often see youth apathy as…

  • Indifference to learning opportunities
  • Not applying oneself in the classroom
  • Consistently being late or skipping classes
  • Treating the future in a lazy way

Parents may see youth apathy as…

  • Not paying attention to present or future activities
  • Walking away from opportunities parents present
  • Zoning out with drugs, alcohol, sex, or electronic devices
  • Lack of interest in the family or household

In the workplace, managers may think youth apathy looks like…

  • Lack of appreciation for the job they are being hired for
  • Dressing in inappropriate ways
  • Not meeting basic performance expectations
  • Showing a blatant lack of ambition for advancement opportunities
  • Seeming indifferent to managers’ expectations
  • Not performing at the highest levels
  • Consistently showing up unprepared or late for work
  • Quitting

As customers, businesses might see youth apathy as…

  • Indifference to new products or services
  • Lazy usage of products
  • Lack of interest in paying more for premium products or services
  • Non-loyalty to brands, services, products, or locations

However, all of these characteristics are genuinely misdiagnosed. Instead of being an active choice deliberately made by young people, youth apathy is generally a conditioned response to a set of stimulus presented to them throughout their childhoods.

10 Ways Youth Apathy Happens

The way to solve youth apathy is to see what youth apathy actually is: A conditioned response that is trained into the hearts and minds of young people from the time they are small children. Responding to their feelings of disappointment, dejection, and stress, young people become apathetic to economics, either as employees or consumers. The way to solve youth apathy is to address these feelings.

Youth apathy happens like this…

  1. Growing Childhood: As children, all of people have natural inquisitiveness and are deeply engaged in the world. They use this inquisition to gain skills, and our engagement builds relationships with the people, objects, and activities they are part of.
  2. Living at Home: While being raised by parents or caregivers of all stripes, the natural desires young people have are channeled towards accomplishing adults’ goals in addition to their own. The best of these experiences ensures young peoples’ investment in the process and ownership over the outcomes. The worst is indifferent to their responses and to the resulting apathy exhibited.
  3. Attending Schools: The willingness of youth to learn effectively intrudes in teachers’ agenda as they work to narrow our imaginations and limit our interests in order to meet prescribed agendas.
  4. Buying Things: Young people take their inherent optimism with them into the marketplace with relative ease, saving change or earning allowances in order to buy a new toy or cool shoes.
  5. Receiving Money: As we want to acquire more things and experience increasing desire for independence, we seek to acquire more money. Some get jobs while others simply ask.
  6. Getting Jobs: Many young people are not hired for jobs, soon after experiencing their first brush with substantive apathy.
  7. Feeling Disappointed: As they cannot afford the products they’re advertised, more young people develop more apathy. If they can afford the things they’re told they should want, young people can develop indifference for the value of things. Filling up their lives with material possessions, they disregard or don’t know how to meet their emotional, psychological, or physical well-being, consequently becoming apathetic about themselves.
  8. Cashing Paychecks: When they get their first job, the paychecks of many young people are sucked away into paying for their lifestyles, whether they receive money from parents or are barely scraping by on their own. This increases youth apathy by incapacitating their abilities to make a difference in their own lives.
  9. Paying Taxes: In schools and homes where the government is portrayed as evil and paying taxes towards the public good is seen as stupid, young people can feel increasing amounts of apathy. At this point, engaging in the public good can actuallybuild youth apathy and disregard for the larger world they live in.
  10. Feeling Left Behind: Increasing amounts of adult indifference to the health and well-being of young people is only promoting youth apathy, as they follow role models of all stripes and meet the expectations (or lack thereof) for them.

As Maya Angelou wrote, “We are all creative, but by the time we are three of four years old, someone has knocked the creativity out of us. Some people shut up the kids who start to tell stories. Kids dance in their cribs, but someone will insist they sit still. By the time the creative people are ten or twelve, they want to be like everyone else.” This is the root of youth apathy.

How to Solve Youth Apathy

There is no silver bullet for solving youth apathy. After more than 20 years working in communities across the US and Canada to help youth themselves, employers, social workers, teachers, parents and others to overcome this issue, I am clear on that. I’ve studied the research, talked with the experts, and workshopped with youth, and nobody has one single answer.

Instead, there are dozens of ways to solve youth apathy. Each of these ways reveals a pattern though, and through my work I’ve discovered what it looks like. Following is my Cycle of Engagement, an easy-to-follow five step process for forming sustained connections with young people that empower them to overcome apathy as workers, consumers, students, children, and citizens throughout our society.

