What Is A Youth?

Today I received a request from Richard Lewis, long the voice behind the National Youth Union movement, as well as the poignant Chavez/King Youth Teams program. Richard asked me to help define what a youth is, and this post is my response to him. I began to define this in the Wikipedia article on youth, which I rewrote for the first time almost four years ago.

Youth is an attitude, like George Bernard Shaw met when he wrote, “Youth is wasted on the young.” In this usage Shaw isolates the experience of being young from the physiology of being young. This definition is apparent throughout our culture, and comes across when adults attempt to use jargon, wear clothes, or do other actions preferred among youth. This is apparent in mainstream media, consumerism, or other vehicles that transmit culture

The more static and concrete definition of youth is one that focuses on a physical age. It is this one that laws, rules, regulations, and other forms of policy at work in the structures throughout our society rely on (as shown in the Wikipedia article.). In this sense, youth may be defined as anyone between the ages of 10 and 20; 12 and 21; 14 and 25, or; any of the myriad other ranges that are so often staked out by local, state, national, and international policy bodies. These are usually determined in order to limit people from being involved, whether within the age range or outside of it. This can be the case in a youth council specifically defined to engage young people between the ages of 11 and 18; or a store policy that disallows anyone under 18 from entering without an adult.

Each of these definitions serves its own purpose in our society. Within youth-serving organizations many adults feel righteous and powerful as they define their own ideals with the first definition, while adamantly demanding the second is absolutely necessary. They might hang Robert Kennedy’s quote on their door, “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 imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the life of ease,” with a second sign underneath that says, “YOUTH: Don’t enter this office without knocking!”

At the same time, in a society that so strictly segregates young people from adults in schools, nonprofits, prisons, and jobs, we routinely blur the distinctions for the benefit of financial gain. Actress Sophia Loren identified this when she said, “There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.” Her vision was youth as a perception, a way that you view things. This definition is dynamic and elastic, allowing for a lot of things to be defined as “youthful,” as well as allowing adults to appropriate useful things for their own desires. In turn, this allows for a lot of products and services to be targeted at adults who idolize youth, as it gives them permission to want to be young in spirit by buying their way to youth, rather than unlearning their internal adultism and confronting ephebiphobia. This perspective allows people who want to be young to discriminate against youth.

SO, RATHER THAN lay down a concrete definition of youth here, I will simply say this: Defining age is necessary in an age-obsessed society where youth are targeted as demons and as idols. In naming your age range, which are you intending to do, demonize or idolize youth?

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

Ending Youth Violence

Youth violence is horrifying, real, and completely solvable. Growing up in a violence-ridden neighborhood, I learned quickly that nothing sucks more than getting beat up because you’re walking on the wrong block, living through years of drive-bys, and growing up with the constant tension of crime surrounding you. I lived that way.

The way I made it through were programs and opportunities that were specifically afforded to me because I was a youth, because I came from a low-income house, and because my neighborhood was a rough place. After more than 20 years working with youth, and 10 years working nationally to support youth involvement, I have seen repeatedly that the answer to youth violence is not more severe punishment, heavier enforcement, or stricter parenting. The solution does not rely on just schools or just churches or just African Americans. Ending youth violence is not just a political pipe dream, either. Instead, I know today that ending youth violence requires youth involvement. Radical, democratic, educational, and intentional youth involvement.

Now, I am not talking about your run-of-the-mill youth involvement. What I am talking about has to be real. It has to address real situations in real time in order to be as effective as possible. Research shows those effects include impacts on adults, organizations, communities, and non-involved young people, as well as the youth who are involved.

Oftentimes, youth involvement activities and programs are created as special asides in regular organizational operations. There are youth councils and youth forums, youth art and youth offices. Occasionally they get closer to integrated, but still not fully normalized, through youth representative positions on boards and youth-led media. However, the challenge with these opportunities is that they do not go far enough. After more than 30 years of experimentation with youth involvement, today we know that authentic youth engagement happens when young people report there is a high degree of involvement, so much so to where young people are actually completely equitably involved within a historically adult-driven organization.

Today, my colleagues at the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA) shared a trailer for a new documentary about youth violence in New Orleans called, Murder through the Eyes of a Child. Listening to the stories shared in the trailer, I recalled experiences I had in junior high and high school, and I remembered the times that I got caught and was thrust into violence that felt far beyond my own control. I also recalled the most powerful examples of youth/adult partnerships I have seen, stories from Hampton, VirginiaMemphis, Tennessee, and the Bay Area in California. These organizations actively turn the “youth-as-recipients” model on its head by actually engaging youth deeper than simply seeing youth-as-partners; instead, they fully engage very violent, very depressed, and historically very neglected communities in change initiatives by creating equitable, sustainable, and substantial roles for young people in social change.

