Making Adultism Okay

In many settings today, there is an increasing amount of attention towards racial, gender, and other forms of discrimination. However, little is made of a very real form of discrimination that is undermining a lot of well-meaning educators’ work with students today: adultism.

In my new book, Ending Discrimination Against Young People, I define adultism in three ways:

  1. Bias towards adults;
  2. Discrimination against children and youth;
  3. The addiction to adults expressed throughout our culture, society, and personal ways of being.

Adultism occurs throughout society. Despite our best intentions, many adults and young people try to make discrimination against children and youth okay in all kinds of ways. Following are some of them.


15 Ways Adults Try to Make Adultism Okay
  1. Denying discrimination against children and youth. Adults might say: “This is a free country, and kids can do whatever they want if they put their minds to it,” or “Hey, wait a second, that’s not what I meant… I mean… you took my words out of context, don’t make it try to sound like I’m adultist!” 
  2. Even when they’re aware, some adults still don’t get it.
  3. Telling young people they are too sensitive. Adults might say, ”You’re too sensitive,” or, “If youth weren’t so aggressive, vocal, hostile, angry, or upset, adults would listen to youth and they wouldn’t get in trouble!” 
  4. Speaking for youth. Adults might say, “I’m a youth ally myself, so why can’t we all just ignore age, it’s not like it’s even real. It is not as if I tangibly benefit from being an adult every day or anything! Can’t we all just get along?” 
  5. Turning the tables. Adults might say, “You are just discriminating against adults, you know. You’re discriminating against me right now, you hypocrite!” 
  6. Denying reality. Adults might say, ”Whoa, that guy over there is SUCH an adultist, unlike me… I know exactly the right things to say and I’m never adultist. By which I mean overtly offensive about it. Hold on, I think I’m going to go spit on that adult. I hate him.” 
  7. Bending over backwards. Adults might say, ”You kids are so right! I agree with everything you say, because you’re right, of course 
  8. Reinforcing adultism with personal reasons. Adults might say, ”But a youth cut in front of me in line at the grocery store last night, said something stupid, mugged me, or took my hubcaps! So as far as I’m concerned, they proved all of my prejudices!” 
  9. Taking on adultism. Adults might say, ”I can’t possibly be an adultist… I’m part of the oppressed due to the fact that I’m a woman! (or gay, poor, young, transsexual, etc.)”. 
  10. Trying to be a youth. Adults might say, “Dang, dude! I listen to emo and rock out at the shows, and you know I’m down with the homies. Did you see the last edition of that graphic novel?” 
  11. Being constantly available to youth. Adults might say, ”Teach me, help me. I’m just an adult, so I need your wisdom as a youth to show me how not to be adultist. Wait, is what I said earlier adultist? How about this shirt I’m wearing? Can you come with me to this meeting, so they know I’m not adultist?” 
  12. Rationalizing adultism through faux-empathy. Adults might say, “Unlike all those other adults out there, I’m an anti-adultist.” “I do anti-adultist work and I try to educate other adults about adultism.” “Wait, did you hear me?” 
  13. Switching sides. Adults might say, ”I totally agree. Adultism is one system of oppression among many interlocking ones that specifically awards more privilege and power to all adults whether they like it or not and serves to keep the existing power structure in place. Oh… what? You want me to volunteer in a community organization, contribute money, do security for your protest march? Uh… yeah maybe next time, I’ve got to wash my hair tonight. And walk my dog, see the latest episode of my favorite show, manage my stock portfolio…” 
  14. Sympathy for youth. Adults might say,”Oh my god… that is so awful. I’m so sorry. Sorry. I can’t imagine what it must be like… I’m sorry. That’s so awful. I feel so bad for you. Sorry.” 
  15. Being a friend by force. Adults might say, “Hey, I’m not an adultist, OK? Some of my best friends are youth. See?” or “Yeah, I’ve known her since I was a kid, and she’s never said anything adultist to me!” 
  16. Hiding behind their age. Youth might say, ”What? I can’t possibly be adultist – I AM a youth. How can I be adultist against myself, huh? No, I haven’t heard of internalized adultism, and I still think youth involvement is reverse discrimination!”

