"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.

 

 


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Part 5: What It All Comes Down To

Transformative youth engagement is about building the capacity of individual people to become meaningfully and sustainably connected within themselves and to the world around them. Every person has affective and cognitive scaffolding within them; transformative youth engagement activates those abilities. The simplest way to judge whether you are engaging youth in transformative ways is to see whether diverse youth—youth of color, English language learners, immigrant students—are experiencing positive, purposeful and empowering changes through juvenile justice. If they are not, your approach can become more transformative and engaging.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Are there any activities in the juvenile justice system that don’t benefit all youth, their families, or their communities?
  • What activities seem to engage all youth, connecting them to the world within and around them?
  • What actions have you noticed that seem to be most engaging to youth within and outside of the juvenile justice system?

Educator Zaretta Hammond suggests three avenues that juvenile justice can adapt for transformative youth engagement: Gamify it; Make it social, and; Storify it. Can you imagine these approaches applied consistently throughout the juvenile justice system? What could gamifying diversion even look like? How can we positively making juvenile justice more social? If youth could storify their experiences as part of their experiences within the justice system, how would that affect their outcomes? Not being able to envision these changes is a barrier to transformative youth engagement in juvenile justice today. I think these are some of the most exciting prospects for transformative youth engagement today.

From my scan of the field, the transformative potential of youth engagement is underexplored, underemployed and underacknowledged within juvenile justice today. By activating youth voice throughout the system; encouraging youth empowerment through diversion and sentencing, and; fostering youth/adult partnerships throughout the entire system, we can change the hearts and minds of young people who’ve been implicated in wrongdoing. We can also change what their hands and feet do in the future. Isn’t that the ultimate goal?

 

 

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The barriers to transformative youth engagement include individual barriers, cultural barriers and structural barriers.

Part 4: Barriers to Transformative Youth Engagement

The barriers to transformative youth engagement in juvenile justice occur in three ways: Individual barriers, Cultural barriers, and Structural barriers.

  • The individual barriers are shown by youth and adults, and may include attitudes, perspectives and mindsets related to youth engagement.
  • Cultural barriers can include the shared beliefs, common values and group think apparent throughout and around the juvenile justice system.
  • The structural barriers to transformative youth engagement include the policies and procedures, the decision-making processes, and the control and authority throughout the entire juvenile justice system.

Following are some details on the individual barriers to transformative youth engagement.

 

Overcoming Individual Barriers

There are several ways that youth and adults can behave like barriers to transformative youth engagement. They include Forcefulness, Silencing, Whitewashing, Showboating, Pedestaling, Heroism, Lowballing, and Sockpuppeting. Here’s what those can look like:

  • Forcefulness: Individuals—including youth and adults—can be barriers when they try to force youth to be engaged, undermining the best intentions.
  • Silencing: One of the most insidious ways that people can undermine transformative youth engagement can be very overt and/or very subversive, sometimes at the same times. Silencing happens when the voices of youth are intentionally shut down, denied, neglected or repressed.
  • Whitewashing: This happens when people pretend that all voices are represented by one voice, particularly if that voice does not and cannot effectively represent their peers. Its the enemy of diversity, pluralism and uniqueness.
  • Showboating: When individuals are allowed to continuously, selfishly and egotistically highlight their own skills, talents, or abilities, they are showboating. All voices should honor the contributions and abilities of all people everywhere all the time.
  • Pedestaling: Romanticizing youth voice or making someone always right is putting them on a pedestal and pretending they’re infallible. Transformative youth engagement has disagreement and mistakes, and models consensus and collaboration.
  • Heroism: In a room with too few representatives, a particularly loud voice standing above all others can sound brave and unique, especially when they represent an under-acknowledged majority. However, just because a young person talks to adults in a way that makes adults listen to them does not make them heroic or a superhero. It makes them well-versed. We have to make room for young people who do not please or appeal to adults so easily.
  • Lowballing: Some institutions, organizations and individuals are calling for youth to be informants to adult decision-making in juvenile justice. They want youth voice to be heard and a seat at the table for youth. However, there’s a lot more at stake for youth than simply being able to talk or be represented somewhere. In reality, youth are the reason for juvenile justice, and they can be fully integrated into the operations of every single decision affecting them.
  • Sockpuppeting: Some adults give youth words and ideas and issues, and expect youth to share them accordingly. That’s suckpuppeting. Transformative youth engagement requires safe and supportive environments for authentic youth voice to be engaged.

Once we begin acknowledging how we act as barriers to transformative youth engagement, we can begin addressing these behaviors throughout the juvenile justice system.

 

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Youth voice in Juvenile justice can address systems and issues by Adam Fletcher for Freechild Institute

Part 3: The Roots of Transformation and Moving Into Action

Youth voice can address a lot of issues throughout the juvenile justice system using a variety of approaches. Some of the juvenile justice system components that transformative youth engagement is happening through include policy, programming, multi-systems approaches and legal defense. The issues youth voice is addressing include mental health; treatment; education; re-entry issues.

