"This Isn't An 'Ah-Ha' Moment" by Adam Fletcher for Freechild Institute for Youth Engagement

This Isn’t An “Ah-Ha” Moment

In the last few weeks, the United States has seen a resurgence of interest in youth engagement. Young people from Parkland, Florida, have led the charge and created a stir among the media by calling out politicians and pundits in public forums, including social media and press events. They’re advocating sophisticated responses to the violence that tore apart their school, and demanding people pay attention. Its working.

However, this isn’t an “ah-ha” moment. Despite how the media is treating it, this isn’t a glorious revelation about the power of youth or the need for systems change. Instead, it’s the continuance of decades of youth-led social change across the United States. This article highlights how that’s true, and what we can do to KEEP youth changing the world!

 


 

Youth having been changing and challenging the United States to change for more than a century. From the newsboys’ strike of 1899 to the anti-gun activism enlightening the nation right now, young people have led the way for a long time. Here are a few issues they have covered:

Child Labor—In 1903, a few hundred children marched from the coal mines and textile mills of eastern Pennsylvania to Washington DC to demand politicians take action for labor laws. Led by Mother Jones, an infamous suffragette, the group shook Congress to the bones, leading to the passage of the first national child labor and compulsory school laws in the country.

Youth Rights—In the 1930s, a group of high school and college age students formed the American Youth Congress to lobby for recreation, education, food and work rights for their generation. They presented the The Declaration of the Rights of American Youth [pdf] to the US Congress in 1935. Working with Eleanor Roosevelt, in 1936 their work led to the formation of the National Youth Administration. Although it was dismantled shortly after, the American Youth Congress launched campaigns for racial justice, increased federal spending on education, and an end to mandatory participation in the college-level Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC).

Cultural Diversity—During World War II, racial hatred and white supremacy led to the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles. During these terroristic battles, Hispanic and Latino young people led cultural battles to express themselves, while white supremacists beat them down and stripped children and youth of their clothes to suppress youth voice. This kind of cultural activism serves as a strong call for the rest of us.

Civil Rights—Nine months before Rosa Parks, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin became a pioneer in the civil rights movement when she refused to give up her seat for a white woman on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Not prepared to capitalize on the moment or recognize her leadership, movement makers didn’t promote Claudette’s actions. However, Colvin testified at the US Supreme Court trial that ended with a ruling against segregated busing and the end of the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Self-Expression—The stories continue after that, too, with Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, leading a generation towards activism in the early 1960s; the teen-led organization Youth Liberation Press in Ann Arbor, Michigan printing radical tracts about youth rights, freedom and justice in the 1970s; and the emergence of hip hop youth activism in the 1980s.

Global Youth Action—Youth engagement in social change has increasingly gone global, too. In the 1980s, the student-led movement against South Africa apartheid was openly credited by Nelson Mandela for contributing to the end of the regime of terror that segregated that country. After the turn of the century, the United Nations recognized the essential nature of engaging youth in international development plans. Youth in Australia gained a massive footing in their state educational decision-making around 2003 with the implementation of the Victoria Student Representative Council. Their actions created a foundation that’s still being built on internationally.

I have researched and written about dozens of other issues too, sharing examples and more, as well as actions taken and strategies employed to foster social change. THIS IS HAPPENING NOW.

 


 

Today, we’re seeing a shift in the battle over guns that has gripped the American soul with the murders of thousands of children and youth in the last 25 years. Whether shot by gangs, parents, stray bullets, police, or mass murderers, young people today are faced with increasingly hostile learning environments, with politicians who are seemingly intransigent to the threats they face. Luckily, they aren’t standing for it.

Inspired by activist youth from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where the latest mass murder happened, young people across the country are organizing on-the-ground, practical campaigns to end gun violence forever. They’re confronting politicians, partnering with parents and teachers, and planning massive school walkouts, rallies and demonstrations.

Like others before them, this generation is calling the American soul to the carpet. Young people today want us to feel their anguish, understand their suffering, acknowledge the collective trauma facing them, and to take action and make change.