My book explores how all adults are adultist. It comes down to this: Discrimination has many definitions, and one of them is the capability to discern difference between two or more things. In this way, adults constantly discriminate against young people. That’s not necessarily wrong or bad, but it is true. Adults who don’t discern the difference between them and young people generally have developmental restraints that limit their ability to discriminate. Again, discriminating against young people and being in favor of adults isn’t always bad; it simply IS. Accepting that reality is the first step to creating a more just and equitable society benefiting all people.

The items on this list are signs of when that ability to discern difference is either accidentally or intentionally blurred and erased, or hyper-exaggerated. Recognizing that adults do that is important for creating /authentic/ youth empowerment, instead of simply giving lip service to young people and saying they’re equal, but acting in other ways. Adults who do the things on the list are generally being disingenuous and inauthentic by going through the motions without any real meaning behind what they’re doing.

Identifying how you personally rationalize adultism can lead to becoming a more effective adult ally. Learn other things you can do at The Freechild Project website and contact our office for information on publications and training we offer.
You can order Ending Discrimination Against Young People from Amazon.com or ask for it at your local bookstore.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Ways Adults See Youth

There are many, many ways that adults see young people. For more than a decade I have been working with young people and adults to reveal those different ways. We have uncovered adults perceptions of youth, the ways youth are treated in adult programs and organizations, and ways to stop youth from being engaged at all. However, none of these were systemic until now.

The following shows the ways adults see youth, from Current to Transitional to Future. Created with youth and adults from across the US, this represents the possibilities for how we can develop strategic plans to engage youth in dynamic, powerful new ways.

Current Perceptions of Youth

How do adults see the personal realities of youth?

  •  “Youth are meager.”
  •  “Youth are incapable.”
  • “Youth are weak.”
  • “Youth are needy.”
  •  “Youth are impressionable.”
  •  “Youth are misbehaved.”
  •  “Youth are annoying.”
  •  “Youth are baggage.”
  •  “Youth are ill-mannered.”
  •  “Youth are a chore.”

How do adults see the present social realities of youth?

  •  Demanding 
  • · Disobedient
  • ·  Susceptible 
  • ·  Nuisance
  • ·  Loud
  • ·  Violent
  • ·  Inarticulate

How do adults see the present structural realities of youth?

  • Incapable
  • ·  Burden
  • ·  Alien
  • ·  Token
  • ·  Decorative 
  • ·  Recipient
  • ·  Transitory

Transitional Adult Perceptions of Youth

How do adults see the transitional personal realities of youth?

  • Incomplete
  • ·  Immature
  • ·  Docile
  • ·  Fun
  • ·  Free
  • ·  Expressive 
  • ·  Loving

How do adults see the transitional social realities of youth?

  •   Formative
  • · Underdeveloped
  • ·  Kid-Friendly
  • ·  Manipulable
  • ·  Vulnerable

How do adults see the transitional structures realities of youth?

  • Impressionable
  • ·  Educatable
  • ·  Believed
  • ·  Actualized
  • ·  Empowered

Future Adult Perceptions of Youth

How do adults see the future personal realities of youth?

  • ·  Partner
  • ·  Equitable
  • ·  Creators
  • ·  Co-creators
  • ·  Whole
  • ·  Capable
  • ·  Unique
  • ·  Accepting
  • ·  Strong
  • ·  Powerful

How do adults see the future social realities of youth?

  • Effective
  • ·  Equality
  • ·  Capable
  • ·  Driven
  • ·  Dreaming
  • ·  Influential
  • ·  Focused
  • ·  Strong

How do adults see the future structural realities of youth?

  • Partnership
  • ·  Tranformative
  • ·  Valuable
  • ·  Necessity
  • ·  Trusted
  • ·  Wise


For more information about this chart contact my by emailing adam@commonaction.org




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

Youth Tokenism Pt 2.


A while ago I wrote a post trying to make plain what youth tokenism is. Here I’m trying to simplify it. Following are signs youth are being treated in simplistic ways.