With efforts nationwide to ban youth solitary confinement, stop physical violence in youth prisons, stop the sentencing of youth as adults, and end police resistance to transforming juvenile justice roles for youth are increasingly obvious within, throughout, and surrounding the system. Working within and outside the system, there are courts, attorneys, nonprofits, schools and other organizations working together to affect the hearts, minds and heads of court-involved youth.

In many places nationwide, this work is neither brand-new or a silver bullet. However, it is essential and the future. The following examples show how transformative youth engagement is happening right now in juvenile justice settings where I live.

“Our youth are not failing the system; the system is failing our youth. Ironically, the very youth who are being treated the worst are the young people who are going to lead us out of this nightmare.” – Rachel Jackson

 

FEDERAL WAY: In Federal Way, Washington, there has been a growing amount of violence in the city, including more gun deaths, beatings, and domestic violence. Many youth being implicated in these crimes are brown and black, low-income and frequently, under-educated. A program from the Federal Way Youth Action Team is called Helping Youth Perform Excellence, or HYPE. Believing that community members can make a positive difference in the lives of local youth, HYPE empowers local community members to take action to create a safe and healthy community with young people who are involved. Learning diverse adult living skills, establishing authentic mentorships with local adult allies, and building support for each other within the program and beyond, HYPE is challenging the status quo and working to end youth violence in their city. This program is transforming juvenile justice by making discussions personal, promoting strong community connections, and building a sustainable infrastructure for changing Federal Way today and in the future.

SEATTLE: A program led by the Seattle-based Vera Institute for Justice works in three cities nationwide to build educational success and workforce training for youth who are at risk of juvenile justice system involvement or who are already in the system. Vera’s Center on Youth Justice, or CYJ, has a program called Youth Futures that aims to help build youth stability through employment. Building the skills and support youth need to achieve long-term success, the program focuses on youth living in or returning to high-crime, high-poverty communities in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. Through comprehensive, individualized services linked to workforce development, education, and training programs, the lives of youth are transformed from the beginning of young peoples’ involvement in juvenile justice. Assigned and volunteering to participate in Youth Futures, the lives of these youth are changed forever through their involvement.

WASHINGTON STATE: Reflecting a commitment to address the entire system of youth engagement, officials in the State of Washington’s Department of Social and Human Services have adopted a statewide cultural competence plan that positions youth voice as vital to youth at the family, neighborhood, local, regional, and state levels. Within a standard focused on embedding diversity practices, they seek to expand youth voice in order to, “Infuse culturally and linguistically appropriate goals, policies, and management accountability throughout the organization’s planning and operations.”

The Washington State Juvenile Rehabilitation United Youth Council program, or UYC, is a new youth voice mechanism for youth to share their knowledge, ideas, concerns and opinions of youth specifically in regards to improving the juvenile justice system. There is a UYC at the three main juvenile justice facilities in Washington State. Youth who have successfully completed the application process join the UYC at their facility; then, a few of the local UYC participants make up a statewide youth committee to inform state-level decision-making. The UYCs focus on what’s working and what’s not working regarding their juvenile justice experience. They also share input on treatment processes and outcomes from rehabilitation; current and future policies; and process re-design.

SEATTLE: More than a decade ago, the ROYAL (Raising Our Youth As Leaders” Project began fighting to reduce disproportionate minority confinement and recidivism in King County by fostering radically powerful youth/adult partnerships. They hire adults to serve in the traditional role of mentors, youth participants wanted more than friends. The original participants sought critical feedback, substantive insight and meaningful opportunities to connect with adults from the communities they lived in. The Royal Project wanted to fill that desire by positioning adults as life coaches who would instruct youth about life, teach them business principles, and help them set and work toward goals. Ultimately, the positions are powerful youth-adult partnerships that significantly change the lives of many participants

Many programs fostering transformative youth engagement are explicitly antiracist, and/or led by people of color. They provide community alternatives to juvenile incarceration, often giving Black people, Asian, Hispanic/Latino, American Indian, and Pacific Islanders direct control over the structures created to address youth misbehavior. Community-led, community-owned responsibility for their own children matters.

KING COUNTY: Other approaches insist on addressing juvenile justice as a public health issue. In King County, Washington, that means that officials are embracing strategies such as rather than spending time incarcerated while awaiting trial, youth can:

  • Work with counselors to deal with trauma in their lives
  • Attend workshops with parents to learn new skills
  • Other paths to avoid ending up in the adult justice system in the future.

