10 Steps To Youth Integration

Challenging youth segregation can be tricky.

Anyone who advocates for youth involvement, youth engagement, youth voice, youth empowerment, or youth rights is ultimately calling for the same this: the integration of young people in our society. As it stands, young people are routinely segregated from a lot of places. This includes the institutions that serve them directly, such as schools, nonprofits, governments, and faith-based communities. It also includes their homes, as well as places where they should be treated without bias but aren’t, including businesses. Ultimately, youth integration has to happen in all relationships between young people and adults.

This work has been underway for more than two decades, and needs to unite now. It starts with re-envisioning the roles of young people throughout society. In the last decade, I’ve worked in more than 200 communities across the US to help them re-envision their work with young people. Its been successful in some ways, challenging in others.

Through my efforts with The Freechild Project, along with similar programs across the country, a generation of young people and their adult allies have come to believe that our society can do more than simply do things to young people. Instead, we can co-create the world together. This notion reflects the wisdom, “Nothing about me without me is for me.”
Studying my own work and the vast library of literature I’ve collected focusing on this approach, I’ve devised some key points for integrating youth throughout society.
10 Steps to Youth Integration
  1. Think Sustainable—Identify practical ways to ensure youth keep being integrated after an initial planning period. Begin by sitting down with a group of adults young people together and talk about the world today, their specific lives, and what they think needs to change. From the beginning, infuse youth in facilitation, evaluation, research, decision-making, and advocacy right into the culture of your group. If you must involve children and youth in a one-shot activity, let them know of real opportunities for them to be integrated with adults in their lives outside your group.
  2. Clear Purpose—Name a clear purpose for integrating young people in your community. Come up with a mission statement. Let youth and adults, organization leaders, parents, community members, and local schools know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Clarity of purpose is often missing from young people’s lives, as school is done to them, family is done to them, and stores are done to them. Anywhere in society looking to actually integrate young people needs to let young people know the world be done with them, and they should know why that’s important.
  3. Integrate The Non-Traditionally Engaged—Create space and help children and youth who haven’t been especially engaged in your community to become integrated. Actively integrating both traditionally involved young people and non-traditionally involved young people can radically transform your community in all sorts of ways. If you don’t know how to do this, get trained; if you need a reason, read this.
  4. Real Connections—When young people see themselves in your program, real connections are happening. When real connections happen, children and youth become engaged. While they may have obvious expertise or interests in a specific topic, its important for your group to help young people discover what they know right now, and to see what they know inside what you’re doing.
  5. Equity, Not Equality—Develop equitable roles between young people and adults.  This means that groups don’t pretend all things between children, youth, and adults are 50/50 split equally, because in our adult-centered society that is simply never true. Equity allows young people and adults to enter into responsible relationships that acknowledge what each other knows and doesn’t know, and to work from that place instead of assuming everyone has equal ability and capacity. We’re all different; let’s not pretend otherwise.
  6. Grow Their Capacity—Grow the existing capacity of children and youth to become involved in planning. Both young people and adults can learn from training about work styles, assumptions, skills, and more. 
  7. Make A Clear Plan—Having a specific pathway for young people to see how their integration will change their community. Are they contributing to an existing program? Opening a brand-new course of action and learning? Working with the same adults in new ways, or partnering with new adults? Its important to remember that creating a youth integration plan is not the culmination of work, but the starting point of a group’s efforts to create a more democratic society. A clear plan should include: 1) Practical next steps; 2) Roles and responsibilities for youth and adults; 3) an integration structure for your community; 4) group member evaluation opportunities. Setting priorities, using timelines with dates, and developing clear benchmarks for measuring success in each area can also enhance your community.
  8. Get SystemicEncourage youth integration beyond your group. Young people can be engaged in researching their community, school, nonprofit program, or anything through PAR. They can facilitate, teach, and mentor peers, younger people, and adult. They can evaluate themselves, their organizations and communities, workplaces and businesses, and other places. They can participate in organizational, family, community, or other decision-making. They can advocate for what they care about. Ultimately, they can be engaged throughout society in every way you can imagine.
  9. Connect The DotsEstablish deep youth/adult partnerships wherever possible. Collaborations that reinforce learning will deepen any effort to integrate youth. The partnerships established in this process can deepen efforts through the future, and mutually support youth and adults throughout your community.
  10. Eyes Wide OpenOpen the doors to critical examination. Use critical lenses to examine your assumptions and effects in your group. Identifying strengths and weaknesses allow groups and communities to improve the overall integration of youth, especially through your particular effort. Make space by giving young people permission and skills they need to be partners in mutual accountability with adults. In your group, set clear benchmarks and agree on celebrations when they’re met and consequences that young people can see for when those benchmarks are not met.