However, there can be more to this moment than ever before. Rather than being a flash-bang instance of youth-led activism and instead of a media-driven hysteria focused on the appeal of middle class white suburban youth screaming for change, we can transform the very perception of young people in society in three ways.

 

How to keep youth changing the world by Adam Fletcher for Freechild Institute for Youth Engagement

 

3 Ways Youth Can KEEP Changing the World

  1. Create sustainable roles—There have to be positions, policies and practices in your organization and community that are long-ranging, impactful opportunities for youth specifically.
  2. Foster lifelong engagement—Engagement must not end at 15, 18, 21, 25 or beyond. Instead, there should be a continuum of opportunities for young people to see themselves engaged and then become that way throughout their lifetimes.
  3. Call forth the positive powerful purpose of youth—Don’t continue to make youth come to adults and insist change. Instead, reach out directly to young people and appeal to their sense of purpose, power and belonging, and then be ready to take action.

 


 

Its already happening. For more than a decade, youth have been fighting for social change in dozens of areas, like local farming, stopping smoking, challenging white supremacy and ending zero tolerance policing practices. Students have been partnering with teachers to improve schools, working with parents to build healthy families, and struggling against entrenched perceptions throughout society. That’s all happening right now, and we need to expand these practices.

We need to sustain and uplift the current actions young people are taking to change the world. Instead of creating more opportunities for involved youth to become more involved, we need to create new spaces for disengaged youth to become involved. Whether youth or adults, we can do this by changing the attitudes of individuals around us by confronting adultism (bias towards adults) and challenging ephebiphobia (fear of youth) wherever we see it.

Whether youth or adults, we can do this by transforming the structures we live in and operate throughout everyday, including families, schools, nonprofits, government agencies and bodies, and businesses, including all of the policies, practices and procedures we follow everyday. Whether youth or adults, we can do this by navigating and negotiating our culture, including the mainstream culture that paint youth as incapable non-adults; traditional cultures that treat young people as sometime to be seen and not heard; or socio-economic cultures that rely on youth repression in order to assure the social orders they rely on.

Ultimately, we must engage every youth and every adult in every community, everywhere, all the time. My own professional experience dovetails with history to show us that we must embrace, sustain and expand youth engagement. In more than 250 communities nationwide, I have worked with K-12 schools, nonprofits, government agencies and other organizations to transform the roles of young people in their programs, policies and operations. By facilitating professional development for adult staff members; training children and youth in myriad youth engagement skills and issues; planning programs and evaluating outcomes; as well researching and writing curriculum, I have sought to move the needle from seeing youth as the passive recipients of adult-led decision-making towards engaging youth as partners throughout our communities. I have spoke at dozens of conferences, providing motivational and educational expert speeches for young people and adults to see each other as allies, not enemies, by breaking down generational assumptions and understanding the power of youth.

Most importantly to me, I have stayed at it: For more than 17 years, I have run the Freechild Institute to share examples and tools for youth-led social change worldwide, while directing SoundOut, which focuses on meaningful student involvement throughout education. Recently, I joined the Athena Group, a collective of consultants focused on systems change nationwide. Our work will continue to move youth engagement into the mainstream today and in the future.

When you see the headlines, experience the momentum and feel the demand for youth engagement today, I hope you consider the history that’s come before, and understand the efforts underway to continue these actions today and beyond. Youth engagement is our greatest hope, and you can help build it right now.

 

 


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Adam Fletcher in Seattle, Washington

Adam Fletcher Advocating Youth Engagement in Communities

The crisis of disengagement facing youth today is shameful. There are so many issues youth can become active in and so many actions they can take our communities have no reason not to engage every youth and every adult everywhere all the time. But somehow, they don’t. Adam Fletcher works with nonprofits, government agencies and other organizations to build youth engagement throughout communities.

Following are Adam Fletcher’s tools for youth engagement in communities. Contact him.

