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.