Youth Voice: A Right or Responsibility?

Young people, working with adults as partners, have the ability and capacity to cure the world of all of its ills. Sickness, famine, poverty, war, environmental catastrophe and economic meltdown can all be answered by the energy, idealism, knowledge, power, and wisdom of children and youth. Nothing is over the heads, hearts or hands of young people today, and they demonstrate that everyday in the ways they are living their lives.

Youth Voice is the active, distinct, and concentrated ways young people represent themselves throughout society. It is this voice taken through the Cycle of Youth Engagement that answers the challenges of society every single day. So my question is whether Youth Voice is a right or a responsibility. In a time when every single issue feels glaring and the planet is apparently at a tipping point do the adult allies of young people have any alternative than to engage young people in working towards transforming this grand clustermess? By not engaging them are we being more than unresponsive– are we actually being irresponsible? 

Moreso, with that state of the times in mind, is Youth Voice a right or a responsibility? I would argue that our society can no longer wait for children and youth to wait for us, the adults who are taking our time getting to them to engage their voices. This may be foisting an undue amount of responsibility on the shoulders of the young, but honestly, aren’t we doing that already by ignoring the major issues awaiting them as adults? 
These are some of the major issues entwined in Youth Voice, ones that go beyond the generalized and unsophisticated conversations we’ve been having for the last 10 years I’ve been in the this national movement. Its time to crack this egg open.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Steps to a New Youth Voice Movement

I’ve spent the last two days at a TA Partnership meeting on youth involvement in Systems of Care. For those of you who don’t know, Systems of Care is a coordination framework for ensuring that the individuals and organizations involved in providing care for young people who are in foster care, who have been homeless, or other circumstances where our communities are responsible for an individual young person’s well-being. The question this group of practitioners is considering is how to effectively and sustainably involve young people in their own care. I am very humbled by the amount of knowledge, depth and perspective the folks here possess, and it drives home a point for me.
About 5 years ago my friend and ally, Andrea Felix, wrote a paper about the Youth Voice Movement for Youth Service America. She suggested that organizations committed to Youth Voice be connected to each other, and working with organizations Andrea facilitated a series of forums in cities across the U.S. In response I wrote an article for the National Youth Leadership Council addressing the reality that the Youth Voice Movement had always existed – it just exists in ways a lot of people aren’t capable of seeing.
After spending 9 years looking for new ways of seeing Youth Voice, I am still discovering new ways Youth Voice is happening, being taught, encouraged, engaged, infused, parlayed, leveraged and otherwise heard. I have been part of dozens of rallies, observed and interacted with hundreds of programs, studied a lot of literature and research and spent thousands of hours in conversations dialoging with youth and adults about Youth Voice. And I’m still learning more.
Sitting in a room full of fulltime Youth Voice practitioners I am reminded that we must move past our organizational and field boundaries. I have personally been exposed to Youth Voice initiatives in the following professional fields:
  • K-12 public schools
  • Youth service, including community service and service learning
  • Community organizing
  • Public health
  • Research and evaluation
  • Media
  • Mental health
  • Higher education, including community colleges, colleges and universities
  • Experiential education, including high adventure and ropes courses
  • Governance, including city, state and provincial, federal and national
  • Technology
  • Arts, including dance, music, theatre and performance
And the list grows on. This list looks similar to the list of Issues on The Freechild Project website, but its different because of its meaning: rather than being the things youth are addressing with Youth Voice, these are the actual professional fields where Youth Voice is taking hold as an element.
These are the roots of the Youth Voice Movement today. These are the places, spaces and people who we need to engage in developing, strengthening, and fostering Youth Voice in communities across the nation and around the world.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Addendum: Not Post-Youth

I want to add something to my earlier post on “So-Called Youth Issues“: we’re not in an era of some type of “post-youth” analysis. While I want young people to focus on issues that are beyond their demographic, I do not want adults to think that for one minute we should respond in kind by ending our work with young people. Instead, I think that this awareness of young people working outside issues that affect them directly calls us to respond by increasing advocacy with child and youth activists. We must call for more youth involvement, deeper youth engagement and more sustainable youth action. There must be more opportunities for youth activism, more projects for youth researchers, more classes for youth to teach, and lobbying for programs that focus on children and youth – its just that this advocacy shouldn’t be stopped or relegated to youth alone.

