Real Participation

In her ongoing consideration of global community development, Sabrina Karim says that “Real participation means recognition of how people already participate and using that to enhance their own personal liberty.” I think this is kind of fatalist, because inside this statement is the idea that people are only what they currently know, rather than beings-in-motion. Recognizing how people currently participate in community development, including children and youth, often amounts to a grim acknowledgment of the inability of individuals within the greater community. This in turn may further disenfranchise or alienate potential beneficiaries from transforming their own roles within their communities. 

Rather than using our current notions of participation to create new realities, I believe that community development needs to be bold enough and hopeful enough to imagine, propose and create new realities. These must acknowledge where folks are coming from – but they can’t get hung up in a stagnant notion of time and place. Rather, planners must expose participants/members/allies to others’ current new realities and encourage them to envision their own. 
I have found it most successful to frame this possibility in the bedrock of democracy: when people believe they can play an integral role in their own futures they become more invested in their communities, as they vest themselves in the relationship between how they live and who and what they want to become. My hope is that we all see that responsibility in our development work, whether we’re thinking about individuals or communities or our globe. That’s the future I want to live in.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Youth Voice: A Right or Responsibility?

Young people, working with adults as partners, have the ability and capacity to cure the world of all of its ills. Sickness, famine, poverty, war, environmental catastrophe and economic meltdown can all be answered by the energy, idealism, knowledge, power, and wisdom of children and youth. Nothing is over the heads, hearts or hands of young people today, and they demonstrate that everyday in the ways they are living their lives.

Youth Voice is the active, distinct, and concentrated ways young people represent themselves throughout society. It is this voice taken through the Cycle of Youth Engagement that answers the challenges of society every single day. So my question is whether Youth Voice is a right or a responsibility. In a time when every single issue feels glaring and the planet is apparently at a tipping point do the adult allies of young people have any alternative than to engage young people in working towards transforming this grand clustermess? By not engaging them are we being more than unresponsive– are we actually being irresponsible? 

Moreso, with that state of the times in mind, is Youth Voice a right or a responsibility? I would argue that our society can no longer wait for children and youth to wait for us, the adults who are taking our time getting to them to engage their voices. This may be foisting an undue amount of responsibility on the shoulders of the young, but honestly, aren’t we doing that already by ignoring the major issues awaiting them as adults? 
These are some of the major issues entwined in Youth Voice, ones that go beyond the generalized and unsophisticated conversations we’ve been having for the last 10 years I’ve been in the this national movement. Its time to crack this egg open.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!


According to the ever-definitive Urban Dictionary, oversharing is “providing more personal information than is absolutely necessary.” Named word of the year in 2008, its a phenomenom of modern times, brought to us by texting, twittering, blogging, Facebook and other social networking mediums. In popular culture so far, we’ve seen oversharing expose inner-most thoughts about relationships, ruin perfectly normal days at the office, and otherwise run amok throughout society. But what effect does oversharing have on Youth Voice?

Back in 2004 the ever-insightful Anastacia Goodstein at YPulse suggested young people might be oversharing on their blogs. She says, “Personally I think if teens want to use blogs as full blown diaries where they are sharing everything about their lives (especially incriminating info), they should probably do it under a pseudonym.” In this sense, oversharing may be a sort of trojan horse that takes Youth Voice and encourages otherwise well-meaning adults to advocate for anonymity among young people struggling to make their voices, ideas, experiences and wisdom relevant to the world. Perhaps a different angle on this would be to promote actively educating young people about the opportunities and challenges of writing online, as Goodstein herself knows well. This would empower young people to maintain their identity, as any good journalist strives to, while reporting on the issues that matter to them most- which in many cases seem to be their own lives.
Still others have warned about the dangers of oversharing on the futures of young people, as they seek to be taken seriously in job interviews, college applications and other scenarios. Some see oversharing as a blight upon the lands, while others laud oversharing as a way to break the ice in otherwise awkward social situations.
This has been an overview of oversharing. Let me think about this, and I’ll revist the actual impacts of oversharing on youth voice soon.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Confessions of "That" Kid

