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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How to Recruit Youth Today

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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.

How To Meet Youth Where They Are

sleeping-studentHazel Owen is a spectacular educational consultant in New Zealand. Recently, after reading an article I wrote, she asked me, “How do we meet apparently disengaged youth ‘where they’re at’? Can this be achieved without the very same youth having to choose to become a part of the society from which they have disengaged? Or is it to do with choosing how to engage with society, rather than conforming?”

Following is my response:

We meet young people “where they’re at” by engaging in what is supposedly “their” worlds, and engaging them in what is supposedly “ours” as adults. Work with what they’re actually engaged in right now on their own volition, whether video games, rock-n-roll, gangs, or whatever, and acknowledge the learning, teaching, and leadership opportunities inherent in their lives right now. 

This must be achieved with all young people, no matter what their backgrounds, especially embracing the multiple cultural diversities throughout our nations today. Society isn’t this or that, but rather, the whole collection of activities people engage in; because of that, we shouldn’t force young people into a false choice between society or their activities, but instead, teach them that their activities are actually our activities, as a whole, and that they’re not separate but together with all of us. Together.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below!

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!

The Story Behind Freechild

New York City is home to a spectacular and burgeoning youth rights movement, and one of the leaders sent me an email the other day. She asked, “How did you come to be involved in youth rights, and what made you decide to put Freechild together? What originally got you inspired?” Following is my answer. Warning: This post is about my personal life, because this has always been a personal labor for me. If you don’t want to know, don’t read. Otherwise, welcome to some of the life of Adam.

I started getting paid to work with young people when I was 14. That year I was hired to teach in a summer drama program in Omaha, Nebraska based on Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed.

I had a great mentor for the next three summers, when I worked for the city’s foremost African American director who was called Edu Mahili. He was a radical activist who’d channeled his energy towards liberatory self-expression, and his effervescent charisma drew in some tough kids in the neighborhoods where we worked, and I became committed to working with young people for all my life. Over those same summers I worked at a camp teaching nature, and throughout the school year I struggled through classes and tried my damnedest to make sense of the schooling that was being done to me.

After I graduated from high school I wasn’t quite sure what my next steps were. I eventually got jobs running ropes challenge courses, teaching independent living skills to foster and homeless youth, monitoring the youth floor in a drug treatment center, and working as a full-time teacher/naturalist at a nature center in the Midwest. I spent three terms as an AmeriCorps Member, first putting together a mentoring program for Kurdish and Iraqi refugee students in Nebraska, then running a year-around ropes challenge course in the Pacific Northwest, then coordinating a service-learning program in Northern New Mexico. In that last placement I had a position in a federal government program intent on training the next generation of national service leaders.

As I was finishing that position I learned about The Evergreen State College in Olympia, where degree studies are self-driven, and I decided I needed to come here to finish my BA. I had attended six colleges up to that point, and had to more to go before graduating, but ended up earning my degree from TESC. Around 2000 I was running a city-funded youth center in Tumwater, Washington when I stumbled across Jonathan Holt’s Escape from Childhood in the local library. I immediately ingested several of his books, and while they didn’t really stick to my ribs the same way “Escape…” had, I became determined to proponent children’s rights as he called for them. I dug around the Internet and quickly became interested in NYRA and other online youth rights efforts. I quickly wanted to become involved in NYRA – especially since it seemed “newer” and fresher than other orgs.

That year I was hired by a national foundation based out of Washington, DC to proponent youth involvement in Washington state. They provided me with train-the-trainer training, along with a “reasonable” framework for advocating youth voice, focused primarily on service learning, youth councils and youth forums. Working out of this state’s education agency, I traveled around the state finding youth involvement that resonated with my personal experience, including low income youth, homeless kids, and young people of color. I found it – although it didn’t look like what I’d learned about. When I brought back examples of radical youth participation to this foundation I was told they were nice, but “not what we talk about.” Chagrined, I went back to the state ed agency.

In my spare time after work I worked with a group of friends from around the country to pull together The Freechild Project, so-named by a group of young people who I’d hooked up with here in Oly. They were focused on youth rights, and I wanted to tie together youth rights and youth involvement, so it felt like a logical fit. While that group fizzled after a few years, it supported a lot of the initial labor behind Freechild. My comrades in this work helped me a lot, too, encouraging me to expand my analysis further. With their guidance I quickly identified elements of familiarity among the youth rights, community youth involvement, student engagement, youth philanthropy, youth-led media, and hip hop movements. I started leading workshops in communities, conferences, youth orgs, and other places across the U.S. with financial support from the groups that hosted me. These events, along with regular emails, books sent in from authors and publishers, and my constant vigilance for developments across the Internet led to the rapid expansion of the Freechild Project website and helped me understand the breadth of youth power today. It still amazes me.
Eventually I started talking about youth involvement within the state ed agency. Why not have young people involved in the place that affects them everyday – schools and education leadership? They ended up hiring me as their first-ever “student engagement specialist,” and eventually I developed SoundOut from that work – but that’s a different story. Freechild continued to grow and expand because of my friends and the young people I keep meeting. Also, it has been great to get support from people like Henry Giroux, who is a serious academic who seriously supports Freechild and myself. Constant contact with individuals and organizations around the country and the world only encourages me, and I continue to want to grow Freechild further.

That’s how The Freechild Project was created, and where it is professionally sourced. My core inspiration? That goes a little further back still, past the career and swagger. My youngest years included homelessness and poverty, along with some bumpy school experiences that centered on the inability of teachers to reach me and my siblings, all of who were gifted learners who needed to be reached in specific ways that schools were incapable of doing. Along with that were experiences of trying to found an environmental club at my high school over 3 years, and having no reception from administrators or teachers at the school – despite participation from dozens of my peers and stated support from community members. There was volunteering for the food bank and local housing agency, and working as a janitor, warehouse worker, and roofer. There were crappy experiences of watching family and friends get swept away from school and our neighborhood and being thrown into jail, into parenting, the military, and minimum wage jobs where they still struggle. I wasn’t a ruffian looking to squabble on every block, but I was a rogue, a tagger and a smack-talker who tried a lot of different means to reach the ends. All those things inform my work still, and always will to some extent. And my struggle isn’t done: I have a 4 and 1/2 year old daughter, and she’s keeping me in check in a lot of ways – that’s for sure.

Note that this story stops right around 2002 – a lot has conspired since then. Feel free to ask more.