Aside from ethical considerations for youth integration, there is a practical basis to integrate youth throughout society. A variety of recent research demonstrates that there may be no parallel to making schools, youth programs, government agencies, and even families more effective. The most intuitive outcome is true: Integrating young people throughout society changes young people who experience integration. 

Less obvious are the effects that youth integration has on adults throughout our communities. When they’re actively infused throughout the broader community, young people can actually affect the broad community beyond your group in a variety of ways over the short and long term. The effects include lifelong civic engagement, and developing strong and sustained connections to the educational, economic, and cultural values of their neighborhoods and cities. Youth integration can dream no higher goals. (See here, here, and here for some studies.)

More importantly though, this pathway shows that youth integration is feasible. What are you doing to get it going in your community?

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

7 Steps to ConnectYoung People And Social Change

You can take action and connect young people with social change right now!

1. Engage Young People in Social Change
Who better to work with children and youth than their peers? Learn how to empower young people to change the world by building engaged neighborhoods, schools and communities. START EMPOWERING YOUNG PEOPLE

2. Connect Young People + Social Change in Communities
Nonprofits, faith-based communities, and other community-based organizations should actively engage young people throughout their lives. This includes educational, recreational, religious, government, and other activities that happen out-of-school—before school, after school, during school breaks, and in the summertime. MAKE COMMUNITIES MORE ENGAGING

3. Do It in Schools

Young people spend the majority of their day at school. Students, teachers, school support staff, education leaders, parents, and other communities members can support in engaging young people to change the world. GET RESOURCES FOR SCHOOLS

4. Donate to the Freechild Project
Your donation will go toward our efforts to engage young people in changing the world. Its NOT tax-deductible and it still makes a difference. DONATE TO CHANGE THE WORLD

5. Train Others
Want to be more active along with your donation? Lead by example. Use our resources to train others to successfully engage young people and transform communities. START TRAINING NOW

6. Get Your Organization Involved
Engaging young people to change the world is a goal many people can support. Become a local collaborator or establish a volunteer relationship with us and together we can do great work. LEARN HOW WE CAN WORK TOGETHER

7. Transform Your Own Actions
Work throughout your own life to engage young people more effectively. Also work throughout your organization to create more engaged, more active, more just, and more engaging places for young people to change the world. ADD TO YOUR TOOLBOX
Let us know what YOU are doing to connect young people and social change today!
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Ending Youth Voice

There aren’t too many deliberate attempts out there to stifle youth voice. But without knowing it, many adults unconsciously undermine their own attempts to promote the unique perspectives of young people on their own lives.

A while back I wrote an advisement for all youth voice practitioners designed to raise our consciousness about the things we unconsciously do that undermine youth voice, ultimately ending it. Find the original article at http://freechild.org/YouthVoice/end.htm

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

5 Steps to Integrate Youth

Nike, Levi’s, and a lot of other brands that sell things to youth have realized that the secret to marketing to youth is personalization: Let them help design it, and young people will spend a lot for it. At the same time, many websites allow young users to develop sophisticated personal profiles, letting them connect their friends, identify with organizations and causes they want to be affiliated with, and personalize the look and operation of the website to suit their personal tastes. According to a recent expose by CBS News, “In 1983, companies spent $100 million marketing to kids. Today, they’re spending nearly $17 billion annually. That’s more than double what it was in 1992.”

In the face of this, young people routinely experience the rest of society being done to them and for them, instead of with them or by themselves.

I believe children and youth are not the consumers of their lives. However, it is clear to me that marketers (again) have one up on all adults who work with young people. Rather than following their direct lead, I think there are lessons we can learn from them. Here are 5 steps to integrate youth.
5 Steps to Integrate Youth

1) Educate yourself first. Recognize that all young people are segregated everywhere, all the time. I wrote a series of articles for The Freechild Project Youth Voice Toolkit such as “Guidelines for Youth Voice” and “Creating a Safe and Supportive Environment for Youth Voice” that can teach you before you work to build youth integration in your community.

2) See all young people. Read a piece about youth voice and young children and the role of youth engagement for infants and children I wrote on the CommonAction blog. In the history of children in the US, a lot of it focuses on the suffering of young children. But a few historians actually acknowledge that even young children have always been important to the well-being of the United States. That’s even more true today than ever before.