  • Step 1: Listen to Youth. You know the drill: You’re at your desk one day, working away at an important project when a youth comes up to you really excited and says, “Hey, listen to this…” You tilt your head a little, and maybe lean towards them, but you keep doing whatever you were. You’re not really listening, are you? You might be hearing them talk, and you might even understand what they’re saying – but you’re not really thinking about it or feeling it. The difference between listening and hearing makes the difference for defeating youth apathy, and that’s where youth engagement starts—when young people have an actively engaged audience to listen to their ideas, opinions, experiences, knowledge, and/or actions. However, listening is just the first step; engagement requires more.
  • Step 2: Validate what youth say or do. You’ve heard people say it, and you might have said it yourself: “Oh, that’s really nice.” As managers, we try to say “nice” in just the right way, but to many young people it seems insincere. We think we are doing the right thing by encouraging them to move forward, but in our heads we really thinking about the time we fell flat on our face from the same approach. Instead of hiding our true thoughts, it is our job to honestly validate what young people say or do by honestly reacting to it, how we sincerely feel or think about it. If we think something will fail, we should say so to youth. Validation means disagreeing, or agreeing, or asking more questions, as honestly as we can. We shows respect for youth and respect them by explaining what we think and working together to search for alternatives.
  • Step Three: Authorize Youth. Authority is an awesome word that can be intimidating for many people, no matter what their ages. W When their skills are built and/or they’ve gotten positions that insist they rise to the occasion, young people can become active in defeating their own apathy. Managers, parents, and others can provide practical steps towards actual engagement for all youth, instead of just words. As well as the skills, we must involve young people in applicable, practical activities that are actually powerful, purposeful, and rewarding, whether at work, in school, at home, or throughout the community. As they overcome apathy by applying their new skills to practical action, youth gain the authority to make a difference.
  • Step Four: Take Action With YouthYouth engagement does not just happen and youth apathy doesn’t just go away; instead, those must be a goal that is actively worked towards. Taking action requires young people to work together with adults to make the space, place, and ability for change. That can happen at school, in the workplace, at home, and throughout their lives. Action can– and should– look different everywhere: from identifying the challenge, researching the issue, planning for action, training for effectiveness, reflection on the process, to celebrating the outcomes, youth engagement is a totally flexible tool – but it’s purpose is not. The purpose of youth engagement is always to create, support, and sustain powerful, purposeful, and meaningful communities for everyone to belong to.An important caution: action is usually seen as the most important step in this Cycle. Unfortunately, this makes positive outcomes the most important thing. For many issues, positive outcomes rarely come, or if they do, not as immediately as people would like. For many people, the next step can be the most important component of engagement.
  • Step Five: Reflect. Reflection may be the most important ongoing step to solving youth apathy, and for engaging anyone anywhere at anytime, especially youth. When young people critically evaluate and analyze their workplaces, schools, homes, or communities, learning becomes a vibrant, intricate, and powerful tool for engaging them. Reflection activities used should be appropriate for diverse youth, whether that’s simply talking, or writing, acting, creating collages, and building activities. Once you have finished reflecting with young people, take the lessons you’ve learned and use them to inform next listening activity you do with youth. That completes the Cycle and shows everyone that solving youth apathy requires ongoing effort.

Individually, these steps may currently happen throughout communities. However, when they do happen it is rare that they are connected with community development and less likely still, connected with one another. The connection of all the steps in this Cycle is what makes partnerships between community members meaningful, effective, and sustainable.

Solving Youth Apathy

This pattern I’ve found, called the Cycle of Engagement, is part of a series of patterns that emerge whenever people identify an activity as engaging. Solving youth apathy requires that we engage every young people in as many places as we can, as frequently as possible. The Cycle emerges almost anytime people say they feel an activity is meaningful. It can be intentional or coincidental, but as I’ve taught more people about the Cycle, more people report more success in engaging others. This means that youth apathy can and should be intentionally challenged.

How To Continuously Challenge Youth Apathy

Through my years of implementing and examining others’ implementation of this Cycle, I’ve discovered a few things that are essential to challenging youth apathy, no matter how it happens.

  • We ALL Need Motivation. Engaging young people without a reason or a cause is pointless. This is why the greatest marketing of our day focuses not on brands or bargains, but on movements. The greatest purpose we can have is the social good, but whatever you’re seeking to do, let young people know the purpose.
  • Engagement Requires Repetition. Going through all the steps of the Cycle once with intention leads to young people becoming engaged once. Going through it several times builds engagement, along with trust and respect, and continuously challenges youth apathy.
  • Making Meaning Solves Apathy. Activities have to be meaningful to be engaging. When working through the Cycle, understand that people will be used to meaningfulness and won’t settle for less afterwards.

The Cycle of Engagement is meant to provide employers, parents, teachers, and others with a clear process for engaging youth throughout our communities. The most important take away from this Cycle is that solving apathy requires more than simply hearing, checking-in, or talking to them. Solving youth apathy requires youth engagement, and youth engagement requires a commitment to movement. This Cycle shows how that can happen.


Youth apathy is not an unsolvable issue. It requires strategy though, and here is what I’ve laid out in this article:

  1. Acknowledge what you think youth apathy is.
  2. Recognize what youth apathy actually is.
  3. Identify the places and ways youth apathy actually happens.
  4. Design a conscientious strategy for promoting youth engagement.
  5. Commit to continually challenging youth apathy.

Only when we take these steps can we actually make a difference in the lives of young people and throughout our entire communities today.