What Is Youth Engagement?

Youth engagement happens when young people have sustained connections anywhere in their life. Youth engagement can happen throughout the lives of children and youth, including within themselves, in the immediate world around them, throughout society in general, and across the entirety of the world. The sustained connections they make can be emotional, psychological, or cognitive and can happen personally and socially.

What Youth Engagement Is Not

There is a growing amount of confusion about what youth engagement is and is not. Many national nonprofits and international NGOs are promoting youth engagement as involvement by youth in social change.

However, as the definition above shows, youth engagement is not the same as youth involvement in social change. Young people can be engaged through Youth-led research, Youth service, Youth leadership, Youth decision-making, Youth philanthropy, Youth civic engagement, Youth organizing, Youth media, or any of these strategies for social change led by young people. However, those are not the only ways youth are engaged.

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

How Does Youth Engagement Happen?

“Engaged youth” are generally labeled that way because they are experiencing sustained connections in ways that adults approve or acknowledge. These young people are typically identified in places like schools, nonprofit youth programs, and athletic programs. Their engagement is generally awarded by adults with incentives, including good grades, certifications of participation, and varsity letters.

“Disengaged youth” are generally young people who aren’t engaged in ways adults have determined are in the best interests of those young people. They can be found in a variety of places that adults don’t approve of or recognize the value. These include at home playing video games; at after school jobs; at a friend’s house after dropping out of school; or by joining gangs, hanging out with friends on the streets, or playing pickup basketball at night and on the weekends.

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

Factors Affecting Youth Engagement

factors
There are several factors that affect youth engagement. However, today’s popular forms of youth engagement generally don’t acknowledge those factors. Whether or not a young person is going to become engaged is determined by three things:
  • Social and economic environment
  • Physical environment, and
  • Individual characteristics and behaviors

The ways young people live determine their engagement. Because of this, blaming youth for being disengaged from particular activities or issues or crediting them for being engaged in ways you approve of is inappropriate. Youth are unlikely to be able to directly control many of the factors affecting youth engagement.

 

Where Does Youth Engagement Happen?

Youth engagement happens in a variety of places. Each place where youth engagement happens isn’t necessarily a physical place or a set of activities. Because of this, I call these “Spheres of Youth Engagement.”

Youth Engagement can happen within a person, including their emotional, psychological, or physical well-being. In other cases, young people are seen as disengaged when they aren’t sustainably connected to their family, peers, faith communities, school, and other community settings. There is generally little concern when young people aren’t seen as connected to society, as these areas are generally seen as places for adults to be engaged. These locations including mass media, industry and the economy, social services, their neighbors, and local politics.

  • Self: emotional, psychological, or physical well-being 
  • Families: home, recreation, decision-making, food and nutrition, culture 
  • Community: peers, faith communities, school, and other community settings 
  • Society: mass media, industry and the economy, social services, their neighbors, and politics 

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

What Supports Youth Engagement?

All the individual spheres of youth engagement are parts of a generally unspoken system. This system surrounds all young people from the time they’re born through adulthood, and beyond. A system is “a set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole, in particular.”

Systems of youth engagement are the broad ways young people experience sustained connections throughout their lives. There are many different ways to envision these systems operating. Here, I focus on the formal and informal institutions throughout the lives of young people that drive, affect, or impact the sustained connections they have throughout life. These systems can include, but aren’t limited to, their family, education, health, social services, recreation, faith communities, cultural activities, work, civic action, mental health services, and juvenile justice. Other systems can include transportation, food and nutrition, housing, business, and the environment.

When these systems function well, there are communities full of engaged children and youth. When they do not function well, young people experience disengagement in any or all of these spheres. The fewer sustainable connections a young person experiences in each and all of these spheres, the more disengaged they become throughout their lives. The more disengaged a person is as a young person, the more likely they’ll be disengaged as an adult; the more engage a person is when they’re young, the more engaged they will become when they’re older.

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

Strategies for Social Change

Following are different strategies I have identified for social change led by and with young people. These strategies can be approached individually, but are often entwined as they show different aspects of social change. Note that these are broad strategic frameworks for understanding social change; they aren’t necessarily specific activities or methodologies. I might explore those in another post.Most of these strategies reply on youth acting on issues defined by and affecting young people and their communities by meaningfully involving them in the design, implementation, and evaluation of social change.