Signs Youth are Being Tokenized

  • Adults talk about issues affecting youth without talking to youth. 
  • Adults consistently ask youth to speak about being a youth.
  • Adults will do programs to youth and won’t host programs done by youth.
  • Communities celebrate youth with events where there are only 10 youth and 1,000 adults.
  • Adults only interact with youth regarding youth issues. 
  • Adults tell youth they have a voice and give youth the way they’re expected to express it.
  • Adults put youth are put in positions historically held by adults without the authority and ability adults have.
  • Adults constantly telling young people about their experiences when they were young people without listening to the experiences of youth today. 
  • The busiest times of year for a young person are holidays, summer vacation, and youth service days.
  • Adults don’t tell youth directly the purpose of their involvement in a formal setting like school, youth organizations, service projects, conferences, etc. 
  • Adults control who hears, sees, or communicates with youth throughout a community.
  • Before youth walk into a meeting, all the adults know there are youth attending without knowing their names, where they’re from, or what school they attend.
  • One youth is expected to represent all youth.
  • Youth or adults perceive that youth are tokenized and thereby they undermine their abilities.
  • Youth are treated as if or told it is a favor and not a right for them to participate in decision-making.
  • Adults give youth are given little or no opportunity to formulate their own opinions before speaking in a formal setting.
  • Adults give youth time to speak in formal settings and then ignore what they say.
  • One youth speaker speaks in a formal setting filled only with adult speakers and attendees.
  • 100 youth attend a rally with 10,000 adults and are pointed out for their attendance.
  • Adults only invite youth who are not likely to assert themselves, make demands, or complain.
  • Adults take youth away from regular activities or personal lives without a compelling reason to that young person for being gone. 
  • Adults choose articulate, charming youth to sit on a panel with little or no substantive preparation on the subject and no consultation with their peers who, it is implied, they represent.
  • Adult/youth power imbalances are regularly observed and not addressed in a program or organization.
  • Adults don’t use youth knowledge to build the abilities of young people and their communities, instead focusing simply on prevention and intervention.
  • Adults take a lot of pictures of youth for their website without ever listening to what they have to say.
  • One particular youth is asked over and over to participate in adult activities.
  • Adults seek out one, two, or ten youth as the most popular or as especially expert youth instead of identifying many qualified youth.
  • Youth-led research is used to back up adult problem-solving without engaging youth in problem-solving.
  • Nobody explains to youth how they they were selected for an activity.
  • Youth are given leadership roles in activities that aren’t supported to succeed.
  • Adults allow youth to talk on their organization’s facebook page and not at their board meetings.
  • Youth become burned out from participating in historically adult activities.
  • Youth think its obvious they have a lack of authority or power.
  • Youth create websites, art, music, or other work that is kept for adult purposes only.
  • Youth think their authority is undermined by adults.
  • Youth don’t understand which young people they are expected to represent.
  • A group of youth is asked to create something for the community that never leaves the program or organization they’re in.

To learn more about what you can do to end youth tokenism, I strongly encourage you to read Guidelines for the Ethical Engagement of Young People by First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada. It is a powerful, concise, and effective how-to for this work. To find other materials, visit The Freechild Project Reading List featuring Tools for Action with Young People.

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

A Tool for Measuring Youth Involvement

The Youth Measure of Involvement for Community Engagement, or Youth MICE model, represents the most powerful possibilities for young people’s involvement around the world. Individuals and organizations can use this model to start thinking about how young people can be infused throughout programs, organizations, and communities.

This tool was designed by to foster reflection, consideration, and growth by individuals and organizations seeking to promote youth engagement throughout communities. It can be used in any setting where young people could work with adults. It grew from conversations I had more than a decade ago with people like Greg Williamson, Sasha Rabkin, and Yve Susskind, and evolved through my direct work with more than 100,000 youth and adult allies in events, workshops, conferences, and programs across the US and Canada.

The spiral represents the non-linear motion of engagement. A person doesn’t just start in one place and end in another; instead, engagement is a process that continually evolves while hopefully growing larger. It has been going on a lot longer than the present, and the Youth MICE Model is meant to acknowledge the past. The spiral also represents the motion of opportunities becoming narrower as fewer people are engaged. The following descriptions can help you understand the different points throughout the model.