 

Adam Fletcher’s Tools Supporting Youth Engagement in Communities

Adam Fletcher’s Books

  1. The Practice of Youth Engagement
  2. Facing Adultism
  3. The Freechild Project Guide to Youth-Driven Programs

Adam Fletcher’s Free Publications

  1. Youth Engagement in the Economy
  2. A Short Guide to Holistic Youth Development
  3. The Freechild Project Youth Action Guide
  4. A Short Intro to Youth Rights
  5. Youth Voice Toolkit
  6. Youth Engagement Workshop Guide
  7. Guide to Cooperative Games for Social Change
  8. Washington Youth Voice Handbook
  9. Guide to Social Change Led By and With Young People

Adam Fletcher’s Website on Youth Engagement

Adam Fletcher’s Articles

Adam Fletcher’s Services Supporting Youth Engagement in Communities

 


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Click here for Adam Fletcher’s resources onAdam Fletcher promotes youth engagement in schools

Command and Control Schools

4th+grade

Today, I toured a middle school in the region where I live. Listening to an adult school leader explaining the school to me, I heard several the cues that routinely concern me:

  • “Our students don’t have problems”
  • “We don’t allow students to have social time”
  • “There is routine homework in every class, every day, all year long”
  • “We maintain strong communication with parents”
  • “We have a strong culture of respect for adults here”

These are all signs of a “Command-and-Control School.” These are highly structured, highly demanding and highly adultcentric places featuring rote memorization, rigid adherence to standardized curriculum and gross overcommitment to testing and assessment.

Command-and-Control Schools…

  1. Regard students are problems that need to be solved;
  2. Think adults have all the answers to solve students-as-problems;
  3. Don’t see students as full humans with rights and responsibilities;
  4. Disagree with the ability of parents and students to be equitable educational partners

I raise these issues because they are the antithesis of Meaningful Student Involvement. When I began studying schools for signs of student voice in 2000, it took me several years to discern the patterns in which students said learning mattered to them. However, when they came forward, I identified these Frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement as the keys to moving education forward. They centered on the notion that schools must become places that actively engage students as equitable partners with adults throughout learning, teaching and leadership across the entirety of the education system.

 

Meaningful Student Involvement Schools…

  • Treat students as the problem-solvers of global, local and personal problems today and in the future;
  • Foster equitable student/adult partnerships that position everyone, everywhere, all the time as active learners, teachers and leaders, regardless of their age;
  • Engage every student as a full human with unique abilities, challenges, opportunities and knowledge;
  • Support the entire ability of students and parents to become engaged throughout the entire education system.

 

What To Listen For

I know I’ve found a school that’s on-point when I hear the antithesis of what I heard today:

  • “Our students meet challenges head on with adults who empower and support them”
  • “Our teachers work with students pace teaching to meet every student’s learning needs”
  • “Students actively engaged in learning throughout their lives, and schools support them where and how they choose to do that”
  • “We engage students and parents as equitable partners everywhere, all the time”
  • “We have a strong culture of mutual respect among students, between students and teachers, and throughout our learning environment”

When I hear those things, I hear meaningfulness.

I have been writing about whole school approaches to Meaningful Student Involvement lately – I’d love to hear what you think.

 

Join Me in Marin!

Adam Fletcher in Marin County

Join me today in San Raphael, California for a series of presentations!

  • This morning I’m talking with more than 300 middle school students focused on my talk, GET ENGAGED WITH PURPOSE, PASSION AND POWER!
  • Then this afternoon I’m talking with community members, including parents, nonprofit workers and others, focused on The Big Ideas in Youth Engagement. 
  • This evening I’m talking with Marin School District educators and others in the Bay Area focused on MEANINGFUL STUDENT INVOLVEMENT.

Its an exciting time, and I’d LOVE to have you along!

Check out my Facebook page for pics throughout the day and more…

New Training Opportunities

Has your nonprofit received a grant to engage youth? Does your local conference need a keynote speaker? Do the staff in your agency need professional development? Contact me today to talk about what The Freechild Project can do for you!

The Freechild Project Training flyer

You’re Responsible for Your Freedom

For the last few days, I’ve been in a dialogue about the nature of freedom. I’ve been asked several questions, and I’ve answered them openly. I’m reducing the conversation down to the key questions, and I want to share those answers with you here.