15 Strategies for Social Change Led By and With Young People 

  1. Youth Voice is any expression of any young person anywhere, at any time. This can include expressions that are verbal, written, visual, body language, or actions; expressions that are convenient and inconvenient for adults to listen to; and intentional as well as unintentional expressions. Youth Voice does not require adult approval or acceptance. [Learn more]
  2. Youth Participation is the active attendance of young people in any mode throughout their lives or communities. Youth participation can happen through active decision-making, sports, schools, or faith communities. It can also happen in homes and among friends. Youth participation can be formal or informal; when its formal, youth may not choose to attend something, but they choose whether to participate. When its informal, youth choose to join in on something.
  3. Youth Involvement is any deliberate effort that centers on young peoples’ ongoing attendance in personal, social, institutional, cultural, and other forms of structural action throughout society. Youth involvement is generally formal, often including specific roles, education, and outcomes. [Learn more]
  4. Youth Engagement is the sustained connection young people hold towards a particular thing, whether an idea, person, activity, place or outcome. That sustained connection can be social, emotional, educational, spiritual, sentimental, or otherwise as long as its sustained. [Learn more]
  5. Youth Empowerment is the attitudinal, structural, and cultural process whereby young people gain the ability, authority, and agency to make decisions and implement change in their own lives and the lives of other people, including youth and adults. [Learn more]
  6. Youth Leadership is the practice of young people exercising authority over themselves or others, both in informal and formal ways. There is youth leadership beyond the scope of what adults recognize, appreciate, or foster; there is also youth leadership which is guided by adults.
  7. Youth/Adult Partnerships happen when 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. [Learn more]
  8. Youth Equity is the pro-active rebalancing of relationships between youth and adults to allow for appropriately empowered roles between youth and adults. It allows for a 40/60 split of authority, while everyone involved- young people and adults- are recognized for their impact in the activity, and each has ownership of the outcomes. [Learn more]
  9. Youth Mainstreaming is a public policy strategy that acknowledges the roles youth can play and the issues affecting them across various sectors such as health, finance, economic development, housing, justice, foreign affairs, education, and agriculture. [Learn more]
  10. Youth Infusion is the active, deep, and sustained integration of youth throughout an organization or community’s structure and culture.
  11. Youth Organizing is an approach that trains young people in community organizing and advocacy, and assists them in employing these skills to alter power relations and create meaningful institutional change in their communities by employing activities such as political education and analysis, community research, campaign development, direct action and membership recruitment. [Learn more]
  12. Service Learning uses meaningful service throughout the community to help youth achieve clearly stated learning goals. [Learn more]
  13. Project-Based Learning infuses deliberately planned hands-on activities focused on teaching and learning to foster youth success. [Learn more]
  14. Experiential Learning is the process of making meaning from direct experience, which may or may not be planned and does or does not have specific learning goals. [Learn more]
  15. Community Youth Development combines the developmental instincts of young people as they naturally desire to create change in their surrounding environments by partnering youth and adults to create new opportunities for youth to serve their communities while developing their personal abilities.
Some of the specific methods for engaging young people in action include Participatory Action Research, Youth-Driven Programming, and Independent Living Skills. Here are some different roles young people can have through many of the strategies listed above.
In understanding social change, its important to recognize that none of these are competing approaches. I have also learned that they aren’t necessarily better or worse than each other. Instead, they’re appropriate terms that acknowledge different times and places where action can happen.
To learn more, check out The Freechild Project Guide to Social Change Led By and With Young People that I wrote with Joe Vavrus, and as always, visit The Freechild Project website.

Special thanks to Roslyn Kagy for a conversation that inspired this article! Woohoo!


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

Ways Young People Change The World

There are many roles in democracy-building by youth. Following are several different opportunities for young people to take action.

