Leelah’s Murder Is OUR Fault

Leelah Alcorn’s death was practically a murder. It shows how America’s legal system, which enshrines parental rights above children’s rights, has killed another young person.

More importantly though, we need to see that Leelah’s murder is our fault. We have not done enough, taught enough, said enough, or worked hard enough to stop this horror from happening. And it is a horror, and it was preventable.

Discrimination Against Youth

Leelah’s story shows us- yet again- the discrimination against youth that seems inherent in our society. The horribly preventable circumstance that led to Leelah’s death are unfortunately the norm for every single American youth today, regardless of how they identify. The fact that Leelah identified as trans exacerbated that reality for her. Follow me: Every single American youth today is targeted in the most malicious ways throughout society simply for being young. This is the case whether they are cis, straight or queer; wealthy, poor or working class; academically gifted, creatively driven or athletically poised. Youth are singularly denied their rights, oppressed for their identities, conscripted for their abilities, and completely downtrodden because of their because of their ages and our society. And its merely and entirely about their age.

Add distinguishing factors to their age such as race, gender identity, socio-economic class, and academic ability, and youth move from being “merely” enslaved to entirely oppressed. The enslaving factory of this adultocracy is so deeply entrenched that parents, teachers, youth workers and many many people who call themselves youth allies merely perpetuate it without ever knowing it. My book focuses on helping these individuals see beyond their own lenses and aspire to be something greater.

Personal Action

The most effective piece of this article focuses on you. Its what David Bond from The Trevor Project said at the end of the piece:

However, Bond told me, even just one supportive adult in a LGBT teen’s life decreases suicidal ideation. “Be consistent in that person’s life and check in in a genuine way – and don’t be afraid to ask if they’re thinking of killing themselves,” Bond advised would-be allies.

“There’s a misconception that if you ask the question you’re going to put the idea in someone’s head. But it’s more often a helpful question than a harmful one.”

Whatever the answer – and I believe more states banning so-called conversion therapy and easier legal and financial avenues for emancipation, especially for older teens, should be a big part of that – we need more action now.

“A year feels like forever when you’re young,” PFLAG’s Sanchez told me. It’s no longer good enough to remind LGBT kids that “it gets better”. We need to figure out more legal, safe alternatives for those who can’t wait that long.

Everyone of us can take action and do something about this, but we have to face the reality that everyone of us is responsible for Leelah’s death (and the unnoted deaths of so many other American youth) first, and then work from that place. THAT is the work to do, no matter who we are.

And none of that is meant to take away, minimize or otherwise continue the oppression of trans, cis, or anyone who identifies as “other” throughout society. Its meant to highlight the compounding factors that are attempting to decimate peoples’ senses of ability, possibility and hope. We can do better than mere survival, and Leelah’s story demonstrates another way that can happen. Each of us can take action.

Legal Action

America’s legal system must act to do several things:

  • Stop allowing abusive parents to kill youth;
  • Stop devious judges from profiteering off youth imprisonment;
  • Stop racist and classist educators from reinforcing the school-to-prison pipeline;
  • Stop social workers from placing youth in harms way;
  • Stop police from arbitrarily enforcing laws against youth;
  • Change laws to allow all youth everywhere to choose their living situations;
  • Develop a guaranteed income for all youth, everywhere;
  • Prevent youth oppression by acknowledging the full personhood of children and youth from birth.

When these things happen, horrific and preventable deaths like what happened to Leelah Alcorn will not happen again. But not before then. If you really want to change the situation, join the struggle to end discrimination against young people.

Thanks, Kate, for calling me to write about this.