These are times when adult allyship is more important than ever before. Ours is an increasingly adultcetric society that is completely comfortable with youth segregation; by identifying that, examining it, educating it and challenging it we can end the stigma that surrounds young people. We aren’t post-youth – we’re actually pre-integration. Let’s call it what it is and work accordingly.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

5 Ways You Can Help Youth This Holiday

Want to help youth this year? There are budget cuts all over the country, crime against youth is rising, youth joblessness is booming, youth homelessness is rising, more young people are dropping out of schools than ever before… Reality shows that young people have a ways to go towards equity and parity with adults. Here are five ways you can help youth this holiday season.

5. Learn about youth activism. All young people have the power to change the world; unfortunately only a few are using it. Learn about them, what they care about, what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. 
4. Discover new ways to show youth you care. Young people don’t need more well-meaning, poorly-acting adults in their lives. Its not enough to care – we have to do something. Learn new ways that adults are helping young people right now.
3. Change the way you treat youth around you – right now. Every adult who considers themselves an ally to young people has an ethical responsibility to examine and re-examine the ways they interact with youth. This process is never complete, and requires deliberation, reflection and critical thinking throughout our interactions with all children and youth – including the children in our families, the students in our classrooms, the youth in our programs and the neighbors in our communities.
2. Make a commitment to a youth and ask them to keep you accountable. Everyday young people are made to pay attention to the will of adults: attend school, don’t misbehave, turn in your homework, go to tutoring, graduate, go to practice, attend choir practice, finish your homework, mind your manners, get to bed on time. When was the last time a child or youth held adults accountable? The promises we make, the stories we tell, the deals, the attitudes, the ideas, the activities… all of these are done by adults, for young people, without young people being able to hold us accountable. Turn the tables and give them the opportunity – the power – to change our minds and keep us true to our words.
1. Ask young people how you can help them. Its an unfortunate reality that many adults think Youth Voice simply means talking about what young people think. We have an ethical responsibility to go out and connect with youth directly by creating honest and open environments where their sincere concerns, critical thinking, and powerful ideas can influence, direct, guide and lead the activities that affect them everday. 
And that’s it. Let me know what you are doing to help youth this holiday – and everyday of the year.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

The Devestating Impact of Recession on Young People

There are too many ways to slice this pie, so I want to be brief here. The U.S. Recession of 2007-2008-? has had and will continue to have devestating impacts on children and youth. Here’s an accounting of those ways:

And the list goes on. Barack has talked about promoting national service and building new schools, but those initiatives just aren’t enough. We need real commitment from our local, state and national leaders right now, and I’m simply not seeing it. 

Write in and tell me how you think this economic blackhole is going to affect young people.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

A Moral and Ethical Responsibility (for Jackie)

Today I received another spectacular question from Jackie, an executive director of a nonprofit focused on youth involvement in the Northeast. Reflecting on the Freechild Project Measure of Social Change Led By and With Young People, Jackie made an important point about this work:

…[I]f our goal is “all community members equally make decisions, take action” can it come from an effort initiated by an adult, like what I’m trying to do? I like the quote from Lilla Watson, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together.” I’m afraid maybe what I’ve organized is trying to “help” youth. Do you have time to share any thoughts?

I had to mull this over all afternoon, and honestly I’m not fully satisfied with my resolution – I think there’s more here. But here’s how I replied:

All adults have a moral and ethical responsibility to engage young people throughout the communities we co-occupy. It is true that we mostly fail to live up to that standard; however, that does not make it okay or right. We live in an adultcentric society that is reliant on the ideas, knowledge, and actions of adults to make the world turn; by deliberately setting about engaging children and youth in equitable and sustainable roles we can begin to rectify the disengagement we so regularly thrust upon them.

In consideration to Lilla’s quote, we must measure our responses in a responsible fashion. When I first read it a long time ago I internalized it, thinking that my inability to bring actual students into the state education agency I worked in was a failure to students and myself. However, I have come to understand that systemic change requires that adult allies assume responsibility for advocacy in the absence of youth themselves. I learned to talk with students directly by traveling around the state and going to schools and having safe and supported conversations with them about school improvement. I then took their words – directly, without my interpretation – back to the agency in their absence. When space was created within the agency for young people I had students I could go directly to, who I knew were informed and engaged in the lives of their schools as well as the language of school improvement. This led to their self-representation being a sophisticated contribution to these opportunities rather than bringing under-informed, under-prepared and frankly, disingenuous student voice into the room.

