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.
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.
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.
I have seen three primary ways adults relate to youth, no matter whether the relationship is parenting, teaching, or policing. The first way is over-permissiveness; the second is responsible; and over-restrictive. Before I explain these, its important to remind you that I’m an adult and these are my opinions; a young person and other adults surely will see things differently.
Over-permissive relationships between children, youth and adults allow young people to do whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever and however they want. Disregarding the longer term effects of how young people relate to adults, over-permissiveness can incapacitate young peoples’ ability to successfully relate to the broader society around them. By allowing too much freedom, these relationships give children and youth “just enough rope to hang themselves” by extinguishing their inherent away their sense of purpose and belonging throughout the larger society in which we all belong. Based in a well-meaning notion of equality between young people and adults, these relationships conveniently relieve adults of the burden of responsibility in parts or all throughout the lives of young people. They often happen to encourage freedom.
Over-restrictive relationships between young people and adults override the decision-making capabilities of children and youth and disable their inherent creativity in order to assure adults’ sense of authority, protection, and ultimately, ownership over young people. By discouraging young people from experiencing the freedom and ability they need in their natural learning process as well as throughout their social and familial worlds, these relationships can take away enthusiasm and unfettered joy, only to replace it with rigidity and structure. Over-restrictive relationships enforce inequality between children and youth, and occur by adults enforcing their power with heavy-handed education, tight schedules and severe rules, and harsh punishment. They often happen to encourage safety.
Responsible relationships between children, youth and adults are based on trust, mutual respect, communication, and meaningful interactions. Positioning each person as an evolving member of a broader society, they identify roles, opportunities and outcomes that benefit every person in uniquely appropriate ways while holding the greater good ahead of individualism. These relationships occur when adults consciously decide to foster equity throughout the lives of young people by intentionally acknowledging each others’ according abilities, fostering deliberate opportunities and continually embracing the evolving capacities of children and youth throughout their lives, starting when they are infants. Responsible relationships nurture appropriate attachment and encourage interdependence between young people and adults. They often happen to foster democratic sensibilities.
I have not met one adult who is constantly and consistently one of these ways with all young people all of the time. This isn’t meant to provide a puzzle for people to fit together the individual pieces, either. Instead, by showing a spectrum I meant to show that each of us can be any of these at many points throughout our lives.
Share your thoughts in the comments section!
Back in 2000, I was serving a fellowship with a national foundation in Washington, DC. Focusing on youth engagement, I participated in hundreds of hours of train-the-trainer workshops and professional coaching with Drs. Jim and Pam Toole. They helped me and my small cohort prepare for adventures in the ten states where we worked, mine being Washington.
Here in Olympia, I was the Youth Ambassador in Washington State’s education agency. Throughout my yearlong fellowship, I advocated for youth involvement and youth voice in communities across the state. Nonprofits and government agencies across the state sponsored me as I trained their communities, and I provided technical assistance and other services in many other areas.
Late in December 2000, I was invited to a meeting of “Get It Right!”, a youth rights group in Olympia. Sitting with a dozen youth in a cooperative arts space downtown, I listened as they railed against adult oppression and youth liberation. They were on fire for freedom and liberty from adult tyranny, and honestly, it all confused me greatly!
I grew up in a neighborhood where youth didn’t suffer adults; adults suffered youth. Cops routinely rounded up my friends, school principals ripped down their basketball courts, and old people locked their doors in constant fear that the youth in the neighborhood would plunder their houses – and mostly rightly so. So, to see youth trying to placate domineering parents or throw off the shackles of mighty schools confused me.
With time and their gentle mentoring, I learned more about the youth rights movement. Online, I met Alex, the leader of the then infant National Youth Rights Association. He guided me to several books, and I found several others, including Jonathan Holt’s revolutionary The End of Childhood.
