Youth On A Pedestal

There’s a special place where young people are placed in stark contrast to their roles in our daily lives. Typically, young people are segregated from adults, compelled to follow rules and laws they didn’t make, and shown what to do with themselves through advertising, education, family life, and community norms. Nowhere along the way are they treated as full humans, capable of contributing to the larger world around them for their benefit and the benefit of others.

Until they get to that special place of being Youth On A Pedestal.

From there, young people are allowed to step above and beyond their peers. They can glimpse out across the lands and see the places where adults see. Their access grows and they become able to see where their age group peers stand, as well as some adults. With an increased amount of education and opportunity, these young people can grow still more powerful, acting as little adults who are controllers of their fates and masters of their domains.

In this strange upside down kingdom, these children and youth can boss around and manipulate adults to get what they want. They drive conversation, control situations, and seemingly move mountains compared to their peers. With experiences as top performing students, athletes, musicians, scholars, performers, and more, they seem mighty.

Looking up at them isn’t a particularly pleasant experience for all their peers. Sure, some friends hold up the pedestal, putting their backs and hands to the column to ensure their friends’ security. Others step back and stare up in awe, wondering how that kid got that power, while others still throw rocks from the distance and try to knock that youth off their pedestal.

The challenge for Youth Voice programs today is not to foster these particular pedestals for youth. This is called “romanticizing” Youth Voice. It positions young people as speakers at adult conferences; puts students in charge of the school board for a day; makes some youth shine while others throttle, stuck in gear without the resources and attention they need to move forward. Well-meaning adults perpetuate this by making formal youth leadership opportunities distinctly for so-called Youth Leaders. These young people often already have a lot of access to the adult work, and are merely gaining more as their pedestals are made taller.

Solving the crisis of youth pedestalling is going to take more than a blog post. Its going to take a commitment by every adult who works with youth to stop assuming young people need to be held up high above their peers. Instead, we must create opportunities for all children and youth to experience having the spotlight shine on them for who they are, rather than simply how we want them to be.

The real root cause of youth pedestalling is adultism. We, as adults, have distinct ideas about who we want to be around and how we want them to behave, every single one of us. The young people who shine through the morass of youth segregation and demonstrate their effectiveness at being adult-like are generally the ones we place on pedestals. The inverse is true, too: The young people who don’t behave how we want them to become disengaged.

How do you treat children and youth you particularly like or get along with? Do they stand equal to their peers and adults, or do they stand above everyone else? Putting youth on a pedestal does no favors for them, and ultimately undermines your best intentions. Is that what you really want?

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Convenient or Inconvenient Youth Voice

On first glance, it seems obvious that not all youth voice is the same. Youth of color, low-income youth, non-binary gendered youth and other young people all have different ideas, experiences, knowledge and passion about the world around them. However, its routine for youth-serving programs and organizations to clump together all youth voice. This article explores the difference between convenient youth voice and inconvenient youth voice.

Youth Voice is being thrown around these days as something special, unique, and never wrong. The simple fact is that while all children and youth are powerful beyond measure and important beyond words, Youth Voice is nothing that should be romanticized or pedestaled. It should be integrated, normalized, and mainstreamed, but not worshiped or seen as infallible, because that’s simply not true.

Convenient or inconvenient: Not all youth voice is the same

Youth Voice is any expression by any young person anywhere about anything, for any purpose. Many well-meaning adults who advocate for Youth Voice are often talking about what is convenient for us as adults.

Convenient Youth Voice happens whenever adults know who is going to speak, what is going to be said, where its going to be shared, when its going to happen, and what the outcomes are going to be. Adults might not have written the script, but what’s going to be said is no surprise to them. This can include the young person speaking to the city council on behalf of a local organization, the youth advisory council, and the youth researcher program. It can also include the traditional youth leaders in your school or program, the young actors from the local theater, or the service learning program at your community center.

Inconvenient Youth Voice is when young people express themselves in ways that aren’t predictable. They share ideas, shout out thoughts, take action, reflect harshly, or critique severely. They write, draw, graffitti, paint, play, sing, protest, research, build, deconstruct, rebuild, examine, and do things that adults don’t know, understand, approve of, or otherwise predict. Inconvenient youth voice can be young people graffitting on lockers at school, texting test answers back and forth, joining gangs, or protesting teacher firings.

The difference between these two approaches depends on location, position, and circumstance. A young person’s race, socio-economic status, gender, sexual orientation, educational attainment, or other identities frequently determines whether or not Youth Voice is heard, engaged, interacted with, approved of, or denied, ignored, or penalized.

