Six Reasons Youth Disengage

After almost 15 years of consulting nonprofits, K-12 schools, and government agencies across the United States and Canada, last year I took a position coordinating a dropout prevention program in the Pacific Northwest. Hungry to examine a different support system for youth I wasn’t familiar with, I chose this program because it supports young people ages 14 to 24 who are re-engaging in school, training, and the workforce.

Since then, I’ve had the privilege of partnering with dozens of agencies serving thousands of youth. Meeting young people of all ages, working with seasoned and new youth workers and agency leaders, and learning new insights into youth disengagement and dropout have highlighted my experience so far.

For all my years of consulting, I’ve focused on youth engagement in communities and student voice in schools. I learned a lot through my research and practice, and from colleagues across the nation and around the world. However, I’ve had many new lessons in my current position, too.

So many people are working so diligently to engage youth in society, or re-engage them in culture-building activities, completing school, getting training, finding employment, recreation, or civic engagement activities. So why are youth still making the conscious choice to leave these programs? Here are six reasons youth disengage.

Six Reasons Youth Disengage

1. Youth Are Taught To See Themselves As Failures. Between parents who are too busy or too depressed to care, teachers who are too overwhelmed to focus on them, and lawmakers too beholden to give them the supports they need to succeed, many youth are actually taught to see themselves as failures. That comes from the culture surrounding them, including tv and music; schools they attended, including teachers and curriculum; and the social safety net that allows them fall to low, low heights.

2. Many Adults Have Given Up On Many Youth. Driven by standardized testing, mandatory evaluations, prescripted youth programs, and byzantine policies, many youth workers, teachers, government officials, and others have given up on many of the youth they’re supposed to serve. Instead of believing “youth are the future”, they believe youth are merely numbers to achieve program goals, or ineffective contributors to the economy, civic society, and world around them.

3. Traditional Youth Activities Serve Traditionally Engaged Youth, And Fail Everyone Else. Youth leadership, community service, and even traditional youth empowerment programs actually fail to serve a lot of young people today! Too reliant on youth complacency and obedience, these programs are failing to foster modern thinking, implement accurate strategies, and create successful cultures that engage disengaged youth. This is happening in epidemic proportions in many, many communities, especially affecting low-income youth and youth of color.

4. Most Adults Expect Youth To Change To Meet Today’s Needs. Rather than acknowledging that the economy is changing, the job market is realigning, and needs and wants are different now than ever before, most adults expect young people to change to meet today’s needs in the economy. This is carryover thinking from an old education model, which sought to mold students into the types of learners teachers were capable of teaching. This is a disingenuous perspective, because the future economy depends on nimble thinking, transformative action, and creative realities.

5. Youth Engagement Isn’t Really The Goal. When most adults talk about youth engagement, they’re actually talking about youth obedience. They want young people to comply with the expectations, values, perspectives, and realities of adults, and not their own. They couch their expectations by talking about activities being youth-led or youth-driven, but in reality, they only make programs for youth who comply with adult expectations or desires. In this way, they seek conformity, not engagement.

6. They Are Already Engaged. Whether or not adults want to see it, youth are already engaged right now. They are 100% human, choosing where, how, when, and why they want to engage. Albeit, they might be engaged in things adults don’t approve of, including sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, or any of a plethora of other activities (smoking, video games, graffiti, basketball, driving, etc). This shows that youth engagement isn’t limited to things adults approve of them doing; youth engagement isn’t just compliance. Instead, its any sustained connection a young person has to the world around them. Adults need to learn that simply because youth aren’t engaged how adults want to be doesn’t automatically invalidate the things youth are engaged in. Instead, it challenges us to meet them where they’re at, instead of insisting they come to where we want them to be.

These six reasons have sunk into my skin slowly, because I’ve done these things too, whether inadvertently or on purpose. However, I believe its our responsibility as ethical practitioners—youth workers, teachers, social workers, government officials, and community leaders—to respond to the need for authentic youth engagement.

What steps can you take to ensure youth stay in schools and our community programs?

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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!

The NEW Youth Voice

"Education does not transform the world. Education changes people. People change the world." - Paulo Freire
“Education does not transform the world. Education changes people. People change the world.” – Paulo Freire

You might have noticed that since publishing The Freechild Project Youth-Driven Programming Guide last year, I’ve come to feel strongly about aggrandizing youth involvement.