It means that officials will look at the entire ecology of a young person when considering their offenses and the results, and because of that they work with the goal of zero detention for youth, also called “Deinstitutionalization of Status Offenders” or DSO. This movement to end youth incarceration is inherently anti-adultist because it places youth wellbeing in tandem with adult intentions.

As the stories above show, action for transformative youth engagement should focus on fostering youth/adult partnerships. Focused on engaging young people with their communities, these are intentional relationships emphasizing equity between youth and adults, and building social justice throughout the lives of young people. It should focus on supporting youth voice, which is any expression of any youth anywhere, at any time, for any reason. Creating safe, supportive environments for youth voice within the juvenile justice system is important, as well as fostering the adult support needed to sustain and expand youth voice in appropriate, relevant and meaningful ways. Finally, transformative youth engagement should expand, deepen, criticize and necessitate youth empowerment throughout the system. Youth empowerment “is not a process, a product, or an outcome. Instead, youth empowerment comes from the individual attitudes, shared cultures, and everyday structures that children and youth share with adults throughout society.” Instead, it happens when the capacities of youth are enhanced, including their inner-strength, self-respect, motivation, future-thinking, and abilities to connect with people outside of themselves.

Unfortunately, all of this doesn’t just organically happen or authentically sustain itself. There are real roadblocks standing in the way, and they must be addressed.

 


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Systems of Youth Engagement by Adam Fletcher

Part 2: Transformative Youth Engagement, Not Reform

Rachel Jackson is a youth advocate in California who once talked about the juvenile justice system, saying, “Our youth are not failing the system; the system is failing our youth. Ironically, the very youth who are being treated the worst are the young people who are going to lead us out of this nightmare.”

That was more than a decade ago, and since then her words have infiltrated the corridors of power. After successfully showing lawmakers, judges and other that…

  • The average daily cost of incarcerating a young person ($241) compared to that of an effective, community-based alternative-to-incarceration program ($75);
  • That Black youth are incarcerated in state-run youth prisons at five times the rate white youth are, and;
  • How 60,000 young people under 18 are incarcerated in juvenile facilities on any given day,

…organizations including the ACLU and others have declared that the juvenile justice system is beginning to change. There are other reasons, too, including corruption, violence and youth voice.

In my research, I’ve found that the juvenile justice system has began moving toward holistic, positive and transformative youth engagement. This is happening through the laws, legal bodies, and processes that are used to prosecute, convict, punish and rehabilitate young people who commit criminal offenses. Ultimately, transformation focuses on building the capacity of people, policies and programs throughout the juvenile justice system to engage young people in positive, purposeful and powerful ways.

Transforming systems is different from reforming or simply changing the courts, police, detention facilities or voters minds. Traditionally, youth/law interactions have been transactional in nature: You do something wrong, you get punished. Throughout time, these punishments have been largely arbitrary, demonstrating the racist, sexist, classist and adultist biases of legal systems across the country.

I propose moving away from transactional youth justice, and toward transformative youth engagement. That requires seeing the entire legal apparatus as a system, and working to radically reposition the culture, structure and individual attitudes within that system in order to foster meaningful youth engagement within and outside of juvenile justice. I’ve been studying work already underway, and from what I’ve learned about the place where I’m living, I believe change is coming across the entire country.

 


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Juvenile justice and youth voice by Adam Fletcher for The Freechild Project

Part 1: New Juvenile Justice and Transformative Youth Engagement

Theft, vandalism, violence and other crimes plague communities across the United States today. Low-income neighborhoods, communities of color, rural towns and other areas around the nation are disproportionately affected by these realities. The young people who are needed to restore, replenish, reinvigorate and reimagine these places are sometimes the perpetrators. Without educational, social, cultural and empowering activities in their lives, they are driven to crime for entertainment, money, opportunity and a sense of progress in life. Once they’re in the juvenile justice system, these same youth experience oblique outcomes, hurtful punishments, and life-defining stereotyping that is punitive, predictable and prejudice.

In the last several years, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed with this. Through a series of rulings, courts across the country have been compelled to foster more nuanced approach to juvenile justice.

In 2001, I began consulting youth-serving organizations, including K-12 schools, nonprofits and government agencies, specifically on youth engagement. In 2018, I’m expanding my scope to include the field of juvenile justice, especially in regard to the work already underway.

In the next few days, I’m posting a series of blogs that are an exploration of what I’ve found so far in the “new” juvenile justice, which I call transformative youth engagement.

 

Next Posts

  • New Juvenile Justice through Transformative Youth Engagement
  • Transformative Youth Engagement, Not Reform
  • The Roots of Transformation; Moving Into Action
  • Barriers to Transformative Youth Engagement
  • What It All Comes Down To
  • Resources for Transformative Youth Engagement in Juvenile Justice.

 

Adam Fletcher's Project Based Learning Wheel

The Excitement of Project Based Learning

Project Based Learning has become an essential arrow in the quiver of youth development and education. But are we doing it right?

