Youth Engagement On Purpose

When youth engagement happens, does it happen on purpose, with intention and by design, or is it simply an organic, authentic personal experience that can’t be forced by outside sources?

Youth-serving programs, projects and organizations constantly wrestle with how youth engagement happens. Through my years as a line-level youth worker, evaluator and consultant, I’ve found that the equally important questions to answer are why youth engagement happens and what youth engagement actually is. The purpose of youth programs is as important as how the youth programs happen.

Some organizations talk about topics like education or workforce development or environmental restoration as being their purpose. Others will explain that themes like community building or social justice are their purpose. Neither topics or themes are real purposes though.

Instead, purpose is the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists. That’s why Nietzsche wrote, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” In our field that can be interpreted as, “Youth who understand why they are engaged can live with however that happens.’

The purpose of youth engagement is to rebalance the disengagement of youth throughout society. Its not that youth aren’t engaged; all youth are engaged everywhere, all the time—even if adults don’t agree why, where, when, how or who they are engaged with. Instead, its that youth often aren’t engaged in the things adults want them to be engaged in, in the places adults want them to be engaged, with the people adults want them to be engaged with, doing the things adults want them to do for the reasons adults want them to be engaged.

As ethical adult allies, educators, parents and others, we have to admit that. Adultism is at the heart of youth engagement activities, programs and organizations, too. For whatever reason, our motivation to stop youth disengagement or youth engagement in risky behaviors or anything other than what adults want, is adultism—bias towards adults.

Having a hard time understanding that? Look at the causes we engage youth in:

  • Anti-smoking and anti-vaping
  • City planning
  • Anti-drug use
  • Teacher evaluation
  • Safe sex and abstinenance
  • Cancer prevention
  • And so on…

None of those causes are inherently bad or wrong. However, all of them are driven by adult agendas. Using youth engagement as the justification for youth activities in those causes is a problem though, because it places the onus on youth for not having been engaged in those causes prior to our activities. Its not the fault of youth that they haven’t been engaged in your cause—its adults’ faults they haven’t been engaged; its adults’ goals to engage them in these causes, and its adults’ outcomes that are going to be measured in these activities.

Using youth engagement as the justification for youth activity, no matter how well-meaning you are, is inherently adultist.

If you want to identify the real purpose for your youth engagement activity, program or organization, look at the intention behind your supposed purpose. Are you seeking to end environmental racism, build cultural ownership, stop institutional sexism, or challenge civic apathy? Are you designing public spaces with youth, building tiny houses for homeless youth, fostering cross-racial connections or sustaining meaningful student involvement in your education system?

Look beyond how you’re doing these things. Look past where they’re happening. Look into when you’re doing activities. Examine who you’re serving, for real. Explore why youth engagement is the goal. The design of your activities, the action plan, your SMART goals and your activity objectives will tell you the truth.

Then, and only then, will you be able to engage youth on purpose.

 

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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

A Federal Office of Students and Youth?!?

By the late 1960s in the United States, there was a lot of concern about the rising amount of student uprisings, student-led education organizing, and student demands for meaningful involvement throughout the education system.

Responses happened across the U.S., even Washington D.C.

President Richard Nixon’s administration launched, for the fist time ever, a program to support student voice. They assigned staff, built a physical office and began outreach to districts across the country. The Office of Students and Youth  program was launched in 1969, and the first leader of the office was Toby Moffet.

The office was created for several reasons:

  • To seek technical and financial assistance for innovative student-run programs
  • Keep USOE tuned in to students, and
  • Present a national overview of school tensions and ways of dealing with them
  • Run the Student Information Center in Washington, D.C., staffed mainly by local students, the center collects information on innovations in public high schools, especially those started by students; student rights; and participation in governance.

The Student Information Center also established a clearinghouse of information on secondary school issues, especially student-initiated reforms.

I have found information related to the Office of Students and Youth extending to 1974. One of the huge upsets was the resignation of Moffet, who reportedly left because Nixon continuously said things in his speeches and comments to the media that were ignorant of young people and their interests. I have found references to the Student Information Center leading into the late 1990s. They were responsible for mailing out information regarding student loans and other information.

Its exciting to me to discover this history, if only because it shows how far student voice can go, how it can be manipulated, and how far we’ve come. Today, we don’t even remember examples like the Office of Students and Youth – until now.

 

Youth-Adult Relationship Spectrum

Youth-Adult Relationship Spectrum

 

I have seen three primary ways adults relate to youth, no matter whether the relationship is parenting, teaching, or policing. The first way is over-permissiveness; the second is responsible; and over-restrictive. Before I explain these, its important to remind you that I’m an adult and these are my opinions; a young person and other adults surely will see things differently.