Starting from the tail of the Youth MICE Model…

  • Engagement is Shared Equitably. This is the most ideal position for youth involvement community change to occur because it engages everyone in a community as equitable partners. Instead of simply seeing community as geography, this approach embraces the roots of the word, which comes from the Latin communis, meaning “common, public, shared by all or many.” Age, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, language, ethnicity, and other qualities are embraced as strengthening identity that contributes to a larger good, not as segregating differences. All people experience inclusive, meaningful, empowering participation. Each shares as they are able or desiring according to shared expectations.
  • Engagement is Self-Led. By focusing on the skills and leadership of young people, this approach leverages the power of youth and young adults with their ability to affect change across the whole community. Young people are the impetus and generators of action that reaches to other young people and across all age groups in their communities.
  • Engagement is Shared Equally. This approach leverages the skills and leadership of young people with the power of adults in order to benefit the whole community. While youth and young adults are recognized as the motivators of community change, adults are engaged for their unique experience, talents, and abilities. Each shares 50/50 responsibilities, rights, and reactions to engagement.
  • Engagement is Consulted On. The leadership of adults is predominant, engaging young people as input-sharers instead of movement-makers. Adults infuse the knowledge and ability of young people through action in particular ways in order to inform action.
  • Engagement is Informed. In this approach adults may listen to young people, or young people may listen to adults, during planning, decision-making, or evaluation. This one-way flow of information does not nurture cross-accountability between young people and adults. However, it is an introduction to youth involvement in community engagement.
  • Engagement is Assigned. Young people are assigned action by adults. Adults use their authority over young people through class credit, money, or mandates in order to foster community engagement. Young people influence adults through direct and indirect communication and action.
To learn more about the MICE Model and The Freechild Project’s other tools, or to contact us, visit freechild.org or call (360) 489-9680.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Are You Tokenizing Youth?

Tokenism happens whenever adults put youth in formal and informal positions without any substance, purpose, or power in order to say they have youth on board. Appointing youth this was is a symbolic gesture towards Youth Voice that is meant to demonstrate youth engagement and appease youth and adult advocates. It is supposed to stop people from complaining.

However, tokenism actually reinforces adultism by demonstrating adult power and highlighting young peoples’ inability to do work of substance. Tokenism happens through policy and practice every day. Youth tokenism is so deep in our society that many organizations never know they’re tokenizing youth, and youth don’t know when they’re being tokenized. Because of adultcentrism in our society, young people can often internalize tokenism and not be able to see when it is existent. Its important to teach young people about tokenism and how it can affect them.

Following are 34 signs youth are being tokenized, and 10 ways to stop tokenizing youth. There are also some resources at the end.

