Why I Advocate for Youth

Our histories can be as important as our actions when we’re trying to change the world in any way, because they drive so much of what we do.

Like most folks, my own motivation has a lot of roots. Many of them stem from experiencing childhood homelessness; others from youth activism and community organizing I led when I was a teen; others from being blatantly discriminated against because of my age; other roots come from growing up a poor white kid with a goofy Canadian accent living illegally in a working class African American neighborhood in the middle of the US.

Here’s one distinct root: When I was 14, I was attending a magnet high school in my city. It drew in middle and upper class white kids from a predominately middle class area to attend a computer/science program, while I was living in the predominately African American, low-income and working class neighborhood where the school was located. All the neighborhood students- me included- were mostly in remedial programs.

That year was the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, and I’d become inspired to do something, so I wanted to join the Environmental Club. I was turned away though, informed that only honors students could participate. I went on a guerrilla activism campaign with friends to start an alternative, which after we couldn’t a teacher to sponsor, we led on our own. We were dumpster diving for pop cans, building 6′ x 6′ cardboard Earth Day cards for our principal, and spray painting all over the outside of the building with pro-Earth slogans throughout the rest of high school, mostly in protest, sometimes in angst, all without a caring or concerned adult on our side. Still to this day, that motivates a lot of my work.

I have a dozen of these stories from that age, along with other stories that don’t get their own public space yet. But yeah, this is one. Here’s a few more:

I have also been interviewed a few times that included my history.

This is a little bit of my history; tell me a little bit of yours.

We CAN Solve Youth Apathy

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A lot of employers think youth today are apathetic. Reading the news, surfing social media, and watching tv and the movies leaves them with the impression that young people are shiftless, with no momentum to move forward into the brave new future that’s waiting for them. Adults who around with youth everyday can be most worried, since our children, students, clients, and young employees can show our worst impressions are true.

What You THINK Youth Apathy Is

Educators often see youth apathy as…

  • Indifference to learning opportunities
  • Not applying oneself in the classroom
  • Consistently being late or skipping classes
  • Treating the future in a lazy way

Parents may see youth apathy as…

  • Not paying attention to present or future activities
  • Walking away from opportunities parents present
  • Zoning out with drugs, alcohol, sex, or electronic devices
  • Lack of interest in the family or household

In the workplace, managers may think youth apathy looks like…

  • Lack of appreciation for the job they are being hired for
  • Dressing in inappropriate ways
  • Not meeting basic performance expectations
  • Showing a blatant lack of ambition for advancement opportunities
  • Seeming indifferent to managers’ expectations
  • Not performing at the highest levels
  • Consistently showing up unprepared or late for work
  • Quitting

As customers, businesses might see youth apathy as…

  • Indifference to new products or services
  • Lazy usage of products
  • Lack of interest in paying more for premium products or services
  • Non-loyalty to brands, services, products, or locations

However, all of these characteristics are genuinely misdiagnosed. Instead of being an active choice deliberately made by young people, youth apathy is generally a conditioned response to a set of stimulus presented to them throughout their childhoods.

10 Ways Youth Apathy Happens

The way to solve youth apathy is to see what youth apathy actually is: A conditioned response that is trained into the hearts and minds of young people from the time they are small children. Responding to their feelings of disappointment, dejection, and stress, young people become apathetic to economics, either as employees or consumers. The way to solve youth apathy is to address these feelings.