Luckily, IDEA agrees with me. Soon after posting the trailer they followed up with a more hopeful link to a film about an organization called Kids Rethink New Orleans. These folks are doing the hard work I’m talking about. Take a read of this chunk from their website:

We are a group of students in New Orleans who want to rethink and rebuild our schools after Hurricane Katrina. Our vision is simple: a great education for every kid in our city, no matter the color of their skin, what neighborhood they stay in or how much money their parents make. No one deserves a voice in rebuilding New Orleans schools more than the students who go to these places every single day. That means us!

Youth involvement can STOP youth violence.


CommonAction staff is available to train on Ending Youth Violence and much more. 
Contact me to talk about the possibilities by emailing adam@commonaction.org or calling (360)489-9680.



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

Defining Youth Discrimination

I have written this mini-glossary for terms that need to be understood in order to define youth discrimination throughout society. To learn more, visit The Freechild Project Glossary.

  • Adultcentrism is the practice of regarding adult, including their opinions, interests and actions, above young peoples’ opinions, interests and action.
  • Adultization is the elimination of childhood and adolescence by schools, marketers and parents in order to promote order and eliminate the “inconvenience” of youth.
  • Adultism is the practice of favoring adults before young people. This happens every where, all of the time: Schools, lawmaking, movies and music all reflect adults’ interests and perceptions. Even young people can unconsciously share adults’ perceptions of young people. 
  • Adultocracy is the collection of obvious and unobvious tools adults use to impose their authority, domination and superiority over children and youth. 
  • Commercialism is the manufacturing and distribution of objects and traits that were formerly free to young people, particularly in the forms of education and culture. 
  • Consumerism is the process of identifying, training and transforming young people into complacent consumers rather than dissatisfied citizens. 
  • Criminalization is the formal and informal process that makes young people or their specific actions illegal, particularly when young people or their actions were legal in the past.
  • Decoration happens when young people are used to make a situation look sufficient, often without their consent or knowledge.  
  • Demonization is a process for making young people evil in order to justify attacking them in the forms of character assassination, legal action and to get rid of their civil liberties. 
  • Discrimination happens whenever someone makes a decision that does not include other people. Everyone discriminates all the time, and that is not always bad. 
  • Ephebiphobia is the fear of youth. 
  • Gerontocracy happens when older people control an institution or government at the expense of all other age groups in society. 
  • Gerontophobia is the fear of older people. 
  • Infantalization happens whenever a person is made unable or assumed to be incapable of something because of their age, presumed development, or education. 
  • Juenism is the favoring of children and youth over adults. 
  • Manipulation occurs when adults exert influence over young people in order to gain for themselves. 
  • Militarization is the process where young people and the procedures they participate in become overtly manipulated or controlled by the military or administered in a military fashion. 
  • Neoliberalism is the process of making private formerly public entities in order to introduce market values to young people at the expense of collective benefit. 
  • Paternalism describes the notion that by “protecting” children and youth, adults are preventing young people from harming themselves. 
  • Pediaphobia is the fear of children. 
  • Standardization is causing young people to conform to any standard or norm, particularly those administered by adults. 
  • Tokenism happens whenever young people are included in order to make it appear that young people are participating; occurs exclusive of meaningful participation.

Learning the language is the first step to stopping discrimination against youth. Learn more throughout The Freechild Project website!

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

See Young People

The epidemic focused on denying young people’s role in modern society continues. In the last week I have seen two articles that attack the very existence of youth today, albeit from two different angles. A major problem with these two specific articles is that they come from within the so-called “youth movement.”

Nancy Lublin, the CEO of NYC-based Do Something, moonlights as a regular columnist for the progressive business magazine Fast Company. I meant Lublin once in the early 2000s at an America’s Promise event, and have read Fast Company for a decade. I wish neither of them ill.  For almost two years now, Lubkin’s articles in the magazine have rubbed me wrong. They’re either smuggly self-aggrandizing diatribes, not unlike my blogs, or they’re plainly generational boosterism that romanticizes the abilities of younger people. Last month’s article falls squarely into the ranks of the latter, and that’s why it makes this entry, aptly demanding that we, “See Young People.” In it Lublin goes about promoting Millennials as the be-all-end-all of social change, young people who, devoid of guidance or anchoring from previous generations, have risen to the tops of their communities to change the world, all on their own. Devoid of obligation to or acknowledgment of the giants who have walked before them, apparently Lublin believes that young people today are the whipping boys of all generations. That’s just a gross over-romanticization, and plays right into a sense of generational inferiority and inability that is not limited to any one generation. (Don’t get me wrong: Lublin’s organizational strategy relies on discriminating against youth, thinking she knows everything about youth today, and I get that. I disagree with her wholeheartedly.) Every generation is subjected to the scrutiny and judgment of previous turns, and in this way, this generation is no worse than others before it…