Bastardizing Youth Voice

When considering youth as allies to educators, adults may be tempted to act as translators for youth voice. Concerned that youth are not capable of speaking “adult-ese”, well-meaning program staff, nonprofit administrators, researchers, government staff, youth advocates and teachers reword the ideas of youth, interpret them, or otherwise differentiate between what youth actually said and what adults believe they meant. Adults do this because we do not believe that the raw data represented by youth voice has actual value in the space of government policymaking, program teaching, organizational leadership, or community improvement. We do that because we do not trust youth at face value; without extracting what we think youth are actually saying, without reframing it into concepts, ideas, or beliefs we share, we think youth voice is foreign, alien, or immature and juvenile.


The challenge here is not that youth do not have valuable things to add to the conversation, but that adults do not have the ability to solicit the perspectives, experiences, knowledge and wisdom of youth without filtering, analyzing, or otherwise destabilizing their expressions. We have to accept that responsibility and build our capacity to to do this important work. We have to stop bastardizing youth voice.


I do not use that word lightly. To bastardize youth voice, adults corrupt how youth share their voices, however it is expressed. Sometimes inadvertently, sometimes intentionally, adults debase youth by adding new elements, their own ideas, moving their own agendas and forcing their own beliefs through the actions, ideas, experiences, and wisdom of students. Bastardizing youth voice this way is not necessary, appropriate, or relevant to creating youth/adult partnerships.


All adults throughout the education system need to learn that all young people of all ages have the capacity and the ability to speak for themselves, albeit to different extents. Often this capacity may be undermined by the disbelief of otherwise good-hearted adults who honestly believe they know what youth think. Youth/adult partnerships creates appropriate platforms for youth experience, ideas and knowledge of the world without filtering those words through adult lenses. Youth can learn about the world they live in, the topics they should learn, the methods being tested on them, the roles of adults and students, and much more.


Questions to Ask

  • How do you interpret youth voice right now?
  • Does the idea of adults bastardizing youth voice offend you? Why or why not?
  • Where can you practice simply listening to youth voice today, without interpreting or bastardizing it?


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.

Keeping Youth Programs Relevant

The National League of Cities is an organization that works across the country to “help city leaders build better communities”. One of their initiatives is called the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families, or YEF. In a recent publication, YEF proposed there are four primary ways youth programs can ensure their relevancy in cities:

  • Coordinate systems to support effective service delivery.
  • Ensure programs are of high quality.
  • Offer a wide variety of relevant program options.
  • Promote college attendance and workplace readiness.
While these are all good practices and things that every program should aspire to, they aren’t quite responsive to the realities young people face today.

This is true of the entire report. Working from a deficit model of what’s wrong with children and youth, the authors of the guide open by proclaiming that without youth programs,

Youth are more prone to engage in juvenile delinquency, substance abuse and other risky behaviors after 3:00 p.m. if there are few positive OST programs available. Municipal leaders are also well aware of the impact of high school dropout rates on crime and unemployment, and are increasingly sup- porting out-of-school learning opportunities as a strategy for promoting school and career success. (p. 3)