Get It Right! didn’t continue for long. They conducted a few pickets and graffited some throughout town, but an organized campaign for social change didn’t emerge. At some point in the year I was involved with the group, they did change the world though. Someone brought in a collection of quotes from A.S. Neill, the founder of the seminal youth rights institution, Summerhill School in England. One of them inspired the group to suggest to me the name of my most enduring work thus far:
“Free children are not easily influenced; the absence of fear accounts for this phenomenon. Indeed, the absence of fear is the finest thing that can happen to a child.”
From that was borne the name, The Freechild Project. And that’s how a youth rights group in Olympia changed the world.
You know I’m not the most famous person in the world, right?!?
If you want to pitch in, you can help me by helping get the word out. The biggest help you can do is find one person who needs and wants Ending Discrimination Against Young People. Offer the book to that person, and then if you want to, repeat.
Slower than you want, but faster than you think, we can help stop adultism and end discrimination. Here are some ways to help reach out for my awesome, powerful, strong book, Ending Discrimination Against Young People.
1. Contribute to Facebook groups and Web forums—Every field has at least one or two facebook groups and web forums that people who should know about Ending Discrimination Against Young People read. Find and join these forums. Contribute to them freely. Give advice from the book and reach out. Put a link to http://adamfletcher.net in your signature line, or add the name of the book in your signature block.
2. Write a Blog—Writing about the book with helpful, inspirational information from it. Relate your experience and stories to the subjects in Ending Discrimination Against Young People. Aim to inspire people to buy the book, and share the link with them.
3. Write a Remarkable Review—Go to Amazon.com and write a review of the book. You can say things like: “I loved it! This book is amazing!”, and tell your story related to the book. Ending Discrimination Against Young People needs word-of-mouth publicity. Recommend it to your friends. They will recommend it to their friends. This is the best publicity the book can get.
4. Share Stuff from the Media Kit—My online media for the book kit includes
- Sell Sheet (.pdf)
- Half Sheet (.pdf)
- Press Release (.pdf)
- Press Release (.doc)
- Summary and Table of Contents (.pdf)
- Quotes about the book (webpage)
- Quotes from the book (.pdf)
- Author photo for print (.jpg)
- Book cover for print (.jpg)
- Author book list (.pdf)*
- Complete Press Kit (.zip file)
5. Share the Webpage—There’s a full webpage that includes:
- A link to the Amazon page for your book, so people can buy the book online
- Your media kit
- Book reviews and blurbs
- My schedule of appearances, including bookstores, speaking engagements and conferences
- Contact information.
7. Help the Book Get 20 Amazon Reviews—Amazon.com reviews are amazingly effective. Everyone from book buyers to publishers reads them. Our goal is to get at least 20 reviews of Ending Discrimination Against Young People. Contact everyone you know and ask each of them if they would give the book an honest review. Let them know it can be brief. If they agree, let me know and I will send them either a PDF containing a table of contents, two sample chapters, and me bio.
8. Get the Book Mentioned in Email Blasts—Get Ending Discrimination Against Young People mentioned in your org’s large-volume emails. Review the book the email newsletter.
9. Make and Post Online Videos—Make a few 1 or 2 minute video reviewing and promoting Ending Discrimination Against Young People. Put the book title and URL on the bottom of the video screen and in the credits. Post your videos on several of the many video sharing sites including sites like blip.tv, jumpcut, ourmedia, Vimeo, vSocial and YouTube. Share the clips on your website, through your facebook or twitter page, and through emails to your friends and colleagues.
Bound up in this ongoing conversation about youth engagement is the question of who has the right to be heard. In the United States, there are two distinct conversations that happen regarding the rights of children and youth; one is protective (Children’s Defense Fund) and the other is liberatory (National Youth Rights Association).
Children’s Ombudsman Offices are independent, impartial public officials with authority and responsibility to receive, investigate or informally address complaints about government actions, and, when appropriate, make findings and recommendations, and publish reports. Their roles are almost wholly interpreted to be protective, with few reports indicating that they’ve done anything related to liberating young people.