Youth apathy happens like this…

  1. Growing Childhood: As children, all of people have natural inquisitiveness and are deeply engaged in the world. They use this inquisition to gain skills, and our engagement builds relationships with the people, objects, and activities they are part of.
  2. Living at Home: While being raised by parents or caregivers of all stripes, the natural desires young people have are channeled towards accomplishing adults’ goals in addition to their own. The best of these experiences ensures young peoples’ investment in the process and ownership over the outcomes. The worst is indifferent to their responses and to the resulting apathy exhibited.
  3. Attending Schools: The willingness of youth to learn effectively intrudes in teachers’ agenda as they work to narrow our imaginations and limit our interests in order to meet prescribed agendas.
  4. Buying Things: Young people take their inherent optimism with them into the marketplace with relative ease, saving change or earning allowances in order to buy a new toy or cool shoes.
  5. Receiving Money: As we want to acquire more things and experience increasing desire for independence, we seek to acquire more money. Some get jobs while others simply ask.
  6. Getting Jobs: Many young people are not hired for jobs, soon after experiencing their first brush with substantive apathy.
  7. Feeling Disappointed: As they cannot afford the products they’re advertised, more young people develop more apathy. If they can afford the things they’re told they should want, young people can develop indifference for the value of things. Filling up their lives with material possessions, they disregard or don’t know how to meet their emotional, psychological, or physical well-being, consequently becoming apathetic about themselves.
  8. Cashing Paychecks: When they get their first job, the paychecks of many young people are sucked away into paying for their lifestyles, whether they receive money from parents or are barely scraping by on their own. This increases youth apathy by incapacitating their abilities to make a difference in their own lives.
  9. Paying Taxes: In schools and homes where the government is portrayed as evil and paying taxes towards the public good is seen as stupid, young people can feel increasing amounts of apathy. At this point, engaging in the public good can actuallybuild youth apathy and disregard for the larger world they live in.
  10. Feeling Left Behind: Increasing amounts of adult indifference to the health and well-being of young people is only promoting youth apathy, as they follow role models of all stripes and meet the expectations (or lack thereof) for them.

As Maya Angelou wrote, “We are all creative, but by the time we are three of four years old, someone has knocked the creativity out of us. Some people shut up the kids who start to tell stories. Kids dance in their cribs, but someone will insist they sit still. By the time the creative people are ten or twelve, they want to be like everyone else.” This is the root of youth apathy.

How to Solve Youth Apathy

There is no silver bullet for solving youth apathy. After more than 20 years working in communities across the US and Canada to help youth themselves, employers, social workers, teachers, parents and others to overcome this issue, I am clear on that. I’ve studied the research, talked with the experts, and workshopped with youth, and nobody has one single answer.

Instead, there are dozens of ways to solve youth apathy. Each of these ways reveals a pattern though, and through my work I’ve discovered what it looks like. Following is my Cycle of Engagement, an easy-to-follow five step process for forming sustained connections with young people that empower them to overcome apathy as workers, consumers, students, children, and citizens throughout our society.

  • Step 1: Listen to Youth. You know the drill: You’re at your desk one day, working away at an important project when a youth comes up to you really excited and says, “Hey, listen to this…” You tilt your head a little, and maybe lean towards them, but you keep doing whatever you were. You’re not really listening, are you? You might be hearing them talk, and you might even understand what they’re saying – but you’re not really thinking about it or feeling it. The difference between listening and hearing makes the difference for defeating youth apathy, and that’s where youth engagement starts—when young people have an actively engaged audience to listen to their ideas, opinions, experiences, knowledge, and/or actions. However, listening is just the first step; engagement requires more.
  • Step 2: Validate what youth say or do. You’ve heard people say it, and you might have said it yourself: “Oh, that’s really nice.” As managers, we try to say “nice” in just the right way, but to many young people it seems insincere. We think we are doing the right thing by encouraging them to move forward, but in our heads we really thinking about the time we fell flat on our face from the same approach. Instead of hiding our true thoughts, it is our job to honestly validate what young people say or do by honestly reacting to it, how we sincerely feel or think about it. If we think something will fail, we should say so to youth. Validation means disagreeing, or agreeing, or asking more questions, as honestly as we can. We shows respect for youth and respect them by explaining what we think and working together to search for alternatives.
  • Step Three: Authorize Youth. Authority is an awesome word that can be intimidating for many people, no matter what their ages. W When their skills are built and/or they’ve gotten positions that insist they rise to the occasion, young people can become active in defeating their own apathy. Managers, parents, and others can provide practical steps towards actual engagement for all youth, instead of just words. As well as the skills, we must involve young people in applicable, practical activities that are actually powerful, purposeful, and rewarding, whether at work, in school, at home, or throughout the community. As they overcome apathy by applying their new skills to practical action, youth gain the authority to make a difference.
  • Step Four: Take Action With YouthYouth engagement does not just happen and youth apathy doesn’t just go away; instead, those must be a goal that is actively worked towards. Taking action requires young people to work together with adults to make the space, place, and ability for change. That can happen at school, in the workplace, at home, and throughout their lives. Action can– and should– look different everywhere: from identifying the challenge, researching the issue, planning for action, training for effectiveness, reflection on the process, to celebrating the outcomes, youth engagement is a totally flexible tool – but it’s purpose is not. The purpose of youth engagement is always to create, support, and sustain powerful, purposeful, and meaningful communities for everyone to belong to.An important caution: action is usually seen as the most important step in this Cycle. Unfortunately, this makes positive outcomes the most important thing. For many issues, positive outcomes rarely come, or if they do, not as immediately as people would like. For many people, the next step can be the most important component of engagement.
  • Step Five: Reflect. Reflection may be the most important ongoing step to solving youth apathy, and for engaging anyone anywhere at anytime, especially youth. When young people critically evaluate and analyze their workplaces, schools, homes, or communities, learning becomes a vibrant, intricate, and powerful tool for engaging them. Reflection activities used should be appropriate for diverse youth, whether that’s simply talking, or writing, acting, creating collages, and building activities. Once you have finished reflecting with young people, take the lessons you’ve learned and use them to inform next listening activity you do with youth. That completes the Cycle and shows everyone that solving youth apathy requires ongoing effort.

