Factors Affecting Youth Engagement

factors
There are several factors that affect youth engagement. However, today’s popular forms of youth engagement generally don’t acknowledge those factors. Whether or not a young person is going to become engaged is determined by three things:
  • Social and economic environment
  • Physical environment, and
  • Individual characteristics and behaviors

The ways young people live determine their engagement. Because of this, blaming youth for being disengaged from particular activities or issues or crediting them for being engaged in ways you approve of is inappropriate. Youth are unlikely to be able to directly control many of the factors affecting youth engagement.

 

Where Does Youth Engagement Happen?

Youth engagement happens in a variety of places. Each place where youth engagement happens isn’t necessarily a physical place or a set of activities. Because of this, I call these “Spheres of Youth Engagement.”

Youth Engagement can happen within a person, including their emotional, psychological, or physical well-being. In other cases, young people are seen as disengaged when they aren’t sustainably connected to their family, peers, faith communities, school, and other community settings. There is generally little concern when young people aren’t seen as connected to society, as these areas are generally seen as places for adults to be engaged. These locations including mass media, industry and the economy, social services, their neighbors, and local politics.

  • Self: emotional, psychological, or physical well-being 
  • Families: home, recreation, decision-making, food and nutrition, culture 
  • Community: peers, faith communities, school, and other community settings 
  • Society: mass media, industry and the economy, social services, their neighbors, and politics 

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

What Supports Youth Engagement?

All the individual spheres of youth engagement are parts of a generally unspoken system. This system surrounds all young people from the time they’re born through adulthood, and beyond. A system is “a set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole, in particular.”

Systems of youth engagement are the broad ways young people experience sustained connections throughout their lives. There are many different ways to envision these systems operating. Here, I focus on the formal and informal institutions throughout the lives of young people that drive, affect, or impact the sustained connections they have throughout life. These systems can include, but aren’t limited to, their family, education, health, social services, recreation, faith communities, cultural activities, work, civic action, mental health services, and juvenile justice. Other systems can include transportation, food and nutrition, housing, business, and the environment.

When these systems function well, there are communities full of engaged children and youth. When they do not function well, young people experience disengagement in any or all of these spheres. The fewer sustainable connections a young person experiences in each and all of these spheres, the more disengaged they become throughout their lives. The more disengaged a person is as a young person, the more likely they’ll be disengaged as an adult; the more engage a person is when they’re young, the more engaged they will become when they’re older.

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

Ways Young People Change The World

There are many roles in democracy-building by youth. Following are several different opportunities for young people to take action.

