Expanding Youth Participation

A group in the United Kingdom just put out a useful PDF documenting a “pathway to participation.” YoMo is a “community interest company” that is committed to youth participation. Their work across the UK looks great, and I am enjoying reading their website and blog, and looking forward to reading their materials soon.

In the meantime, I have dug into their PDF and the blog entry about it and have decided that they are on the way to discovering something powerful. The author talks about creating this “pathway”:

The ‘pathway’ is the ‘journey’ that young people are able to take through the organisation – its how young people are able to progress from their initial involvement and then on to whatever positions of responsibility/involvement the organisation can offer them.

The challenge for me here is the linear thinking represented by the imagery of a “pathway.” One thing experience has shown me is that youth participation – in all of its vibrant, divergent and chaordic ways – is not linear. That means that in no way can – or should – young people and adults working together in partnership be expected move from “here” to “there” in a predictable way, no matter what adults want. There are rhythms to their involvement, patterns that emerge and submerge that can be sussed out and made obvious. But as for a pathway, I think it may be too elusive, to say nothing of confining, to predict.

Hart’s Ladder of Children’s Participation is predicated on this notion of linear involvement. The dilemma inherent in that popular tool is that sometimes it may appropriate for young people to merely participate as consultants rather than full partners – just as the opposite is true, too. We have to move past this kind of oversimplification and recognize that if the building is burning down we don’t need to build consensus – we just need to get outta here. The same is true at different times in different parts of our communities, and these types of models just don’t evidence that reality.

My most concentrated attempt thus far is the Freechild Measure for Social Change By and With Young People. In this piece I simply reinterpeted Hart’s rungs and laid them out in a spiral form. When I originally laid this out in 2005 I thought it was fine, but now I see that there is a lack of elegance and applicability in it, and perhaps that what draws me back to Hart’s Ladder itself. Its also why I can appreciate YoMo’s thinking, because frankly, I have tried to say the same thing myself.

We need new dreams, new visions for how to move this movement forward, instead of spinning our individual and collective heals, no matter which side of the world we’re on.

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

Stop Youth Segregation with Integration

Once a youth advocate understands the reality that segregating youth is an injustice unto its own, they have a responsibility to undo that damage. They have a responsibility to integrate youth. For too long that notion of integration has been limited to simplistic notions about youth participation.

“All we need to do is invite the youth.”
“We need some youth sports!”
“Let’s get a youth on our board.”

Unfortunately, this well-intended and often poorly-executed idealism often leads to further alienating young people, as the traditional youth leaders who are targeted for participation quickly become dissatisfied with the token roles they have in these situations. Otherwise these opportunities serve as mass pacifiers, undermining the very essence of being young by rerouting the mental power of young people towards physical aggression and competitive brainwashing. This gesturing is designed to develop children and youth in the mold of a mass marketplace stereotype that is stuck on accumulation and consumption and dismissive of community, interdependence, and radical democracy.

The alternative to that painful reality is much more complex than previously acknowledged, and yet, much more accessible than is portrayed by traditional youth participation practitioners. I would suggest that in the majority of communities across the United States the alternative to traditional youth involvement can be juxtaposed against engaging young people as partners. In Europe this phenomenon is called youth mainstreaming. Their explanation:

“It [youth mainstreaming] is a strategy for making (youth) concerns and experiences an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programmes, in all political, economic and social spheres so that (youth) benefit equally and inequality is not perpetuated.” – UNESCO

Those political words are powerful, but stiff. While I support strategic approaches, I don’t think the verbiage inside a lot of policy is particularly accessible or appropriate for the activities that are intended to happen because of the policy.

That much said, I want to offer a more familiar term for this burgeoning practice: Youth Integration. When civil rights leaders have referred to integration in the past, they have largely meant desegregation, leveling barriers to interaction, creating equal opportunity, and developing a culture drawing on multiple perspectives instead of just bringing the minority into the majority culture. That is the goal I have for Youth Integration: The equitable, sustainable and holistic infusion of children and youth throughout society.

We can’t continue to settle for anything less.