Individually, these steps may currently happen throughout communities. However, when they do happen it is rare that they are connected with community development and less likely still, connected with one another. The connection of all the steps in this Cycle is what makes partnerships between community members meaningful, effective, and sustainable.

Solving Youth Apathy

This pattern I’ve found, called the Cycle of Engagement, is part of a series of patterns that emerge whenever people identify an activity as engaging. Solving youth apathy requires that we engage every young people in as many places as we can, as frequently as possible. The Cycle emerges almost anytime people say they feel an activity is meaningful. It can be intentional or coincidental, but as I’ve taught more people about the Cycle, more people report more success in engaging others. This means that youth apathy can and should be intentionally challenged.

How To Continuously Challenge Youth Apathy

Through my years of implementing and examining others’ implementation of this Cycle, I’ve discovered a few things that are essential to challenging youth apathy, no matter how it happens.

  • We ALL Need Motivation. Engaging young people without a reason or a cause is pointless. This is why the greatest marketing of our day focuses not on brands or bargains, but on movements. The greatest purpose we can have is the social good, but whatever you’re seeking to do, let young people know the purpose.
  • Engagement Requires Repetition. Going through all the steps of the Cycle once with intention leads to young people becoming engaged once. Going through it several times builds engagement, along with trust and respect, and continuously challenges youth apathy.
  • Making Meaning Solves Apathy. Activities have to be meaningful to be engaging. When working through the Cycle, understand that people will be used to meaningfulness and won’t settle for less afterwards.

The Cycle of Engagement is meant to provide employers, parents, teachers, and others with a clear process for engaging youth throughout our communities. The most important take away from this Cycle is that solving apathy requires more than simply hearing, checking-in, or talking to them. Solving youth apathy requires youth engagement, and youth engagement requires a commitment to movement. This Cycle shows how that can happen.

Summary

Youth apathy is not an unsolvable issue. It requires strategy though, and here is what I’ve laid out in this article:

  1. Acknowledge what you think youth apathy is.
  2. Recognize what youth apathy actually is.
  3. Identify the places and ways youth apathy actually happens.
  4. Design a conscientious strategy for promoting youth engagement.
  5. Commit to continually challenging youth apathy.

Only when we take these steps can we actually make a difference in the lives of young people and throughout our entire communities today.

5 Easy Ways YOU Can Change the World

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More people are doing more to deliberately change the world than ever before. They are creating jobs, building the economy, and circulating wealth in brand new ways that we can all learn from. Here are a two examples:

  • Australian Nick D’Aloisio began teaching himself to code on computers before he was 15 years old. He built a few small apps, but launched a major app called Summly. Last year, when he was 17, D’Aloisio sold it to Yahoo for $30 million. In the process he hired dozens of programmers and made others wealthy, too.
  • At the age of 12, Charles Orgbon III founded a nonprofit called Greening Forward. SIx years later, his youth-driven, youth-led, and youth-imagined environmental organization is teaching young people across the U.S. how to make money through the green movement. His program has reached hundreds of communities across the country and helped thousands of students learn about the environment in a productive way.

The stories of people changing the world can go on for days, and as we all know, this has always happened. However, more than ever, its the youngest among us who are actually doing the most, and have been for more than 100 years—and throughout all of history: Joan of Arc, Mozart, and countless unheralded people under 18, 21, 25, and 35 have changed the world.