I say this at the risk of sounding as if I’m trying to rationalize away the selective inclusion of youth; however, I think that there are appropriately varying responses that need to be considered according to particular circumstances. By “selective” I do not mean WHO; I mean HOW. We don’t give 16 year olds the keys to the car and expect them to teach themselves how to drive; we shouldn’t do that with Youth Voice. This is particularly true when we consider the implications of youth involvement: its about efficacy as much as rights. We know that children’s rights and youth rights conversations generally don’t carry a lot of water in organizations and agencies today; however, we also know that school improvement and program efficacy are important throughout our communities. So let’s qualify and quantify youth involvement, if that is what is going to get young people at the table. In order to deliver on that, though, we must be very intentional and deliberate.

It is alsincredibly important to acknowledge that the nature of the quote has to do with the difference between sympathy and empathy. By differentiating ourselves from the young people we serve by dissing our actions we are merely perpetuating the “otherness” of youth. Unfortunately, I am convinced this is the silent messaging of a lot of programs that promote the perception that young people have the program within them. Ironically, this further strengthens the segregation of youth, which in turn enforces the alienation a lot of young people feel from adults, effectively undoing any notion of civic engagement and community building we thought we were encouraging through that approach in the first place. Now, please don’t get me wrong – there is a place for young people to run their own activities. However, I think that is a compromised position, at best, particularly when the work is in context of improving our whole communities and not singularly the lives of children and youth. If we are to address community problems what is a more effective, equitable approach than engaging all members of that community as partners? That includes children, youth and adults.

I guess to sum it up Jackie, at the end of the day I am a proponent of a radical democracy that sees the youngest among us as the logical engines, advocates and allies – just the same as everyone else. Full support, full opportunity and full inclusion are the only outcomes that I will accept; however, I know that the road from here to there is bumpy, unscripted, and sometimes isn’t a road at all. That’s why your work is so important.

I would love to hear anyone else’s response to Jackie’s question or my response.

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

Youth Rights Theory

There are murmurs out there about the lack of Youth Rights theory* *. I want to address that directly. I believe there is a misconception about what theory actually is, what it does, and who makes it. Let me begin with an explanation of what Youth Rights theory needs to be:

Youth Rights theory should identify and analyze the nature of inequality by focusing on age politics and power relations between young people and adults. The rights, interests and issues of young people should drive the analysis. Themes explored in Youth Rights theory should center on the structural and cultural barriers to youth rights, particularly as they are expressed through adultism, discrimination, stereotypes, objectification, tokenism, oppression and patriarchy. Analyses of Youth Rights theory have been conducted in the areas of literary theory, film theory, history, philosophy economics and legal theory.

There is plenty of room for further development. The main areas of analysis could include families, education, society and culture, governance, law and legal issues, economics, bureaucracy, technology and language. Specific topics include within those areas include:

  • Youth rights in families Behavior modification, child abuse, corporal punishment, bullying, circumcision, gulag schools, forced druggin, institutionalization, parenting, parents’ rights, psychological abuse, spiritual/clerical abuse, youth as parents, forced communal eating, homeless youth rights, and violations of privacy.
  • Youth rights in education Structure of education, literacy (pdf), authority in schools, compulsory school attendance, meaningful student involvement, psychology of learning , homework, sex education, alternatives to traditional schools, democratic schooling, homeschooling , unschooling, student rights, drug testing, school reform, Internet censorship, student voice, student activism, and censorship.
  • Youth rights in society and culture Discrimination, self-expression, adultism, adultcentrism, adultocracy, gerontocracy, fear of youth, fear of children, youth empowerment, youth-led activism, civic engagement, youth/adult partnerships, intergenerational equity, GLBTQ youth rights, youth abortion rights, media literacy, and religion.
  • Youth rights in governance Age of candidacy , political youth activism, youth voice, youth activism, youth politics, the age of majority, voting age, and political party involvement.
  • Youth rights in law and legal issues Child abuse, youth courts, corporal punishment, gulag schools, parents’ rights, compulsory school attendance, sex education, student rights, drug testing, Internet censorship, discrimination, abortion rights, age of candidacy, banking laws, contracts and liability, labor laws, voting age, and the driving age.
  • Youth rights in economics Banking laws, contracts and liability, labor laws, age discrimination in business, and parental economic power over minors.