A lot of organizations and programs tout their credibility with youth involvement, youth engagement, and youth organizing by highlighting all the wonderful things they position youth to lead. By doing this, these organizations are actually doing youth disservice. The many challenges include:

  • Positioning adults as beneficent rulers who allow youth to do things
  • Incapacitating young peoples’ innate responsibility for themselves and others
  • Negating the abilities of communities to work together for the common good

 

Instead of helping, these activities actually and often harm the people they intend to help.

We need to see things differently. In recent months, I’ve begun to envision a new way of being, knowing, and doing. This way is currently emerging between young people and adults, and it is happening throughout society. This way re-positions children, youth and adults from assuming power relationships dependent on subservience and authority, towards seeing each other in a more holistic light.

The old way of Youth Voice…

  • Relied on adults having power over youth
  • Positioned young people as “adults-in-the-making” not to be seen as whole people right now
  • Depended on youth being subservient and compliant to adults
  • Required systems of oppression that enforced adults’ power
  • Demanded youth be compliant with adult desires out of fear of violence
  • Necessitated systems of authority enforced by structures of abuse
  • Made programs that put “youth in charge” necessary in order to rebalance power inequalities between youth and adults
  • Routinely positioned youth against each other and against adults in order to ensure compliance and conformity
  • Saw children and youth progressing along a predictable, staircase development cycle towards adulthood

The emerging, new relationships between youth and adults look different. The new Youth Voice…

  • Sees young people as whole people no matter what their ages
  • Utilizes holistic youth development as the organizing framework for young peoples’ growth, education, and ongoing formation as humans
  • Treats all young peoples’ growth as non-linear, non-sequential and non-uniform, instead treating every child and youth as an evolving human
  • Allows equal room for adults and young people to have, express, and critique power and authority
  • Positions children, youth, and adults in equitable partnerships designed to foster engagement, belonging, and ownership
  • Grants adults and young people equitable, responsible space for learning, teaching, and leadership in all roles, all of the time
  • Replaces command-and-control authoritarianism by honoring the collective, democratic perspectives of all people, regardless of age
  • Acknowledges programs that put “youth in charge” to be ineffectual and unnecessary
  • Dismantles youth-against-youth and youth-against-adult power struggles through common action and mutual support

Paulo Freire wrote, “Education does not transform the world. Education changes people. People change the world,” and the same can be said of Youth Voice. Youth Voice does not transform the world. Youth Voice transform people. People change the world.

If we are going to change the world, we must change ourselves first. Changing ourselves comes from active, deliberate work. That’s what my proposition for new Youth Voice is – an attempt to engage each of us differently.

Through these active, distinguishable ways of being, knowing, and doing, young people are adults are working together to transform the world we share. Everyone can and should aspire to nothing less.

 

Going to Pittsburg

Adam Fletcher speaking to a group of youth in 2014.
Adam Fletcher speaking to a group of youth in 2014.

I’m going to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania next month! The Allegheny County United Way is bringing me in to speak at their bi-annual afterschool gathering, the APOST Conference. I will be on the scene throughout the day, presenting a keynote and a workshop for participants, as well as providing consulting throughout the day.


Presented in the first part of the APOST Conference, I will do a keynote called Engage ALL Youth, Everywhere, ALL the Time! In my description I wrote, “For a long time, the most engaged youth seemed predictable: They were successful, they were connected, and they made adults happy. Today, the picture is a lot different.” 

I will focus audience members on the ways youth engagement is expanding, and how important it is to recognize where youth are engaged right now. Using stories, humor, and examples from my 20 plus years experience and research, I plan to engage the audience themselves, will helping them learn practical, meaningful, and powerful ways to engage all youth, everywhere, all the time!

This is Adam Fletcher speaking in 2014.
Adam Fletcher speaking at a conference in Bellevue, Washington, in 2014.

In the second part of the APOST Conference, I’m presenting a workshop called 5 Steps to Youth Engagement. Writing about it, I said, “Evaluators say it is a science and seasoned youth workers say it is an art. No matter which perspective you have, everyone admits it is a little of both.” I will use this workshop to look at some the key questions in youth engagement: What is youth engagement, What gets youth engaged, and What gets organizations real outcomes?