Working thousands of young people in hundreds of communities across the US through The Freechild Project has taught me that there is much more Youth Voice happening than adults ever approve of. Inconvenient Youth Voice is all over. Its a matter of whether adults actually want to hear it.

What do you think? Where does Youth Voice have a role in your life, convenient or otherwise?

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Equality, Self-Led, or Equity? The 6-7-8 Debate

Somewhere in the realm of youth participation there’s a geeky, but important, argument that’s been raging for almost 20 years. Its the 6, 7, 8 Debate, and following is my response.

Roger Hart, then a research sociologist with UNESCO, studied several hundred organizations that involved children in decision-making in the early 1990s. In his 1994 “Ladder of Children’s Participation”, he proposed that the pinnacle experience for children in organizational decision-making was to initiate action and share decision-making with adults.

Since that time, the Ladder has been used and misused, reinterpreted hundreds of times, and critiqued until groups were blue in the face. People have made different models and identified different pathways towards children’s participation, young peoples’ involvement, and youth engagement, all in response to Hart’s Ladder.

All the while there’s been a debate raging about the pinnacle experience for young people in decision-making. The question stems from whether it is best for adults to initiate activities and share decision-making with young people; young people to initiate and direct decision-making in their activities; or for young people to initiate activities and share decisions with adults. Through his research, Hart came to the conclusion these were the best positions for young people.

After spending several years grappling with these rungs on the ladder myself, I have come to understand that Hart was misunderstanding the opportunities that presented themselves to him. In the late 1990s, while reading the stories he included in his seminal work, Children’s Participation: The theory and practice of involving young citizens in community development and environmental care, I saw the misalignment of his understanding against the practice I’d experienced through my previous decade-plus work in the field of youth development. Now, more than another decade later I’ve come to understand why they seemed katywampus. That’s because they were.

Like many others, I have recently re-envisioned the ladder to accommodate my new understanding. However, instead of merely installing alternative words or shuffling around different words to other places, I have added wholly new concepts to the ladder. I still believe illustrating the differences in involvement this way can help adults and young people critically examine the myriad ways children and youth participate in the activities throughout their lives, focused on decision-making and much more. However, I think its essential to consider the following.

Rung Six: On the sixth rung, young people are fully equal with adults while they’re involved in a given activity. This is a 50/50 split of authority, obligation, and commitment. One of the realities of this is that there isn’t recognition for the specific developmental needs or representation opportunities for children and youth. A challenge is that without receiving that acknowledgment of their needs, young people may loose interest and become disengaged quickly. However, this same approach allows young people to experience full power and authority in relationship to adults. This rung can also foster the formation of basic youth/adult partnerships.

Rung Seven: On the seventh rung, which is still youth-driven, adults are not situated in positions of authority. Instead, they are there to support young people in passive or very behind-the-scenes roles. This gives young people the platform to take action in situations where adults are apathetic or young people are not seen with regard for their contributions, only for their deficits. In this way, self-led activities by young people mostly operate in a vacuum where the impact of their actions on the larger community isn’t recognized by the community. Activities driven by young people may not be seen with the validity of co-led activities either. Developing complete ownership of their actions can allow young people to drive their developmental, cultural, social, and educational experiences with a lot of effectiveness, and they can experience the potential of their direct actions upon themselves, their peers, and their larger communities.

Rung Eight: When young people are completely equitable with adults, the activity they’re involved in occupies the eighth rung of the ladder. Equity allows for this to be a 40/60 split, or 20/80 split when it’s deemed appropriate by young people and adults. Everyone involved- young people and adults- are recognized for their impact in the activity, and each has ownership of the outcomes. Youth/adult equity requires conscious commitment by all participants to overcoming the barriers involved. It positions adults and young people in healthy, whole relationships with each other while moving forward in action. This can ultimately lead to creating structures to support differences by establishing safe, supportive environments for equitable involvement. In turn, this may lead to recreating the climate and culture of communities, and lead to the greatest efficacy of young peoples’ participation. 
I have long said this is a geeky debate, and if you’ve read that far you know what I’m saying. There are many other nuances we can explore too, and if you’d like to hear more let me know. I believe its essential to understand where we’re at and where we can really go with youth participation. Hart laid an essential foundation we can operate from; its our responsibility to interpret and re-interpret the foundation at every turn. This is my re-interpretation for today.

