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.
Youth have many choices to make today.
Let’s say that you’re 18 years old. You left school before graduating, and your friend’s mom is letting you stay in their garage.
You have many choices, and they’re stacked like this:
- Apply for jobs
- Break into a car to steal something
- See if your old girlfriend wants to have sex
What’s going through your mind right now?
Curiosity floods your brain. Even if you’re not sure you can get a job, you know its something you should do, compared to stealing something or having sex. You know what the right thing to do is, but you’re not sure why this job application would be different from any others.
If you truly wanted immediate satisfaction, you’d find an easy car to break into, right? Or you’d give that girlfriend a call. You wouldn’t even take a glance at the job form.
But that’s not how we are built when we are young people.
Years ago, I consulted with an organization that taught youth adult living skills for students who dropped out of high school. They would take high risk (high hope) youth around local colleges and show them three types of programs: One offered job training and job placement; another offered a GED, job training and placement; and another that helped them earn a diploma, get into college, through college and placed in a career. And then they were asked if they were interested in the college program.
You bet they were. You would be, and so would I—we’d all be curious about what allowed people to get into and through college if we never knew it.
Youth choose your program in a vacuum or by comparison
Simply opening a youth program doesn’t make youth attend it. We’re clear on that, right?
That’s because youth choose your program in a vacuum or by comparison.
Let’s look at choosing youth programs in a vacuum.
Say a teenager decides to smoke weed in her free time. She’s been taught about the dangers of drugs, has a stable home with two parents and has a bright future ahead of her.
She’s not asking why at this point in time, because she has a of joint in her hand given to her by her best friend who is sitting right across from her, so she’s making a decision in a vacuum.
The same vacuum concept applies to your youth program, too.
Let’s say you’re passionate about using theater to empower youth. You launched an afterschool drama program for teens in your neighborhood that lasts two hours every night, and youth aren’t showing up.
Sure, they looked at the flyers you posted around the neighborhood and sent home to parents. If they talk to you, you’re incredibly exciting.
When you pour over your grant application and promotional materials, everything screams for youth to come through the door, and yet they aren’t. They are working in a vacuum.
However, when youth look at your program flyer, they see the date and time and think of all the other things they could do, even if we don’t acknowledge those things. Youth who sit on the couch watching TV are choosing that, as are youth who spend hours surfing the Internet with no purpose.
Would you have more youth showing up if they could playing video games? Theoretically speaking, yes. So why not add video game time? Or better yet, offer video games and offer pizza every day? Would you have more youth show up then?
You see what’s happening here, don’t you? As the frivolous things increase, your desire for the program goes down. That’s because you’re no longer working in a vacuum – you’re working on comparison.
You’re comparing your original program focused on theater with every other activity that was added onto it. And you compared your interest in theater to your interest in video games and pizza.
Right now, if you’re still determined, you’ll not only focus on theater, but you might even choose a specific style of theater you’re passionate about, like street performing or children’s theater.
But there’s a reason for that, and its called—and it’s called comparison.
Two distinct choosing phases
When young people choose anything, they’re almost always going through two distinct phases. The first phase is when they consider choices in a vacuum. Youth have been told to go to a program by their mom or teacher, but they have no clue why they should attend.
With all these options staring at them, young people simply pick the most immediate thing that fulfills their needs.
Using the ever-popular Maslow’s Hierarchy as a framework, it’s easy to understand why, after they have their survival and safety needs met young people aren’t automatically selecting to spend their time in your program.
You could start promoting your program on the basis of belonging. You could start telling them what it will do for their esteem. You might even appeal to their desire to make their hopes come true through your program.
But when you start illustrating those benefits clearly, young people are no longer working in a vacuum. Instead, they are comparing the benefits of what your program offers with what they’re doing with their time right now. They are comparing your organization to their friends, families and neighborhoods. They are even comparing the benefits of your program against each other by choosing which is more important to them according to Maslow’s Hierarchy.
If you make the case, at some point they will compare playing video games, eating pizza or smoking weed to your program—along with everything else at hand. Then it dawns on them that the most unusual thing they can choose, your program, is also the most beneficial—but now it doesn’t seem so unusual.