In 5 Steps to Youth Engagement, my workshop participants will explore some of the gray areas of youth engagement, like how to engage youth without spending money, the difference between youth participation and youth engagement, and how to engage someone repeatedly without burn out. We will also address how to stop youth disengagement, how to understand the rules of youth engagement, and how to engage adults in engaging young people. Participants will leave with practical action they can use right away.
Learn more about the APOST Conference and join me this year by visiting the APOST Conference website today!

Voices of the Damned Youth

damnedyouthWe should never give up on any young person, or any person as far as that’s concerned. There is nobody – absolutely nobody – in our society who is too far gone to simply relinquish them to the trash can of society. Especially children and youth.

In reality though, many young people are born into indifference, apathy, and intransigence. Depression, inability, and oppression are holding legions of children and youth from realizing the dreams they could have.

They face families, communities,and nations that are wholly indifferent to their realities. Because of this, these children and youth struggle with society’s norms, cultures, customs, and behaviors. They can be gifted or struggling, adult-pleasing or anti-authoritarian. A few times, they lash out. Mostly, they internalize.

I know of this because its lived experience for me. Identifying in turns as an impoverished homeless immigrant child, white-kid-grown-up-in-an-African-American-neighborhood, nearly dropped out, couldn’t-pay-for-college, been-a-youth-worker-all-my-life kinda guy, I have struggled with those senses of alienation all of my life. My story has been told by a half-dozen journalists who think they should expose the scars as well as the stars in my life. Its not their story to tell though, its mine.

The same is true for many youth today. Their stories deserve—mustbe told, but not by well-meaning adults. Not by reporters or grantwriters, poets or politicians. Instead, we must make space for damned youth to speak for themselves.

To be specific, I want you to know that I believe we should routinely, systemically, and completely engage the voices of young people who identify as academically failing. Poor, Low Income, and Working Class. Homeless. Minority culture. GBLTQQ. African American, American Indian, and other communities of color. Immigrants. Runaway, foster, and Ageing Out. Incarcerated. Court-involved. Juvenile Delinquents. Addicts and Abusers. And many, many others.

We shouldn’t deny any young person the opportunity to share their voices, and I’m not suggesting that we shut down one youth in order to create another. I am fully in support of expanding every possibility available throughout our society in order to create more space for the voices of youth. Youth Voice includes any expression of any young person anywhere, anytime, about anything. (Luckily) It doesn’t depend on adult approval. I’m suggesting that we, as adults, make space for youth voice, and especially those of the damned youth.

These youth are damned because they’re inconvenient for adults to listen to. They’re damned because they say things we don’t want to hear in ways we don’t want to listen to. They’re damned because adults are the majority culture and youth are the minority culture. They’re damned because they’re youth. More importantly though, they’re not really damned at all.

In sharing my own voice, I learned that I wasn’t damned; moreso, I am vastly privileged. I believe my younger brothers and sisters must learn this too, and so I call for them to have the space I was fortunate enough to experience as a young person, no matter how rarified it was.

Voices of the damned youth require:

  • More youth voice from the children and youth who we don’t routinely hear from.
  • More youth involvement from the historically disengaged.
  • More empowerment for youth who are oppressed.
  • More democracy for everyone.

Then we’re going someplace spectacular, together.

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!

Why No Student Voice?

Going over my Guide to Students on School Boards this weekend, I found an interesting fact: Almost all of the states of the states that have outlawed students on school boards allow corporal punishment in schools.

The 14 states that have laws that don’t allow students to serve on district boards of education Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and West Virginia.

The 19 states that legally allow corporal punishment are Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia and Wyoming.

This represents a diminutive view of young people in general, resultant of social norms from hundreds of years ago.

High rates of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination, exist in these states’ schools as well. Relying on fear and intimidation to ensure social structure is ever-present in these states’ school systems, as well as throughout many of the local communities in these states.

The results of these stringent efforts to systematically disenfranchise students ensures the success of the school-to-prison pipeline that targets low-income students, students of color, and others. This pipeline, in turn, is devolving much of society for the benefit of the notorious one percent.