I was that kid: a little more excited, a little more motivated and a  little more interested than the other young people around me. Sure, I grew up in a rough neighborhood, but there were those among us who stood out. I was the kid who other parents pointed to- literally- and asked their kids  why they weren’t more like me.
When I was really young I sat with my parents while they talked with their friends. I helped my mom clean the house, listened carefully when my dad lectured me, and used my newspaper route money to help pay family bills. I  volunteered for the neighborhood elementary school’s PTA when I was in  junior high, and was the school’s Santa Claus for 3 years. I joined the church leadership council when I was 14. I made up a guerilla environmental justice activism group for my friends when I was 15. I helped stock in the  food bank my family was assisted by, sat with my dad to watch Habitat for  Humanity sites while they were being built, and started a neighborhood youth council when I was 17. I was that kid.
I hung around with a few different handfuls of friends throughout school who were subjected to my ambitions. Tracy and Marlin and Joe and I were  friends from 5th grade into high school. They were my neighborhood friends who played video games and basketball with me, joining the scout troop my dad started and riding scooters with me around North Omaha. There was Kelly and Tara and Lesley and other girlfriends in junior high, and in high school I had really good friends who didn’t live right in my neighborhood. Bethany and Erin and Mary and Brian and Jason set templates for the friends that I have wanted throughout all the rest of my life. I was tight with my friends in scouts, too, especially when Jimmy, Nick, Scott, Jaimie and I were able to get together outside that program. All of these people were subjected to my peculiar brand of obosteriousness, overzealousness and enthusiasm, and lucky for me they tolerated it for as long as they did. They were the mirrors that I saw myself through and wanted to be more like. But I can say now, through the lenses of time and space and distance that none of them were identical to me. They each shown brightly in their own ways, and while I don’t know where almost any of them are today, I believe they must be doing well, or at least okay, because of those ways they shown brightly.
Looking back at it, it is youth like my teenage friends who I believe are the “outlyers” of youth involvement. They tended to fall into that realm of “middle achievers” in youth voice, those who neither glowed or were fully thwarted; instead, they were just *there* in many cases. Now, to remind you I am talking about youth voice specifically; a lot of my friends were academically gifted, athletically skilled or socially wonderful. Some had the gift of gab while others aced tests and won trophies. I didn’t hang out with a lot of ruffians, and my friends were a lot of things I simply wasn’t in a lot of respects. But thinking about their expressions of engagement, their infusions of ability and energy related to sharing their unique ideas, opinions, actions and wisdom, I can’t recall a lot of “umph.” None of them were that kid- that was my job. 
We need to reach those young people. In workshops I’ll often share a piece of informal observation tool Greg Williamson and I once created. Its a pie chart split into 25, 50 and 25 percent slices. One 25 percent slice represents children and youth like I was: no matter what the situation, what the resistance or supports, we were always going to be heard. Generally this 25 percent’s voices are impossible to thwart or suppress. The other 25 percent slice represents the most oppressed, the young people whose voices are most squelched because of poverty or abuse or other dire situations. Tonight I’m thinking about that other slice, that 50 percent right in the middle who show up because their mom told them they had to go, or whose girlfriend picked them up and made them go, or were simply there because they didn’t have anything better to do at that moment. Those are the young people who are caught in the middle between extremities. They generally aren’t involved in honors clubs or recitivism programs; instead, they are young people who don’t stand out in crowds, who don’t stand up in meetings and who don’t connect with their communities in meaningful ways as they grow up. 
Let’s stop focusing on that kid and reach those kids: these who are moving away from small towns, who don’t vote, and who have broken the cycles of social capital that once tied together our communities. Those who perform vanishing acts when volunteers are sought out and those who sit quietly at the back of the room when their opinions are sought. And let me be clear here: its not their fault they aren’t engaged. Rather, its the failure of our communities as a whole, and particularly those adults in their lives who are responsible for providing substantive, sustainable and real opportunities for them to be heard. That’s the only way we can move this movement forward- as a whole. 
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Building Youth Empowerment