Learn more about Hart’s Ladder and more from these links:

CommonAction is available to train, speak, and share about this topic and many others. Contact me to talk about the possibilities by emailing or calling (360)489-9680.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Engaging Youth as Educators

While peer tutoring, cross-age tutoring, and student-driven conversations are increasingly popular in schools, it is rare for adults to actually turn classroom control over to students, or to share that control equally with students. 

I have learned that lessons that are co-taught with young people can be powerfully engaging for their peers, younger students, and adults. Adults can examine their own feelings about engaging youth as educators with the following simple activity.
  1. Using a normal sheet of paper, write a large upper-case “T” that covers the entire page. On the left side, brainstorm all of the advantages you can think of to engaging students as classroom teachers. On the right, list all of the problems you envision. 
  2. Then, use the first list to answer questions inherent in the second: If the left side listed “Student energy” as a plus, and the right side included “Student disregard for peer teachers” as a challenge, brainstorm how student energy can answer the challenge.
  3. Do that for each issue on the right, and then begin planning how to engage youth as educators.

Engaging youth as educators can be a radical departure from the rigid norms of learning and teaching that many people, including adults and students, are accustomed to. Therefore, it is vital for adults to examine their own perceptions about this engaging youth as partners in teaching before attempting to facilitate it with students. Doing this activity is the first step to engaging youth as educators. Next step? ACTION!

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Youth-Driven Programs Workshop

In 2011, I facilitated a seminar for the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development on Youth-Driven Programming. More than 30 people from across the region attended, including organizational leaders, program directors, AmeriCorps members, and others. Here’s the workshop outline.

How to Develop Youth-Driven Programming Outline

Section One: The Basics of Youth Driven Programming

  • Key Terms
  • How Do I Perceive Youth?
  • Cycle of Engagement

Section Two: Making Youth Driven Programming Meaningful

  • Goals of Youth Driven Programming
  • Ladder of Youth Involvement
  • Who and How?
  • Locations for Youth Driven Programming

Section Three: Supporting Youth Driven Programming

  • Scaffolding Youth Driven Programming
  • Barriers to Youth Driven Programming
  • Assessing Youth Driven Programming
  • Planning Youth Driven Programming

I had an excellent learning experience. I led participants through the Cycle of Engagement, and much more. Here’s a teaser of what I shared, and here are the handouts from the workshop with a lot more information.

CommonAction staff is available to train on Youth-Driven Programming and much more! 
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Childhood IS Adultism

An image from my notebook to remind me that childhood is a social construct…

Are you a teacher? Parent? Youth worker, social worker, child psychologist, toy store owner, afterschool worker, summer camp counselor, playground monitor, pediatric therapist, math tutor, or school principal? If you have any of these titles then you’re adultist practicing adultism. Period.

Adultism is bias towards adults. Bias towards adults happens anytime the opinions, ideas, knowledge, beliefs, abilities, attitudes, or cultures of adults are held above those of people who aren’t considered adults because they’re not considered adults. Because of this, our very conception of childhood itself is adultism at work. Anyone who works professionally or lives in society with young people as an adult is inherently adultist.

Our adultist attitudes are primarily demonstrated as discrimination against children and youth. This comes across in our national, state, and local laws; educational, health, nutritional, and social policies; family norms; religious and spiritual beliefs; and social customs. Everything from the height of dinner tables to compulsory education passively and actively reflects adultism. Seeking to make the world into our vision of things, adults invented the phenomenon of childhood to ensure that kids were comprehendable and controllable. Because of that, the status of children has become passive, static, and predictable.

Does that make adults wrong or bad? Not all the time and not everywhere. There are times when, as an adult, I am discriminated against. Legally, I cannot go into a hospital and operate on someone, nor can I drive an 18-wheel semi-truck. Culturally, it is inappropriate for me to use a women’s changing room at a store or attend a self-help group for narcotics. None of those examples are inherently bad or wrong. They are intended to keep myself or others safe. Its the same with much well-meaning adultism that is intended to keep young people or others safe. If a building is burning down, as an adult I feel its my responsibility to grab everyone and make sure they’re out of the building, regardless of age.

However, in our society adults always act like the building is burning down. That’s what must change. People who want to change the miserable state of affairs facing the world must take action to stop adultism now. We must challenge the ineptitude of adults and their intransigence towards the changing abilities and roles of young people throughout society. We must push back against age-based assumptions that have nothing to do with the capacity of young people.

Childhood IS adultism – but it doesn’t have to stay that way. Are you ready to do your part? Learn more at and check this blog for my other posts about adultism.