23 Ways Young People Can Change the World

  1. Children and Youth as Facilitators. Knowledge comes from study, experience, and reflection. Engaging young people as teachers helps reinforce their commitment to learning and the subject they are teaching; it also engages both young and older learners in exciting ways.
  2. Children and Youth as Researchers. Identifying issues, surveying interests, analyzing findings, and developing projects in response are all powerful avenues for Youth Voice. 
  3. Children and Youth as Planners. Planning includes program design, event planning, curriculum development, and hiring staff. Youth planning activities can lend validity, creativity, and applicability to abstract concepts and broad outcomes.
  4. Children and Youth as Organizers. Community organizing happens when leaders bring together everyone in a community in a role that fosters social change. Youth community organizers focus on issues that affect themselves and their communities; they rally their peers, families, and community members for action.
  5. Children and Youth as Decision-Makers. Making rules in classrooms is not the only way to engage young people in decision-making. Committees, board membership, and other forms of representation and leadership reinforce the significance of Youth Voice throughout communities.
  6. Children and Youth as Advocates. When young people stand for their beliefs and understand the impact of their voices, they can represent their families and communities with pride, courage, and ability.
  7. Children and Youth as Evaluators. Assessing and evaluating the effects of programs, classes, activities, and projects can promote Youth Voice in powerful ways. Young people can learn that their opinions are important, and their experiences are valid indicators of success.
  8. Children and Youth as Specialists. Envisioning roles for youth to teach youth is relatively easy; seeing new roles for youth to teach adults is more challenging. Youth specialists bring expert knowledge about particular subjects to programs and organizations, enriching everyone’s ability to be more effective.
  9. Children and Youth as Advisors. When youth advise adults they provide genuine knowledge, wisdom, and ideas to each other, adults, organizations, institutions, communities, and other locations and activities that affect them and their world at large.
  10. Children and Youth as Designers. Youth participate in creating intentional, strategic plans for an array of activities, including curriculum, building construction, youth and community programs, and more.
  11. Children and Youth as Teachers. Facilitating learning for themselves, other youth, adults, or children, youth can be teachers of small and large groups in all kinds of topics.
  12. Children and Youth as Grant-makers. Youth in philanthropy identify funding, distribute grants, evaluate effectiveness, and conduct other parts of the process involved in grant-making.
  13. Children and Youth as Planners. When planning programs, operations, activities, and other events and activities, youth can benefit nonprofits, schools, their homes, and any other institution throughout society.
  14. Children and Youth as Lobbyists. Influencing policy-makers, legislators, politicians, and the people who work for them are among the activities for youth as lobbyists.
  15. Children and Youth as Trainers. When they train adults, youth, children, and others, youth can share their wisdom, ideas, knowledge, attitudes, actions, and processes in order to guide programs, nurture organization and community cultures, and change the world.
  16. Children and Youth as Politicians. Running for political office at the community, city, county, or state levels, youth as politicians can run for a variety of positions.
  17. Children and Youth as Recruiters. Youth building excitement, sharing motivation, or otherwise helping their communities or people to get involved, create change, or make all sorts of things happen can happen through youth as recruiters.
  18. Children and Youth as Social entrepreneurs. When youth recognize a social problem, they can use entrepreneurial principles to organize, create, and manage a venture to make social change.
  19. Children and Youth as Paid staff. When organizations, businesses, agencies, and other groups hire youth, they can be staff members in programs for adults, other youth, children, or for the community at large. They can fulfill many roles on this list in paid positions.
  20. Children and Youth as Mentors. Mentoring is a non-hierarchical relationship between youth and adults, adults and youth, or among youth themselves, that helps facilitate learning and guidance for each participant. 
  21. Children and Youth as Decision makers. Participating in formal and informal decision-making, youth can be board members, committee members, and in many different roles.
  22. Children and Youth as Activity Leaders. As activity leaders in nonprofits, community organizations, and other areas, youth can facilitate, teach, guide, direct, and otherwise lead youth, adults, and children in a variety of ways.
  23. Children and Youth as Policy-makers. When they research, plan, write, and evaluate rules, regulations, laws, and other policies, youth as policy-makers can enrich, substantiate, enliven, and impact the outcomes of policies in many ways.

To imagine these are just some of the ways youth are changing the world right now! There are so many other ways that aren’t accounted for here. If you’re interested, learn more from my publication called The Freechild Project Guide to Social Change Led By and With Young People.

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Introduction to Youth Councils

Researching for a presentation in 2013, I identified fewer than 40 youth councils connected with city governments across Washington State. This state has over 280 municipal governments. There were also fewer than 10 counties that had youth councils, and only one state agency reported a youth council, in addition to the Washington Legislative Youth Advisory Council.

Here is the presentation I made:

Youth are everywhere! According to the United Nations, young people between the ages of 12 and 21 account for more than 25% of the world’s population today.

In the United States, the Census reported in 2011 there are over 73 million people under 18 in the United States. 10 to 19 year olds make up more than 14% of the US population.

At that same point, the Census reported that young people ages 10 to 19 make up 13% of Washington’s population.

There are more than 281 municipalities in Washington State, including incorporated towns and cities. Research conducted by the Washington State Legislative Youth Advisory Council has found that only 35 of those municipalities have Youth Councils.

Youth Councils have vast differences, and many different possibilities. Some of the differences depend on where they are located, who is on the Councils, and what the local municipality needs from them.

However, the missions of many Youth Councils aren’t generally informed by research-driven best practices, national trends or patterns, or other factually-based decisions. Instead, they are determined by well-intentioned adults who want to do the right thing, but are limited by their own imaginations, by their city or town leadership’s vision, or the way that everyday people see young people.

However, and luckily, we’re not limited to negative or challenging perceptions of youth. As one community organizer said, “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.” The way they’re going to do this? Youth Councils.

