This is Adam Fletcher in São Paulo, Brazil in 2014

It All Begins With Youth Voice

It all begins with youth voice.

Whether heard or repressed, empowered or silenced, young people of all ages have valid ideas, knowledge, opinions and actions about every aspect of their lives, all the time. When youth voice is not engaged at home, young people may lash out or retract inwards.

It is vital to understand that what many people view as “negative” youth behaviors are actually the consequences of challenging life experiences.

Youth voice is obvious in all five domains of self-regulation, including the cognitive, social, biological, emotional and prosocial. The literal voices of youth can become less prevalent while unexpected behavior becomes more effective at portraying their inner landscapes: self-harm, skipping school, eating disorders, substance abuse, disobeying parents, violence, stealing, vandalism, and other ways of expressing youth voice can take precedent over good performance in schools, cooperation with siblings or an overall positive affect in their lives.

These actions are unfortunately and frequently misinterpreted by adults.

While most parents, guardians and extended family members intend to do no harm to our children and those entrusted to us, we sometimes fail our best intentions. Incapable of creating safe, stable, supportive and permanent environments for youth to succeed, young people will strive to get their needs met even when it is not apparent to adults that is what they’re doing.

This can result in youth homelessness; truancy and breaking curfews; substance abuse, and; other ways of youth expressing themselves that adults frequently don’t want to hear and don’t know how to listen to. When we do listen, we often don’t know what to do.

Ignoring and silencing youth voice can have harsher results, too, including juvenile incarceration, substance addiction, physical and mental harm, and severe mental health implications.

Engaging youth voice intentionally can begin to rectify this imbalance.

Parents, social workers, educators, mental health counselors and others need to learn what youth voice really is; how youth voice is shared throughout the lives of young people today; what works and what doesn’t work; and more.

All of this begins to detail a clear pathway, and it begins with youth voice.

 


You Might Like…

  • Getting In Trouble
  • We Are The Problem
  • Authenticity in Youth Voice and Youth Engagement
  • Cultural Appropriation & Youth Voice
  • Bastardizing Youth Voice

 

Olympia Youth Forum 2014

Interpreting Youth Voice

Some adults suggest its “simple” to listen to youth. They merely open their ears, turn on their hearts and watch their body language as young people speak. These same adults often take liberty in interpreting youth, telling other adults and even young people themselves what youth voice means, what it does and why it matters.

This is a double standard though. It’s never the job of adults to tell youth how to speak, what they mean, why to share and when is appropriate and when its inappropriate. Instead, I think its our job to make space for youth to speak in the most unbridled, uninhibited ways they want in order to make their feelings, thoughts, ideas, knowledge and wisdom known.

Our society is in such a desperate state that we can’t wait for adults to make sense of others’ words anymore. We have to hear young people speak with reckless abandon now, and instead of whittling down meanings, figuring out perspectives and deciding others emotions and knowledge, we should hear all young people everywhere as earnestly, honestly and authentically as possible.

Basically, I want every teacher, youth worker, parent, nonprofit executive, social worker, school leader and anyone who pretends, portends or otherwise interacts with youth to push themselves to stop trying to make sense of youth voice. Instead, simply let youth voice be and learn to hear what’s being said.

  • Listen to emotions, even when they make you uncomfortable.
  • Hear knowledge, even when it conflicts or contradicts what you think you know.
  • Watch your own responses, even (especially) when you think you’re right.
  • Trust youth. Every. Single. Time.
  • Believe in youth voice, especially when its different from your own.

When we adults learn to control ourselves and our negative behavior towards youth voice, we can make genuine progress in transforming the roles of young people throughout society. When those change, the world changes. We should aim for nothing less.

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Adults Letting Go and Taking Charge

Recently, I wrote an entry on this blog called “The Gradual Release of Authority” in response to a series of conversations I’ve been having across the country. This issue continually comes up with adults who are grappling with moving young people from being passive recipients of adult-driven programming, whether in schools, nonprofits, government agencies or other places, towards becoming active partners throughout the world they are part of. Well, apparently writing that article wasn’t enough for me, and I had to create a video, too.