CommonAction is available to train, coach, speak, and write about this topic across the US and Canada. Contact Adam to learn about the possibilities by emailing or calling (360) 489-9680.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Types of Youth Experiences
Check out The Freechild Project
page on Resources for Adults at

Adults often think all the different ways we listen to youth voice equal to youth engagement. I believe youth voice is not the same as youth engagement. Young people can be engaged through youth voice experiences, and many others. These types of youth experiences should be clarified before we talk about youth engagement specifically. They are:

  • Youth awareness
  • Youth observation
  • Youth participation
  • Youth involvement

Types of Youth Experiences
I have seen the following types of experiences emerge among youth repeatedly over my 20+ years of youth work. Working with a group of youth at a recent conference, I describe the following four types, including where they most frequently happen.

  • Youth Awareness. The most basic way youth experience anything is through awareness, which is to understand something exists. Employing their mind, most youth awareness happens through exposure, and that is the extent of their experience with it. Youth awareness most frequently occurs through the media, family settings, and social memes
  • Youth Observation. Those who take that a step further use their powers of observation. Different from youth awareness, youth observation happens when young people watch something in a one-way fashion. This can happen through videos, in-person, or any way that moves beyond mere awareness without interaction. Now we are observing it using one of our senses. Youth observation most frequently occurs through the Internet, social and educational settings, and the general public.
  • Youth Participation. From there, experience tilts towards interaction. If youth are passively interested in something, they might become involved with whatever they’re connecting with, moving towards youth participation. This happens when young people start to kinesthetically interact with something. They attempt to alter, move, or otherwise change a thing with their presence, whether by choice or coincidence. Youth participation most frequently happens in school, at home, and in other non-peer driven spaces. 
  • Youth Involvement. When young people decide they deliberately want to interact something, they might look for logical entryways into the system that thing belongs to. In sports, this may mean choosing to join a team; in politics, its becoming a Legislative page or candidate campaigner; in nonprofits, it may mean fundraising or joining a board of directors. This is youth involvement, and it happens whenever a young person intentionally becomes involved in a system. Youth involvement most frequently occurs in youth-driven spaces and social environments.

When young people become sustainably connected to something within or outside themselves, they become engaged. One of the four avenues above must happen before youth engagement occurs; however, none of the above automatically causes youth engagement. The locations of these types of engagement is not mandatory, and all types of engagement can occur within one space, and vice versa. Each of these types of engagement can also affect and be affected by perceptions of youth.

CommonAction is available to train, coach, speak, and write about this topic across the US and Canada. Contact Adam to learn about the possibilities by emailing or calling (360) 489-9680.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Steal this Voice?

When people proclaim to want to hear others’ voices, they’re often assuming that those people don’t want to or are incapable of doing anything other than sharing their voice. This includes schools that want to hear parents’ voices, youth-serving organizations that want to listen to youth voice, businesses that want customers to make token choices, and politicians that want to engage constituents’ voices.

These organizations often ignore the ability or deny the desire of people to have meaningful input in the things that affect them most. The problem with this is that today, more people more often want authentic opportunities to become engaged in the activities throughout their lives. Authentic means real, whole, true, and meaningful. People want to share their music with the world. They want to help the President get reelected. They want to help lead school reform, have more consumer choices for their broad tastes, and design the streets they walk, ride, and drive on. People want in like never before.

We have the technology, both electronic and real-time, to make this happen. We have a growing capacity throughout the vast array of community leadership to be able to engage people in these ways. We have the ability.

What we need is a non-cynical commitment to humanity and its capacity to serve itself best. What we need is for determination and perseverance to overcome sarcasm and irony. What we need is hope. Hope that people love and care and know and do. Hope that humans have justice and peace in their hearts, and because of that they want to make the world a just and peaceful place- if given the opportunity.

Instead, the organizations that peddle voice are often the most cynical. They most frequently steal voice for their own purposes, selling the people they serve on the effectiveness of sharing their voice. “You’ll help guide us,” they tell us as they take our opinions and squirrel them away in the backrooms of file cabinets and unpaid interns. We know they’re stealing voice when there is little or no accountability for what’s been shared with them. We know they’re stealing voice when they wrote their statement beforehand and used the collected voices to bolster their thoughts afterwards. We know when they’re stealing voice.

What is needed is truth, accountability, reciprocity, and engagement. Genuine, authentic, real engagement. Nothing less will suffice.

