What is an Adult Ally to Young People?

An “adult ally” is “a person who is a member of the dominant or majority age group who work to end oppression in his or her personal and professional life through support of, and as an advocate for, young people.”*
“Allies are adults who advocate and support young people. They assist young people in their lives, support them when they struggle, and let them know how important they are and that change is possible.”

Adult allies have been remarkably effective in promoting positive change in society. Over the past 40 years adult allies have worked in organizations and communities around the world to make adult culture more aware of bias and discrimination against young people, and challenging of the privileges automatically given to adults.

20 Ways to Be An Adult Ally to Young People

An adult ally strives to…
  1. be a friend to young people and adults
  2. be a listener
  3. be open-minded
  4. have his or her own opinions about age
  5. be willing to talk
  6. commit him or herself to personal growth in spite of the discomfort it may sometimes cause
  7. recognize his or her personal boundaries about age
  8. recognize when to refer young people or other adults to additional resources
  9. confront his or her own prejudices about age
  10. join others with a common purpose
  11. believe that all persons regardless of age, sex, race, gender, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation should be treated with dignity and respect
  12. engage in the process of developing a culture free of age-based oppression
  13. recognize his or her mistakes, but not use them as an excuse for inaction
  14. be responsible for empowering his or her role in a community, particularly as it relates to responding to adultism and adultcentrism
  15. recognize the legal powers and privileges that adults have and which young people are denied
  16. believes that youth can “be youth” and be partners and meaningful participants
  17. is clear about his or her intentions as an adult ally
  18. fosters environments where young people feel comfortable and respected
  19. does not assume that youth only know about “youth issues”
  20. supports young people’s development as meaningful partners and leaders

As important as it is to define what an adult ally is in a positive sense, it is also helpful to understand the boundaries of an adult ally’s role.

An adult ally is NOT…
  • someone with ready-made answers
  • necessarily a counselor, nor are they necessarily trained to deal with crisis situations
  • expected to proceed with an interaction if levels of comfort or personal safety have been violated

Sources

Sources in this post include Washington, J. and Evans, N. J. (1991). “Becoming an Ally,” in N. J Evans and V. A. Wall (eds) Beyond tolerance: Gays, lesbians and bisexuals on campus. Alexandria, VA: American College Personnel Association and (2002) Get the Word Out! Boston: Youth On Board. Some other sources I’ve used for this include this PDF and this PDF, this PDF and this PDF. Learn more here, here and here.

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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.

Adultism in Parenting: The Terrible Twos

The so-called “Terrible Twos” are a myth.

A Drunken Postmaster

Supposedly coined by a drunken postmaster in the 1800s, the phrase has become ubiquitous among new parents everywhere I hear anyone talking about children. I have raised a child through them and participated in the upbringing of a number of nieces and nephews, and every adult in my circle agrees that the so-called “Terrible Twos” are simply not real. Now, there are many terrible days when you are raising small children, days that are filled with excrement and urine and vomit, and I am under now misunderstanding those days are terrible. So are the days when my daughter, who is four, demonstrates her strong will beyond anything acceptable by adults. But there is no such thing as the Terrible Twos.

Adultism Expressed

WHY do I bring that up here? I believe that the labeling of the Terrible Twos are the near beginning of the lifelong scheme each of us face throughout our childhood, into our youth, and as young adults. That scheme is adultism. Meant to describe any bias towards adults and against youth, adultism casts a wide net over the hypocrisy and alienating practices in schools today. I firmly believe that no child should agree with everything a parent tells them, and because of that we should expect resistance. That resistence is often labelled “terrible twos”; unfortunately, the only thing terrible about it is the discrimination inherent in the label.

Moving Forward

Let’s move past our own adultism and embrace the new roles of children in our society. Instead of seeing screaming and yelling as resistence, let’s hear them as voices. Not all voices are comfortable or easy, and not all voices are easily pacified or understood. However, all voices should be heard. Among two year olds we should hear them as a child’s indication that they have a want or a need to be interpreted by adults – that’s our jobs. From there we can move forward.

3 Steps

Here are three steps we can all follow to move past our own adultism:

  1. Acknowledge Your Adultism. All parents are biased towards adults. We go to adults for advice on childraising, we learn how to change diapers from adults and we have many things for our kids that were made by adults for children. All parents are biased towards adults.
  2. Confront Your Own Injustice. If adultism in your parenting seems unjust to you, confront yourself. Check your bad behavior or attitudes. Watch your language and see your biases. When you address your own adultism, you will be a more effective ally to your own children. Discover new ways of being with your own children.
  3. Check Others. Don’t allow adultism among parents to go unchecked. Instead, call out others’ bad behaviors, wrong attitudes, unfair language and discrimination against their own children. Help them learn new ways of being that aren’t adultist.

After you’ve taken those steps, you’ll be farther ahead than the vast majority of people in our society, especially parents. That’s a place to start.