This approach to rationalizing the existence of youth programs is common. Too easily, it suggests that youth program providers are the Great White Hope, doing what nobody else can do, and without them all young people are falling to pieces.
While that’s a common approach, I believe that its misguided at best, virtually ensuring the irrelevance of youth programs today and into the future.
The relevance of youth programs relies on recognizing current trends, identifying new opportunities, and leading communities forward. Seeing youth as deficits and taking white knight stances does none of those things; worst still, it perpetuates the belief many funders have that many traditional youth programs aren’t effective and can only be made effective through radical accountability.
More than a decade ago, I began working in communities across the US and Canada to promote the integration of youth voice throughout our communities. When I published The Freechild Project Youth Voice Toolkit online for free, I thought I was only speaking to the audience that’s concerned with youth voice, youth engagement, meaningful youth involvement, and youth-driven programming. However, reading over YEF’s report, today I see that the things I’ve learned about youth voice also apply to the wider field of all youth programs.
Youth voice, which is any expression about anything from any young person anywhere, ever, obviously appears ubiquitous throughout our society. Marketers sell youth to older people, while more products appear geared towards youth than ever before. However, the difference is that youth voice comes from youth themselves. Its not conformed, deformed, reformed, or transformed by adults to do whatever we want. Instead, it is simply what youth think, say, feel, do, believe, understand, and know on their own without adults.
In order to maintain their relevance, youth programs should follow the following principles I summarize below. You can find the complete version on The Freechild Project website.
Keys to Youth Voice
  1. Don’t fool the youth. The old saying, “You can’t fool all the people all the time” applies to young people, too.
  2. Work with young people – not for young people. Don’t do for children and youth what they can do with you.
  3. Make “having fun” powerful. The days of “pizza box youth engagement” are over, and you can’t just throw a bunch of “fun food” into a room and expect young people to come and learn something meaningful.
  4. Embrace change. Planning today is not as rigid as it used to be, and young people today are more flexible than ever. Teach the benefits of change by “going with the flow” and striving to be calm in the center of chaos.
  5. Don’t talk about “youth problems” anymore. Young people are part of larger communities, and when they have a problem, their communities have a problem.
  6. Teach young people about adultism when they are young. By being a responsible advocate for youth you can illustrate the practice and possibilities of being an active ally to young people.
  7. Acknowledge young people in significant ways. Patting someone on the back or giving them a certificate can only go so far.
  8. Engage young people in something greater than themselves. MLK wrote that living nonviolence requires us to, “rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” When applied to young people this means that simply encouraging or allowing young people to advocate for themselves is not enough.
Using these keys as a guide for critical thinking, assessment, and program planning, youth programs can assure their relevance well into the future.
Change is inevitable; staying with it and growing from it is not. Keep youth programs relevant by adapting and transforming with the times, and the young people you’re trying to serve.
Here are some links mentioned above:
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.

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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. When issues affecting youth are talked about by adults without asking youth, youth are being tokenized. 
  2. At a meeting it is tokenism when adults consistently ask youth to speak about being a youth.
  3. An organization that will do programs to youth and won’t host programs done by youth is tokenizing youth.
  4. At a youth organization celebration dinner it is tokenism when there are only 10 youth and 1,000 adults.
  5. In a community organization it is tokenism when youth are only interacted with on youth issues. 
  6. 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. In a board of directors it is tokenism when youth are put in historically adult positions without the authority and ability adults have.
  8. Adults constantly telling young people about their experiences when they were young people is tokenism. 
  9. When a youth’s busiest times of year are holidays, summer vacation, and youth service days, it is tokenism.
  10. At a conference it is tokenism when adults don’t tell youth directly the purpose of their involvement. 
  11. Throughout a community it is tokenism when adults control who hears, sees, or communicates with youth.
  12. 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. During a meeting it is tokenism when one youth is expected to represent all youth.
  14. In an organization, if youth or adults perceive that youth are tokenized and thereby they undermine their abilities, it is tokenism.
  15. 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. In a panel, it is tokenism when youth are given little or no opportunity to formulate their own opinions before speaking.
  17. At a forum, it is tokenism when adults give youth time to speak and then ignore what they say.
  18. If one youth speaker speaks at a conference of adult speakers and attendees, it is tokenism.
  19. 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. In a planning session it is tokenism when adults only invite youth who are not likely to assert themselves, make demands, or complain.
  21. 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. 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. It is tokenism when adult/youth power imbalances are regularly observed and not addressed in your program or organization.
  24. 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. 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. If one particular youth is asked over and over to participate in adult activities, it is tokenism.
  27. 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. When youth-led research is used to back up adult problem-solving without engaging youth in problem-solving, it is tokenism.
  29. It is tokenism when nobody explains to youth how they they were selected for an activity.
  30. When adults allow youth to talk on their organization’s facebook page and not at their board meetings, it is tokenism.
  31. If youth become burned out from participating in historically adult activities, it is tokenism.
  32. 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. If youth don’t understand which young people they are supposed to represent, it is tokenism.
  34. 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. When looking for youth to become involved, choose different youth from a range of identities that demonstrate diversity of experiences and opinions.
  2. Invite a group of youth to work together in your program, organization, or conference. Get them active early in the planning cycle.
  3. 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. Reach out individually to youth too, but not only to youth you personally know.
  5. 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. So it is in the company’s interests to develop women with real talent – winners – and to help them to be the real deal
  7. When giving examples of youth in a particular area, provide a list, not just the single easiest youth you can think of.
  8. Don’t expect youth representatives to speak for all youth: each youth is an individual, and will have their own stories.
  9. Build the capacity of youth to lead their own activities and participate as equitable partners with adults.
  10. When highlighting youth, show a range of them with different interests and skills, preferably non-stereotypical; 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.

