Today I read a great article by a thought leader in New Hampshire’s democratic education community, Peter Berg. Peter does some cool work including coaching for young people themselves, and I really like his blog. His article, “Empowering Youth to Take Charge of Their Health“, got my brain running this afternoon, as his writing often does.

It left me wondering a few questions about youth empowerment.

Some Basic Questions

When considering youth empowerment, I think about themes.

  • Choice: At what point should children and youth have access to options adults deem as unhealthy and disempowering?
  • Determination: Should adults withhold the choice by eliminating unhealthy and disempowering options from the lives of young people?
  • Options: Should young people be presented with side-by-side, binary choices everywhere, all the time, or should gradient thinking be introduced?
  • Capacity: How does the ability of young people to make decisions in any and all areas of their lives relate to their overall empowerment?
  • Limitations: Are there ever times when limiting young peoples’ choices or removing their choices actually empowers them?
  • Control: What control does a parent have over their children? What control should they have?
  • Power: What responsibilities does a school administrator have for their students? What control should they have?
  • Process: Is there a point where limiting or increasing the abilities of young people to access unhealthy and/or disempowering things actually becomes empowering?

When we begin to peel back the different layers of the onion, more questions arise.

Some Advanced Questions

I think the larger question pertains to how adults view young people. As responsible adults or parents or teachers or public health workers or healthcare professionals, etc., do adults ask these questions:

  • Are youth simple passive recipients of food/activities/schools/family/culture/society who indiscreetly ingest whatever is served to them?
  • Are youth advanced active buyers of food/activities/schools/family/culture/society who discern choices with intention and awareness?
  • Do we see youth as potential positive creators within the food/ activities/ schools/ family/ culture/ society cycle who could fashion/distribute/barter/co-create the things they partake in daily right now?
  • Are youth the inevitable future inheritors of a democratic society actively fueled by active citizen awareness-building and mobilization?

In any of these roles, what is the relationship young people have to the manufacturers, sellers, purchasers, and consumers of the food/ activities/ schools/ family/ culture/ society we all co-occupy?

I frequently finding myself asking questions when I get done with great reading about youth empowerment. Peter’s article definitely fueled the questions above.

About Youth Empowerment

When I think about the ability of young people to access what they want throughout their lives according to their own volition, my red flags come flaring out. They do whenever any talk that is libertarian in nature comes out. The reason why is summed up by what Henry Giroux wrote more than a decade ago:

“The freedom and human capacities of individuals must be developed to their maximum but individual powers must be linked to democracy in the sense that social betterment must be the necessary consequence of individual flourishing.”

This connection between youth empowerment and democracy is absolutely essential. We have to make explicit the reasons why young people should have access and authority in relationship to the social good. Peter asserts this in a subversive sense in his article, and I like that. I think too often youth empowerment practitioners don’t examine that.

Similarly, we don’t examine why and how youth empowerment is important to anyone beyond youth themselves. This was apparent through most of the 2000s research on youth involvement, youth activism, and youth engagement, as many sociologists and educationalists were looking to those activities merely for their benefits on the individual youth who participated.

Research Matters

The most important studies done since 2000 include work by Michelle Fine, Taj James, Shep Zeldin, and Shawn Ginwright. They contextualize the changes of the young people participating in youth empowerment activities in relationship to their affect on democracy and social change as a whole. This vital bridge demonstrates the interdependence between young people and communities, empowerment and social transformations.

While these cross-life links were made, others became obvious too, including connections between mental/physical/emotional well-being and academic/recreational/social goals. Increasing young peoples’ abilities to participate in empowering activities was almost definitively shown to be an avenue for improving all peoples’ lifestyles.

What do YOU think?

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Published by Adam

For almost two decades, Adam F. C. Fletcher has led international outreach focused on engaging people successfully. Working with thousands of youth-serving nonprofits, K-12 schools, government agencies, international NGOs and other organizations around the world, his work spans the fields of education, public health, economic development and social services, and includes professional development, public speaking, publishing, social media and more. He founded the Freechild Institute for Youth Engagement, SoundOut and CommonAction, as well as writing more than 50 publications and 500 articles. He has also established 150-plus community empowerment projects.

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