Question One: “Is someone free if they need someone else to free them?”

I’m afraid the answer to this is a bit esoteric. For thousands of years, people have been trying to teach that freedom has to begin inside us. Governments can grant all the freedoms they want, and tyrants can take them all away, but neither matters to the person who is truly free. Gandhi, MLK and Mandela all said so.

I believe that when people of any age have opportunities to access the knowledge, skills and ability to create change in the world, they internalize the truth about freedom. That truth is that freedom is an inside job, and not otherwise.

That said, there are countless ways our world can be more free, less oppressive and authentically engaging. Connecting young people with opportunities to challenge sexism, racism, white privilege, classism and adultism is essential to not only their freedom, but the freedoms of everyone, everywhere, all the time. That’s because as we recognize the reality we’re wholly interdependent, we become wholly independent – but not the opposite. Our understanding has to work in tandem like that; as does our freedom: The more I help another person realize their freedom, the freer I become.

My freedom is inextricably bound up with yours, and yet, your freedom is wholly independent of mine. No person is free until all people are free, and yet, no person has to wait for anyone to make them free.

Question Two: “Some of the language of ‘connecting young people with…’ says to me that young people are in need of someone to connect them, being in a deficit situation.”

When I wrote “connecting young people with social change”, I was not perceiving a deficit; its actually quite the opposite. As an adult social change agent I have led The Freechild Project for 15 years, with that very objective. Rather than seeing one thing as a negative and the other thing as a positive, with that specific statement I seek to acknowledge that society is in need of change, and young people have some of the resources needed to foster that change. In this way, youth are the asset, and society is in deficit by neglecting, denying, or otherwise silencing their abilities, knowledge, and skills.

Question Three: “Tell me more tangibly about how we are inextricably bound…”

Dr. King did that better than I ever could in his last book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” Tangibly speaking, he wrote, “We are everlasting debtors to known and unknown men and women…. When we arise in the morning, we go into the bathroom where we reach for a sponge provided for us by a Pacific Islander. We reach for soap that is created for us by a Frenchman. The towel is provided by a Turk. Then at the table we drink coffee which is provided for us by a South American, or tea by a Chinese, or cocoa by a West African. Before we leave for our jobs, we are beholden to more than half the world.”

In this same way, children, youth and adults are bound together in numerous practical ways every single day. Young people are primary purpose and focus of many of our society’s occupations, including parenthood, teaching, social services, commercialism, and entertainment. Many adults depend on young people for their entertainment and education, as students bring new knowledge into the household, as youth master technology, and as children expose new realities in their play and work everyday. Similarly and not shamefully, children and youth are dependent on adults for many things, too.

Question Four: “…No person has to wait for anyone to make them free?”

Again, I’ll let history speak for me. Nelson Mandela said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” Bitterness, hatred, cynicism, contempt, spite, and other feelings are exactly that: feelings. Many people, of all ages, are held captive to their feelings and thoughts. Mandela (and others like Freire, Horton, and even Buddha and Jesus) taught us that we can overcome our own feelings and thoughts to become more free. That is something that anyone can do, despite their conditions. Mandela recognized that after 27 years in prison; maybe we can do that no matter what conditions we live in.

Question Five: “Much of your work around adultism is to support policies and systems being more equitable for young people…policies and systems that currently prevent youth from being free. If I am an adult, and within these policies and systems am free, how am I any more free when I change the policies to allow youth to be free?”

If you are an adult within these systems who is earnestly and authentically working to transform those systems, you inherently must understand that your freedom is bound up with the freedom of children and youth. If you don’t understand that, not only are you not “free”, but you are actually captive to adultism yourself. Internalized adultism disallows us from actually treating children and youth as equitable partners anywhere in our society. Instead, it oppresses adults, perpetuating feelings and thoughts of pity and sympathy towards young people, rather than empathy and solidarity.

Malcolm X explained this best when he said, “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” In a similar way, I would echo that if we’re not careful, the systems that we serve young people through will have us hating young people, and partnering with other adults who hate young people, too.