34 Signs Youth are Being Tokenized

  1. Without: When issues affecting youth are talked about by adults without asking youth, youth are being tokenized. 
  2. Spotlight: At a meeting it is tokenism when adults consistently ask youth to speak about being a youth.
  3. Done To: An organization that will do programs to youth and won’t host programs done by youth is tokenizing youth.
  4. Highlight: At a youth organization celebration dinner it is tokenism when there are only 10 youth and 1,000 adults.
  5. Issues: In a community organization it is tokenism when youth are only interacted with on youth issues. 
  6. Opportunity: In a government agency it is tokenism when youth are told they have a voice and given the way they’re expected to express it.
  7. Authority: On a board of directors it is tokenism when youth are put in historically adult positions without the authority and ability adults have.
  8. History: Adults constantly telling young people about their experiences when they were young people is tokenism. 
  9. Scheduling: When a youth’s busiest times of year are holidays, summer vacation, and youth service days, it is tokenism.
  10. Purpose: At a conference it is tokenism when adults don’t tell youth directly the purpose of their involvement. 
  11. Control: Throughout a community it is tokenism when adults control who hears, sees, or communicates with youth.
  12. Knowing: It is tokenism when before youth walk into a meeting, everyone knows there are youth attending without knowing their names, where they’re from, or what school they attend.
  13. Representation: During a meeting it is tokenism when one youth is expected to represent all youth.
  14. Perception: In an organization, if youth or adults perceive that youth are tokenized and thereby they undermine their abilities, it is tokenism.
  15. Favors: When youth are treated as if or told it is a favor and not a right for them to participate in decision-making, it is tokenism.
  16. Preparation: In a panel, it is tokenism when youth are given little or no opportunity to formulate their own opinions before speaking.
  17. Attention: At a forum, it is tokenism when adults give youth time to speak and then ignore what they say.
  18. Attendance: If one youth speaker speaks at a conference of adult speakers and attendees, it is tokenism.
  19. Acknowledgment: When 100 youth attend a rally with 10,000 adults it is tokenism when they are pointed out for their attendance, it is tokenism.
  20. Quiet: In a planning session it is tokenism when adults only invite youth who are not likely to assert themselves, make demands, or complain.
  21. Honors: It is tokenism when adults take youth away from regular activities or personal lives without a compelling reason to that young person for being gone. 
  22. Charm: If adults choose articulate, charming youth to sit on a panel with little or no substantive preparation on the subject and no consultation with their peers who, it is implied, they represent, it is tokenism.
  23. Imbalance: It is tokenism when adult/youth power imbalances are regularly observed and not addressed in your program or organization.
  24. Disempowering: It is tokenism when community organizations adults don’t use youth knowledge to build the abilities of young people and their communities, instead focusing simply on prevention and intervention.
  25. Pictures: When adults take a lot of pictures of youth for their website without ever listening to what they have to say, it is tokenism.
  26. Singling-Out: If one particular youth is asked over and over to participate in adult activities, it is tokenism.
  27. Fame: At a program, organization, or conference it is tokenism when adults seek out one, two, or ten youth as the most famous or as especially expert youth instead of identifying many qualified youth.
  28. Problems: When youth-led research is used to back up adult problem-solving without engaging youth in problem-solving, it is tokenism.
  29. Explanation: It is tokenism when nobody explains to youth how they they were selected for an activity.
  30. Social: When adults allow youth to talk on their organization’s facebook page and not at their board meetings, it is tokenism.
  31. Burnout: If youth become burned out from participating in historically adult activities, it is tokenism.
  32. Obviousness: If youth think its obvious they have a lack of authority or power or that their authority is undermined by adults, it is tokenism.
  33. Understanding: If youth don’t understand which young people they are supposed to represent, it is tokenism.
  34. Delivery: When a group of youth is asked to create something for the community that never leaves the program or organization they’re in, it is tokenism.

Understanding you are experiencing tokenism is challenging, but it is just the beginning. Here are 10 ways to stop tokenizing youth.

10 Ways to Stop Tokenizing Youth

  1. Difference: When looking for youth to become involved, choose different youth from a range of identities that demonstrate diversity of experiences and opinions.
  2. Beginning: Invite a group of youth to work together in your program, organization, or conference. Get them active early in the planning cycle.
  3. Breadth: Engage youth in a broad array of activities, programs, organizations, and conferences that have fun built into them, but aren’t focused solely on having fun.
  4. Diversity: Reach out individually to youth too, but not only to youth you personally know.
  5. Socializing: Provide opportunities for youth to connect with each other outside traditionally adult activities so they can see that they’re not the only youth there, and that they have things in common past their age-based identities.
  6. Depth: It is in youths’ best interests to develop young people with real knowledge, skills and traits to help them to be effective and empowered.
  7. Numbers: When giving examples of youth in a particular area, provide a list, not just the single easiest youth you can think of.
  8. Individualization: Don’t expect youth representatives to speak for all youth: each youth is an individual, and will have their own stories.
  9. Capacity: Build the capacities of youth to lead their own activities and participate as equitable partners with adults.
  10. Opportunities: When highlighting youth, demonstrate practical opportunities they have to share broad interests and skills, preferably non-stereotypical and perhaps interacting with each other.

All issues are youth issues. It is the ethical responsibility of adult allies of young people to acknowledge the capacity of youth to decide which issues are important for them to engage within, and to increase their ability to be successful in their interactions with those issues. 