Over-permissive relationships between children, youth and adults allow young people to do whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever and however they want. Disregarding the longer term effects of how young people relate to adults, over-permissiveness can incapacitate young peoples’ ability to successfully relate to the broader society around them. By allowing too much freedom, these relationships give children and youth “just enough rope to hang themselves” by extinguishing their inherent away their sense of purpose and belonging throughout the larger society in which we all belong. Based in a well-meaning notion of equality between young people and adults, these relationships conveniently relieve adults of the burden of responsibility in parts or all throughout the lives of young people. They often happen to encourage freedom.

Over-restrictive relationships between young people and adults override the decision-making capabilities of children and youth and disable their inherent creativity in order to assure adults’ sense of authority, protection, and ultimately, ownership over young people. By discouraging young people from experiencing the freedom and ability they need in their natural learning process as well as throughout their social and familial worlds, these relationships can take away enthusiasm and unfettered joy, only to replace it with rigidity and structure. Over-restrictive relationships enforce inequality between children and youth, and occur by adults enforcing their power with heavy-handed education, tight schedules and severe rules, and harsh punishment. They often happen to encourage safety.

Responsible relationships between children, youth and adults are based on trust, mutual respect, communication, and meaningful interactions. Positioning each person as an evolving member of a broader society, they identify roles, opportunities and outcomes that benefit every person in uniquely appropriate ways while holding the greater good ahead of individualism. These relationships occur when adults consciously decide to foster equity throughout the lives of young people by intentionally acknowledging each others’ according abilities, fostering deliberate opportunities and continually embracing the evolving capacities of children and youth throughout their lives, starting when they are infants. Responsible relationships nurture appropriate attachment and encourage interdependence between young people and adults. They often happen to foster democratic sensibilities.

I have not met one adult who is constantly and consistently one of these ways with all young people all of the time. This isn’t meant to provide a puzzle for people to fit together the individual pieces, either. Instead, by showing a spectrum I meant to show that each of us can be any of these at many points throughout our lives.

Share your thoughts in the comments section!

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.

 

Measure of Intergenerational Community Engagement (MICE Model)

The Measure of Intergenerational Community Engagement, aka the MICE Model, is a tool I developed for The Freechild Project. After working with intergenerational groups for more than a decade, I found it increasingly necessary to explain intermediary steps an organization could align themselves with while seeking to engage youth and adults as partners.

As it evolved, the tool took a life of its own. Ultimately, it has become a wonderful piece for participants to reflect, consider, and grow youth engagement. It can be used in any setting where young people could work with adults.

Let me know what you think of my MICE Model in the comments below! Thanks!

New Approaches to Youth Action

Description

If our goal is to engage young people in social change, there are many ways to do that. This diagram illustrates four distinct ways to engage young people: youth-driven community organizing, systemic youth involvement, situational youth voice, and service learning. It then illustrates the traditional and non-traditional approaches to doing that within these ways, as well as the overlaps that are apparent.

 

Traditional Approaches to Engage Young People in Social Change

  • May be exclusively youth-led
  • May partner with adults
  • May be led by adults
  • May include equity
  • May have explicit learning connections
  • May include adults
  • May be focused on sustained change
  • May have sustained funding
  • May position youth as “outsiders” versus “insiders”

 

New Approaches to Engage Young People in Social Change

  • Infuse youth as full members
  • Recognize mutual investment by youth and adults
  • Focus on sustained change
  • Make explicit learning goals for youth and adults
  • Focus on systemic and cultural transformation
  • Requires equity between youth and adults.

 

Explanation

In my own restlessness, I find myself craving something different these days.
I’m increasingly dissatisfied with isolated experiences of “youth-led” activity that is seeded and driven by adults. I have come to see that the majority of this work is largely disingenuous and ultimately incapacitating for the young people who participate in these activities. I say that very cautiously, as I personally know and am professionally aware of the immediate feelings of empowerment that are inherent in this type of action.

 

Today, I’m coming to understand that we need approaches to this work that more deeply situate young people as full members of currently existent society. That way they can be partners in what already exists and transform situations in deeply sustainable, deeply transformative ways.This has to happen by working with the institutions we already have in place. It has to happen with the attitudes we already have at work. This is where my writing on meaningful student involvement comes from: Students working in the places they already occupy with people who are already committed to working with them. There are attitudes, cultures, structures, and connections to transform, but those are sustained changes that won’t go away with passing generations.
This article is meant to illustrate what the difference I see looks like visually. Respond and let me know what you think about a new approach to youth action – I’d love to hear what you think!