When we confront our own internalized adultism, work through the oppression we faced as young people, acknowledge the oppression we’ve caused young people as adults, make amends for what we can and genuinely approach children and youth as full human beings who are completely capable of transforming the world around them through equitable youth/adult partnerships… then we will begin to see, experience, taste and touch freedom. But until then, we’re merely tricking ourselves in the worst kinds of ways.

Question Six: “If a policy that oppresses young people exists, and young people need adults to change that policy AND it is changed. Are those youth really free from that oppression?”

Part of the tension of our society is that nobody is ever truly free of any oppression until they understand for themselves that they are free. You can overthrow all the shackles of adultism, all of the confines of government, all the norms of society, and people will still be oppressed. That means that governments, schools, nonprofits, laws, rules, regulations and other forms of control aren’t the root of oppression. At the root of oppression is our personal, individual willingness to be oppressed. When we stop being willing to be oppressed, we can no longer be oppressed. That isn’t a “jedi mind trick” or anything like that; its a practical guide to freedom. As long as we wait or work to free ourselves from other things outside of ourselves, we are reinforcing the internal controls that obligate us to be held captive to those external things.

The practical application of that means encouraging young people to explore how they learn best and what they want to learn most AT THE SAME TIME they are working to transform the education system.

Question Seven: “Or are they only free when they have freed themselves…changed the policy themselves, absent of any adult action?”

Again, youth can challenge all the laws of any land and still never experience freedom. That has nothing to do with their age.

Condemning young people to having to work on their own without pragmatic partnerships with adults is a confinement that’s as oppressive as any policy they’re attempting to change. That’s because in every single part of our society, with only .00001% deviation, adults saw the need for the policy; adults created the policy; adults imposed the policy; adults enforced the policy; and adults handed out punishments to youth who violated the policy. Suddenly, youth are somehow supposed to magically come along and change the policy, wholly without the assistance of adults, and expect that to last?

After years of working with groups in all kinds of configurations attempting different forms of this work, I can tell you that my experience has definitively shown me that if and when that formula works, it isn’t long sustained. Without cultural and attitudinal transformation, wholly youth-led systems change simply doesn’t work.

THAT SAID, this reaches to the point I’m trying to make: If we don’t teach young people to find freedom within themselves, are we simply deceiving them, and ourselves? Methinks the answer is yes, yes we are. We have to go deeper in order to reach further.

Question Eight: “How does this theory translate to race?

Because it takes huge effort, determined practice and focused thinking, nothing I’ve written here is simple. To reduce the work of freeing yourself from your own bondage by calling it “simple” reveals bias against this, the hardest of work.

Several people have answered your question more eloquently than me, so I’m going to let them:

Paulo Freire wrote, “The greatest humanistic task of the oppressed: To liberate themselves.”

Buddha said, “No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.”

Frederick Douglass wrote, “No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.”

Albert Einstein wrote, The Dalai Llama said, “Our task must be to free ourselves… by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and it’s beauty.”

My own flawed, imperfect answer is that indeed, when we’re ready to throw off the shackles of our oppressors, we must begin within and work outside ourselves, simultaneously. That’s why it’s true that nobody is free until everybody is free, and that as long as any of us are oppressed, all of us are oppressed.

We’re all in this together, no matter where we start or what we’re doing.

Adam’s Note: Rereading this, I’m happy that my thoughts are congealing more than ever. But I’m still flawed, and there are holes in what I’ve written here. Can you please share your thoughts with me about what you’ve read here? I’d love to get your opinion. Just hit “reply” to this email and we can talk through it. Thanks.

Stopping Discrimination Against Children

Recently, a young person from Finland wrote to me for an interview. They wanted to discuss discrimination against children.

Following are the questions they asked and my responses. Let me know what you think in the comments section!

What is child discrimination to you?

Discrimination against children happens anytime adults are biased towards adults. That means that whenever our words, our actions, our thoughts, and our ideas favor adults before children, children are being discriminated against.