A youth council is a formal or informal body of young people that is driven by advocacy and decision-making. They address the absence of youth involvement in decision-making for any age of young people, with kids as young as 7 and young adults as old as 24 being involved in Youth Councils across Washington State.

There many different kinds of youth councils, including those sponsored by local governments, including towns, cities, and counties; state government agencies and legislatures; local nonprofit and community organizations; and national organizations.

Communities with Youth Councils in Washington

  • Auburn
  • Bellevue
  • Camas
  • Cheney
  • Colville
  • Des Moines
  • Everett
  • Federal Way
  • Grandview
  • Issaquah
  • Kirkland
  • Lacey
  • Lakewood
  • Liberty Lake
  • Marysville
  • Mercer Island
  • Mill Creek
  • Millwood
  • Mukilteo
  • Oak Harbor
  • Puyallup
  • Redmond
  • Renton
  • Sammamish
  • Seattle
  • Shoreline
  • University Place

The Washington State Legislative Youth Advisory Council had:

  • 22 students
  • Ages 14-18
  • All corners of Washington
  • All walks of life.
  • Two-year term.
  • Meet up to four times per year in Olympia.
  • Hold monthly conference calls to discuss projects and goals.
  • Hold an annual Action Day to meet with legislators and testify on important youth-related bills.
  • Advocate for youth-related bills. In 2013, lobbying efforts helped move three bills to be passed into law.
  • Partner with youth groups and organizations.

Other types of organizations have youth advisory councils. They include:

  • Community Development
  • Labor
  • Workforce Development
  • School Districts
  • Neighborhood Associations
  • Faith Communities
  • Ethnic and Cultural Groups
  • Performing Arts Orgs
  • And many others

Alfie Kohn once said, “Youth should not only be trained to live in a democracy when they grow up; they should have the chance to live in one today.” Youth Councils allow young people to experience democracy in realtime.

The context for youth councils comes from many places. I find poetry inspiring, and in particular, Langston Hughes’ poem Freedom’s Plow:

Thus the dream becomes not one man’s dream alone,
But a community dream.
Not my dream alone, but our dream.
Not my world alone,
But your world and my world,
Belonging to all the hands who build.

Would you build with young people? Youth councils provide one way to get that done.

Generation Waking Up

I heavily, highly, and wholly support the work of my friends with Generation Waking Up. Their outstanding work to engage young people across the United States and around the world is transformative, revealing, and genuinely empowering.

Their new video is inspiring:

  

 Learn more about Generation Waking Up from their website, and please, please take action.

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

Rethinking Youth Empowerment

So many adults say they want to empower youth. When they say this to me, I’ve learned to simply hear them, because its usually those adults who most want to be empowered. So, before you strive to empower a young person, I want you to consider that you might want to be empowered yourself. Right now, take a moment and think about what that means for you. That’s not a value judgment statement or a condemnation; its just an opportunity for you to think about it.

When I write the phrase “youth empowerment”, I’m talking about young people of all ages, including very young children and very old teenagers.

A long time ago, I wrote a definition of youth empowerment: “Youth empowerment is an attitudinal, structural, and cultural process whereby young people gain the ability, authority, and agency to make decisions and implement change in their own lives and the lives of other people, including youth and adults.”

However, if you work professionally with young people, I want you to understand that there is not one single definition of youth empowerment.  There’s no single power that all adults can give all youth. Its not simply ability, authority, and agency, because there’s both more and less to it than that.

The simple fact is that all children and youth are endowed with an innate power that they alone possess, and they alone can own. There are no proper words to express what this power is or how it acts. Youth power is literally larger than words.

As adults, every single one of us needs to acknowledge that we can and frequently do oppress youth power. However, none of us can restore it. We can open doorways that help young people reclaim their power, and those doorways can become gateways to lifetimes of empowerment; but adults cannot reclaim youth power for young people.

I have come to understand that decision-making opportunities are doorways to youth empowerment. So are leadership, teaching, and other activities that position young people in places of genuine and appropriate authority over their own lives, and influence in the lives of other people. However, its also a place of authentic personal understanding: one part motivation to three parts ability, youth empowerment is a personal awareness of the intrinsic nature lying within all people to change the world and change themselves.