So here’s my latest video called “Adults Letting Go and Taking Charge.” Hope you like it; let me know what you think in the comments section on YouTube.

Authenticity in Youth Voice and Youth Engagement

Wauthentic youth voice and youth engagementhen a parent spends a whole childhood telling their kids they need to be one way, and the kids grow up in a community that only acts one way, and schools don’t prepare anyone for anything other than that one way, when they go onto become that one way, that cannot be called a choice and the practice cannot be called decision-making.

That young person has never known autonomy in any significant way.

Autonomy for Authenticity

Autonomy is the right to make your own decisions and freedom from external control.

A growing number of people are concerned about authentic youth voice and authentic youth engagement.

Youth voice, which is any expression of any young person about anything they choose, is different from youth engagement, which is the sustained connection a young person feels within or outside of themselves.

Authentic youth voice when youth express themselves in ways and with views that are true to themselves. When youth voice is authentic, youth can experience engagement on the basis of what they value.

Authentic youth voice requires youth autonomy. Youth autonomy happens when young people create their own rules and has authority over themselves as well as the power to do something with that authority. In authentic youth voice, young people understand the power they have, what authority they’ve been given, and the interpersonal connections they have to the people around them, whether in their families, communities, schools or the whole world.

5 Areas to Expand

In order to build programs where young people experience authentic youth voice, programs should seek to expand the following capacities in young people:

  • Thinking: Analytical and knowledge-building skills; evaluative and critical thinking skills; and creative thinking skills;
  • Communicating: Effective oral and written communication skills; critical and reflective reading skills; an informed openness to new information technologies;
  • Strategizing: Problem solving and pattern intelligence skills, numerical skills; synthesis skills; and the ability to express the results of analysis and evaluation;
  • Learning: The ability to pose meaningful questions that advance understanding and knowledge; the ability to conduct research and organize material effectively; information literacy and other skills associated with learning how to learn;
  • Action: The exercise of independent judgment and ethical decision-making; the ability to meet goals, manage time, and complete a project successfully; self-confidence and self-understanding; the ability to cooperate with others and work in teams; a sensitivity to individuals and tolerance of cultural differences.

Barriers to Authenticity

There are real barriers to authenticity in youth voice and youth engagement.

Adultism, ephebiphobia, and systems of paternalism are all deeply entrenched in the adultcentric cultures and structures throughout our society. Adultism encourages disingenuous youth voice. Ephebiphobia prevents youth engagement. Systems of paternalism suffocate authenticity among youth. Adultcentrism is the hammer that makes sure youth voice and youth engagement don’t matter.

Vast segments of our society actively do not want youth to have a voice.

Many adults actively ensure youth voice is subjugated, nullified and stifled whenever possible. When youth voice does become apparent, they either vilify it or infantalize it.

What do you think about authentic youth voice? Authentic youth engagement? How do they happen? What do they look like?

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?

 

Adam Fletcher in São Paulo

I Will See YOU in São Paulo!

On Monday I am flying to São Paulo, Brazil, to talk about my philosophy and practice through CommonAction, including SoundOut and The Freechild Project. It all began a few years ago, when Lilian Kelian contacted me. Working with a program called Jovens Urbanos (Urban Youth), Lilian asked if they could translate some of my publications and use them in the cities they work, São Paulo , Pouso Alegre, and Serra. Happily agreeing, I looked forward to seeing the finished product.

This summer, Lilian contact me again to invite me to come to Brazil and help spread the word about the publications and the ideas behind them. I am leaving Monday to spend next week in São Paulo!

Hosted by CENPEC, my trip is being sponsored by Fundação Itaú Social, a large foundation in Brazil. Among other things, I am facilitating a workshop and speaking at a conference. The conference, Seminário Internacional: Educação + Participação = Educação Integral, will be broadcast live online on Friday, November 14.

Here’s the poster for my workshop on Wednesday, November 12. I’m going to post things occasionally throughout the week. I am very excited for this opportunity, and I’m really looking forward to meeting people, sharing ideas and learning a lot while I’m there! What an opportunity! Woohoo!