Youth are changing the world in ways we all follow all of the time, whether we’re aware of that or not. While we routinely don’t acknowledge them for doing it, the fact is that society is dragged forward chained to the heels of young people, today and throughout all times. There is a lot we can learn from them.

Ways Youth Change the World

Robert Kennedy famously summarized the cliche ways young people change the world in a speech from 1967, saying, “This world demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the life of ease.”

Its important to move beyond cliches though, and towards a practical, responsive logic that shows clearly why and how young people are changing the world. Here are five ways that’s happening right now.

  • Youth are in school. Learning conformity through standardization, having their schedules delineated for them, and being forced to learn what others want them to teaches some youth to stay in line. For others, its an excuse and even permission to get out of the box and think in radical new ways. They’re learning about politics, they’re learning about the real world, and they’re launching their lives during current times, right now. Transforming education by demanding public accountability for public schools and forcing educators and education leaders to become responsive to the democratic citizens they’re responsible to and for is ensuring these young people change the future.
  • Youth cannot vote. The demands of democratic civic engagement overburden many adults, effectively preventing them from voting, becoming involved, and owning the political process. Since youth cannot vote, many are driven towards apathy and disregard for the system. Those lessons will be applied to many things throughout their lives, and for some, that is civic life. These young people are becoming enraged, motivated, and empowered to take action and deliberately pave the road to the future.
  • Youth are living in “my house by my rules”. Homes and neighborhoods around the world are ruled by tradition and culture that routinely, systematically, and wholly takes power away from children and youth. Growing up with the melancholic conformity of middle class suburbs, the deafening roar of poverty, or the privileged access wealth provides will each force a percentage of young people to deliberately seek to change the world throughout their lives. Warren Buffet was young once, as were Maya Angelou, David Gilmour, Dr. King, Napoleon, Da Vinci, Pho Khun Sri Indraditya, Julius Caesar, and Imhotep. All these world changers grew up in someone’s house and sought to change the world later. Those seeds are always planted in our youth, just like they are still today.
  • Youth are connected. Like no generation before, young people are connected to each other, often in ways adults cannot imagine. The mapping of human ecology has never been nearly effective in history as it is now, with the appearance and immutability of social networking and technology to support connectivity becoming as ubiquitous as it is. These connections are becoming more obvious than ever before, and while the benefits are still becoming apparent, today’s generation of youth are growing up with it. Because of this, they are changing the world in ways we’ve never imagined.
  • Youth are able of acting beyond expectations. As we age, most adults seek familiarity and ease. Growing increasingly distrustful of change, we latch onto consistency, segregation, and tight knit connections for our lives. Young people operate in ways that are counter to each of these, actively fostering and thriving within the unknown, the deeply entwined, and the actively frayed edges of social connectivity. Generation after generation, they are actively paving the road to the future because of this reality.

These may be obvious, simplistic perspectives on how young people are changing the world today. However, It can be hard to see what adults can do to practically do to make a difference themselves.

5 Easy Ways YOU Can Change the World

Parents, teachers, businesspeople, and adults everyday can help ensure that young people are paving the road to the future with five easy steps.