…which apparently flies in the face of the next article up for scrutiny. Global Youth Action Network, long run by people who I respect, is apparently siding with the generally age-discriminatory New York Times. In August The Times took it upon themselves to typecast all 20-somethings today with the type of news that makes Lublin’s analysis seem fitting and necessary. In one broad stroke, they validated every frustrated baby boomer by broadcasting their facetious answers to the questions, “What Is It About 20-Somethings? Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?” Apparently, since people are taking longer today to do five “milestones” carved out by sociologists as essential to achieving adulthood, (completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child), our society may be going to a bad, bad place where it’s never gone before. (The best, best essay I’ve ever read about this is by Jeff Chang.)

What Lublin and The Times get wrong is their generational typecasting: simply because somebody fits into an age group doesn’t mean that they’re going to think or act in a prescribe-able, predictable way. Lublin is guilty of this because of her well-intended, but over-hyping, of young people today; The Times is just wrong. The author of this piece is apparently ignorant of young people for whom this mold just doesn’t fit.

All this brings to mind a quote by French revolutionary author Frantz Fanon, who once wrote that, “He who is reluctant to recognize me opposes me.” Ironically, I think the boosters and the detractors are in the same boat, in that they both refuse to recognize young people for who they really are: diverse, broad, and uncharactizable. For all intents and purposes, let’s quit typecasting children, youth, and young adults today- they are simply too different for any generalization to stick across their entire age range. Watch this excellent video with Sir Ken Robinson for more information. And then let’s get to the work of personalization: if you want to slam young people, be specific! Target those middle class white suburban youth who you grew up with! Aim at those low-income Hispanic and Latino youth who you fear! Pull for the upper class, well-meaning white girls who you’ve always envied.

Whatever you do, however you do it, please, please, please: SEE Young People.

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

DMV Crash Crisis Reaches Fever Pitch!

For years I’ve been reading media analyses of youth issues by renowned scholars and academics like Henry Giroux and Mike Males. A post on Facebook by a friend of mine inspires my first chance to share an observation of my own called, “DMV Crash Crisis Reaches Fever Pitch!”

For years the public has been bombarded by stories of scary young drivers by newspapers, t.v. reporters, and recently, car insurance providers. Today’s story comes courtesy of WPXI in Pennsylvania. Rather than simply reporting on a driver who crashed through the local DMV office after their test, the article’s title focused on the age of the offender: “Bridgeville DMV Closed After Teen Crashes Through Building.” This gross sensationalism highlights that the driver was a teenager, rather than being frustrated, intimidated, or forgetful.

Readers of this article are implicitly encouraged to assume this is a teen-specific issue. But a quick google search shows that crisis doesn’t just affect youth! Instead, it’s torturing all age groups across the country:

More importantly than it being an age-specific issue, I think the headlines should focus on the phenomenon and frequency of drivers crashing into DMVs before, during, and after their tests. What’s up with that? Maybe an in-depth analysis by a serious news agency or an expose on the pressures of driver’s tests is due; perhaps a bold legislator in some hyper-vigilant state will propose a bill to ban driver’s testing at DMV offices. Who knows how far this can go? But please, please, let’s stop with the media-fueled paranoia focused on youth for any reason, including driving…

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

All Relationships Are a Mirror

So many different attitudes are projected onto young people, and always have been, positively and negatively. Speaking about young people during the classical era he lived in, Greek philosopher Socrates supposedly said,

“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”

Through my research on the sociology of youth I have found quotes and editorials from the 1600s lamenting lost youth, and that attitude generally continued onwards through the next century. Every generation seems to have been the downfall of society, and the rue of preceding generations. Young people have also represented hope, and have been the subject of cheery optimism, too. Their voices are romanticized and their culture is idealized, with entire industries built just to help adults acquire the seemingly unattainable glory of youth.

But all relationships are a mirror. What we see in other people is what is in ourselves, for better or worse. Youth are mirrors of adults, whether we like them or despise them. Adults tend to want to be around young people who have things about them we like but want more of in ourselves. We dislike young people – intensely – when we find traits in them that we dislike in ourselves.

A challenging activity for any adult is to spend time writing the qualities of young people they know who they actually like and enjoy being around. Then make a separate list of things about young people they don’t like. From that point it’s important to notice that that ambiguity – where all of those likes and dislikes are in others – are in ourselves, too. Then we can be more compassionate with the young people we’re around, because we can see that all relationships are a mirror, and that in that mirror comes hope.