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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 http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Convenient or 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.

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.

I even wrote a book about it! In March 2013 CommonAction published The Freechild Project Youth-Driven Programming Guide, and you can order it on Amazon.com right now.

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

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

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 adam@commonaction.org or calling (360)489-9680.

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

Youth Integration Strategies

“Integrationist!” I stood gawking, carefully looking out at the audience. Suddenly the woman started laughing. When everyone else laughed too, I joined in. I thought they hadn’t got my point, but luckily somebody had.

I was promoting youth integration.

I recently spoke at a conference about Youth Integration. Youth integration is the essential next step in the movement The Freechild Project as been at the forefront of for the last 10 years.

After all these years of promoting youth engagement and youth voice, I have decided to further the conversation by addressing the root of the problem. We don’t need youth voice because adults aren’t listening. We don’t need youth engagement because youth are disengaged. Society needs more than youth voice, youth engagement, youth involvement, youth empowerment, and all these approaches because young people are segregated currently. Society needs youth integration.

Youth integration happens in many ways. Here are some strategies I have identified.

Youth Integration Strategies

  • Policies, rules, and laws prohibiting youth segregation.
  • Prohibit all age-based discrimination and replace them with ability testing or other approaches.
  • Teaching all young people and all adult professionals about youth integration.
  • Teaching parents about youth integration.
  • Creating public education / social marketing / marketing campaigns about youth integration.
  • Dedicating budgets that reflect and address youth integration objectives.
  • Teaching all tops levels of government decision-makers about youth integration.
  • Strengthening all current youth integration activities, including youth councils, service learning programs, community organizing campaigns, and school-based programs.
  • Fully equal integration of youth on all public boards including school boards.
  • Increased support for and facilitation of youth integration programs.
  • Increased recognition of the positive, powerful ways of young people.
  • Change curriculum of schools to diversify how and what students learn about young people.
  • Public workshops for strengthening youth integration throughout the community, parenting, and family life.
  • Strengthen the capacities of educational, social service, and nonprofit sectors to co-ordinate, monitor, and evaluate youth mainstreaming.
These are some systems-oriented strategies I’ve discovered that can integrate youth. What would you add to the list?

My Review of “Beyond Resistance”

Beyond Resistance! Youth Activism and Community Change: New Democratic Possibilities for Practice and Policy for America’s Youth was edited by Shawn Ginwright. This is my review for The Freechild Project.

For youth workers with a preconceived notion about the roles of young people in society, this collection may be challenging. For teachers who think they know the power of students, Ginwright may be shocking. For young people who think they understanding “the movement”, this book may be eye-opening.

Ginwright collects dozens of the best examples of youth-led and youth-driven activism and refines them to their finest points, charging the reader to do more than complain about apathy or revel in cynicism. He leaves us no choice other than getting up to do something. Thanks Shawn – we need that. This book is an incredible read for anyone interested in the movement at any level.

Before this book the reader might want to see Global Uprising : Confronting the Tyrannies of the 21st Century : Stories from a New Generation of Activists; after it you might want to reference Future 500: Youth Organizing and Activism in the United States.


Order Beyond Resistance! Youth Activism and Community Change: New Democratic Possibilities for Practice and Policy for America’s Youth.