Because of the depth of this reality, “youth empowerment” is often misunderstood, misconstrued, and ill-implemented. Many adults simply put young people into positions of authority without ever attending to that authentic personal understanding that needs to be intact. Well-meaning parents give their kids the keys to the house without locking the liquor cabinet, while well-meaning youth workers form youth councils without facilitating training about leadership or self-awareness for youth participants.

Remembering that there’s no one single way that all adults can empower all young people, its also true that all youth empowerment is subjective. That means that what works in one community won’t work in the next, and what works with one teen in a family may not work with younger children in the same family. All young people have their own oppressions that need to be overcome, and if youth empowerment is meant to help overcome those oppressions, adults need to cater to their realities.

There are many, many ways that adults can oppress all young people; oppression is an objective fact. This is true of the youngest among us, as well as the oldest youth in our lives. All young people are discriminated against because of their age, and that is an unquestionable fact. Parenting, schooling, governing, and many more functions of society serve to oppress people whom they’re designed for; whether by intention or coincidence doesn’t matter.

If young people come to believe that their oppression is fair, or that their oppression is their own fault, then they won’t think of themselves as oppressed. Adults routinely work to convince young people that their oppression is the result of biological fact, social norms, or cultural customs, rather than the fault of individual adults whose actions and choices oppress children and youth.

Finally, if you’re concerned with action, here’s a last thought for now: The only way to really, really understand the relationship between youth empowerment and oppression is to observe it directly in your own life. Begin your looking directly from where you stand right now and observe how you oppress young people, children, youth, teens, kids, tots, infants, babies, any or all of them – because we all do. Adults oppress young people as parents, teachers, youth workers, neighbors, aunts and uncles, counselors, all these roles. When you’ve acknowledged that, dig further into your own life and look at your teenage years. Acknowledge how you were oppressed as a youth, then name your oppression as a child. Name each instance and type you can think of. This is hard work, but the first step to uncovering your role as the oppressor and the oppressed.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

New Approaches to Youth Action

Description

If our goal is to engage young people in social change, there are many ways to do that. This diagram illustrates four distinct ways to engage young people: youth-driven community organizing, systemic youth involvement, situational youth voice, and service learning. It then illustrates the traditional and non-traditional approaches to doing that within these ways, as well as the overlaps that are apparent.

 

Traditional Approaches to Engage Young People in Social Change

  • May be exclusively youth-led
  • May partner with adults
  • May be led by adults
  • May include equity
  • May have explicit learning connections
  • May include adults
  • May be focused on sustained change
  • May have sustained funding
  • May position youth as “outsiders” versus “insiders”

 

New Approaches to Engage Young People in Social Change

  • Infuse youth as full members
  • Recognize mutual investment by youth and adults
  • Focus on sustained change
  • Make explicit learning goals for youth and adults
  • Focus on systemic and cultural transformation
  • Requires equity between youth and adults.

 

Explanation

In my own restlessness, I find myself craving something different these days.
I’m increasingly dissatisfied with isolated experiences of “youth-led” activity that is seeded and driven by adults. I have come to see that the majority of this work is largely disingenuous and ultimately incapacitating for the young people who participate in these activities. I say that very cautiously, as I personally know and am professionally aware of the immediate feelings of empowerment that are inherent in this type of action.

 

Today, I’m coming to understand that we need approaches to this work that more deeply situate young people as full members of currently existent society. That way they can be partners in what already exists and transform situations in deeply sustainable, deeply transformative ways.This has to happen by working with the institutions we already have in place. It has to happen with the attitudes we already have at work. This is where my writing on meaningful student involvement comes from: Students working in the places they already occupy with people who are already committed to working with them. There are attitudes, cultures, structures, and connections to transform, but those are sustained changes that won’t go away with passing generations.
This article is meant to illustrate what the difference I see looks like visually. Respond and let me know what you think about a new approach to youth action – I’d love to hear what you think!

GO TEAM YOUTH! Towards a Future Beyond Boosterism

This morning I read a story about a 14-year-old named Jacob Barnett who might be smarter than Einstein. As I watched it, I had the thought of sharing his story with others.

However, I’m generally reluctant to do that. As I’ve written in the past about Michelle Obama and Taylor Wilson, I think adults who are trying to engage young people in changing the world need to aim higher than the boosterism and jingoism for these high-achieving young people that so often undermines the “Every Youth” who attends our schools and programs everyday.