Twenty-two states in the US have official children’s ombudsman offices that deal with children’s rights issues. Have you ever heard of these offices in Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Washington, California, Texas, Utah, Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Iowa, Nebraska, Arkansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Oklahoma, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Delaware, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, Montana, Ohio, South Carolina, or Virginia?
You can learn about these offices, including what they specifically do and how they operate, from this website.
I would like to see these offices, along with state-level Children’s Cabinets and local and state Youth Councils, assume leadership towards promoting youth voice, youth engagement, youth leadership, and youth empowerment across the country, and that includes children, too.
This would create relevant, meaningful opportunities for young people of all ages to engage in democracy. It would also catalyze vibrant conversations in many places where discussions about children’s rights, youth rights, and civic engagement are dead.
What is ahead? Expanding children’s rights in the United States may be the next route to take.
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
- 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
- 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
Before class, ask students bring the following songs about school (or any combination of them) to class, both recorded on CD and the lyrics. (NOTE: Facilitators may allow students to bring their own choice of songs about schools, with consideration for lyrical content. Also, following many of these songs are linked to Youtube, and you can find all the lyrics on the internet.)
Appropriate Tone. The following songs have been chosen because they have appropriate lyrical content, including lyrics that are not violent and do not contain profanity.
- Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2 by Pink Floyd
- Back to School Again by the Four Tops from Grease 2
- Grade 9 by Barenaked Ladies
- All Falls Down by Kanye West
- I Don’t Wanna Be Learned by The Ramones
- In My High School by Larsen Blaine
- The Headmaster Ritual by The Smiths
- We’re Going to be Friends by The White Stripes
- We’re Going to be Friends by Jack Johnson
- You Can’t Blame the Youth by Peter Tosh
- Be True to Your School by The Beach Boys
- Graduation (Friends Forever) by Vitamin C
Objectionable Tone. The following songs have been chosen because they have appropriate subject matter, and often represent “alternative perspectives”; however, they also have objectionable content, including lyrics that may be violent or profane.
- Working Class Hero by John Lennon
- They Schools by Dead Prez
- Terminal Preppie by Dead Milkmen
- Rock Star by Hole
Gather students in the room and listen to 3-4 songs. After each, have students spend a few moments writing their immediate responses to the song, without talking or sharing their insight with their peers. After the class has heard each song, have a group discussion about images from the songs. You might have students share their responses to the songs, or have them discuss the following questions:
- What is the purpose of school, according to these songs?
- Do these songs show the reality of schools, or the exceptions?
- Why would anyone object to these songs?
After this discussion, challenge students to write a creative response to the lyrics they have heard. They can write a poem, prose, or a even a song. Provide students with the opportunity to share their creativity with their peers, giving everyone equal space to share in their own ways.
|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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or calling (360) 489-9680.
- Pulling ears
- Hitting with rulers, belts, wooden spoons, extension cords, slippers, hairbrushes, pins, sticks, whips, rubber hoses, flyswatters, wire hangers, stones, bats, canes, or paddles
- Forcing a child to stand for a long time
- Forcing a child to stay in an uncomfortable position
- Forcing a child to stand motionless
- Forcing a child to kneel on rice, corn, floor grates, pencils or stones
- Forcing a child to retain body wastes
- Forcing a child to perform strenuous exersize
- Forcing a child to ingest soap, hot sauce, or lemon juice
“Bullying is enough of a problem among students; the teachers shouldn’t be doing it, too. There’s nothing positive or productive about corporal punishment and it should be discouraged everywhere.” Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY)
“Corporal punishment of adults is prohibited in well over half the world’s countries, yet only 15 of the 190-plus nations have prohibited all corporal punishment of children, including in the family.”
“Young people must be meaningfully involved in promoting and strategizing action on violence against children… Children… need to be well informed about their rights, and fully involved in the life of the [community and] school…”
Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act
In 2010, Representative Carolyn McCarthy, a Democrat from New York, introduced a bill called “Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act” in the US House of Representatives. The bill would impose a ban on all public and private schools with students that receive federal services. Learn more about the bill, and support it. I do.