The best thing to do—attend your program—is now the most obvious thing to do, and they will choose it, but only in comparison.
So, how should you promote your program?
If your program operates where few others do, you can stop trying to be everything to every youth all of the time. Instead, focus on one thing and do that thing excellently.
If you’re competing for the attention, energy and time of young people then you’ll have to play by their rules. Listen to them, validate what they’re saying, authorize them to do something, take action and reflect on it with them.
However, if you have a lot of time where you’d offer your program regularly and you’re looking for something else to do to serve youth, then you can have several versions of your program or other programs to offer. Young people can then move from comparing your program to other programs in the neighborhood toward comparing your program to other programs you offer.
For example, if you run a theater program, young people can choose from your agency’s theater program, which is short and fun, and your fiscal education program, which is longer and more intellectual.
Even in a very competitive neighborhood where your program is competing with other youth programs, gang membership, ample youth jobs and sitting around the house, you want to create a situation where they have stopped considering everything else and are now choosing from your organization’s range of programs.
If you’re offering a program where there’s nothing else like it in your community, then there’s still a reason for creating a comparison structure.
Youth will look around and choose whether to get involved based on how you appeal to their needs according to Maslow’s Hierarchy — even if they’re comparing apples to oranges.
For example, if you were to recruit for a program on outdoor education and a program on service learning, they aren’t particularly similar. Yet, the benefits of one program influences how youth look at the benefits of the other program.
And even if a young person selects one program your organization offers this time, next time they may move to your program, depending on your ability to benefit them.
Create that comparison
Whether you’re recruiting youth for a photography course, youth employment program, interpretive dance workshop, or GED classes, the one factor to remember is that young people either choose in a vacuum or in a comparison structure.
You want to get them to compare. Once you’ve gotten them to pay attention to your program, you should then have a series of benefit comparisons on your own flyer and website.
Create that comparison. Even if you don’t have a range of programs yet, get started moving in that direction today.
When you do, you can still list (or decrease) the list of benefits to appeal to youth. Remember that they want to make choices, and they do not want to be told what to do.
It’s at that point that youth comparing benefits becomes a strategy, by discouraging them having a knee-jerk reaction.
And it’s at that point that you getting youth through the door en masse. That will make you—and the youth you work with—a lot happier.
Over the last six months, I have written more than a dozen articles about youth engagement in the economy. For the first time, I’ve compiled them into a publication and added some important information. A Short Introduction to Youth Engagement in the Economy is a guide addressing youth employment, youth entrepreneurship, youth training, youth banking, youth programs, school classes and other activities. Covering the most forward-thinking about economic youth engagement, this publication is for employers, youth workers, teachers, and others committed to building the economy through youth engagement. Learn more by downloading it today, and share it with your friends, colleagues and networks!
A Short Introduction to Youth Engagement in the Economy
by Adam Fletcher
Published by The Freechild Project
Olympia, Washington, USA
Surveying the state of the nation today, many adults have taken to lambasting young people. Blaming youth for protests and riots, slamming young people for not being employed, and railing against them for dropping out of high school or becoming involved with the legal system seems to be a new norm in the media and among community members. If you actually want to change this, YOU had better teach youth.
Over the last fifty years, adults have gotten further and further away from youth. Instead of seeing them at the store, worshipping together in faith communities, or performing through sports, culture and other activities, a chasm has separated youth from adults. That hallowed institution of adults teaching youth about the workforce, apprenticeships, have waned in the poor economy; even when they were in full effect, they aged up to ensure that young workers couldn’t access them.
Youth loose when adults are not substantively involved in their lives, and substantively means more than razing the barista at the coffee shop; different from citing youth for vandalism; and other than chastising your own children for not following parental direction. Being substantively involved with youth means stepping into their lives as a role model, mentor, ally, or partner. Let me break these down.
- Be a role model. If you want to teach youth, be a role model to them on purpose. Identify your purpose, name your values, and live with integrity by holding yourself to those. While you’re doing that, show young people how that is done. Show your own kids or other peoples’ children how you stay true to your truth, and live the way you want to see them live. This is the most passive way to teach youth, and it matters.