 

Adam Fletcher in São Paulo

 

Engaging Youth Locally

Its important for all of us to balance our talk with our walk. Since I started writing this blog back in 2007, I’ve worked with a lot of different organizations to promote youth engagement. I’ve done it as a consultant, as a nonprofit staff member, as a state government worker, and in a few other capacities too. I think its important to keep my feet on the ground, even if my head is in the clouds!

Today is an example of my practice. Consulting the City of Olympia, I’ve been running a project focused on youth involvement in a new city park located in downtown. Its atypical for a number of reasons, primarily among which are its location and the users there so far. Sited around a popular artesian well, the park is essentially a slab of asphalt packed between two single story buildings. A cool design element in the form of a mosiac has been placed, but City investment in the space has been minimal so far.

Drawing together several youth engagement practitioners a few weeks ago, I gathered a massive list of wants that would encourage these organizations and programs to use the space in an ongoing fashion. That would populate the park with regular, pro-social values that would more accurately reflect Olympia’s values. However, that’s not the whole solution.

I’m facilitating an All Youth Forum in the park today. We’re expecting dozens of young people, and I’m looking forward to a simple, straight-forward conversation. I’ll report on that tomorrow. For now, here’s the flyer I designed for the event today:

Olympia All Youth Forum flyer

23 Phrases to Encourage Youth Voice

23 phrases

 

After working directly with youth for more than two decades, its easy for me to admit that I’ve said some poor things to youth. Either on purpose or by accident, I have said things that made young people feel hurt, confused, or angry. Anyone who works with youth—teachers, social workers, or program leaders—is going to make those mistakes whether we intend to or not. But its just as important to say the right things.

Since youth voice is any expression of any young people anywhere at any time about anything, its important to recognize there are ways adults can encourage it, rather than stifle it. Here are some things you can say to encourage youth voice.

 

23 Phrases to Encourage Youth Voice

  1. What do you think? Encourage young people to form their own opinions and share them with you. This improves critical thinking skills and reassures them that it’s right to have their own opinion, and that its even okay that it’s different from yours. When adults do young peoples’ thinking for them, children and youth stop taking responsibility for themselves and can’t handle greater responsibility as they grow. 
  2. I know you. Reaffirm for young people that you know them without telling them you know all about them. This reassures them in times of low confidence and encourages them to feel a part of something else, instead of being alone.
  3. I believe you. Let young people know you trust their judgment.
  4. I disagree with youInstead of simply saying no, validate what young people think, believe, or say in an open and honest manner. Don’t make it into a battle of wills or otherwise compete. Instead, open up an honest dialogue and be willing to go where the conversation takes you.
  5. How did you do? Don’t tell young people how they did before you let them tell you. Ask them and listen to what they have to say.
  6. Please and thank you. Young people are people first, and they deserve your manners just because they are people.
  7. I believe in you. Support and encourage children and youths’ self-judgment and abilities by affirming their capabilities and self-esteem.
  8. Can you help me understand? This let’s young people know that you honor their perceptions, even if you disagree with them. Allowing children and youth to explain things from their perspectives empowers their voices.
  9. You worked so hard. Instead of constantly telling young people how smart or special they are, this phrase acknowledges their hard work and effort.
  10. I’m sorry. Show young people that you are a fallible human who makes mistakes, and that you’re big enough to apologize to them.
  11. I’m available to you. Instead of constantly telling young people how busy you are, remind them that you’re available to them to talk to, hang out with, play with, and be around.
  12. What are the consequences? It’s tempting to make decisions for young people, but they learn more when they make their own choices. Remind them to think about the positive and negative consequences of any choice they make.
  13. I trust you. Reaffirm that you believe in the ability, ideas, plans, and suggestions of children and youth by letting them know directly that you trust them.
  14. I’ve got your back. Young people feel safest when they know they have your support, no matter what. When they’re facing especially challenging things, remind them you’re behind them.
  15. I’m so proud of you because… Young people want to know that you see the work, effort, and energy they put into their jobs, activities, and selves. Acknowledge them with specific, concrete feedback that helps them grow.
  16. You did a great job. Without over-doing it, its important to acknowledge a job well-done. Praise often, but don’t overdo it or your words will seem insincere.
  17. How does it feel to get that done? When children and youth get things done, it should be about making themselves happy instead of making adults happy. Self-esteem needs a boost? Reaffirm they can make themselves feel better.
  18. Turn it up! Without hamming it up or trying to hard, let children and youth know they can create the environment you co-occupy with them. Ask them to share their music, shows, or other media and creations in the spaces you are with them.
  19. You are worth it. Be intentional in supporting young peoples’ self-worth without being condescending.
  20. You are good, inside and out. Young people need to be engaged within themselves as well as in the world around them.
  21. How would you do it? Encourage children and youth to think about doing things differently, and then go further by helping them implement their ideas. Their conclusions could help them and you do things even better.
  22. Are you willing to do what it takes? Accept young peoples’ answers to this question without criticism or correction. This will help young people open up to you and answer honestly, rather than simply the way you want them to.
  23. What do YOU think we can do? Activate young peoples’ senses of ability and possibility by actively engaging them as co-conspirators, co-actors, and co-learners. Foster equity between you, and consciously build their sense of ability to make a difference.