When was the last time you saw it happen? What was happening

Discrimination against children happens every single time children and adults interact. This includes almost every parent/child, teacher/student, clerk/customer and caretaker/charge relationship. Discrimination against children happens in schools, at home, in businesses, in afterschool programs, in government agencies, in courts, at the playground, on the athletics field, in neighborhoods and throughout all of our society, all of the time.
  • Discrimination against children happens in the words adults use: Jargon, insistence on manners, and saying things like “You’re in my house and you’ll follow my rules” or “You’ll understand when you’re older” or “Children are better seen and not heard.”
  • Discrimination against children happens in the actions adults take: Building schools and houses at adult heights instead of childrens’, making curriculum and tests to meet dream-up adult wants rather than genuine child needs, and corporeal punishment.
  • Discrimination against children happens in the thoughts adults have: “I’m her parent and I know best”, “I’ll do what I want done here and convince her that its right later on”, and “They’ll just have to do this now whether they like it or not” are some of the thoughts adults have.

I explore all this in-depth in my book, Ending Discrimination Against Young People.

Have you even been discriminated in your life? If so how?

Whether or not we acknowledge it, every single person has been discriminated against in their lifetime. Discrimination is any judgment against anybody, including those made because of our ages, genders, skin colors, socio-economic statuses, cultural backgrounds, religions and more.
I’ve been discriminated against for many reasons, including my age when I was young, and my age now that I’m older.

What are you doing to stop discrimination?

I write books and pamphlets, facilitate workshops and give speeches to help educate people about discrimination against children and youth. My books include Ending Discrimination Against Young People as mentioned a moment ago; A Short Introduction to Youth Rights; and more than a dozen others.

What are ways people can stop it everyday?

As I’ve explained here, discrimination against children is a huge thing that affects everyone. The very best thing that anyone of any age can do to stop it is to listen to themselves, watch themselves and stop themselves from discriminating against children. EVERY ONE OF US discriminates against children, including children. We should listen to our thoughts and words, and hear ourselves discriminating against children. We should watch our actions and see how we discriminate against children. If we choose the company of adults before children, we’re discriminating against children.
After we’ve seen and heard our discrimination against children, we have to ask whether we’re okay with it. If we are okay with it, we don’t have to stop it. But if we’re really not okay with it, we should confront our own discrimination against children whenever, however we can. Then, and only then, should we encourage others to do the same thing.

Adults Letting Go and Taking Charge

Recently, I wrote an entry on this blog called “The Gradual Release of Authority” in response to a series of conversations I’ve been having across the country. This issue continually comes up with adults who are grappling with moving young people from being passive recipients of adult-driven programming, whether in schools, nonprofits, government agencies or other places, towards becoming active partners throughout the world they are part of. Well, apparently writing that article wasn’t enough for me, and I had to create a video, too.

So here’s my latest video called “Adults Letting Go and Taking Charge.” Hope you like it; let me know what you think in the comments section on YouTube.

Unpacking #Youthification

PhrenologyThere’s a conversation afoot about “youthification,” which means acting younger.

Apparently, moms do it, businesses should do it, neighborhoods are doing it, and entire cities want to do it more.

After reviewing several articles about this term, I have identified several assumptions in the conversations about “youthification”:

  • All Youth Are the Same: This conversation about youthification generally revolves around the idea that youth act certain ways, do particular things, believe unique beliefs and feel specific emotions.
  • “Youth” Is A Product: So far, youthification is largely a topic of interest to marketers, whether in the form of urban planners who want to grow cities or businesspeople who want to sell products and services.
  • Youth Will Stand Still: Ironically, youthification seems to be fixated on pinning down static representations of young people in order to attract older people to what younger people like, want or do. Its ironic because youth cannot be seen as a static station; similarly, its consistently shown in adult development studies that fixing perspectives is a behavior of adults; ergo, we’re applying adult beliefs to youth in order to get adults to aspire to be youth.