  1. Keep forcing youth to do what adults want them to. The more we cause children and youth to do what we want them to, the more likely more young people are rebel. If you want to change the world, do not allow young people to use their voices, disallow them from becoming involved in civic life, and force them to follow arbitrary rules based on negative adult assumptions rather than scientific realities. This will change the world by encouraging so-called “youth rebelliousness”, which is generally anything in defiance of tradition and adult-identified “acceptability”.
  2. Smother youth with adult-created culture. Promote young peoples’ sense of inability and indifference by pushing music, clothes, movies, tv, and other adult-created culture throughout the lives of every young person. Push them to believe sub-cultures and identities are segregating factors, and encourage them to negate their own self-worth. This will change the world by forcing more youth to make media for themselves and for adults who don’t buy into adult-created culture.
  3. Limit the access youth have to technology. If you’re attending the average school or youth program today, you know its common to find rules against cell phone usage, classrooms completely devoid of computers for students, and limited Internet access throughout a lot of schools and nonprofit organizations intending to teach youth today. With the impending end of net neutrality, we will see the demise of free and unimpeded access to knowledge via the internet. If you want to change the world, continue to restrict youths’ access to technology and prohibit their free access to information and resources. This will push them to further innovate in technology and free the boundaries of knowledge however they can.
  4. Force youth to follow the rules created by adults. Despite advances in science and clearly demonstrative examples of the contributions they make throughout society, for more than a century adults have clearly denied the increasing capacity of youth to self-manage and negotiate the world they share with us. Instead, we routinely infantalize youth, talking down to them, incapacitating and disenfranchising them with wholly discriminatory laws, policies, and rules that reflect traditional assumptions. This causes young people people to actively dismantle age-based, race-based, gender-based, and other bias-based perspectives that limit growth around the world.
  5. Stay away from youth. Forced age-based segregation between youth and adults disallows young people from forming healthy, proactive, and equitable relationships with people older than them. This segregation is systematically enforced within schools, through after school and summer youth programs, throughout our business sector, and across governmental decision-making and policies. Dissatisfied by inept adult-driven, ineffectual economic choices, more young people will become more motivated to change the world in the coming years.

These steps are easy because they are already happening right now. If you want to ensure change the world, just let these steps keep happening!

My career is focused on working with adults and youth to build their awareness and ability to change the world on purpose. I believe that every conscientious adult has a responsibility to themselves, their families, and succeeding generations to take actual, practical, and positive action that changes the world, no matter how they do that. The list in this article does not represent that.

If you want to actually make a positive difference in the lives of young people, here are some simple things you can do right now:

Whatever you choose to do, simply do something. Any action is generally better than no action, and with young people you actually can make a difference.

Truth Changes: 7 Ways the Future Will Be Different for Youth Today


Its a strange thing having spent 25 years of my life working with, for, and among young people, especially when I’m just inching up on 40 years old myself. One of the things this career has afforded me is perspective: With the long view in mind, I can see things differently than others who’ve been in and out of the work in small increments. But at my age, I’m not an old man who cannot see things in just one way. Instead, I cross boundaries a lot, seeing myself and others in a constant state of flux, transition, and transformation.

One of the skills I’ve honed is learning to see the future—not in a psychic mumbo jumbo way, but in a practical, scientifically driven sense. Using the insight my experience and reflection affords me, I want to share with you seven ways the future will be different for youth today.

However, before I do that I want to establish why there is a new future coming. As many of us agree, the present is unacceptable. However, we haven’t named why. I think a large part of the problem is that adults are constantly lying to young people, either inadvertantly or intentionally. Let me identify five lies adults tell youth today.

5 Lies Adults Tell Youth Today

Lie #1: There are jobs available for youth. In 2010, youth unemployment in the US topped out at 19.6%. Last year, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that it had nudged down to 16.3%. When that’s compared to the historical average of 12.32% since 1955, with the low point at 7.80% in 1956, it shows that the job market still has a long ways to go to recover. The Federal Reserve has said that in the recession, adult workers took jobs youth had held for the previous decade at new rates.

Lie #2: Adults believe in youth. In large, youth today are being sent into a hostile, unwelcoming world. Adults generally neither see youth as assets, nor do they treat them as valuable citizens they could be. Once seen as The Future, young people are increasingly treated as interchangeable parts in a vast societal machine that disrespects everyone as humans, particularly young people. The reality of discrimination against young people is that the very same young people who are being prohibited from entering into stores in groups of 2 or more are being hired to staff those stores, while those store owners are taking their money. This happens in schools, at home, and throughout our communities.

Lie #3: Schools are changing to make youth better people. Politicians and parents want desperately to believe that all of the work being done to reform education today is being done to benefit students. However, at the end of the day large corporations are lining their pockets like never before. Privatized schools, standardized testing, teacher mastery programs, and many more arrows point in this direction, and none of it has to do anything with students’ hireability. Instead, school reform is largely motivated by profit and power, with thin veils of concern for students’ well-being in the future.

Lie #4: Youth just need to pull their jeans up and do what adults tell them to. I have heard many adults say, “If only a young person would come in here with a good haircut, their pants pulled up, and no tattoos showing, I’d give them a job in a minute!” The beneficent nature of this statement undermines the reality: Most adults don’t believe engaging young people will benefit them, so they don’t do it. If they do engage youth, its usually under such poor premise for such little return that it doesn’t justify the effort that youth to take to become engaged.