3) Invest in your own development. You don’t have to spend money on advertisements or developing apps. Instead, invest in time by attending trainings, conducting social media activities, and taking deliberate actions to integrate young people throughout your community. Find out what CommonAction Consulting can do with your organization or community.4) Strengthen youth involvement. If you want young people to be integrated, you have to involve them throughout every part of your community. That includes planning, research, facilitation, training, evaluation, decision-making, and advocacy. Learn how to do all this and more from the SoundOut Student Voice Curriculum.

5) Everywhere, all the time. When businesses want to sell things to young people, they ingratiate themselves throughout the lives of children and youth, in their clothing, video games, and other places. We must take according steps without overspending on technology or t-shirts by taking steps to integrate young people throughout their communities. Learn about Hampton, Virginia for a great example of what this looks like.

There are many other steps to take, but integrating youth is an essential responsibility we should all take on. These are some ways to do that.

You Might Like…

Keeping Youth Programs Relevant

The National League of Cities is an organization that works across the country to “help city leaders build better communities”. One of their initiatives is called the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families, or YEF. In a recent publication, YEF proposed there are four primary ways youth programs can ensure their relevancy in cities:

  • Coordinate systems to support effective service delivery.
  • Ensure programs are of high quality.
  • Offer a wide variety of relevant program options.
  • Promote college attendance and workplace readiness.
While these are all good practices and things that every program should aspire to, they aren’t quite responsive to the realities young people face today.

This is true of the entire report. Working from a deficit model of what’s wrong with children and youth, the authors of the guide open by proclaiming that without youth programs,

Youth are more prone to engage in juvenile delinquency, substance abuse and other risky behaviors after 3:00 p.m. if there are few positive OST programs available. Municipal leaders are also well aware of the impact of high school dropout rates on crime and unemployment, and are increasingly sup- porting out-of-school learning opportunities as a strategy for promoting school and career success. (p. 3)

This approach to rationalizing the existence of youth programs is common. Too easily, it suggests that youth program providers are the Great White Hope, doing what nobody else can do, and without them all young people are falling to pieces.
While that’s a common approach, I believe that its misguided at best, virtually ensuring the irrelevance of youth programs today and into the future.
The relevance of youth programs relies on recognizing current trends, identifying new opportunities, and leading communities forward. Seeing youth as deficits and taking white knight stances does none of those things; worst still, it perpetuates the belief many funders have that many traditional youth programs aren’t effective and can only be made effective through radical accountability.
More than a decade ago, I began working in communities across the US and Canada to promote the integration of youth voice throughout our communities. When I published The Freechild Project Youth Voice Toolkit online for free, I thought I was only speaking to the audience that’s concerned with youth voice, youth engagement, meaningful youth involvement, and youth-driven programming. However, reading over YEF’s report, today I see that the things I’ve learned about youth voice also apply to the wider field of all youth programs.
Youth voice, which is any expression about anything from any young person anywhere, ever, obviously appears ubiquitous throughout our society. Marketers sell youth to older people, while more products appear geared towards youth than ever before. However, the difference is that youth voice comes from youth themselves. Its not conformed, deformed, reformed, or transformed by adults to do whatever we want. Instead, it is simply what youth think, say, feel, do, believe, understand, and know on their own without adults.
In order to maintain their relevance, youth programs should follow the following principles I summarize below. You can find the complete version on The Freechild Project website.
Keys to Youth Voice
  1. Don’t fool the youth. The old saying, “You can’t fool all the people all the time” applies to young people, too.
  2. Work with young people – not for young people. Don’t do for children and youth what they can do with you.
  3. Make “having fun” powerful. The days of “pizza box youth engagement” are over, and you can’t just throw a bunch of “fun food” into a room and expect young people to come and learn something meaningful.
  4. Embrace change. Planning today is not as rigid as it used to be, and young people today are more flexible than ever. Teach the benefits of change by “going with the flow” and striving to be calm in the center of chaos.
  5. Don’t talk about “youth problems” anymore. Young people are part of larger communities, and when they have a problem, their communities have a problem.
  6. Teach young people about adultism when they are young. By being a responsible advocate for youth you can illustrate the practice and possibilities of being an active ally to young people.
  7. Acknowledge young people in significant ways. Patting someone on the back or giving them a certificate can only go so far.
  8. Engage young people in something greater than themselves. MLK wrote that living nonviolence requires us to, “rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” When applied to young people this means that simply encouraging or allowing young people to advocate for themselves is not enough.
Using these keys as a guide for critical thinking, assessment, and program planning, youth programs can assure their relevance well into the future.
Change is inevitable; staying with it and growing from it is not. Keep youth programs relevant by adapting and transforming with the times, and the young people you’re trying to serve.
Here are some links mentioned above:
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Good News for Pittsburgh Youth!