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

Youth Segregation

The underlying assumption behind all youth involvement programs is that youth are segregated. American society has relied on the ongoing and consistent alienation, isolation and institutionalization of young people for more than 10 decades now, only to the detriment of families, communities, and ultimately, democracy.

Youth segregation happens throughout our lives. Starting from the first moments of a child’s life, newborn infants are oftentimes removed from their mothers immediately after birth. Incubated like chicken eggs under glaring lights, babies are immediately wrenched away from the healthy grips of the mother-child bond, and mothers are immediately trained to believe and trust that the segregation of their children is a normal, acceptable, and even beneficial thing.

As children grow they continue to experience this alienation and abandonment. Daycare, schooling and many community programs all rely on the isolation of children and youth from adults, and worse still is that our adultcentric economy relies on this isolation as well. In addition to serving as captive audiences for promoting violence, consumerism and nationalism, these programs oftentimes also become the many purveyors of social values for young people, effectively negating the ability and responsibility the larger community has for “raising its own,” as Hilary Clinton profess in her book It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us.

Our society has created more than a few industries that are reliant on enforcing this child-dumping behavior. Surely the childcare and basic education fields come to mind; but we also have to consider mall owners, fast food franchisees and sports manufacturers all in the benefit from the economic behavior imposed through youth segregation. The government benefits too: in addition to the taxes they levy on each of the aforementioned services, police, government-led afterschool programs and a bevy of social welfare agencies are reliant on communities being unable and indifferent to the youngest among us. We need children and youth to just “go away,” and we expect that when the marketplace doesn’t cover those costs the government will pick up the tab.

Schooling is the main vehicle for reinforcing the necessity of youth segregation throughout our society. As John Taylor Ghatto powerfully explains in Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, schools teach students about segregation by routinely, systematically and overtly separating them by race, socio-economic status, gender, ability, perceived ability, age, interest, and test performance. In turn this activity normalizes segregation for young people, which makes the fact that they are isolated from adults in mainstream society for at least 1/3 of their waking hours okay. No one teacher or principal is responsible for this abdication of responsibility: the entire education system is culpable, as curriculum, classroom management, building leadership, school climate, educational leadership and political representatives are all in on the act.

Segregation only begins to let up by the time high school rolls around, when we expect youth to transition to adulthood. However, no matter how precocious or assertive a young person may be, they are still routinely dismissed through adultism and ephebiphobia. Voting rights, free speech and economic security are among the many human rights that society denies to youth simply because they are young.

The moral imposition of youth segregation is that it requires almost every adult to be complicit. We all have to support the person who says, “I know better – I’m older” in order for this shenanigans to pass. As soon as there is a critical mass of folks who simply will not take it any longer, adultism, adultcentrism their benefactor, youth segregation, will have to take a back seat until there is better judgment that will more effectively help us treat these social scourges. Until then we continue to struggle.

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

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

The Freechild Project

Working with a group of youth and youth advocates across the nation, Adam assumed responsibility for creating and maintaining The Freechild Project and its accompanying website since September, 2001. 

Through Freechild, Adam has partnered with hundreds of organizations in twelve countries and 43 states focused on engaging young people in social change. The website reaches hundreds of thousands of users around the world every year, and the publications I’ve written for it have been downloaded more than a million times. As of September 2017, The Freechild Project Facebook group has more than 3,000 members.

Related Articles

Elsewhere Online

Firestarter Youth Empowerment Program

Adam contracted with the Village of Caroline, Alberta Family and Community Support Services to develop and deliver a youth empowerment program called Firestarter between 1997 and 2000. Caroline is a rural community that sits on the edge of the Canadian Rockies. Contracting with Adam to design and facilitate a youth empowerment program over three consecutive years, local middle and high students participated in what has become the popular FireStarter Youth Empowerment Curriculum. Firestarter Youth Empowerment Curriculum was first published by The Freechild Project in 2001, and again by the Points of Light Foundation in 2002.

Firestarter Youth Power Curriculum

Download the Firestarter Youth Empowerment Curriculum.

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