Today I’m thinking about how to express my so-far obtuse “Architecture of Youth Empowerment.” I’ve tried before; however, rereading and listening anew to the experiences of people around me has helped me create a new visualization to express the relevance of our varying ideas about youth voice, engagement, involvement and empowerment.
I want you to stand outside a huge building with me. This building represents youth empowerment. For those of you familiar with my work, you’ll know that I’ve long rejected youth empowerment as a motivating ideology for this work. However, I do believe that empowerment is the ultimate goal of voice, involvement and engagement. Its the keen purpose why all this work is so relevant and meaningful, from whichever angle it takes. Take a look across the building in front of you and decide what it looks like to you- maybe its a temple at Bangalore, or a Tlingit longhouse, or a state capitol- whatever it is, make sure its grand and wonderful, and that you can see one whole side. You can’t see the whole thing- we can never fully know this magically evolutionary work we’re engaged in- but definitely look at one whole side.
The foundation of youth empowerment is youth voice. Youth voice is the active, distinct, and concentrated ways young people represent themselves throughout society. The way adults respond to youth voice is essential for the radically democratic social change I envision for our society; however, and luckily, youth voice is not contingent on adults’ response. I believe its our ethical obligation as a democratically-minded society to ensure the active, effective and sustained engagement of youth voice throughout society, and that is why I believe it is the foundation of youth empowerment. The root prefix of empowerment- em– means with. With power. The concept of youth empowerment inherently insists that adults experience power with young people, and that begins with youth voice. Voice is the base expression of any person that can happen in any form.
Distinctly different from this foundation are the walls that hold up the building. These walls represent youth involvement. Different from voice, involvement is the structural supports we create in order to move towards youth empowerment. For a long time well-meaning adults believed that in order to successfully empower young people they had to just listen to them- then trying to do that in the absence of strong walls. The youth involvement walls that hold up our youth empowerment building are made of four primary elements: Reflection, Knowledge-building, Skill-sharing, and Action. These are the main ways young people become involved.
The strong foundation and the powerful walls are capped by the roof of youth engagement. Engagement is a feeling that we have when we’re deeply connected with people, an idea, work or potentially any other thing in our lives. Some people mistake engagement with engrossment; but they’re different. When you’re engrossed in something you can’t remove your concentration from it: a video game, crocheting, a new album, sports, and good novels can do this for me. Similarly, engagement is not the same as involvement. Instead, engagement is a peronal emotional reaction we develop in response to excitement, entanglement, entwinement and enculturation. Its a feeling. No building can withstand the tests of time without a strong roof, and youth empowerment requires that roof to be engagement.
The interaction of these three elements- voice, involvement and engagement- combine to form a healthy, effective and sustainable experience for all young people to become more powerful with us. I believe this is how we build youth engagement.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Steps to a New Youth Voice Movement

I’ve spent the last two days at a TA Partnership meeting on youth involvement in Systems of Care. For those of you who don’t know, Systems of Care is a coordination framework for ensuring that the individuals and organizations involved in providing care for young people who are in foster care, who have been homeless, or other circumstances where our communities are responsible for an individual young person’s well-being. The question this group of practitioners is considering is how to effectively and sustainably involve young people in their own care. I am very humbled by the amount of knowledge, depth and perspective the folks here possess, and it drives home a point for me.
About 5 years ago my friend and ally, Andrea Felix, wrote a paper about the Youth Voice Movement for Youth Service America. She suggested that organizations committed to Youth Voice be connected to each other, and working with organizations Andrea facilitated a series of forums in cities across the U.S. In response I wrote an article for the National Youth Leadership Council addressing the reality that the Youth Voice Movement had always existed – it just exists in ways a lot of people aren’t capable of seeing.
After spending 9 years looking for new ways of seeing Youth Voice, I am still discovering new ways Youth Voice is happening, being taught, encouraged, engaged, infused, parlayed, leveraged and otherwise heard. I have been part of dozens of rallies, observed and interacted with hundreds of programs, studied a lot of literature and research and spent thousands of hours in conversations dialoging with youth and adults about Youth Voice. And I’m still learning more.
Sitting in a room full of fulltime Youth Voice practitioners I am reminded that we must move past our organizational and field boundaries. I have personally been exposed to Youth Voice initiatives in the following professional fields:
  • K-12 public schools
  • Youth service, including community service and service learning
  • Community organizing
  • Public health
  • Research and evaluation
  • Media
  • Mental health
  • Higher education, including community colleges, colleges and universities
  • Experiential education, including high adventure and ropes courses
  • Governance, including city, state and provincial, federal and national
  • Technology
  • Arts, including dance, music, theatre and performance
And the list grows on. This list looks similar to the list of Issues on The Freechild Project website, but its different because of its meaning: rather than being the things youth are addressing with Youth Voice, these are the actual professional fields where Youth Voice is taking hold as an element.
These are the roots of the Youth Voice Movement today. These are the places, spaces and people who we need to engage in developing, strengthening, and fostering Youth Voice in communities across the nation and around the world.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Addendum: Not Post-Youth

I want to add something to my earlier post on “So-Called Youth Issues“: we’re not in an era of some type of “post-youth” analysis. While I want young people to focus on issues that are beyond their demographic, I do not want adults to think that for one minute we should respond in kind by ending our work with young people. Instead, I think that this awareness of young people working outside issues that affect them directly calls us to respond by increasing advocacy with child and youth activists. We must call for more youth involvement, deeper youth engagement and more sustainable youth action. There must be more opportunities for youth activism, more projects for youth researchers, more classes for youth to teach, and lobbying for programs that focus on children and youth – its just that this advocacy shouldn’t be stopped or relegated to youth alone.

These are times when adult allyship is more important than ever before. Ours is an increasingly adultcetric society that is completely comfortable with youth segregation; by identifying that, examining it, educating it and challenging it we can end the stigma that surrounds young people. We aren’t post-youth – we’re actually pre-integration. Let’s call it what it is and work accordingly.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

So-Called "Youth Issues"

The myth of so-called “youth issues” is pervasive throughout our communities, as young people are routinely segregated from adults throughout society, including mainstream decision-making, problem-solving and policy choices. There has been a frequent temptation to pigeonhole children and youth by focusing on schools, children’s healthcare, youth homelessness, child labor, afterschool programs, social work, nutrition, and other issues addressing children and youth specifically.