 

A lot of people are tempted to make youth voice into a special or exclusive thing that only well-behaving young people who do what adults want them to should be able to share. What would you add to this list to encourage authentic youth voice?

 

Six Reasons Youth Disengage

After almost 15 years of consulting nonprofits, K-12 schools, and government agencies across the United States and Canada, last year I took a position coordinating a dropout prevention program in the Pacific Northwest. Hungry to examine a different support system for youth I wasn’t familiar with, I chose this program because it supports young people ages 14 to 24 who are re-engaging in school, training, and the workforce.

Since then, I’ve had the privilege of partnering with dozens of agencies serving thousands of youth. Meeting young people of all ages, working with seasoned and new youth workers and agency leaders, and learning new insights into youth disengagement and dropout have highlighted my experience so far.

For all my years of consulting, I’ve focused on youth engagement in communities and student voice in schools. I learned a lot through my research and practice, and from colleagues across the nation and around the world. However, I’ve had many new lessons in my current position, too.

So many people are working so diligently to engage youth in society, or re-engage them in culture-building activities, completing school, getting training, finding employment, recreation, or civic engagement activities. So why are youth still making the conscious choice to leave these programs? Here are six reasons youth disengage.

 

Six Reasons Youth Disengage

1. Youth Are Taught To See Themselves As Failures. Between parents who are too busy or too depressed to care, teachers who are too overwhelmed to focus on them, and lawmakers too beholden to give them the supports they need to succeed, many youth are actually taught to see themselves as failures. That comes from the culture surrounding them, including tv and music; schools they attended, including teachers and curriculum; and the social safety net that allows them fall to low, low heights.

2. Many Adults Have Given Up On Many Youth. Driven by standardized testing, mandatory evaluations, prescripted youth programs, and byzantine policies, many youth workers, teachers, government officials, and others have given up on many of the youth they’re supposed to serve. Instead of believing “youth are the future”, they believe youth are merely numbers to achieve program goals, or ineffective contributors to the economy, civic society, and world around them.

3. Traditional Youth Activities Serve Traditionally Engaged Youth, And Fail Everyone Else. Youth leadership, community service, and even traditional youth empowerment programs actually fail to serve a lot of young people today! Too reliant on youth complacency and obedience, these programs are failing to foster modern thinking, implement accurate strategies, and create successful cultures that engage disengaged youth. This is happening in epidemic proportions in many, many communities, especially affecting low-income youth and youth of color.

4. Most Adults Expect Youth To Change To Meet Today’s Needs. Rather than acknowledging that the economy is changing, the job market is realigning, and needs and wants are different now than ever before, most adults expect young people to change to meet today’s needs in the economy. This is carryover thinking from an old education model, which sought to mold students into the types of learners teachers were capable of teaching. This is a disingenuous perspective, because the future economy depends on nimble thinking, transformative action, and creative realities.

5. Youth Engagement Isn’t Really The Goal. When most adults talk about youth engagement, they’re actually talking about youth obedience. They want young people to comply with the expectations, values, perspectives, and realities of adults, and not their own. They couch their expectations by talking about activities being youth-led or youth-driven, but in reality, they only make programs for youth who comply with adult expectations or desires. In this way, they seek conformity, not engagement.

