This is Adam Fletcher in São Paulo, Brazil in 2014

It All Begins With Youth Voice

It all begins with youth voice.

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

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

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

These actions are unfortunately and frequently misinterpreted by adults.

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

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

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

Engaging youth voice intentionally can begin to rectify this imbalance.

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

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

 


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Fake Or Real Youth Voice?

Youth voice is any way youth choose to represent themselves. Youth voice is shared through ideas, opinions, attitudes, knowledge, and actions that are expressed individually or collectively; for the benefit of themselves or others.

Recently, I was leading a workshop for parents and youth on youth voice at home. During a brainstorming activity, the parents made a much longer list of ways youth share their voices at home than youth did. During their listing, parents said youth voice included things like…

  • Staring at the TV
  • Spending a lot of time on social media
  • Not sharing in family chores

The youth immediately protested and said those things aren’t their voices. When they share youth voice at home, these youth said it was the positive things like…

  • Helping younger siblings with homework
  • Doing chores around the house without being asked
  • Answering your parent every time they call for you, even when its annoying

Then one of the youth participants said,

fake youth voice

 

What makes youth voice fake?

  • When adults decide if youth voice should be heard
  • When adults tell youth what to say
  • When adults limit or direct the ways youth voice is expressed
  • When adults decide which youth voices are heard and which are ignored or silenced
  • When adults identify when youth voice should be heard

What makes youth voice real?

  • When youth share their ideas, opinions, attitudes, knowledge or actions freely
  • When youth decide what to say
  • When youth decide how to share their voices
  • When all youth share their voices freely
  • When youth decide its time to share youth voice

See the difference there? Things that youth decide are youth voice; things adults decide for youth are not youth voice.

That didn’t really answer the challenge between the youth and adults in my workshop though. All the activities described by adults, which included not paying attention, not doing what they were asked and zoning out, were done by youth and observed by adults. All the things described by youth, including being kind, doing as asked and contributing around the house, were ways they wanted to be seen.

What do you think the right answer is? Share your thoughts in the comments here.

 

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The REAL Youth Revolution

Ten years ago I began an international campaign to revolutionize the roles of young people throughout society. The Freechild Project was born in the steely fires of my career in local and national youth work, and I was ready to fight. For more than a decade I crisscrossed the country and traveled the world promoting youth-driven social change. Today I’m happy to report that I’ve learned that the REAL youth revolution isn’t a revolution at all- its a transformation. And it’s not just about youth- it’s about youth and children and adults and the whole world. It ain’t happening tomorrow, and it didn’t stop yesterday- its happening right now.

It turns out that as our society continues to transform through technology, young people are on the bleeding edge of what is actually happening. Where adults have long spoke of globalism and interconnectedness, children and youth growing up around the world right now are experiencing that in real time. The transformation at hand is deeper though.

Instead of just inheriting whatever stuff adults chose to hand to them, youth today are actively creating and co-creating the worlds they want to live in right now. They are not waiting for permission, education, or even laws to catch up with them- they’re just going, right now. That’s the REAL youth transformation, and luckily, it’s happening right now.

We need to get on board with what’s happening. Adults need to work with young people, unite in interdependent solidarity, and encourage and support this transformation. Check the Freechild Project website and join our Facebook page to learn more.

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

Foundations Fail Youth By Design

To all the program officers cringing right now, I feel your pain.

Across the United States and around the world, there has risen a particular class of nonprofit organization that insidiously, if inadvertently, promotes youth discrimination. Through their giving programs, organizational culture, and leadership structures, foundations fail young people by design, constantly and consistently.

Starting in 2000, I have worked with philanthropies of all sizes and in many capacities. My experiences speaking at regional, national, and international conferences; consulting family and corporate foundations; contracting as a writer, evaluator, and interim program officer have given me insights into the field I want to share here.

There are three major concerns I have with foundations that serve young people: 1) Authentic youth engagement; 2) The culture of philanthropy, and; 3) Sustainability.

From the largest to the smallest, there is almost no foundation in the US that authentically engages young people by design. Of the growing number of youth philanthropy programs in the 2000s, many have been eliminated in the current economic climate. Glowing reports throughout the decade touted their efficacy and sustainability. However, those reports were devoid the grim reality that while several foundations hosted youth-exclusive programs, few if any integrated youth throughout foundations. Youth-driven philanthropy was also youth-centered, and when foundations cut youth-centered giving, they cut youth boards, too. The remaining youth-driven, youth-centered foundation programs in the U.S. today rely on the beneficence of their foundation’s regular governance boards to keep them intact. In such cases that their existence is secured by policy, youth are still segregated from adults. All of this severely hinders the authenticity of young people’s engagement in philanthropy.

The second way foundations fail young people by design is through their cultures. There is no philanthropy in the U.S. that actively addresses the reality of adultism, which is bias toward adults. Adultism is pervasive in philanthropy, as adult-driven, adult-biased philanthropic priorities are supported by adult-driven, adult-biased research which drives adult-driven, adult-biased grantmaking, the performance of which is evaluated against adult-driven, adult-biased metrics. I can find no evidence of any foundation that employs youth in regular positions. The rarity of youth-driven decision-making in philanthropies further understates the cultural reality of philanthropy. However, the way those examples are touted goes beyond decoration and purely objectifies youth, dehumanizing their contributions and grossly under-estimating their capacities. And this is only in the formal structures of foundations. I will say little about the directors, administrative leaders, program officers, and contractors I have personally encountered throughout my career, aside from suggesting there is an inherent anti-child and youth inclusive climate throughout the entire field of philanthropy.

Which brings me to my third point about how foundations are designed to fail young people. By their very nature, these organizations perpetuate a social pattern of youth segregation that is only 100 years old. This is an unsustainable trend, one that is beginning to erode as our greater society begins to reconfigure its institutions to reflect a new and growing consensus about young people: It is absolutely vital that all children and youth become woven throughout the fabric of community, both for their sake AND ours. Their contributions to the cultural, educational, economic, and political well-being of democracy are beginning to take center stage, as evidenced by several fields including philanthropy. However, stagnation is not acceptable, now sustainable. With the evolving capacities of young people continuously demonstrating their essentialness to social transformation, surely no foundation can justify their continued segregation through the historic excuses of inability or lack of desire. And some aren’t: I have heard more than one program officer say they have no interest in engaging young people as genuine partners in philanthropy. And I’m afraid that is indicative of the entire field, including boards of directors, consultants such myself, and many others. What makes this position truly unsustainable is the way foundations make it okay, even expect it of, their grantees. The organizations receiving money from foundations transmit this culture of age segregation almost unwittingly as their paternalistic funders refuse to revisit their apparent stance that young people are incapable. That is truly unacceptable, and clearly unsustainable.

Foundations fail youth by design- but there is a choice. And that’s another post for a different day.

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