Lie #5: Things have always been this way, and they’ll always be this way. Lucky for the future, change is inevitable. While it can’t get here fast enough for many youth, the reality is that there’s a burgeoning movement that’s driving more young people than ever to become active agents of social change. Many people believe this is the answer to the lies youth have been told. More than ever, young people are building, devising, planning, scheming, strategizing, and mapping the future like never before. While the millennial generation was fast moving, youth today are even faster. The social transformation of today is being driven by The Masses, mobilized by ability and access like never before.

Hope for the future actually rests in the truth behind the fifth lie adults tell youth today. Creating their futures by working with truly supportive adults—including parents, educators, youth workers, and others—young people today are literally making the future they want to live in. Its not a utopia or some grandiose vision that all young people are working towards, and I’m not advocating that only youth create this future. However, I am suggesting that we all work together towards a realistic future that works for everyone.

Truth Changes: 7 Ways the Future Will Be Different for Youth Today

The ways that things are today are different from the ways they are going to be. Here are seven ways the future will be different.

  1. Engaging—The future will be engaging for anyone, anywhere they want to be engaged. This will happen at home, schools, throughout communities, in government, and the economy.
  2. Connecting—Tying together more intentionally both online and in-person, we’re going to experience a resurgence of The Commons in bold, bright new ways. These are the public spaces we all share, and more than ever, young people will be recognized as central to the health and well-being of The Commons.
  3. Empowering—Instead of isolated incidents benefiting a few people here and there, everyone will experience increasing amounts of ability and authority throughout the entirety of their lives. Starting when they’re infants, all people will become more educated, engaged, and empowered throughout their lives.
  4. Cooperating—Seeing the economic and social benefits of conscientious and mutual relationships with everyone around us, we will become more driven towards cooperative action benefiting everyone involved. The implicit and explicit ways we work together will be recognized more, and the value of all human interactions among every human will be seen with utmost importance, and everyone will learn how to cooperate more effectively.
  5. Processing—With constant emphasis on outcomes overwhelming more people more frequently, new stock will be given to processes with more services providing more people the pleasure of getting there, rather than just arriving.
  6. Diversifying—Entwined cultures will drive elevated social conditions affecting more people, effectively incentivizing integration anew.
  7. Liberating—Freed of the shackles of offices and bosses, more people will feel more capable of living easily, moving quickly, and collecting freely with others they’re genuinely interested in, rather than stuck with.

 

Our future is bound to become more embracing, more honest, and more hopeful than what young people face today. This is because children and youth right now will make the world they want to live in. We should do no less than fully empower them to make this future, if only because its our responsibility and not merely our privilege.

What are YOU doing to create the future, today?

There Is No ONE Youth

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There is no ONE youth. Adults constantly talk about youth as if they’re one person that acts one way and faces one reality. In truth, there are millions of young people acting millions of ways and facing millions of realities, right now.

The Myth of One Youth

Adults routinely address all youth as one youth. It happens like this:

  • “Youth today need to suck it up!” says one upset grandparent who is frustrated with their grandchildren. Rather than addressing their specific relations, these people are generalizing all young people to meet their expectations, positive and negative.
  • “I have lost my hope in youth,” suggests a politician who is looking at recent violence in his city. He is not scanning the whole scene, seeing everything that’s going on. Instead, he’s addressing his own myopic view, and distrusting even the potential of the youth he serves.
  • “My youth was lost,” explains a teacher to her classroom while she’s trying to dissuade them from using drugs. Painting a wide swath of disregard for herself, she’s actually undermining herself by invalidating the things she learned, the experiences she had, and the ideas that were born while she was young.

Everyone is different from everyone else. We don’t lump together adults into one singular pile to say that all adults are the same, no matter what. Yet we routinely do that with children and youth, putting them all into the same pile. This leads to standardization and conformity, enforcing mediocrity and complacency rather than incentivizing transformation. This conflicts with the common understanding that change is the only constant in life: Life changes for young people, too!

It is in the Words

A long time ago, my friend and colleague Wendy Lesko took me to task about using the word “youth” to refer to young people as a singular group. This is when people say, “Youth are the future” or “Youth today…” It lumps all young people as one group, and denies them their plural nature as youths. She said we don’t do this to adults, and when we’re very young we even get a plural tense of our age group, going from child to children. Wendy explains all this in her quintessential book, Youth: The 26% Solution.