6. They Are Already Engaged. Whether or not adults want to see it, youth are already engaged right now. They are 100% human, choosing where, how, when, and why they want to engage. Albeit, they might be engaged in things adults don’t approve of, including sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, or any of a plethora of other activities (smoking, video games, graffiti, basketball, driving, etc). This shows that youth engagement isn’t limited to things adults approve of them doing; youth engagement isn’t just compliance. Instead, its any sustained connection a young person has to the world around them. Adults need to learn that simply because youth aren’t engaged how adults want to be doesn’t automatically invalidate the things youth are engaged in. Instead, it challenges us to meet them where they’re at, instead of insisting they come to where we want them to be.

 

These six reasons have sunk into my skin slowly, because I’ve done these things too, whether inadvertently or on purpose. However, I believe its our responsibility as ethical practitioners—youth workers, teachers, social workers, government officials, and community leaders—to respond to the need for authentic youth engagement.

What steps can you take to ensure youth stay in schools and our community programs?

The NEW Youth Voice

"Education does not transform the world. Education changes people. People change the world." - Paulo Freire
“Education does not transform the world. Education changes people. People change the world.” – Paulo Freire

You might have noticed that since publishing The Freechild Project Youth-Driven Programming Guide last year, I’ve come to feel strongly about aggrandizing youth involvement.

A lot of organizations and programs tout their credibility with youth involvement, youth engagement, and youth organizing by highlighting all the wonderful things they position youth to lead. By doing this, these organizations are actually doing youth disservice. The many challenges include:

  • Positioning adults as beneficent rulers who allow youth to do things
  • Incapacitating young peoples’ innate responsibility for themselves and others
  • Negating the abilities of communities to work together for the common good

 

Instead of helping, these activities actually and often harm the people they intend to help.

We need to see things differently. In recent months, I’ve begun to envision a new way of being, knowing, and doing. This way is currently emerging between young people and adults, and it is happening throughout society. This way re-positions children, youth and adults from assuming power relationships dependent on subservience and authority, towards seeing each other in a more holistic light.

The old way of Youth Voice…

  • Relied on adults having power over youth
  • Positioned young people as “adults-in-the-making” not to be seen as whole people right now
  • Depended on youth being subservient and compliant to adults
  • Required systems of oppression that enforced adults’ power
  • Demanded youth be compliant with adult desires out of fear of violence
  • Necessitated systems of authority enforced by structures of abuse
  • Made programs that put “youth in charge” necessary in order to rebalance power inequalities between youth and adults
  • Routinely positioned youth against each other and against adults in order to ensure compliance and conformity
  • Saw children and youth progressing along a predictable, staircase development cycle towards adulthood

The emerging, new relationships between youth and adults look different. The new Youth Voice…

  • Sees young people as whole people no matter what their ages
  • Utilizes holistic youth development as the organizing framework for young peoples’ growth, education, and ongoing formation as humans
  • Treats all young peoples’ growth as non-linear, non-sequential and non-uniform, instead treating every child and youth as an evolving human
  • Allows equal room for adults and young people to have, express, and critique power and authority
  • Positions children, youth, and adults in equitable partnerships designed to foster engagement, belonging, and ownership
  • Grants adults and young people equitable, responsible space for learning, teaching, and leadership in all roles, all of the time
  • Replaces command-and-control authoritarianism by honoring the collective, democratic perspectives of all people, regardless of age
  • Acknowledges programs that put “youth in charge” to be ineffectual and unnecessary
  • Dismantles youth-against-youth and youth-against-adult power struggles through common action and mutual support

Paulo Freire wrote, “Education does not transform the world. Education changes people. People change the world,” and the same can be said of Youth Voice. Youth Voice does not transform the world. Youth Voice transform people. People change the world.

If we are going to change the world, we must change ourselves first. Changing ourselves comes from active, deliberate work. That’s what my proposition for new Youth Voice is – an attempt to engage each of us differently.

Through these active, distinguishable ways of being, knowing, and doing, young people are adults are working together to transform the world we share. Everyone can and should aspire to nothing less.