 

The most interesting piece I’ve found related to youthification comes from an author who connected it with neotony, which is the physiological act of staying younger longer. Applying this concept to youthification may be akin to phrenology though, and I don’t advocate anyone taking that analysis seriously.

And from there comes my conclusion: “Youthification” is a manufactured reality that’s designed to help sell things to gullible people by preying on adults’ fear, denial and naivety, much the same as phrenology was a century ago.

The idea of “youthification” is part of the adultist notion of the monolithic youth, which is driven by adults’ belief that, “Because I can observe all youth doing one thing, all youth must be one way.”

This denies the consideration other factors that shape the identities of youth, ie socio-economic backgrounds, race, gender, etc., as well as individual personalities, private beliefs, and non-adult approved ways of being in the world.

Youth don’t need the approval of adults to exist in their own ways, and adults don’t need to act like youth, either.

Similarly, adults don’t need to act like youth, live like youth, be like youth, and youth don’t need to act like adults, either.

Consumerist to the core, I believe the intent of this marketing ploy is to reinforce “in” behaviors and “out” behaviors throughout our society by reinforcing particular ways of being that can be marketed to, and ignoring or denying ways of being that cannot be marketed towards, packaged, bought or sold.

Here are my conclusions about “youthification” so far:

  • “Youthification” is Manufactured: The term “youthification” is being promoted to sell people things.
  • “Youthification” is Derogatory: The concept of “youthification” is largely demeaning and belittling to youth, since it dumbs down their identities and makes them into statis, ascertainable, replicable robots.
  • “Youthification” is Irrelevant: Any serious discussion about trends in sociology will avoid or dismiss the concept entirely, and its to be taken with a grain of salt.

What are your thoughts about “youthification”?

How to Recruit Youth Today

TPOYEadvert

Youth have many choices to make today.

Let’s say that you’re 18 years old. You left school before graduating, and your friend’s mom is letting you stay in their garage.

You have many choices, and they’re stacked like this:

  • Apply for jobs
  • Break into a car to steal something
  • See if your old girlfriend wants to have sex

What’s going through your mind right now?

Curiosity floods your brain. Even if you’re not sure you can get a job, you know its something you should do, compared to stealing something or having sex. You know what the right thing to do is, but you’re not sure why this job application would be different from any others.

If you truly wanted immediate satisfaction, you’d find an easy car to break into, right? Or you’d give that girlfriend a call. You wouldn’t even take a glance at the job form.

But that’s not how we are built when we are young people.

Years ago, I consulted with an organization that taught youth adult living skills for students who dropped out of high school. They would take high risk (high hope) youth around local colleges and show them three types of programs: One offered job training and job placement; another offered a GED, job training and placement; and another that helped them earn a diploma, get into college, through college and placed in a career. And then they were asked if they were interested in the college program.

You bet they were. You would be, and so would I—we’d all be curious about what allowed people to get into and through college if we never knew it.

Youth choose your program in a vacuum or by comparison

Simply opening a youth program doesn’t make youth attend it. We’re clear on that, right?

That’s because youth choose your program in a vacuum or by comparison.

Let’s look at choosing youth programs in a vacuum.

Say a teenager decides to smoke weed in her free time. She’s been taught about the dangers of drugs, has a stable home with two parents and has a bright future ahead of her.

She’s not asking why at this point in time, because she has a of joint in her hand given to her by her best friend who is sitting right across from her, so she’s making a decision in a vacuum.

The same vacuum concept applies to your youth program, too.

Let’s say you’re passionate about using theater to empower youth. You launched an afterschool drama program for teens in your neighborhood that lasts two hours every night, and youth aren’t showing up.

Sure, they looked at the flyers you posted around the neighborhood and sent home to parents. If they talk to you, you’re incredibly exciting.

When you pour over your grant application and promotional materials, everything screams for youth to come through the door, and yet they aren’t. They are working in a vacuum.

However, when youth look at your program flyer, they see the date and time and think of all the other things they could do, even if we don’t acknowledge those things. Youth who sit on the couch watching TV are choosing that, as are youth who spend hours surfing the Internet with no purpose.