I dismissed this concern as semantics for a long time, and kept using the word youth in its singular and plural form. However, today I realize the error of my ways; thanks, Wendy, and all the youths I’ve worked with, for being patient with me for so long.

Today, I understand that simply clumping all young people into the same boat by calling them “youth” disempowers their identities and negates their individual personhood. I get it.

Its in the Realities, Too

The reality is that all youths are different. Every young person grows up in circumstances that are uniquely their own because of the ecology and history they are in and from. Families, spiritual beliefs, social realities, educational experiences, economic backgrounds, cultural heritage, political biases, and many other factors differentiate youths from each other. This is for both positive and challenging factors.

Despite its commonality as a seperator, in most cases age isn’t even a worthy seperator. Ability, understanding, knowledge, and wisdom do not follow strictly linear lines of thinking. There are many ignorant adults and intelligent young people who are evidence to that reality in either direction.

In the past, leaders saw standardization as the solution to controlling massively growing populations. For a variety of reasons though, today the mechanisms of familiarity and conformity simply aren’t enough for the masses. Instead, as our world becomes more populated by more people, its becoming more important than ever to differentiate and individualize than ever before.

Leaders must see the necessity of mass customization and individualization, no matter what sector of society they serve. Politics, education, religion, recreation, and many other areas are wrestling with this right now.

The secret formula here is that youths are the canaries in the mine shaft here. They are the ones demanding that the world change, making change happen, and inculcating society with a new vigor and ability to foster transformative thinking and realities.

Are you ready for this changing world? Are you ready to acknowledge all youths as different, rather than seeing and treating them like they’re all the same? Here are three ways to do that.

Three Ways to Treat Youths Individually

  1. Throw away the script. Don’t use standardized curricula, training, positions, or programs for young people today. Instead, work with them to mentor them, creating youth/adult partnerships that transform your home, school, neighborhood, business, or government.
  2. Create spaces to dream. Denied opportunities to be creative in many schools today, youths are growing up believing they’re incapable or unable to dream new dreams. Create new spaces for that to happen. Teach them visioning techniques, use brainstorming activities, and foster wider thinking than anything they have in their brains right now. You never know how far that can go!
  3. Take action today and tomorrow! Instead of simply stopping with thinking or visioning or planning or researching or teaching or training or reflecting, move with young people towards action and outcomes right now. Show them how to move from passive pasts to active todays and intentional tomorrows.

All adults can make differences in the lives of young people, whether at home, throughout their communities, at their workplaces, or beyond. Where are YOU going to make a difference today?

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?

How To Meet Youth Where They Are

sleeping-studentHazel Owen is a spectacular educational consultant in New Zealand. Recently, after reading an article I wrote, she asked me, “How do we meet apparently disengaged youth ‘where they’re at’? Can this be achieved without the very same youth having to choose to become a part of the society from which they have disengaged? Or is it to do with choosing how to engage with society, rather than conforming?”

Following is my response:

We meet young people “where they’re at” by engaging in what is supposedly “their” worlds, and engaging them in what is supposedly “ours” as adults. Work with what they’re actually engaged in right now on their own volition, whether video games, rock-n-roll, gangs, or whatever, and acknowledge the learning, teaching, and leadership opportunities inherent in their lives right now. 

This must be achieved with all young people, no matter what their backgrounds, especially embracing the multiple cultural diversities throughout our nations today. Society isn’t this or that, but rather, the whole collection of activities people engage in; because of that, we shouldn’t force young people into a false choice between society or their activities, but instead, teach them that their activities are actually our activities, as a whole, and that they’re not separate but together with all of us. Together.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below!

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.

 

Mindsets for Youth Engagement

Many adults could engage youth effectively, but they can’t. Youth workers, teachers, parents, and others could because they see the problem, the cause, and directly observe youth disengagement when it happens. These same people can’t though, because they don’t think they can.

Youth workers often believe they don’t have the authority, because their supervisors didn’t tell them they could. Teachers don’t think they can because of Common Core State Standards or district regulations or school rules. Parents don’t think they can because their kid is different, their kid is out of control, or their kid just doesn’t listen. The thing is though, all of these people could engage youth effectively.