Adam’s note: This is the second of many posts I’m writing for a blog called AfterschoolPGH. I’m taking the privilege of reposting it here for your reading pleasure and my future reference!

The news doesn’t generally tell us is how excellent youth today are. Despite the pressures of a crumbling economy and failing social safety net, more than ever, youth are thriving. From my experience and research traveling the nation, I have directly observed that civic engagement, volunteering, community action, and social change led by young people are soaring. I’m not simply talking about those kids either: Instead, there’s a rampant movement afoot across our nation to engage all young people in changing the world.

Allegheny County is no exception. Across the area, there are countless youth working with adults to make their neighborhoods, the whole area, and our entire world a better place. One excellent example is Strong Women, Strong Girls (SWSG). This nationally recognized multi-generational mentoring program fosters leadership skills, a sense of female community, and a commitment to service among three generations: elementary-school girls, undergraduate women, and professional women. Another is Unified for Youth in Pittsburgh (U4Y). An annual conference boasting over 70 participants, U4Y is the only conference of its kind in Pittsburgh, bringing together youth, adult allies and educators for two days of safe schools training in LGBT issues.

Powerful activities like these serve as role models for other organizations and communities throughout Allegheny. They also change the narrative about youth by forcing the media to see young people in Pittsburgh as powerful contributors to making the world a better place.

Other examples come from the City of Pittsburgh Mayor’s Youth Council. Their goal is to serve as a liaison between youth and the Youth Commission on issues affecting youth. The Council encourages the positive growth and development of young people by involving them in social, cultural, recreational and other drug and alcohol-free activities. Upon request of the Mayor or City Council, the Youth Council shall provide advice and assistance on matters concerning the needs of youth from the perspective of young people.

When NAACP President Benjamin Jealous recently spoke in downtown Pittsburgh, he challenged young people to see that groups of committed, principled people can always overcome organized money. So many examples throughout Allegheny County demonstrate exactly how that’s happening, especially because youth are partners.

A faith-based community in the region that focuses on seeing youth past the news is called the Pittsburgh Youth Cluster with Adults, or PYCA. This effort of the Unitarian Universalists focuses on building an interdependent web of youth in the greater Pittsburgh area (hereafter referred to as the Cluster) through spiritual, social action, and community building activities. They say, “We are youth organizing youth!”

A large engine in Pittsburgh moving youth past the news is the Heinz Endowment. Through strategic targeting, they’re funding campaigns led by and with youth focused on air quality, education reform, and much more. The reports linked to here cover more than a dozen organizations, and are well worth exploring.
One way that young people themselves are addressing media bias against them is by creating their own media. In Allegheny County, a coalition called Pittsburgh Youth Media is creating opportunities for young people in the region to engage in both traditional and non-traditional forms of media, using the tools, skills, practices and technologies that professional media outlets use, thereby enabling them to participate thoughtfully in reporting on current events and issues. Pittsburgh Youth Media is a coalition of education, media and community groups formed in early 2012. Members include Carlow University, SLB Radio Productions, Inc., The Consortium for Public Education, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Community Television, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, WQED Multimedia, Allegheny Conference on Community Development. These organizations and the individuals involved are concerned enough about how the traditional media portrays youth to create a new narrative with youth as partners.

Congratulations Pittsburgh- you’re beginning to see youth past the news. Keep it going!

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

3 Tips for Excellent Youth Programs

“Some programs suck,” said Latisha as she sunk into her chair, arms folded.