However, in media environment that routinely thwarts the good deeds of children and youth who are making actual positive differences all the time by over-reporting violence and disparities among young people, maybe boosterism has an important role.

What would a project that highlighted the good things young people do look like?

These are all good things – being smart, inventing things, doing stuff, making things, creating, coalescing, developing, teaching, writing, speaking, all that.

Would it have to be gross boosterism that [blindly] highlights positivity, or would there be a higher course of analysis that could be made explicit, i.e. “Popular conceptions about young people are all wrong, and here is a great amount of evidence to the contrary”?

Similar to my Freechild Project, there is a bit out there that attempts to take steps to that effect, like What Kids Can DoPro-Youth Pages, . There are other sites that try to program-itize youth action to change the world, and in their need for funding they claim the work of young people as their own. These groups include Do Something, Youth Venture, and Youth Service America. All of these groups- mine included- explicitly tell stories about young people who are changing the world.

There are re-activists among the sources that promote young people, too. The National Youth Rights Association has been fighting negative perceptions of youth for more than a decade, and Mike Males youthfacts.org is a great fighter of status quo attitudes towards young people. Academics like my mentor, Henry Giroux, and others like Alfie Kohn and Jonathan Kozol have been fighting askew perceptions of young people for decades, while advocates like including Marianne Wright Edleman have claimed to advocate on behalf of young people while promoting the problems they face ahead of their capacities to deal with those problems.


But there’s something missing in all that work. The needle hasn’t really moved in the way mainstream society sees young people! The choir is getting preached to and the good ideas are rolling around out there in the fields of Young America, but USA Today, The New York Times, almost all the mainstream and cable news shows, and even the so-called progressive Left media sources routinely and loudly disparage children and youth. When they do mention the good work of young people today, they routinely dismiss or tokenize it.

5 Essential Elements of Go Team Youth (A Future Beyond Boosterism)

  1. Popular appeal
  2. Bold + direct language and concepts
  3. Focused on youth changing the world
  4. Clearly addresses discrimination against young people
  5. Makes next steps plain

We need a popular, loud, and explicit analysis that makes plain the challenges facing young people and their ability to be solutions in facing those problems. Critical thinking, cultural acknowledgment, and systems change must be inherent in any solutioneering that is proposed.

What could “Go Team Youth!” engine look like? That’s the future I’m most interested in right now.

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

Beyond Taylor Wilson

Taylor Wilson is a 17-year-old nuclear physicist from the U.S. A few years ago, it was reported that he was the youngest person to ever build a nuclear reactor.

In March 2012, TED posted an introductory talk by Taylor where he describes his attempt to build a star when he was 14 years old. I just watched another video where Taylor gets really deep. He’s particularly smart about physics and has accumulated a great deal of ability in his field. He’s also a good presenter.

Taylor is operating in a really rarified space. He’s a mixture that’s rare among human beings, and especially among young people. He is highly engaged, posses expert knowledge, is highly capable, and as witnessed by the media machine behind his work, he has broad exposure to the “right” audiences.

That is why I’m interested in moving beyond Taylor Wilson, and the other Taylor Wilson’s in the world.

A lot of organizations concerned with youth involvement, youth voice, youth empowerment, and youth engagement are concerned with youth who are Taylor Wilson, in any respect. They want young sports players, junior political leaders, natural teachers, and youth activists to have the tools, opportunities, and avenues they need to get any level of exposure similar to Taylor. Others want to reach young people who are at best in one of those spaces, or some mix between those spaces, not necessarily expert but definitely highly capable.

My work keeps coming back to a different part of the spectrum though. After growing up how I did and spending a career working with the people I have, I want to reach the “every youth”, the “typical teen”, and the “new normal”. Those are really subjective terms, but they’re meant to capture the un-Taylor Wilsons of the world.

I’m most concerned with how to reach those young people and increase their engagement, their knowledge, their ability, and their exposure.

Taylor’s story is definitely inspiring. But instead of replicating him once or twice straight across though, how do we move all people closer to that space?

By the way, I want to reach these young people, by the way. And this one. And the millions of others like them.

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