The biggest roadblock to youth engagement isn’t youth themselves, or oppressive systems of social control that keep them disengaged. YOUR THINKING IS THE BIGGEST BARRIER TO YOUTH ENGAGEMENT.

Mindsets

The model above shows that in order to address how we engage youth, we have to think about why we engage youth; what happens when youth engagement happens, and what difference the outcomes from youth engagement make on our thinking.

Your thoughts about youth inform your actions with youth, and your actions affect the results which inform your beliefs about youth, which in turn affect your thoughts about youth. This is called your Mindset. It directly affects youth disengagement and youth engagement, and there is only one person responsible for it: You.

You can change your mindset, and if you want to become a person who can successfully engage young people, that’s what you must do. Here are some stories of people who changed their mindset about youth:

  • Sue, a case manager for homeless youth in Rochester, New York, addressed her mindset about youth in a workshop I led in 2011. Soon afterwards, she began engaging her youth as partners in their cases. In the following two years, her case efficacy increased by 35%.
  • Tom found that his classroom was consistently unfocused and disconnected from the social studies topics he was teaching. In my workshop on meaningful student involvement, he learned several practical ways to re-envision the roles of students in schools. According to his account, his students were 100% more engaged afterwards.

I offer quick, powerful processes for identifying old belief structures, creating a mindset focused on youth engagement, and identifying what needs to be done to maintain engagement. My solid follow-up structure supports your team in constantly focusing on the right mindset and actions that produce the results you want.

 

Voices of the Damned Youth

damnedyouthWe should never give up on any young person, or any person as far as that’s concerned. There is nobody – absolutely nobody – in our society who is too far gone to simply relinquish them to the trash can of society. Especially children and youth.

In reality though, many young people are born into indifference, apathy, and intransigence. Depression, inability, and oppression are holding legions of children and youth from realizing the dreams they could have.

They face families, communities,and nations that are wholly indifferent to their realities. Because of this, these children and youth struggle with society’s norms, cultures, customs, and behaviors. They can be gifted or struggling, adult-pleasing or anti-authoritarian. A few times, they lash out. Mostly, they internalize.

I know of this because its lived experience for me. Identifying in turns as an impoverished homeless immigrant child, white-kid-grown-up-in-an-African-American-neighborhood, nearly dropped out, couldn’t-pay-for-college, been-a-youth-worker-all-my-life kinda guy, I have struggled with those senses of alienation all of my life. My story has been told by a half-dozen journalists who think they should expose the scars as well as the stars in my life. Its not their story to tell though, its mine.

The same is true for many youth today. Their stories deserve—mustbe told, but not by well-meaning adults. Not by reporters or grantwriters, poets or politicians. Instead, we must make space for damned youth to speak for themselves.

To be specific, I want you to know that I believe we should routinely, systemically, and completely engage the voices of young people who identify as academically failing. Poor, Low Income, and Working Class. Homeless. Minority culture. GBLTQQ. African American, American Indian, and other communities of color. Immigrants. Runaway, foster, and Ageing Out. Incarcerated. Court-involved. Juvenile Delinquents. Addicts and Abusers. And many, many others.

We shouldn’t deny any young person the opportunity to share their voices, and I’m not suggesting that we shut down one youth in order to create another. I am fully in support of expanding every possibility available throughout our society in order to create more space for the voices of youth. Youth Voice includes any expression of any young person anywhere, anytime, about anything. (Luckily) It doesn’t depend on adult approval. I’m suggesting that we, as adults, make space for youth voice, and especially those of the damned youth.

These youth are damned because they’re inconvenient for adults to listen to. They’re damned because they say things we don’t want to hear in ways we don’t want to listen to. They’re damned because adults are the majority culture and youth are the minority culture. They’re damned because they’re youth. More importantly though, they’re not really damned at all.

In sharing my own voice, I learned that I wasn’t damned; moreso, I am vastly privileged. I believe my younger brothers and sisters must learn this too, and so I call for them to have the space I was fortunate enough to experience as a young person, no matter how rarified it was.

Voices of the damned youth require:

  • More youth voice from the children and youth who we don’t routinely hear from.
  • More youth involvement from the historically disengaged.
  • More empowerment for youth who are oppressed.
  • More democracy for everyone.

Then we’re going someplace spectacular, together.