23 Ways Young People Can Change the World

  1. Children and Youth as Facilitators. Knowledge comes from study, experience, and reflection. Engaging young people as teachers helps reinforce their commitment to learning and the subject they are teaching; it also engages both young and older learners in exciting ways.
  2. Children and Youth as Researchers. Identifying issues, surveying interests, analyzing findings, and developing projects in response are all powerful avenues for Youth Voice. 
  3. Children and Youth as Planners. Planning includes program design, event planning, curriculum development, and hiring staff. Youth planning activities can lend validity, creativity, and applicability to abstract concepts and broad outcomes.
  4. Children and Youth as Organizers. Community organizing happens when leaders bring together everyone in a community in a role that fosters social change. Youth community organizers focus on issues that affect themselves and their communities; they rally their peers, families, and community members for action.
  5. Children and Youth as Decision-Makers. Making rules in classrooms is not the only way to engage young people in decision-making. Committees, board membership, and other forms of representation and leadership reinforce the significance of Youth Voice throughout communities.
  6. Children and Youth as Advocates. When young people stand for their beliefs and understand the impact of their voices, they can represent their families and communities with pride, courage, and ability.
  7. Children and Youth as Evaluators. Assessing and evaluating the effects of programs, classes, activities, and projects can promote Youth Voice in powerful ways. Young people can learn that their opinions are important, and their experiences are valid indicators of success.
  8. Children and Youth as Specialists. Envisioning roles for youth to teach youth is relatively easy; seeing new roles for youth to teach adults is more challenging. Youth specialists bring expert knowledge about particular subjects to programs and organizations, enriching everyone’s ability to be more effective.
  9. Children and Youth as Advisors. When youth advise adults they provide genuine knowledge, wisdom, and ideas to each other, adults, organizations, institutions, communities, and other locations and activities that affect them and their world at large.
  10. Children and Youth as Designers. Youth participate in creating intentional, strategic plans for an array of activities, including curriculum, building construction, youth and community programs, and more.
  11. Children and Youth as Teachers. Facilitating learning for themselves, other youth, adults, or children, youth can be teachers of small and large groups in all kinds of topics.
  12. Children and Youth as Grant-makers. Youth in philanthropy identify funding, distribute grants, evaluate effectiveness, and conduct other parts of the process involved in grant-making.
  13. Children and Youth as Planners. When planning programs, operations, activities, and other events and activities, youth can benefit nonprofits, schools, their homes, and any other institution throughout society.
  14. Children and Youth as Lobbyists. Influencing policy-makers, legislators, politicians, and the people who work for them are among the activities for youth as lobbyists.
  15. Children and Youth as Trainers. When they train adults, youth, children, and others, youth can share their wisdom, ideas, knowledge, attitudes, actions, and processes in order to guide programs, nurture organization and community cultures, and change the world.
  16. Children and Youth as Politicians. Running for political office at the community, city, county, or state levels, youth as politicians can run for a variety of positions.
  17. Children and Youth as Recruiters. Youth building excitement, sharing motivation, or otherwise helping their communities or people to get involved, create change, or make all sorts of things happen can happen through youth as recruiters.
  18. Children and Youth as Social entrepreneurs. When youth recognize a social problem, they can use entrepreneurial principles to organize, create, and manage a venture to make social change.
  19. Children and Youth as Paid staff. When organizations, businesses, agencies, and other groups hire youth, they can be staff members in programs for adults, other youth, children, or for the community at large. They can fulfill many roles on this list in paid positions.
  20. Children and Youth as Mentors. Mentoring is a non-hierarchical relationship between youth and adults, adults and youth, or among youth themselves, that helps facilitate learning and guidance for each participant. 
  21. Children and Youth as Decision makers. Participating in formal and informal decision-making, youth can be board members, committee members, and in many different roles.
  22. Children and Youth as Activity Leaders. As activity leaders in nonprofits, community organizations, and other areas, youth can facilitate, teach, guide, direct, and otherwise lead youth, adults, and children in a variety of ways.
  23. Children and Youth as Policy-makers. When they research, plan, write, and evaluate rules, regulations, laws, and other policies, youth as policy-makers can enrich, substantiate, enliven, and impact the outcomes of policies in many ways.
You can find more information in my 2006 publication, The Freechild Project Guide to Social Change Led By and With Young People.


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

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.

Engage, Involve, Inspire, Motivate, and Activate Youth!

Do you want to engage, involve, inspire, motivate, or activate young people? Then order my book, The Freechild Project Youth-Driven Programming Guide!

Packed with useful activities, deep insights, practical tips, and other information and resources your need to move youth voice, youth engagement, youth leadership, and youth empowerment to the FRONT of your work with young people!

The book is meant for people who work with middle school and high school youth. If you work with traditional youth leaders, you’ll learn how to move that work forward. If you work with nontraditional youth leaders, you can learn how to engage them in positive, powerful activities that can change your program or organization.

Details

  • The Freechild Project Youth-Driven Programming Guide
  • By Adam Fletcher
  • Price: $11.99
  • Order from Amazon.com or request the book from your local bookseller.

Reader Reviews

“The Youth-Driven Programming Guide is a must read for youth workers in all settings. Adam does a tremendous job of getting straight to the point with a clear message in a concise format that even the busiest of youth workers will be able to make time to read. We operate a Parks & Recreation related youth program that provides multiple youth after school program sites, late night events, a series of dances, and a Youth Commission. This guide is the newest required reading for all volunteers and staff within our program. 

—Paul Simmons, Parks and Recreation Director, Cheney, Washington

“I work with groups of young people in Preston, Lancashire, England to have a real voice in decision making in our Impact Youth Groups, co-working with young people training to be Youth Workers and my work in schools and justice projects. The book is an excellent informal education tool in planning your work young people, supporting the work you, developed with young people in a simple understanding education tool, creates fun in learning, while young people can be given a real voice with support, in their social education learning and decision making experiences.”

—Terry Mattinson, youth worker, Preston, Lancashire, United Kingdom

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

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!