Today, I’m in Columbus, Ohio at the Prevention Action Alliance 2017 Adult Allies Summit. I’m excited to present here, among so many people who see themselves and their work as essential to the lives of youth, because they’re taking the right tact.

As I present on youth engagement through Project Based Learning, I’m reminded of research I’ve done on youth-driven programming across the country. So often, when they’re leading projects youth choose to take action and make a difference in the world around them. They want the vibrance and vitality of leading change, creating difference and fostering transformation in their own lives and the lives of their families, communities and the world.

That’s a tremendous opportunity! Think of the differences we could make as adult allies if we simply made space for young people to lead the projects they learn from, allowing them to create positive, powerful change in the world around us! Wow! Exclamation points!

My research through The Freechild Project has shown me that Project Based Learning should have seven main components:

  1. POWERFUL Youth Engagement—At the core of all Project Based Learning should be youth themselves. Planning, researching, teaching, evaluating, decision-making and advocacy provide potential learning opportunities throughout Project Based Learning as youth are scaffolded for action and supported in transformation.
  2. REAL Learning—Project Based Learning should have meaningful, substantive learning in its core. Learning shouldn’t be fake, pretend, meaningless or inconsequential.
  3. PRACTICAL Problems—Focused on actual challenges and meeting real needs, Project Based Learning should lift the lives of youth and their communities by facing practical problems head-on.
  4. LASTING Efforts—Sustained impact should be a goal of Project Based Learning at every turn. Focused on creating real change, young people and their lives should be transformed.
  5. OUTWARD Outcomes—Looking towards the world around us, Project Based Learning should be conducted toward and presented to people who aren’t involved, including adults, youth and families.
  6. CRITICAL Thinking and Action—Project Based Learning should center on social justice through positive, powerful action. Youth should consider the roles of oppression and empowerment, and the genuine possibilities for them to change the world.
  7. AUTHENTIC Action—Keeping it real is at the center of Project Based Learning when youth focus on what actually needs changed, what problems and challenges they actually face and are trying to solve, and what difference they make.

These components can allow the adult allies of youth—including youth workers, counselors, teachers and others—to enact meaningful, positive and powerful transformation in the lives of their participants. I’ve also learned that only then can we see the all of the positive outcomes that Project Based Learning fosters, including skills focused on Project Management; Time Management; Organization; Teamwork; Research; Procurement, and; Problem-Solving. Other outcomes include knowledge about Social Change; Community Building; Project Design and Implementation; Leadership; Social Justice; Courage in Action; and Creating the Future.

If there are higher goals for youth engagement, I still haven’t seen them!

If you want, I hope you’ll share your knowledge and ideas about Project Based Learning in the comments section below.

 

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  • THE FREECHILD PROJECT—Freechild supports youth and adults working together to change the world in positive, powerful ways. My 15-year project with examples, resources and more.
  • EDUTOPIA—Our vision is of a new world of learning based on the compelling truth that improving education is the key to the survival of the human race. Lots of Project Based Learning resources.

 

The Power of Youth Engagement

Adam Fletcher speaking by Michael Kleven 8
Here I am talking at a youth forum in 2014.

 

Beyond the research, statistics and reports, there’s a simple truth about youth engagement: When young people experience sustained connections to the worlds within and around them, their lives become better, and the lives of those around them improve, too.

 

For a long time, I forgot to say that. Instead, I focused on the studies that said youth engagement improves youth development, helps adults get our jobs done, and can foster social justice in communities. I shared research-proven examples that identified important pillars of youth engagement, identified deep routes for youth/adult partnerships, and showed effective ways to infuse youth voice throughout organizational transformation.

 

But I left out this slice: Youth engagement saves lives. I’m not talking about hypothetical situations either; I’m talking about my own life, and the lives of many young people I’ve worked with over the years. 25 years of experience in this field has shared a lot of learning with me. One of those lessons is that when you’re young, disenfranchised, and growing up in a depressed community, youth engagement can embed three important things in your life: Purpose, Power and Passion.

 

I know that because before I was engaged, I hadn’t experienced those three things in any substantive ways. However, after I became senior patrol leader in my Boy Scout troop, I felt purpose like never before. Spending the decade before that mostly homeless with my family, there didn’t seem to be a purpose to life, a purpose for doing anything, or a purpose for breathing beyond survival. When my dad told me he and I were going to sleep on the roof of an empty Habitat for Humanity house to protect it from being vandalized, I felt empowered to impact the negative circumstances I found myself in. And after I spent three summers working with a mentor to teach drama in public housing projects in my city, I felt a passion for sharing power like never before, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

 

What’s your purpose? Where have you found power? How do you share your passion?

 

Answer those three questions and you will become engaged in what truly matters to you…

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.