Jennifer piped in, “Yeah, teachers can just be rude and get away with it.”
“Ah man, I had this one who tried to pick a fight with me just because I had to go to the bathroom,” volunteered a guy everyone called Bee.
This was part of a conversation I had last week at the National Service Learning Conference in Denver, Colorado. There to co-facilitate a presentation of a project I’m involved with in Seattle, I made a point of connecting with several young people who were attending the conference too. At lunch one day I sat down with a group of African-American students. Speaking frankly, I reassured them that I was a safe adult to talk to, and started asking them about the programs they attended in their hometown of Minneapolis. A little while into that conversation the above dialog came out.
I believe it’s because of perceptions like the ones above that youth programs are absolutely essential to the vitality and success of communities in the United States today. Faced with an unending barrage of challenges from the neighborhoods they serve, K-12 schools across the country today are under assault from all sides. Their budgets are getting cuts and their problems are stacking up.
Don’t get me wrong: I know that youth program providers aren’t having it a lot easier. However, there’s are many reasons why our nonprofit, government, and faith-based programs are going to make it a lot further than their K-12 comrades in schools, and one of the primary reasons is excellent facilitation. Following are a few tips for how to facilitate excellent youth programs.
3 Tips for Excellent Youth Programs
  1. Don’t be evil. Afterschool programs are not business, and nor should they be. They do not generate fiscal profit, and rely primarily on donations from individual and foundation donors, as well as government funds. This means that the 200,000 young people under 18 in Allegheny County aren’t consumers and the aren’t products. Instead, they’re humans. They’re imbued with emotions and ideas, feelings and beliefs. They ask questions, observe, critique, praise, examine, explore, identify, deny, and play, often insatiably. Excellent afterschool programs don’t squelch or repress these instincts; instead, they uplift and support them. They ensure that ultimately they’re serving young people where they’re at, and not insisting they go somewhere else. Don’t be evil with children and youth.
  2. Do not harm. All children are born with a love of life. It doesn’t matter what family you’re born into or what the conditions are that you are raised in; children want to dig into living and grow. After years of increasing instruction and guidance and leadership by adults, young people can feel the love of living squeezed out of them. They’re exposed to the realities of poverty and the tension of popular culture, all of which seems determined to make them into successful consumers. Excellent afterschool programs foster the love of living within their participants, no matter how old they are. Teenagers become successful community leaders when they’re in great afterschool programs; elementary students become determined learners. Do no harm by lifting the love of life into the highest part of your heart and mind, and engaging young people in doing the same thing.
  3. Make things better. Its a cynical age that divests in afterschool programs while increasing funds for private juvenile incarceration companies. Young people in low-income homes are parents by moms and dads working two and three part jobs to make ends meet, while middle class children and youth are becoming latchkey kids again. Seen primarily only as lower-income consumers and service workers, businesses are withdrawing their support for young people too. When they invest in empowering and engaging young people, excellent afterschool programs step head and shoulders above their peers. Make things better by serving children and youth in substantive ways that changes lives. We can’t afford for you to do any less than that.
Afterschool programs have had to rely on excellent facilitation for their entire existence. Without the compulsory attendance laws governing schools, we’ve had to rely on appealing to kids from a more base level in order to recruit, engage, and retain participants. Providers can’t be jerks, autocrats, or mean, because children and youth will simply stop attending their programs.
The steps above are just a start; I wrote an article called “Becoming An Excellent Facilitator” that you may appreciate. Find other great resources, and make your youth program an excellent one.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Youth Involvement in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania

Adam’s note: This is the first of many posts I’m writing for a blog called AfterschoolPGH. I’m taking the privilege of reposting it here for your reading pleasure and my future reference!

Since the 1970s, there’s been a national movement to promote youth voice. Funny enough, there’s never been just one definition of youth voice, so its not surprising that the movement never really took off. I wrote the my Short History of Youth Voice in the United States back in 2005, and since then I’ve uncovered a lot more history. Historical writer Phillip Hoose has contributed extensively to these findings too. However, he and I aren’t really writing about a movement, per se, but instead, incidents. In 2004, the National Youth Leadership Council invited me to think about the question of whether the youth voice movement was dead, and almost 10 years later I know the answer.
I came to Pittsburgh in 2011 to share the basics of Youth-Driven Programming with almost 50 providers from across Allegheny County. The year before the University of Pittsburgh’s Youth and Family Training Institute brought me to State College to talk with youth providers from the systems of care movement. Throughout my times with these different program workers, organization leaders, and others, I learned about many different ways youth voice is engaged throughout Allegheny County. Before I explore some of these examples, let’s define some terms.