- Be a mentor. A mentor to youth does not have to join a program, wear a special t-shirt or wave the flag for a certain cause. Instead, a mentor actively demonstrates their commitment to themselves and others through active interactions with youth, making themselves available on a regular basis to facilitate informal learning in a non-threatening way. Regularly having coffee, having a youth come to your office to simply hang out with you, and showing a young person the ropes can make you a powerful mentor and meaningful role model.
- Be an ally. Going one step beyond mentoring and role modeling, the ally stands up with young people to be an engaged, supportive adult in the life of youth. They teach young people by standing up for them, challenging them and engaging them together in meaningful ways that teach youth. They are not arbitrary or occasional; instead, allies are active, interactive, empathetic and deliberate. They are also named: You cannot say you are someone’s ally; instead, you can only work towards this role and let the youth you’re allying with know what an ally is. They will tell you you’re an ally when its time.
- Be a partner. As all good businesspeople know, partnerships aren’t always 50/50 splits of power. Instead, they are mutually beneficial relationships focused on meeting unmet needs. Youth/adult partnerships are intentionally formed relationships focused on meeting real needs in pragmatic ways. They are focused on communication, respect, trust and meaningful interactions. They are the pinnacle of healthy, positive and supportive role modeling, mentorships and allyships between adults and youth because they hold the prospect of equity over equality to successful foster responsible roles for everyone involved.
If you are genuinely concerned for the present and struggling to make sense of the future, you had better teach youth. The roles outlined above are ways that you can make a difference right now. Following are ten steps you can take to form these relationships.
10 Steps to Teach Youth Right Now
- Acknowledge youth. Begin by acknowledging that youth exist. Right now. Start anywhere you can, and expand everywhere you can. That might mean greeting your young employees on purpose, having a real conversation with your own kid, or holding a youth roundtable for your community.
- Build your commitment. Be genuinely committed to youth. Go beyond just listening to youth by sitting with them, working with them and learning about them – from them.
- Create interest. No matter who you serve, how you serve them, create interest among other adults for youth. Talk with people, share thoughts and ideas, and watch the momentum generate and move ahead, rapidly.
- Position youth. Put youth in sustained opportunities to interact with adults in real ways, whether that’s just you personally or others too. Share power, build support and make new pathways to teach youth.
- Teach youth outright. A lot of adults think youth are don’t want to learn from them, or resist them. Make opportunities to teach them outright. Show youth there’s nothing wrong with being an adult and sharing your knowledge. Stop thinking they are you – they’re not!
- Open spaces for youth. Whether you’re a parent, church attendee, business manager or community worker, open spaces for everyone- adults and young people- to teach one another and be acknowledged for what they’re sharing. Create environments and cultures for full youth-adult partnerships by creating environments and cultures for full youth-adult partnerships.
- Go to youth. Talk with youth where they’re at right now and have earnest conversations with them instead of insisting they come to where you are. Stop being threatened by the spaces young people occupy without our control. Practice releasing control and just be with youth.
- Develop opportunities for youth. In every city in every community across the United States and around the world, youth need real activities that integrate and ingratiate them with adults. Encourage adults to sustain their commitment to expand youth engagement instead of simply trying and then stopping.
- Enforce youth knowledge. Every piece of interactive technology in the lives of youth reinforces their knowledge, whether we’re thinking about Wikipedia, iTunes, the Playstation, or other tools. They give youth experiences where they feel powerful and knowledgeable. Adults need to reinforce this knowledge and build on it outside of technology.
- Sustain connections. Its vital to keep youth connections with adults active and alive. Share the benefits of connecting with youth, and encourage other adults to help make the genuine case to youth for why they should be connected with adults.
When adults take these steps, we can teach youth on purpose. Stop being afraid, start being active, and let’s make a difference in the lives of youth and throughout the future of our communities.