10 Ways Past Stealing Voices

  1. Acknowledge the real actions people are currently taking right now to change their communities and our world, and see how those actions affect your organization.
  2. Foster genuine interest within your organization to actually engage with people beyond listening.
  3. Create interest among constituents- whether young people, adults, or seniors- to contribute beyond their voices.
  4. Position people in sustained opportunities to impact change as real doers and decision-makers.
  5. Educate people about the whole issue that affects them, not just what they already know.
  6. Open places for everyone to teach one another and be acknowledged for what they’re sharing.
  7. Go to people where they’re at and have earnest conversations with them instead of insisting they come to where you are for inauthentic listening events.
  8. Develop activities that integrate and ingratiate neighbors with each other.
  9. Give people real opportunities to research the issues for themselves and to share their findings with their friends, families, neighbors, and others.
  10. Share the benefits of authentic engagement with people.

Post Script

Are you a well-meaning but “guilty party” to what I described above? Maybe, like I have in the past, you’re trying your hardest and simply don’t know a different way. For years now, I’ve been writing to you to help you feel better about what you’re doing, I have shared dozens free websites, videos, and publications and done dozens of trainings for you, and I have provided free technical assistance to you. Now I’m going to stop that, at least for the remainder of this post.

If you’re with an organization that steals voice, or if you are any kind of a thief of voice, rest assured knowing that despite your best intentions the people who you’re stealing from know you’re stealing from them. You are the reason The Who wrote the song Won’t Get Fooled Again. You can do better than what you’re doing, and should stop resting on your laurels thinking you’re doing enough. We can never do enough to engage people in genuine, authentic, and real ways.

All people have the right to be more than given power by you. We have the right to be in the positions with the education we need to affect change throughout our lives. Nobody should be minimized because of your perception of their inability or your indifference to their interest. Blaming the organization you work for won’t work either, because we know that’s generally a hallow blame game that allows you to feel relief for your actions and opinions.

Nothing less will suffice.

If you’re upset, that is good, you should be. You should be upset with a system that set you up to fail. You should be disappointed with a program that was designed to manipulate, even inadvertently. Ultimately, you might even be mad at yourself- but that won’t serve much good. If you are angry with me for writing so bluntly, call me right now at (360) 489-9680. Let’s talk about this.

You’re a fighter- now get busy fighting.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

A Biography of Adam Fletcher

Adam Fletcher is an internationally-renowned human engagement expert at CommonAction Consulting. He has a background working with individuals of all ages and organizations of all sizes, including schools and community organizations, government agencies, and businesses. Adam earned a bachelor’s degree in human engagement from The Evergreen State College and conducted graduate studies in educational leadership and policy at the University of Washington. For more than 20 years he has combined his expertise in youth engagement with a passion for serving traditionally disengaged populations to provide adults who work with children and youth with scientifically grounded best practices.

Adam is the author of several publications, including the Freechild Project Guide to Young People and Social Change, the Meaningful Student Involvement Guide to School Change, the Washington Youth Voice Handbook, and SoundOut Student Voice Curriculum. He has been a consultant for a series on youth activism with Capston Press. He is a contributing editor for an academic journal called The Review of Education, Pedagogy and Cultural Studies, and regularly contributes articles to educational publications around the world.

Adam’s human engagement presentations have annually drawn upwards of 10,000 participants, with past clients and partners across the United States, Canada, Australia, the UK, and Brazil. Since founding The Freechild Project in 2001, Adam has consulted on human engagement for the National PTA, Seattle Public Schools, Youth Service America, the Human Services Coalition of Miami/Dade County, and YouthBuild USA. His work through SoundOut in 2002 led to the creation of his internationally-recognized “Frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement.”

He currently serves as an advisor for several local and national organizations and agencies, including the Institute for Democratic Education in America, the National Youth Rights Association, and the Patchwork School in Louisville, Colorado. Adam is also a board member for Generation YES. He has served as a member of Olympia, Washington‘s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, and the Olympia School District Communication Technologies Advisory Board. In 2010 he was awarded with an Action for Healthy Kids “School Hero” award for his work promoting human engagement.

Adam has keynoted at numerous conferences for the American Institutes of Research, Eastern Washington University, North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center, Arizona Department of Health, Pennsylvania Youth and Family Leadership Institute, Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, and the Washington State Department of Health and Human Services. The United Nations Development Program in Brazil, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Corporation for Community and National Service, the Alberta Ministry of Education, and many other organizations have hired him to consult and teach staff.

Today, Adam lives in Olympia, Washington, with his daughter Hannah and their cat, Mailbox. He enjoys gardening, parenting, and writing poetry.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!