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

Reaching Further with Youth Engagement

Sometimes inspiration is all that’s needed. Last night I facilitated a group of 20 youth and 6 adults at a 2.5 hour youth forum in rural Pierce County, Washington. Their community is a mobile home park founded 25 years ago as a retirement community that has seen evolved into a neighborhood filled with a variety of residents, bringing along with them all the complexities that economic diversity does: nice houses clashing with poorly-upkept homes; drug addicts stealing from everyone, and; people who use the neighborhood food bank not looking good for people who just bought a new house in their area.

The young people faced many of the same situations young people everywhere face, including a lack of recreational activities, no safe routes to school or parks or through their neighborhood, and violence at home and among friends. They also shared a lot about drug use. Adults who were in the room talked about many of the same issues, sharing challenging situations and relating to many of the youth participants’ experiences.

But there were sticky points throughout the evening. Many youth were suspected of being high, and others were scowled at for goofing around during the activities. Looks of disapproval were handed out freely among youth, and some were shared from adults to youth. Some youth scowled at the adults. These are incidents that I am very familiar with.

It will come as no surprise to people who know me that when I was a teen I was a little too rambunctious and a little too inaccessible to some adults. I frequently goofed off in class, and sometimes made fun of the minister during church services. I skipped a lot of school and didn’t really apply myself in a lot of classes. The times I got in fights or did other bad things were balanced by my volunteer activities in a strange dichotomy, which I still live today in my own ways. But I wasn’t widely applauded for doing good things, and that wasn’t why I did them. Instead I did them because it felt right, or I did them because it was a thing to do. Those are the reasons why a lot of young people were there last night.

Rather than see these youth as broken or in need of services, these are the precise young people who need to be seen as resources. It’s not because they’re easy to work with or particularly amicable towards adults; its because they care deep within themselves. That caring lays the foundation for a radical commitment towards their community and towards the world around them.

With that as a foundation I believe that any neighborhood can move young people from passive residents towards becoming active partners in community building. This is the ground-floor of my mission of re-envisioning the roles of young people throughout society: actively engaging every young person as a full member of anything, be it a community improvement group, school, a summer program for kids, or at the city hall. In the last few months I’ve watched this work underway in Manchester, Connecticut; Arlington, Virginia; and now in rural Pierce County, Washington. There are great strides underway with youth engagement, and we can continue reaching further. Let me know what you’re up to!

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

When Communities Can’t Support Youth Engagement

Community-wide depression sucks. Growing up during my teens in a low-income neighborhood in the Midwest I experienced this reality constantly. Joblessness, empty houses, lack of city services, poor police response, and other resource deprivations were responded to by the people in our neighborhood with rampant drug and alcohol abuse, family violence, youth and adult gangs, and a lot of other sucky situations. Nonprofits and churches tried (and keep trying) to answer the problems in the neighborhood by putting out new programs and attempting different approaches… Not for naught, but not entirely successful, either.

I was an excited youth, if only because I felt the energy and excitement that came from doing things for other people. That meant volunteering at the local elementary school as Santa and mowing Mrs. Hickerson’s lawn; sleeping in Habitat for Humanity houses as they were built to protect them from vandalism, and unloading the food bank truck when it came in. My parents invited me along to things at first, and as I got older I made myself more available. But the neighborhood’s inability to support my active engagement became startlingly clear the year when I was 17. That year I launched my Eagle Scout project, forming a youth council at the big old Methodist church on the corner that hosted a lot of youth activities. I instinctively knew that all these different activities needed a gathering point to connect and collaborate, and using a youth council we tried. I spent a year calling monthly meetings and encouraging people to continue working together. As soon as I was done and went away to work for the summer, then off to college, the youth council stopped meeting. A lot of other activities folded, too, although I’m not sure they had anything to do with my absence.

The point is that my community was unable to support my engagement and the engagement of others when I was young. Adults were (appropriately) preoccupied with many other issues, including getting food into hungry mouths and children out of unsafe houses. This meant that something had to go, and in this case it was the youth council.

Tonight I’m going to facilitate a youth forum in a neighborhood that resonates a lot with one I lived in when I was younger and my family was in more dire circumstances. I’m nervous about getting the youth there all excited about changing the world and then sending them forth… with no ability from the depressed, under-resourced community they live in to actually support their active engagement. What to do, what to do?

As my frequent co-conspirator Greg Williamson says, “Start anywhere and go everywhere.” That’s what I’ll do – what about you?

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