When considering youth as allies to educators, adults may be tempted to act as translators for youth voice. Concerned that youth are not capable of speaking “adult-ese”, well-meaning program staff, nonprofit administrators, researchers, government staff, youth advocates and teachers reword the ideas of youth, interpret them, or otherwise differentiate between what youth actually said and what adults believe they meant. Adults do this because we do not believe that the raw data represented by youth voice has actual value in the space of government policymaking, program teaching, organizational leadership, or community improvement. We do that because we do not trust youth at face value; without extracting what we think youth are actually saying, without reframing it into concepts, ideas, or beliefs we share, we think youth voice is foreign, alien, or immature and juvenile.
The challenge here is not that youth do not have valuable things to add to the conversation, but that adults do not have the ability to solicit the perspectives, experiences, knowledge and wisdom of youth without filtering, analyzing, or otherwise destabilizing their expressions. We have to accept that responsibility and build our capacity to to do this important work. We have to stop bastardizing youth voice.
I do not use that word lightly. To bastardize youth voice, adults corrupt how youth share their voices, however it is expressed. Sometimes inadvertently, sometimes intentionally, adults debase youth by adding new elements, their own ideas, moving their own agendas and forcing their own beliefs through the actions, ideas, experiences, and wisdom of students. Bastardizing youth voice this way is not necessary, appropriate, or relevant to creating youth/adult partnerships.
All adults throughout the education system need to learn that all young people of all ages have the capacity and the ability to speak for themselves, albeit to different extents. Often this capacity may be undermined by the disbelief of otherwise good-hearted adults who honestly believe they know what youth think. Youth/adult partnerships creates appropriate platforms for youth experience, ideas and knowledge of the world without filtering those words through adult lenses. Youth can learn about the world they live in, the topics they should learn, the methods being tested on them, the roles of adults and students, and much more.
Questions to Ask
- How do you interpret youth voice right now?
- Does the idea of adults bastardizing youth voice offend you? Why or why not?
- Where can you practice simply listening to youth voice today, without interpreting or bastardizing it?
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!
I have seen three primary ways adults relate to youth, no matter whether the relationship is parenting, teaching, or policing. The first way is over-permissiveness; the second is responsible; and over-restrictive. Before I explain these, its important to remind you that I’m an adult and these are my opinions; a young person and other adults surely will see things differently.
Over-permissive relationships between children, youth and adults allow young people to do whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever and however they want. Disregarding the longer term effects of how young people relate to adults, over-permissiveness can incapacitate young peoples’ ability to successfully relate to the broader society around them. By allowing too much freedom, these relationships give children and youth “just enough rope to hang themselves” by extinguishing their inherent away their sense of purpose and belonging throughout the larger society in which we all belong. Based in a well-meaning notion of equality between young people and adults, these relationships conveniently relieve adults of the burden of responsibility in parts or all throughout the lives of young people. They often happen to encourage freedom.
Over-restrictive relationships between young people and adults override the decision-making capabilities of children and youth and disable their inherent creativity in order to assure adults’ sense of authority, protection, and ultimately, ownership over young people. By discouraging young people from experiencing the freedom and ability they need in their natural learning process as well as throughout their social and familial worlds, these relationships can take away enthusiasm and unfettered joy, only to replace it with rigidity and structure. Over-restrictive relationships enforce inequality between children and youth, and occur by adults enforcing their power with heavy-handed education, tight schedules and severe rules, and harsh punishment. They often happen to encourage safety.
Responsible relationships between children, youth and adults are based on trust, mutual respect, communication, and meaningful interactions. Positioning each person as an evolving member of a broader society, they identify roles, opportunities and outcomes that benefit every person in uniquely appropriate ways while holding the greater good ahead of individualism. These relationships occur when adults consciously decide to foster equity throughout the lives of young people by intentionally acknowledging each others’ according abilities, fostering deliberate opportunities and continually embracing the evolving capacities of children and youth throughout their lives, starting when they are infants. Responsible relationships nurture appropriate attachment and encourage interdependence between young people and adults. They often happen to foster democratic sensibilities.
I have not met one adult who is constantly and consistently one of these ways with all young people all of the time. This isn’t meant to provide a puzzle for people to fit together the individual pieces, either. Instead, by showing a spectrum I meant to show that each of us can be any of these at many points throughout our lives.