Luckily, young people won’t have any part of this. Children and youth activists aren’t be fooled anymore by adults’ frequent insistence that they need to focus on what we think they should. Instead, they are addressing hundreds of inconvenient truths facing our world today in immeasureable ways. And historians like Phillip House have shown us that there is a precident of youth activists doing this throughout American history.
Today I found some hope from Barack Obama’s transition team. In recent conversations the national youth lobbying community succeeded in demonstrating the wide range of issues that are important to young people. While the transition team member in the video reduced their concerns to “having a seat at the table,” having this step forward is further than anyone has got before. That along is cause for celebration.
  • Oh, and thanks to Dana Welsh and Jonah Wittkamper for informing this post.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Engagement or Involvement?

I have been talking with teachers and youth workers for the last 10 years about youth involvement. We’ve talked about classrooms, after-school programs, boards of directors, city councils, research projects, university classes… all kinds of different places. Somewhere along the way I was introduced to the notion of engagement as opposed to involvement. I was challenged to differentiate between the two, and after reading the research and literature I came away with a pretty clear picture. Here are my definitions:

  • Youth engagement is a personal response to surrounding stimulus. 
  • Youth involvement is any attempt to promote engagement through systemic efforts.
So you can see that in my book one leads to the next. For instance, we might strive to write a classroom lesson plan that engages students in water quality issues by appealing to the effect of water on their health, the health of their families, and their community’s economic livelihood. In order to engage them, though, we involve youth in writing the curriculum, facilitating activities and evaluating the class afterwards. In a youth program that might take the form of wanting to engage youth in caring about the elders in their neighborhood. We do that by involving them in an oral history project.
I think clarifying these terms helps identify how different elements of this conversation play into the picture. For instance, we can see that youth engagement, as the more nebulous term, captures the more cultural elements of this conversation, including:
In turn, youth involvement becomes the more concrete, structural effort. For instance:
All of these provide avenues for youth involvement. This framework can help us identify how and where we concentrate our efforts. If you are in an organization where you personally want to involve youth but the organization itself seems highly averse to the idea, perhaps you start with focusing on youth engagement. This would include doing a cultural assessment of your organization, either through a survey or focus group, and to really examine why your organization should reach out to youth. Conversely, if the people in your organization seem vested in the notion of youth engagement, perhaps its time to start building infrastructure to foster sustained youth involvement. 
Either way, its important to delineate the differences in these essential elements of effect youth programs. Good luck, and let me know if you have any questions, suggestions, ideas or other responses.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

5 Ways You Can Help Youth This Holiday

Want to help youth this year? There are budget cuts all over the country, crime against youth is rising, youth joblessness is booming, youth homelessness is rising, more young people are dropping out of schools than ever before… Reality shows that young people have a ways to go towards equity and parity with adults. Here are five ways you can help youth this holiday season.

5. Learn about youth activism. All young people have the power to change the world; unfortunately only a few are using it. Learn about them, what they care about, what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. 
4. Discover new ways to show youth you care. Young people don’t need more well-meaning, poorly-acting adults in their lives. Its not enough to care – we have to do something. Learn new ways that adults are helping young people right now.
3. Change the way you treat youth around you – right now. Every adult who considers themselves an ally to young people has an ethical responsibility to examine and re-examine the ways they interact with youth. This process is never complete, and requires deliberation, reflection and critical thinking throughout our interactions with all children and youth – including the children in our families, the students in our classrooms, the youth in our programs and the neighbors in our communities.
2. Make a commitment to a youth and ask them to keep you accountable. Everyday young people are made to pay attention to the will of adults: attend school, don’t misbehave, turn in your homework, go to tutoring, graduate, go to practice, attend choir practice, finish your homework, mind your manners, get to bed on time. When was the last time a child or youth held adults accountable? The promises we make, the stories we tell, the deals, the attitudes, the ideas, the activities… all of these are done by adults, for young people, without young people being able to hold us accountable. Turn the tables and give them the opportunity – the power – to change our minds and keep us true to our words.
1. Ask young people how you can help them. Its an unfortunate reality that many adults think Youth Voice simply means talking about what young people think. We have an ethical responsibility to go out and connect with youth directly by creating honest and open environments where their sincere concerns, critical thinking, and powerful ideas can influence, direct, guide and lead the activities that affect them everday. 
And that’s it. Let me know what you are doing to help youth this holiday – and everyday of the year.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!