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?

 

Youth Engagement Equalizer

Want to identify what skills you have that are good for engaging young people? Ready to learn where you can improve?

Here’s a snapshot of my Youth Engagement Equalizer, a tool that I developed to challenge youth workers and others on how successful they can be at their jobs.

I want to share it with you for FREE! Just contact me.

Contact me for a copy of the Youth Engagement Equalizer at http://adamfletcher.net/contact-me/
The Youth Engagement Equalizer is FREE! Just contact me at http://adamfletcher.net/contact-me/

 

 

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.

New Approaches to Youth Action

Description

If our goal is to engage young people in social change, there are many ways to do that. This diagram illustrates four distinct ways to engage young people: youth-driven community organizing, systemic youth involvement, situational youth voice, and service learning. It then illustrates the traditional and non-traditional approaches to doing that within these ways, as well as the overlaps that are apparent.

 

Traditional Approaches to Engage Young People in Social Change

  • May be exclusively youth-led
  • May partner with adults
  • May be led by adults
  • May include equity
  • May have explicit learning connections
  • May include adults
  • May be focused on sustained change
  • May have sustained funding
  • May position youth as “outsiders” versus “insiders”

 

New Approaches to Engage Young People in Social Change

  • Infuse youth as full members
  • Recognize mutual investment by youth and adults
  • Focus on sustained change
  • Make explicit learning goals for youth and adults
  • Focus on systemic and cultural transformation
  • Requires equity between youth and adults.

 

Explanation

In my own restlessness, I find myself craving something different these days.
I’m increasingly dissatisfied with isolated experiences of “youth-led” activity that is seeded and driven by adults. I have come to see that the majority of this work is largely disingenuous and ultimately incapacitating for the young people who participate in these activities. I say that very cautiously, as I personally know and am professionally aware of the immediate feelings of empowerment that are inherent in this type of action.

 

Today, I’m coming to understand that we need approaches to this work that more deeply situate young people as full members of currently existent society. That way they can be partners in what already exists and transform situations in deeply sustainable, deeply transformative ways.This has to happen by working with the institutions we already have in place. It has to happen with the attitudes we already have at work. This is where my writing on meaningful student involvement comes from: Students working in the places they already occupy with people who are already committed to working with them. There are attitudes, cultures, structures, and connections to transform, but those are sustained changes that won’t go away with passing generations.
This article is meant to illustrate what the difference I see looks like visually. Respond and let me know what you think about a new approach to youth action – I’d love to hear what you think!

The Freechild Project Youth Action Guide

The Freechild Project Youth Action Guide is CommonAction’s latest publication. A 50-page publication created for our training promoting youth changing the world, this guide is FREE online right now! It’s packed with quick, easy reading that can help young people or adults think about how to find what needs to change, create programs to make that change happen, and promote Youth Action throughout our communities.
You can view the entire guide here, or download the PDF for your computer here.
There are many other publications free from CommonAction, including…
Contact us for any additional information by calling (360)489-9680 or emailing info@commonaction.org.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Nobody Owns Volunteering

Nonprofits searching for purpose after the ship went down… The ship’s going down and all the rats are swimming for their lives!

A long time ago, back in the 1990s, the federal government decided to build the nonprofit volunteerism sector in the United States. At first this brought menial efforts from fledgling organizations that actually became powerhouses in social change across America.

Then it brought out the rats.

They flocked onto the big ship of national service that launched from the docks of the White House. This colossal beast carried AmeriCorps and Learn and Serve America into existence, as well as shoring up VISTA and the Senior Corps. Millions of people became volunteers, serving their communities in all kinds of ways.

On the Learn and Serve deck of the ship, schools actually got money to support classroom opportunities that infused substantive learning with real community needs. This had the ability to actually, tangibly demonstrate the value of schools to communities, and the abilities of young people to really, truly transform the places where they lived in positive, powerful ways. Astronaut John Glenn was on board, taking this cruise to the highest of heights!

Unfortunately, the ship got hit, and now its going down.

Last year, the US Congress defunded Learn and Serve America, almost wholly ending the federal government’s support for the service learning movement in one fell swoop. With a massive hole in the stern of the ship, volunteerism started taking on water and going under. That doesn’t mean that people aren’t volunteering- it just means they’re not taking cues from the federal government the ways they used to. Like through learning. Rather than using community service to learn from, the feds are concentrating their money on making students learn through tests–but that’s another post for a different day.

This post is to show that as every rat organization is grabbing for anything to float on so they don’t drown because the government took their money away. Suddenly, everyone wants to own volunteering. A lot of terms seem to be up for grabs too, as youth service, service learning, civic education, community youth development, and so many other phrases are being grabbed at.

The reality is that nobody owns volunteering. Today, as I spoke with the spectacular Charles Orgbon of Greening Forward, I thought to reassure him of that. I have seen the big rats be very defensive of their pieces of wood when the ship was intact, and now that they’re sinking, many are bumping around, tussling, and loosing their footing to other orgs (i.e. Hands On and POLF). As a young org leader, I think Charles’ good work might be targeted by some of these rat organizations to mooch off of or otherwise profiteer from. I’ve seen it too many times.