To learn more about what you can do to end youth tokenism, I strongly encourage you to read Guidelines for the Ethical Engagement of Young People by First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada. It is a powerful, concise, and effective how-to for this work. To find other materials, visit The Freechild Project Reading List featuring Tools for Action with Young People.

You Might Like…

Order FACING ADULTISM by Freechild founder Adam Fletcher at http://amzn.to/2noYclH
Order FACING ADULTISM by Freechild founder Adam Fletcher!

Adults Researching Youth IS NOT Youth Voice

One day your organization decided to create a survey to ask youth what they thought about their communities. You called this a “Youth Voice Project”. However, just because an adult decides something is youth voice doesn’t make it so. While it is true that youth voice is any expression of a young person about anything (Fletcher, 2005), it is equally true that youth voice is not adults determining what young people care about.


Let’s be clear:

  • Adult research studies of youth are not youth voice.
  • Adult-created surveys delivered by adults are not youth voice.
  • Adult-created surveys delivered by youth are not youth voice.
  • Adults using youth to present adult-led research about youth is not youth voice.
What does constitute youth voice in research? Participatory action research, or PAR, relies on youth/adult partnerships in order to identify research questions, create research tools, execute studies, and assess data. This is youth voice in research. Youth-led research is youth voice in research. Even youth using adult-led research about youth is youth voice, so long as youth are interpreting the data.
However, that last example is starting to peel a stinky onion. Since we know that one youth doesn’t represent all youth, we know that even data gathered by youth, for youth, from youth isn’t going to be interpreted “right”. There will be discrepancies that represent bias or subjectivity. The the middle class white suburban youth isn’t going to be wholly effective at extrapolating meaning in data collected from low-income youth of color in working class neighborhoods. This is the nature of research though, and some flaws are inherent in any process.
Learn more about youth-led research at http://freechild.org/PAR/ and remember: Adults researching youth is NOT youth voice!
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Puddles of Youth Engagement


Changing our minds is necessary for successful youth engagement in schools and communities. Coming to understand the absolute dire necessity for youth engagement and understanding the inherent ethical demands therein is essential for everyone. This is particularly true for adults who work with and for young people everyday, including parents, teachers, youth workers, politicians, and others.


However, this strong personal transformation isn’t systematic or necessarily sustainable. Despite many well-meaning adults’ interest in engaging young people, they don’t have reliable structural and cultural supports within their environments to ensure their efforts have the impact they could or should have. Instead, students leave the classroom of one well-intended teacher only to face six others throughout the day where teachers aren’t committed to student/adult partnerships. Or the homeless youth voice project that empowered those youth has no follow-up once those youth have secure places to live, and so on.

The reality of these situations is that we have little puddles of youth engagement in the world today. There are some communities where those puddles for ponds, and only a couple where those ponds forms lakes. However, there are oceans of separation between these adult allies of children and youth, and we need something more.


Moving Away from Puddles and towards Water Cycles

I’ve written about this and studied systems supporting youth voice. Here are the main elements I’ve found consistently arise.

  1. Organizations Have Policy and Practice. There are ways to carry out the policies that support the objectives of goals of Youth Voice 
  2. Data Driven Practice. Data related to Youth Voice as it affects the young people involved, their peers, adult allies, and the larger community is regularly collected. 
  3. Budget Supports Action. Budgets include line items that support the implementation of Youth Voice activities. 
  4. New Knowledge is Fostered. Regular training orients new youth participants and adults and strengthens existing youth and adult allies’ skills, knowledge and commitment to Youth Voice. 
  5. Accountable Action at the Grassroots. Policies supporting Youth Voice activities have been published in a document available to youth, adult allies, youth workers, government officials, politicians and families. 
  6. Accountable Action at the Treetops. The Youth Voice coordinator reports to a high-level administrator and the position is incorporated into the organizational chart. 
  7. Change is Temporary; Support is Permanent. The Youth Voice program has survived a significant change of leadership among youth, adult allies and within the group, organization and/or community. 
  8. Community Informed Action. Other groups, organizations and/or communities are assisted in designing, implementing, sustaining and/or evaluating their Youth Voice activities through conferences, workshops and/or local outreach. 
  9. Policies and Practices are Shared and Compared. Organizations, groups, and communities actively “swap notes” about policies and practices in order to strengthen self-perception and grow beyond limited views. 
  10. Networks and Coalitions are Formed. Like-minded individuals and organizations, including youth and adult allies, form networks for support and coalitions for advocacy. Tangible action, practical outcomes, and meaningful activities form and reform the bonds that unite them. 