Ultimately, I believe that states have outlawed students on school boards in order to ensure social division, secure corporate profits, and maintain the culture of fear that benefits historically powerful populations in our society, including the legacy of racism and much more.

To note though, even though other states may not have laws against students on school boards, and others still actually have students there who aren’t allowed to say or do anything significant, the danger is that positioning students on school boards may be largely tokenistic: Without a relevant framework informing their actions, well-meaning adults may simply be placating popular interest without affecting any real change in schools.
Its important to understand that students on school boards is a step towards meaningful student involvement, but not the whole path. That is a much larger framework involving many more activities that can actually engage every single student in every single school all of the time. That’s my grand vision for school reform today, and what I think we should all be working for in schools everywhere.
Luckily, I’ve seen the number of students, parents, educators, and others who agree on that grow each year. We’re heading toward the future, and its coming to meet us in schools right now.

Youth Engagement Tips

fctoppper2013.jpg

Working with more groups around the world has caused me to constantly revise and refine my processes. The following thoughts were shared with me by a group of youth as advice to adults who want to successfully engage youth. We can all strive to use them as guidelines in youth engagement work.

Youth Engagement Tips

  1. Make room for youth to talk first. Adults often feel compelled to start conversations or answer questions first. Let youth talk first.
  2. Do not force youth to talk. Sometimes you don’t have things to say. Sometimes youth don’t have things to say. Don’t try to force anyone to talk, and just sit in uncomfortable silence if you have to. 
  3. Remember one youth doesn’t represent all youth. All youth are individuals with their own perspectives, backgrounds, and realities. Youth aren’t all the same.
  4. It is okay to not know everything, even if you’re an adult. It is okay to be uncertain, express doubt, and ask questions. It is also okay to believe youth.
  5. Don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable with youth. If we’re talking about things that cause you discomfort, don’t make us change the conversation. Be uncomfortable.
  6. Speak your truth to youth. Don’t hide behind titles, age, positions, degrees, or other appearances. Tell us what you know and have done, and be human.
  7. Listen for understanding, not affirmation. Sometimes youth won’t support your conclusions and decisions, and that’s okay.
  8. Do not try to “fix” youth—they aren’t broken. Young people can come from broken homes or depressed communities, be incarcerated or homeless, but they’re not broken. They are whole people; treat them that way.
  9. Take appropriate risks when you’re talking with youth. Challenge yourself to stay engaged with young people exactly as they are right now, instead of making them come to where you’re at.
  10. Avoid just listening to youth voice. Take action. 

 

What else would you add? Where can this page grow or change? Leave your comments below!

Expanding Adultism

adultism

ANY bias towards adults is adultism.

That is the reason why sink heights in schools and parks are adultist. And adultism is the reason why sink heights have anything in common with the phrase “It’s better for kids to be seen and not heard.” And adultism is what sink heights and old adages have in common with curfews and compulsory schooling and so many other parts of our adult-biased society.

Is there anyone who doesn’t show bias towards adults? In my way of thinking these days, the answer is “Sure.” There are plenty of young people who aren’t biased towards adults. Some are though. As for adults, I’ve come to accept that we ALL are, even the best-intentioned among us. We have a disposition towards other adults, and that is what makes us adultist. I’m not interested in whether that’s “nature or nurture”, only in helping people acknowledge that it simply is what it is…

When we’re talking about relationships between adults and youth, I think we have to stop using terms like “oppression” so easily. That doesn’t mean it’s not real; but rather, it’s acknowledging the term isn’t accessible. It simply shuts people down. Oh goodness do I know how that term shuts people down.

In trying to popularize this conversation, I want an accessible language that people can discuss without it being loaded with insinuation and implications.

When we discuss adultism as meaning bias towards adults, then more adults can understand the nature of their own behavior. It can also help people understand that adultism is a simple fact, not a judgment against their very core moral fiber. 

All adults are biased towards other adults. Does it have to be that way? Probably – nature is beastly in some ways. Can we acknowledge this bias and work for justice in this situation? Absolutely.

The Simple Formula for Youth Engagement

transform

Engaging young people does not require a miracle formula or spectacular logic. Instead, we simply need to recognize the roles that most affect young people. We can engage young people by transforming adults, organizations, and communities.

Learn more from my FREE A Short Introduction to Youth Engagement and at The Freechild Project website.