Share your thoughts in the comments section!
Its important for all of us to balance our talk with our walk. Since I started writing this blog back in 2007, I’ve worked with a lot of different organizations to promote youth engagement. I’ve done it as a consultant, as a nonprofit staff member, as a state government worker, and in a few other capacities too. I think its important to keep my feet on the ground, even if my head is in the clouds!
Today is an example of my practice. Consulting the City of Olympia, I’ve been running a project focused on youth involvement in a new city park located in downtown. Its atypical for a number of reasons, primarily among which are its location and the users there so far. Sited around a popular artesian well, the park is essentially a slab of asphalt packed between two single story buildings. A cool design element in the form of a mosiac has been placed, but City investment in the space has been minimal so far.
Drawing together several youth engagement practitioners a few weeks ago, I gathered a massive list of wants that would encourage these organizations and programs to use the space in an ongoing fashion. That would populate the park with regular, pro-social values that would more accurately reflect Olympia’s values. However, that’s not the whole solution.
I’m facilitating an All Youth Forum in the park today. We’re expecting dozens of young people, and I’m looking forward to a simple, straight-forward conversation. I’ll report on that tomorrow. For now, here’s the flyer I designed for the event today:
You might have noticed that since publishing The Freechild Project Youth-Driven Programming Guide last year, I’ve come to feel strongly about aggrandizing youth involvement.
A lot of organizations and programs tout their credibility with youth involvement, youth engagement, and youth organizing by highlighting all the wonderful things they position youth to lead. By doing this, these organizations are actually doing youth disservice. The many challenges include:
- Positioning adults as beneficent rulers who allow youth to do things
- Incapacitating young peoples’ innate responsibility for themselves and others
- Negating the abilities of communities to work together for the common good
Instead of helping, these activities actually and often harm the people they intend to help.
We need to see things differently. In recent months, I’ve begun to envision a new way of being, knowing, and doing. This way is currently emerging between young people and adults, and it is happening throughout society. This way re-positions children, youth and adults from assuming power relationships dependent on subservience and authority, towards seeing each other in a more holistic light.
The old way of Youth Voice…
- Relied on adults having power over youth
- Positioned young people as “adults-in-the-making” not to be seen as whole people right now
- Depended on youth being subservient and compliant to adults
- Required systems of oppression that enforced adults’ power
- Demanded youth be compliant with adult desires out of fear of violence
- Necessitated systems of authority enforced by structures of abuse
- Made programs that put “youth in charge” necessary in order to rebalance power inequalities between youth and adults
- Routinely positioned youth against each other and against adults in order to ensure compliance and conformity
- Saw children and youth progressing along a predictable, staircase development cycle towards adulthood
The emerging, new relationships between youth and adults look different. The new Youth Voice…
- Sees young people as whole people no matter what their ages
- Utilizes holistic youth development as the organizing framework for young peoples’ growth, education, and ongoing formation as humans
- Treats all young peoples’ growth as non-linear, non-sequential and non-uniform, instead treating every child and youth as an evolving human
- Allows equal room for adults and young people to have, express, and critique power and authority
- Positions children, youth, and adults in equitable partnerships designed to foster engagement, belonging, and ownership
- Grants adults and young people equitable, responsible space for learning, teaching, and leadership in all roles, all of the time
- Replaces command-and-control authoritarianism by honoring the collective, democratic perspectives of all people, regardless of age
- Acknowledges programs that put “youth in charge” to be ineffectual and unnecessary
- Dismantles youth-against-youth and youth-against-adult power struggles through common action and mutual support
Paulo Freire wrote, “Education does not transform the world. Education changes people. People change the world,” and the same can be said of Youth Voice. Youth Voice does not transform the world. Youth Voice transform people. People change the world.
If we are going to change the world, we must change ourselves first. Changing ourselves comes from active, deliberate work. That’s what my proposition for new Youth Voice is – an attempt to engage each of us differently.
Through these active, distinguishable ways of being, knowing, and doing, young people are adults are working together to transform the world we share. Everyone can and should aspire to nothing less.