There are some resources out there that address systemitizing youth voice. One is a report about the funding practices and outcomes of a Bay Area, California, foundation focused on youth engagement. Another is a database of national youth policies from around the world compiled by a UNESCO initiative called Plan With Youth. The last one I’ll include here is the Funders Collaborative on Youth Organizing’s 2010 Youth Organizing Field Scan. All of these are incomplete resources that don’t necessarily support wide-ranging strategies to move beyond isolation, insolarization, polarization, or silo-ing among youth voice initiatives. However, they move closer than others.

Please share your resource or idea in the comments section, and let me know what you think of these puddles of engagement!




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

Silencing Youth

One of the ways adultism affects young people is through silencing. Silencing youth happens when adults take away the ability of young people to speak. This happens directly, such as when adults tell youth to be quiet or take away their instruments for communication. It also happens indirectly, like when youth are seeking adult approval and adults don’t offer it.

Adults Silencing Youth

As adults, we routinely abuse the trust, admiration, and acceptance young people bestow in us through silencing. Sometimes we consciously do this, and other times its by accident. In my many capacities working with youth over my 20+ year career, I often silenced youth inadvertently and on purpose. When I ran a youth center in a suburban American city in the late 1990s, a group of young teens asked if they could make a newspaper using the youth center’s resources. Without asking my boss or even taking stock of what they were asking for, I quickly dismissed them and said no. I automatically assumed there would be nothing good to come of their work, and didn’t value what they were going to say enough to investigate further.

All young people experience sincere silencing, simply because of their age. That is the effect of adultism in our society. However, its well documented that low-income youth and youth of color are disproportionately affected by silencing. Their voices are routinely and systematically eliminated from many conversations, frequently through the error of omission, but even more often through crass determination and blind segregation.

Activities Silencing Youth

Sometimes activities that are intended to engage youth voice can have the reverse effect. Channeling the conversation and discourse young people naturally have into adult-approved topics with adult-approved youth can stifle, negate, or otherwise show disapproval of youth. This can have the effect of chilling or ending youth voice. This goes back to my earlier writing about convenient and inconvenient youth voice.

Suppose that adults in schools are led to believe that when students scrawl negative things about their teachers on lockers or desks, they don’t mean it. Young people, then, will not be understood by adults to be sharing feedback about teaching, even when they are. If certain types of feedback to adults in schools are acceptable when others are not, adults become the people who determine when youth voice is valid and when it is not. This silences youth and reinforces for them- and adults- that adults are the only worthy arbitrators of youth voice. Sharing feedback about the situations they’re in is a speech act, a way of doing something with words. Adults undermine youth voice when we take away the ability of young people to use their voices by calling them wrong, incorrect, or insincere. This is actively silencing youth.

We passively silence youth when we take away their access to the vocabulary to express their claims. This is done when adults (and youth) eschew the language of adultism, instead flattening the experience of youth and adults by addressing age discrimination against youth as ageism. It also happens when youth organizations don’t teach youth workers the language of youth voice. It may not be intentional or assertive, but its still has the effect of silencing youth.

Youth Silencing Youth

Through this type of conditioning, and others, young people sometimes learn to embrace silencing and use it as a weapon to fight back at adultism and oppression in general. As Paulo Freire wrote, “The oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors.” There’s a power in silence that we can call upon ourselves, within ourselves, and for ourselves. However, that same power cannot be forced onto another. When exerted with indiscretion, silencing youth is a tool of oppression that denies young people their natural abilities and takes away from them further developing their capabilities.

There are lots of purposes for silence in communication; if we want to be adult allies to young people we should be aware of what our intent, affect, and effect is when we’re quiet.