  • Youth Voice. I define any expression of any young people anywhere, anytime, about anything, as youth voice. This wide-open definition allows for the broad diversity of children and youth to be acknowledged, and makes it so that youth voice is not contingent on whether or not adults want to hear it. Listening to youth voice is a step towards youth engagement, but they’re not the same. 
  • Youth Engagement. After reviewing the research literature and writing a variety of summaries about it, I defined youth engagement as the sustained connection young people feel to the world within and around them. This includes all types of connections, from interpersonal to intrapersonal, animated to stagnant, social to personal. Youth engagement is required for youth-driven programming, but can exist without YDP. 
  • Youth-Driven Programming. YDP is a guiding philosophy and practice for organizations that integrates youth as partners in a variety of ways throughout organizations and communities. YDP is among the deepest forms of youth integration that can happen in nonprofits, government agencies, and faith-based community. 

All that said, youth voice is a lot broader than YDP. YDP demands an integrity and commitment that a lot of organizations simply can’t make. However, all organizations can and should listen to youth voice. As simple expression, youth voice can be everything from youth on boards to graffiti and poetry, and from youth surveys to clothing and music. Youth voice is any expression of young people, and not just those that adults want to hear.

In Allegheny County, there are several examples of organizations that use YDP to effectively reach young people. Following are just a few.

  • CHANGE – The Children’s Hospital Advisory Network for Guidance and Empowerment (CHANGE) is a youth led and driven board which advises Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC about the youth perspective and issues that affect this population. It will work to ensure successful adult lives for youth who have special healthcare needs or have faced barriers in healthcare transition. 
  • Summer Youth Philanthropy Interns – Recognizing the need to incorporate a youth voice in its grant making, The Heinz Endowments again employed recent high school graduates as summer youth philanthropy interns. The program included eight teams of interns at local nonprofit organizations, each of which awarded $25,000 in grants. 
  • SITY (Systems Improvement Through Youth) – Comprised of 14 individuals, ages 16 through 25 years, who are active in or alumni of DHS and related child-serving systems including child welfare, drug and alcohol, education, juvenile justice, mental health and mental retardation. Building on the value of their personal experiences in the system, they will be assisted to develop leadership skills as advocates and system advisors, be provided with positive experiences of social service careers and policymaking, and be encouraged in their professional development. 

As each of these show, YDP is much more involved, sophisticated, and impacting than youth voice. They represent the next forefront of work for afterschool providers across the nation, and especially in Allegheny County. Here are several resources that might be useful for your own YDP efforts:


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

White Culture Dominates Youth Engagement

White middle class culture dominates youth engagement. As the predominant culture in the U.S. today, white people operate many of the nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and education institutions where youth engagement activities occur throughout our society.

In most communities, white people like me create the policy, write the grants, operate the programs, identify the participants, develop the activities, hire the workers, manage the budgets, discipline the participants, evaluate and assess the activities, and promote youth engagement as a concept.

Elements of white middle class dominant culture are the driving force in our notions, activities, knowledge, ideals, and outcomes from youth engagement. Our ways of operating, our systems of belief, and our culture drives the nature of the work we do. Every. Single. One. Of. Us.

In their article “Elements of White Middle Class Dominant Culture“, authors Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun identify the following traits as elements: Perfectionism, sense of urgency, defensiveness, quantity over quality, worship of the written word, only one right way, paternalism, either/or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, individualism, I’m the only one, progress is bigger/more, objectivity, and the right to comfort.

These traits are predominant in much of the youth engagement work I’ve seen across North America over the last decade. Perfectionism is typical of many organizations and programs that constantly strive to “get it right” without ever finding contentment among the ambiguity of young people. Many other traits, including quantity over quality; only one right way; either/or thinking; power hoarding; I’m the only one; bigger/more thinking; and the right to comfort are hallmarks for many programs and projects.

I find myself responsible for perpetuating many of these traits as I teach people about youth engagement. I constantly talk about the urgency of now, frequently inciting Dr. King’s work while railing against the perpetual disengagement of youth in most communities. The defensiveness implicit in my call extends from a sense of not-worthiness when I bring up the topic of youth engagement. Thinking about individualism and paternalism, I can see my entire practice as a consultant come into focus, as I work alone in many circumstances.

Identifying these traits isn’t about what is bad or wrong; instead, its an acknowledgment that there is another way to do things. Einstein’s insistence that doing the same thing over and over again is the definition of insanity may be spot on; we need new visions for youth engagement if we’re ever going to achieve mainstream cultural and social change.

If nothing else, I am going to facilitate new conversations for people to talk about the white middle class hegemony of youth engagement. I am going to make space for more cultures to inform and motivate youth engagement. I am going to keep bringing more people into the conversation, and continue stepping out of the way when its time.

What are YOU going to do?




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!