(I adapted this list from the Youth Rights Network, a wiki that I have contributed to and encourage others to contribute to through Freechild and SoundOut.)

Other areas that need to be examined in theory include the ways youth behave, the way adults behave towards youth, the actions of youth and adults, and the interactions of youth and adults. The perceptions and beliefs of youth and adults must also be theorized as they relate to youth rights, as well.

For several years the Youth Rights movement has been discussing its lack of theory. However, there is no such shortage of writing; it is only the synthesis that is missing. Alex Koroknay-Palicz, Executive Director of the National Youth Rights Association, has written a bit about the theory behind Youth Rights, along with Sven Bonnichsen, a long-time youth liberation advocate in Portland, Oregon, who is among the most prolific of the Internet theorists positing new considerations for the movement. Sociologist Mike Males of the University of California at Santa Cruz, author Grace Llewellyn, author Matt Hern, educator John Taylor Gatto, cultural theorist Henry Giroux, and psychologist Robert Epstein are each modern Youth Rights theorists whose contributions are vital. Late educators John Holt, Paulo Freire, and Myles Horton each advocated for Youth Rights, in context of their individual efforts to promote freedom and liberation. Early social movements like the Students for a Democratic Society and the American Youth Congress provided essential documents that still inform Youth Rights. * * * * Myself, for a long time I have maintained Youth Rights is a theory without a movement; I think differently now.

So the writing is out there, between the past, the experts and youth themselves. It only needs synthesized…

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

Democracy Building in the United States

The institutions, culture and public policy that drive our society needs to be transformed so that adults and young people share roles more equitably within government, communities, workplaces, and families. With that assumption firmly intact, the development of new cultural and structural avenues to foster the active participation of children and youth takes a firm light. Such avenues might include the following:

Horizontal, non-authoritarian attitudes between young people and adults. This takes the form of stopping the discrimination against children and youth inherent in adultism. Dismantling oppressive cultures and structures that discriminate against young people is no small charge, with the systematic disenfranchisement facing children and youth thoroughly entrenched in all corners.

Fully-democratic positions for young people throughout society. The institutions we rely on to support and sustain democracy must be made completely accommodating towards children and youth. This extends beyond government, and includes schools, hospitals, nonprofits, policing, etc.

Restructuring of educational opportunities. The introduction, infusion, deepening, reflection and critical examination of democracy is a taught thing that must be reinforced throughout the schooling, working, out-of-school, and other activities all people are engaged in.

These are three massive ideas that have to be thoroughly examined, and unfortunately this little blog isn’t the best place for that to happen. The evolution of young people is simultaneously motivated by and motivating of the advancement of technology throughout society. Wikipedia, videocams, Facebook, cell phones and other sorts of developments are encouraging the development of democracy that is more than participatory; instead, it is owned. An owned democracy – and not one that is owned by corporate overlords, either, although its a slippery slope between popular ownership and corporate ownership. Walking that slippery slope is essential, the nature of our society requires walking that thin line constantly: democracy in an evolving society cannot be enshrined. In that same way, neither are young people static. More than ever, they refuse to sit still or wait. Instead, they’re rapidly moving forward at a pace that we must strive to stay caught up to. Deliberate democracy building must be geared towards youth engagement.

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

Interesting News Items

Here’s some interesting news items as I get ready to come back from my late spring hiatus.

“Kids from higher income households just aren’t going into the labor market. They’re looking for things to put on résumés, and working at Dairy Queen or Wal-Mart just isn’t going to help you get into Wake Forest or Stanford. And they just don’t need the cash.” – An economist on the decline in teenage employment.

In other news, the Worcestershire Youth Cabinet in the United Kingdom is trying to convince local adults they aren’t trying to cause trouble – they’re just trying to get heard. There was a youth summit in Canton, Ohio last week where topics included recreation, youth employment, gangs, youth violence, drugs and alcohol, education, families, housing, teen pregnancy, respect, and entertainment and the media. Youth Today has exposed that the US federal government’s call for orgs to get juvenile justice money wasn’t really a competition – they already had their minds made up. My heroes at Future Voters of American are looking to score a HUGE victory in lowering the voting age in New York State. “Ain’t no power like the power of the youth cuz the power of the youth don’t quit.”

