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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10 Ways Motivators Stay Motivated


What drives the people who encourage people to stay motivated?

Recently, I’ve been considering what keeps motivating people motivated. Whether you are workplace supervisors, social workers, professional speakers, parents or classroom teachers, if you are a motivator you have to stay motivated. How do you do that?

I have spent a career working with people who motivate people. Sometimes they do it on accident, and other times they do it on purpose. In my workshops with more than 10,000 motivators over the last decade, I’ve learned many ways these people stay on top of their game. Following are some of them.

1. Avoid the Motivational Traps.

There are three traps facing every person who motivates others: 1) All style and no substance; 2) Knock but nobody’s home, and; 3) Believing the hype. About the first, don’t try to be something you aren’t. With the second, practice being there for others by being present and avoiding distractions. And regarding the third, remember that the seductive powers of flattery are always looking for a victim; you can stand beyond their reach by staying humble, practicing gratitude and constantly acknowledging and accepting your mistakes, and correcting them if possible.

2. Lookout for Cynicism – Your Own and Others. 

Unmotivated people look for fraudulence and gimmicks using cynicism as a knife. They see through fakery and deceit quickly, and challenge incompetence. If you know the subject you’re working on, constantly seek to expand your knowledge, gain practical experience however you can, and be empathetic to learn from the people you’re serving.

3. Find the Motivation BEHIND the Motivation. 

There is always something within us that drives us. If you are reading this article, there is something driving you. But behind that drive lies a deeper reason. Through concentrated self-reflection, you can find the motivation behind the motivation for you. When you’ve found that place, you’ll be able to relate to others in a more genuine way.

4. Get Real.

Stay away from anything that’s too intellectual or theoretical. Avoid speaking in hypotheticals and veer away from hyperbole. People want what is real, because that’s what they can relate to. If you want to stay motivated you have to stay grounded on the earth with the people you’re trying to motivate.

5. Don’t Try to Motivate Other People. 

Speak your truth, and others will be motivated by you. If you seek to motivate others, you will come off as shallow, disrespectful and even callous. Share your authentic self by sharing what drives you, what fears you have and how you actually overcome challenges, instead of spouting out cliches.

6. Don’t Try to Be Positive All of the Time.

Somedays even the most motivated people wake up on the wrong side of the bed. Motivated people are merely focused on what drives them; positivity is a happy by-product of living your passion. Don’t try to be a happy machine; be a real person, and let yourself have bad days when they come. Challenging times don’t mean we’re not motivated; they mean we have another motivation beyond the obvious.

7. Let the Well Run Deep.

People who motivate people have something within them that’s deeper than what shows on the exterior; however, that doesn’t mean motivators need to wear that on the outside. On the contrary, sometimes we have to hold our cards close to our chest. But we should still acknowledge to ourselves what the deepest things inside us are that drive us and allow us to motivate others.

8. Recognize Different Responses. 

Some people are motivated by flash and bang, while others are motivated by depth and substance. Some people have loud, abrasive or aggressive approaches while for others, their presence is presence enough. None of those are right or wrong; they’re only different. Motivated motivators recognize different responses and make appropriate adjustments that fit their own styles.

9. See that Everyone Has the Potential to Motivate Others.

Some people run away from their potential while others actively suffocate and smother it. Others embrace it and flash it so loudly so brightly it burns out. Still others walk with it, gently and consistently, building it and stoking it slowly and with consistently until its a constant in all of their life, all of the time – and that’s what I’m working for. Whatever your approach is, see that everyone can motivate others, whether they’re doctors or fast food workers, poets or presidents.

10. Live Your Truth.

Whether you motivate clients from behind a desk everyday or walk the streets trying to motivate a sale, live your truth as much as you can. Don’t be two-faced, tell lies or act like you’re something that you’re not. If you don’t think you can motivate people today, stop trying for the day. But remember the rest of the steps I outlined here, then get on your horse again tomorrow. If you think you can motivate others but aren’t, stop waiting and get to it! Starting with your kids or friends, be a motivated person whose example enlivens and motivates others.

These lessons aren’t just made up.

I know these are real partly because they’re based on my conversations with other people and learning from what they’ve done. However, I also know they’re real because they are the lessons I’ve learned. I have stumbled and fallen, felt unmotivated and disappointed people before. I learn though, and that’s what I want to share here.

Do your work and be who you are, and if you motivate others they’ll let you know. If you want to motivate others, don’t set yourself on a pedestal and expect your followers to be instantly motivated. Instead, spend time building your expertise and deepening your know-how. There will come a point when you’ll know its time.

If you’re already a motivator, I hope this article has reminded you how to stay up. If you want to become one, I hope this has given you some ideas.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Organizations Seeing Themselves

mirrorIn organizations and communities, people around the world are wrestling with their observations of the present and their projections for the future. We’re watching media images of terrorism and hatefulness mix with our own memories of what the future was supposed to look like. As we work more and spend more time at school, we’re loosing connections with family, friends, neighbors and others who we used to be tight with.

Our organizations are living through this, too. Schools, nonprofits, businesses and governments are feeling the effects of separation and alienation, disconnection and disengagement. The platforms that were to unite us are taking us apart also, and the leaders who’ve led us seem awash in corruption or indifference to our well-being.

Within all of this lies a hopefulness and possibility that cannot be forgotten though. Our organizations weren’t founded on cynicism or disbelief, and our communities weren’t brought together by pain or hate; they were united by faith and trust, mutuality and reciprocity. Somewhere in all those contrasting images there’s an emerging vision for the highest potential and greatest possibilities of ourselves, our livelihoods and our future.

I work with individuals, organizations and communities to help foster deeper understanding of what our hopes and dreams are as individuals and as collectives. Like a million billion Venn Diagrams, our possibilities overlap and emerge as a unified vision for the future that moves along with pragmatic practicality. I coach individuals towards contextualizing their vision for world change; I educate groups to increase the capacity of communities to become present and co-create the future we share; and I inspire organizations through thoughtful, powerful talks that usher in our own greatest visions for ourselves and the world we share.

Learn more from my post, Mirrors of Our Interiors.

Questions to Consider

  • What do you see in your organization?
  • What do you see in yourself?
  • Where are you going?
  • How can I support you getting there?