So, all of you fighters, advocates, and heroes out there doing the good work, please keep doing it no matter what they say. Nobody can take what is ours together, so long as we stand together. Charles, this includes you! Nobody owns volunteering, and that starts with your good work. Keep it up!

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted at adamfletcher.net!

The Time for Youth Engagement is NOW

Its time to get real about youth engagement. Faced with hard times, we need to speak truth to power. This post is my attempt to acknowledge the obvious.

Reading the news lately, its easy to get hopeless if you’re not careful. Federal and state budgets for essential services affecting children and youth are getting slashed, youth violence seems like its soaring across the nation, and local governments having to tighten their belts at every corner. Times continue to be tough for a lot of people.

As my mentor Henry Giroux is so deft at demonstrating, young people are especially targeted right now. In communities all over, children and youth are losing essential services built up over the last quarter century and more. Nonprofits, government agencies, and schools are cutting programs focused on every area effecting young people, including education, cultural programs, health education, recreation, and so many other issues. As you already know, they’re getting slashed all over the place.
Along with that, young people are being targeted as criminals, consumers, and incapable as never before- and especially youth of color and low-income youth. Put on tracks that send them to prison, treated like threats to adults’ way of life, and unable to find jobs after graduating from school, young people are tracked to hopelessness and inability more than ever before.

In my work, I have traveled the country consulting different organizations to encourage best practices focused on youth engagement. We have to engage and re-engage young people in democracy. This must be central to the purpose of ALL nonprofits, schools, foundations, and government agencies, and if its not, then these organizations are NOT on the side of young people or democracy.

Like never before, I’m seeing the outcomes of the economic realities facing nonprofits. Programs that powerfully transformed entire communities are gone, while others have been radically transformed to ensure their funding continues. In other cases, whole organizations have ceased to exist entirely. I have personally known these organizations to powerfully impact people, places, and the cultures they operated within. However, that’s no excuse for them backing out of democracy.
Research is showing that these cuts are disproportionately affecting young people from communities of color and low-income children and youth the most. In neighborhoods that were already depressed and within families that were already struggling, African-American, Latino/Hispanic, and other non-white young people are facing fewer prospects for a hopeful future than ever before. The same goes for poor and working class families too.

It’s an understatement to say that these are tough times! More than ever before, our young people need us and the work we do. Youth engagement activities are facing increased scrutiny to do complex work with meager budgets; providers are expected to live on less money while taking on increased responsibilities for other peoples’ children; communities are being abandoned when they need us the most.

HOWEVER, we can rise to the challenge! WE MUST. These are the days when we need to get real about youth engagement programs and the effects they have on our communities. Simply put, when they’re focused on democracy-building, youth engagement activities are essential for the health and well-being for all communities today. Whether in high income or low-income neighborhoods, nonprofit or government agencies, or on the weekends or in the summer, all youth engagement activities are an absolute necessity for the success of any community.

Youth engagement advocates must work together as never before to create community-wide networks to promote this reality. By joining, fostering, and sustaining robust, responsive coalitions like the King County Youth Engagement Practitioners Cadre, organizations and programs across the country can contribute and ensure not only their own existence, but support others’ too. I work with a number of these types of coalitions across the country, including those through the spectacular SOAR in Seattle and awesome Catalyst Miami in Florida.

Just like the Youth Engagement Practitioners Cadre, both of these organizations include an emphasis on youth engagement within their coalitions, and many other powerful strategies too. That’s the reason why they matter: Despite the times, you all are committed to sincerely, realistically, and deeply move youth engagement activities and programs that transform communities into the 21st century, despite the trends and counter to the critics.

Our world needs youth engagement like never before. Let’s see that, and get to work!

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

2013 Seattle Service Learning Symposium

Join CommonAction and others for the 
2013 SEATTLE SERVICE LEARNING SYMPOSIUM
Saturday, February 23rd, 2013
8:00-4:00pm

You’re Invited! 

Join School Staff, Community Partners, and National Service Members for Networking, Exploring Development & Implementation of Service Learning, Youth Engagement, Community-School Partnerships…

Agenda Includes…

  • A welcome by Superintendent José Banda
  • Service Learning 101
  • Building the Field from Within: Learning from Local Youth Engagement Practitioners
  • Youth Adult Partnerships: Strengthening Service Learning
  • Getting Your Ducks in a Row: How to Plan Science Service Learning at your School
  • The Teen Outreach Program: Effective Youth Development through Community Service Learning
  • Community Development: Following the Lead of Young People
  • Service Learning through Social Entrepreneurship in the Classroom & Community 
  • and MORE!

AND A NEW YOUTH INSTITUTE!

The first-ever Seattle Service Learning Symposium Youth Institute is coordinated by CommonAction, and will address three main questions:

  • What is service learning and why do we do it?
  • How can I do a great service learning project?
  • Can I change the world with service learning?

Details

Sponsors 

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!