Evoke is a new youth-oriented magazine in Canada (but as always, I’ll remain suspicious of their intent to market youth culture to youth). In what may become an unfortunate new trend, Newtownabbey, United Kingdom might end their youth council because of an apparent lack of interest by local youth. Summarizing his 15 years experience analyzing it, sociologist Mike Males has called the American Media “a cesspool of anti-youth misinformation.” Speaking of which, the Nation magazine is hosting a youth writers contest. A new website called “Its Getting Hot In Here” features “dispatches from the youth climate movement” and offers a variety of posts from across the spectrum, including a recent piece exploring biofuels(!).

The UK Youth Parliament is concerned this month about whether voting will be made mandatory and they continue to shine the light on the British media’s phobia against youth. The 2008 CineYouth Festival is on in Chicago and the schedule has been posted. It seems someone has written a (brief) history of the so-called “youth vote” – as if youth vote in a bloc for the same things – but yes, I do get the point. Young people in Jamaica got together in a USAID-funded program to support national development in their country. (It always amazes me to see the US gov’t fund youth involvement and youth voice programs overseas, while spending almost no money on them here in the States.)

Finally, from The New York Times, here’s a former editor for a big gossip website on why she stopped blogging:

The will to blog is a complicated thing, somewhere between inspiration and compulsion. It can feel almost like a biological impulse. You see something, or an idea occurs to you, and you have to share it with the Internet as soon as possible. What I didn’t realize was that those ideas and that urgency — and the sense of self-importance that made me think anyone would be interested in hearing what went on in my head — could just disappear.

I will be back shortly – that I know.

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

Why We Can’t Wait

In 2000 I was working as the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction‘s Youth Ambassador position where I was responsible for coordinating the statewide essay contest for K-12 students focused on the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I also met Sasha Rabkin, who has worked for the Institute for Community Leadership for a long time. Between the contest and Sasha’s influence I became acutely aware of the power Dr. King had over the lifeblood of this nation, as well as people around the world. Beyond the mythologizing of King’s work, there is a deep power inside of his words and actions, and they resonated deeply in me.

The other thing that happened that year is that after spending a few years previous reading John Holt, Grace Llewellyn and Billy Upski, among others, I decided to become involved in the youth rights movement. That year I submitted a poem to be included on the National Youth Rights Association‘s website, and I named it after Dr. King’s 1963 book called Why We Can’t Wait.

Following is that poem, with a few revisions. There are strands about adultism, systemic oppression and alienation throughout. Another NYRA supporter felt moved enough to make a song from it a few years later. Let me know what you think of either one!

Why We Can’t Wait

“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor;
it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
I look at the people around me
and see the prisons and traps
we are all stuck.
From an early age we are taught and trained:
sit still, hold on, walk (don’t run),
and be quiet.
Whatever you do, be quiet.

So we do. We go to polite schools or content jobs.
We type and read and feel nice.
Our hair is nice and our hearts are nice.
We live nice lives.

But what if…
what if we were shown the whole picture
from the first day?
What if they said
“Hey, when you’re poor, you’re screwed.
If you’re black, you’re facing an uphill road.
If you’re female, you’re up a creek.
Oh, yeah, and you’ll be young too!
Let’s not even go there!”

What if we could awaken all people to the chains that tie them down?
What if everyone saw that
we are responsible for holding ourselves down?
What if the message of systematic and deliberate oppression
was exposed and the entire society
– everyone everywhere-
saw that young people are
looked down upon,
frowned upon,
sat upon
and shat upon?

Then they become adults.
The world turns.
They start pooping on youth…
and the cycle continues.

We’ve gotta speak up, act up, and quit
putting up, giving up and settling down.

We cannot wait any longer.

Its time to get up, stand up, scream out loud and dream out loud.
We’ve gotta break outta the chains that hold us down.
We’ve gotta stand up for what is ours:
To earn, to learn, to speak, to serve.

We’ve gotta tie people together
instead of tearing them apart.
We’re taught that we’re not the same because we are
young and old
black and white
educated and ignorant
rich and poor.

But we’re the same.
And that’s why young people have got t be free.

No one is free until everyone is free. Free Youth Now.

Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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Order FACING ADULTISM by Freechild founder Adam Fletcher!