Would you have more youth showing up if they could playing video games? Theoretically speaking, yes. So why not add video game time? Or better yet, offer video games and offer pizza every day? Would you have more youth show up then?

You see what’s happening here, don’t you? As the frivolous things increase, your desire for the program goes down. That’s because you’re no longer working in a vacuum – you’re working on comparison.

You’re comparing your original program focused on theater with every other activity that was added onto it. And you compared your interest in theater to your interest in video games and pizza.

Right now, if you’re still determined, you’ll not only focus on theater, but you might even choose a specific style of theater you’re passionate about, like street performing or children’s theater.

But there’s a reason for that, and its called—and it’s called comparison.

Two distinct choosing phases

When young people choose anything, they’re almost always going through two distinct phases. The first phase is when they consider choices in a vacuum. Youth have been told to go to a program by their mom or teacher, but they have no clue why they should attend.

With all these options staring at them, young people simply pick the most immediate thing that fulfills their needs.

Using the ever-popular Maslow’s Hierarchy as a framework, it’s easy to understand why, after they have their survival and safety needs met young people aren’t automatically selecting to spend their time in your program.

You could start promoting your program on the basis of belonging. You could start telling them what it will do for their esteem. You might even appeal to their desire to make their hopes come true through your program.

But when you start illustrating those benefits clearly, young people are no longer working in a vacuum. Instead, they are comparing the benefits of what your program offers with what they’re doing with their time right now. They are comparing your organization to their friends, families and neighborhoods. They are even comparing the benefits of your program against each other by choosing which is more important to them according to Maslow’s Hierarchy.

If you make the case, at some point they will compare playing video games, eating pizza or smoking weed to your program—along with everything else at hand. Then it dawns on them that the most unusual thing they can choose, your program, is also the most beneficial—but now it doesn’t seem so unusual.

The best thing to do—attend your program—is now the most obvious thing to do, and they will choose it, but only in comparison.

So, how should you promote your program?

If your program operates where few others do, you can stop trying to be everything to every youth all of the time. Instead, focus on one thing and do that thing excellently.

If you’re competing for the attention, energy and time of young people then you’ll have to play by their rules. Listen to them, validate what they’re saying, authorize them to do something, take action and reflect on it with them.

However, if you have a lot of time where you’d offer your program regularly and you’re looking for something else to do to serve youth, then you can have several versions of your program or other programs to offer. Young people can then move from comparing your program to other programs in the neighborhood toward comparing your program to other programs you offer.

For example, if you run a theater program, young people can choose from your agency’s theater program, which is short and fun, and your fiscal education program, which is longer and more intellectual.

Even in a very competitive neighborhood where your program is competing with other youth programs, gang membership, ample youth jobs and sitting around the house, you want to create a situation where they have stopped considering everything else and are now choosing from your organization’s range of programs.

If you’re offering a program where there’s nothing else like it in your community, then there’s still a reason for creating a comparison structure.

Youth will look around and choose whether to get involved based on how you appeal to their needs according to Maslow’s Hierarchy — even if they’re comparing apples to oranges.

For example, if you were to recruit for a program on outdoor education and a program on service learning, they aren’t particularly similar. Yet, the benefits of one program influences how youth look at the benefits of the other program.

And even if a young person selects one program your organization offers this time, next time they may move to your program, depending on your ability to benefit them.

Create that comparison

Whether you’re recruiting youth for a photography course, youth employment program, interpretive dance workshop, or GED classes, the one factor to remember is that young people either choose in a vacuum or in a comparison structure.

You want to get them to compare. Once you’ve gotten them to pay attention to your program, you should then have a series of benefit comparisons on your own flyer and website.

Create that comparison. Even if you don’t have a range of programs yet, get started moving in that direction today.

When you do, you can still list (or decrease) the list of benefits to appeal to youth. Remember that they want to make choices, and they do not want to be told what to do.

It’s at that point that youth comparing benefits becomes a strategy, by discouraging them having a knee-jerk reaction.

And it’s at that point that you getting youth through the door en masse. That will make you—and the youth you work with—a lot happier.