How It Happens

Here are some ways adults silence youth:

  • Ignoring youth voice that makes us uncomfortable
  • Believing stereotypes of youth
  • The silent treatment
  • Censorship
  • Graffiti bans
  • Forced spiritual practices
  • Compulsory education
  • Taking away cell phones, iPods, and other handheld tech
  • Taking away computer use or the Internet
  • Rerouting youth conversations from topics adults are uncomfortable with back to familiar grounds
  • Stifling political speech
  • No votes under 18
  • No right to banking under 18
  • Stopping creative expression
  • Managing types of challenges presented by youth
  • Youth councils
  • Curfews
  • Traditional youth leadership activities
  • Punish political expression
  • Punishing student expression on the Internet
  • Telling kids not to tattle
  • Encouraging kids to tell us things they’ve heard
  • Ending cultural studies in a school district
  • Corporal punishment
  • Yelling at young people
Does youth voice make adults uncomfortable? Absolutely. Is it okay to silence youth, ever? No. Imagining a world with uninhibited youth voice makes many adults shudder. That’s not their problem- its ours. Adults need to deal with our limited capacity to listen to youth, and not expect young people to limit their capacity in order to appease us.This list could become inexhaustibly long. Share your thoughts in the comments and add ways that adults silence youth!

Its Not Rocket Science

We need to do things entirely different than we ever have before. That much is generally agreed upon by anyone who believes in youth voice, engaging young people, children’s participation, and youth rights.

However, from that point, some adults treat youth integration as if it were rocket science. We go about creating elaborate schemes to listen to youth voice, make special accommodations to give children control in special circumstances, and develop sophisticated strategies to appeal to young people of all stripes. However, none of these approaches are the answer.

There is no one answer.

We know that if we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always got. The issue is that many well-meaning adults inadvertently perpetuate the ways things have always been done. I believe that any activity that falls in the realm of convenient youth voice is one generally one that will give us what we’ve always got.

These activities set aside youth voice, creating particular circumstances and conditions where young people get special treatment and produce special outcomes. This is just like all other youth leadership activities have always done. Programs, activities, and events designed to engage young people in special ways will always inherently fail, as they put youth on pedestals and create anomalous experiences that do not reveal the effectiveness of all young people everyday.

That is what our programs, activities, events, strategies, and schemes to promote the integration of young people should do. Things that are non-typical, unexpected, and marginally- to mostly-inconvenient for adults should dominate our work as they push boundaries and rock the boat. In the same way that many young people have learned to be suspicious of adults who are reasonable, we should reconsider whether our activities are too easy.

This thinking is not rocket science. Instead of creating another special conference, holding another particular youth day, or making another program that pulls kids out of class to show them how to change their class, we need to integrate the positive power, potential, and possibilities of young people right into the very places that serve children and youth everyday. Classrooms, homes, community groups, faith communities, and every place young people are should learn how to integrate young people. Our programs should focus on that.

Albert Einstein taught us about this 60 years ago when he wrote, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Creating another leadership program, another conference, another advisory council or action team, all of these are the same kind of thinking. Rather than appeal to traditional youth leaders with convenient youth activities, adults and youth-serving organizations need to create nontraditional approaches to youth engagement and new avenues towards appealing to all young people.

Well-meaning adults often assume they’re doing children and youth of all stripes a favor by hosting them. Its time to reconsider our actions and plot a new course. Its not rocket science- it takes commitment, creativity, and compassion, but its not rocket science.

  • What are the farthest reaches of action adults can take with young people? 
  • Where are the spaces young people can occupy with adults as allies? 
  • How can adults make safe, supportive environments that foster sustainable connections for all young people? 
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

More Than Voice: The Cycle of Engagement

The other day I presented a few workshops at the 2012 Bridge Conference in Seattle. One focused focused on my Cycle of Engagement, and was called “More Than Voice: The Cycle of Engagement“. I walked participants through the various ways we can move past understanding Youth Voice as a singular, passive activity, instead engaging young people as partners throughout our programs. We discussed traditional and convenient Youth Voice versus nontraditional and inconvenient Youth Voice, as well as barriers to youth engagement.

Following is the powerpoint presentation I used during the workshop.

Hope you enjoy it! Share any thoughts below?!?