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!

Questions About Youth Empowerment

Today I read a great article by a thought leader in New Hampshire’s democratic education community, Peter Berg. Peter does some cool work including coaching for young people themselves, and I really like his blog. His article, “Empowering Youth to Take Charge of Their Health“, got my brain running this afternoon, as his writing often does.

It left me wondering a few questions about youth empowerment.

Some Basic Questions

When considering youth empowerment, I think about themes.

  • Choice: At what point should children and youth have access to options adults deem as unhealthy and disempowering?
  • Determination: Should adults withhold the choice by eliminating unhealthy and disempowering options from the lives of young people?
  • Options: Should young people be presented with side-by-side, binary choices everywhere, all the time, or should gradient thinking be introduced?
  • Capacity: How does the ability of young people to make decisions in any and all areas of their lives relate to their overall empowerment?
  • Limitations: Are there ever times when limiting young peoples’ choices or removing their choices actually empowers them?
  • Control: What control does a parent have over their children? What control should they have?
  • Power: What responsibilities does a school administrator have for their students? What control should they have?
  • Process: Is there a point where limiting or increasing the abilities of young people to access unhealthy and/or disempowering things actually becomes empowering?

When we begin to peel back the different layers of the onion, more questions arise.

Some Advanced Questions

I think the larger question pertains to how adults view young people. As responsible adults or parents or teachers or public health workers or healthcare professionals, etc., do adults ask these questions:

  • Are youth simple passive recipients of food/activities/schools/family/culture/society who indiscreetly ingest whatever is served to them?
  • Are youth advanced active buyers of food/activities/schools/family/culture/society who discern choices with intention and awareness?
  • Do we see youth as potential positive creators within the food/ activities/ schools/ family/ culture/ society cycle who could fashion/distribute/barter/co-create the things they partake in daily right now?
  • Are youth the inevitable future inheritors of a democratic society actively fueled by active citizen awareness-building and mobilization?

In any of these roles, what is the relationship young people have to the manufacturers, sellers, purchasers, and consumers of the food/ activities/ schools/ family/ culture/ society we all co-occupy?

I frequently finding myself asking questions when I get done with great reading about youth empowerment. Peter’s article definitely fueled the questions above.

About Youth Empowerment

When I think about the ability of young people to access what they want throughout their lives according to their own volition, my red flags come flaring out. They do whenever any talk that is libertarian in nature comes out. The reason why is summed up by what Henry Giroux wrote more than a decade ago:

“The freedom and human capacities of individuals must be developed to their maximum but individual powers must be linked to democracy in the sense that social betterment must be the necessary consequence of individual flourishing.”

This connection between youth empowerment and democracy is absolutely essential. We have to make explicit the reasons why young people should have access and authority in relationship to the social good. Peter asserts this in a subversive sense in his article, and I like that. I think too often youth empowerment practitioners don’t examine that.

Similarly, we don’t examine why and how youth empowerment is important to anyone beyond youth themselves. This was apparent through most of the 2000s research on youth involvement, youth activism, and youth engagement, as many sociologists and educationalists were looking to those activities merely for their benefits on the individual youth who participated.

Research Matters

The most important studies done since 2000 include work by Michelle Fine, Taj James, Shep Zeldin, and Shawn Ginwright. They contextualize the changes of the young people participating in youth empowerment activities in relationship to their affect on democracy and social change as a whole. This vital bridge demonstrates the interdependence between young people and communities, empowerment and social transformations.

While these cross-life links were made, others became obvious too, including connections between mental/physical/emotional well-being and academic/recreational/social goals. Increasing young peoples’ abilities to participate in empowering activities was almost definitively shown to be an avenue for improving all peoples’ lifestyles.

What do YOU think?

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Banner for Student Voice Revolution by Adam Fletcher

Defeating Adultism by Design

Our society is deeply entrenched in adultism, which is bias towards adults and consequently, discrimination against young people. It is prevalent throughout the institutions of our society. In order to re-negotiate adultism, we have to identify what support has to exist throughout society. I call this support “scaffolding”. I call this re-negotiating “youth integration”.

Youth integration will occur in two steps: The first step is desegregation, which is deliberately ending the segregation of young people throughout society. Today, segregation happens implicitly and explicitly throughout society, including schools, at home, in commerce, and in law-making, enforcement, and courts. Desegregation will address the tools of segregation, including policies and practices, as well as the attitudes and opinions that reinforce them.

The second step is integration. When young people are re-established in equitable relationships throughout society, including their relationships with parents, teachers, youth workers, police, and others, integration is present. It is a deliberate step meant to stop and reverse segregation.

Scaffolding for Youth Integration, aka, How to Defeat Adultism

Supporting young people as they’re integrating throughout society has to be done with deliberation and determination. Challenging adultism and fighting discrimination against youth must be situated in the larger struggle for nonviolence and social justice across our society. Awareness of these struggles and attuning with great legacies of transformation positions young people as the substantive leaders in social change they have been for more than 100 years.

The three pillars of adultism are culture, structure and attitude. If adultism is going to be defeated, efforts must be designed to address these three pillars.

Pillar One: Culture

The first pillar is Culture. Culture is made of the beliefs, habits values, visions, norms, systems, and symbols within a specific and definable community. Adultism is made in the fiery furnace of culture, as groups of people work together to define and reinforce stringent perspectives that re-enforce adultism. In the same way, culture can help examine those assumptions and redefine them in line with social justice through youth integration.

Pillar Two: Structure

The named activities, policies, strategies, processes, allocation, coordination, and supervision of people throughout a community happens through the structure of a definable group of people. In schools, structure includes school rules and curriculum; in society, it includes laws and policing. Structure makes things happen, enforces those things, and encourages them. Structural change promoting youth integration requires deliberate action for transformation. It should actively engage young people in equitable relationships while establishing and maintaining adult allyships.

Pillar Three: Attitude

Where culture and structure belong to a group, attitude belongs to individuals. “Your attitude determines your altitude” applies to adult understandings of youth: “Adult attitude determines youth altitude.” In our adult-dominated, adult-driven society, young people are subject to and subjugated by adult opinions, actions, attitudes, knowledge, and beliefs. This is the full effect of adultism. In order to counter this effect, we must change our own attitudes and provide opportunities for the people around us to change theirs, including youth and adults. This takes new ways of communicating, interacting, and being. It takes personal engagement within our selves and throughout the worlds around us.

 

We must address each of these elements when we seek to integrate young people in any part of society. Each is present throughout all the formal and informal institutions throughout our society. You can find culture, structure, and attitude in individual homes, schools, governments, and other places. By creating scaffolding for youth integration, we can re-negotiate adultism throughout our lives.

 

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.