The Youth Voice Movement

The Freechild Institute Youth Voice Toolkit

In the past 25 years there have been thousands of projects, hundreds of publications, dozens of research studies and countless youth and adults involved in the youth voice movement.  But after all of the youth summits, youth action councils, youth staff, and youth board members, what do youth and their communities have to show for it today?  Has the movement been successful?  Is the youth voice movement even still alive?

After growing up in service and working as a promoter of service learning, I began to hear criticism toward the youth voice movement from within and outside of the service learning community.  Who listens to youth voice?  Which youths’ voices do they listen to?  Why listen to youth voice?  I heard fellow advocates for youth voice grow tired of calling for youth to join special advisory groups, participate as nonprofit board members, and work as staff members in youth-serving programs.  These young people and their adult allies were passionate about service learning and changing their communities – they just were not excited about youth voice.  Even my most dedicated, persevering mentor told me that the youth voice movement had failed.  So I set out to find the answers to the questions listed above.

In the spring of 2001 I began The Freechild Project, a group of young people and youth advocates committed to promoting radically-inclusive democracy by sharing resources for social change by and with young people around the world.  We created, and now maintain, a comprehensive website ( that offers a collection of thousands of organizations, websites, and publications focused on the issues and actions that are most important to young people today.  Every month we network with hundreds of different youth-led organizations, provide training to thousands of youth activists and developing publications free to young people and their adult allies.  Through this work we have discovered that the youth voice movement is alive and kicking – just different from how it was originally conceived.  And from what we’ve heard, read, and seen, that is a good thing.

The Freechild Project has collected hundreds of testimonies from youth that show the effectiveness and limitations of youth voice as it has been heard in service learning.  Some are from young people who were on nonprofit boards of directors who felt their involvement changed the structures of their organizations.  They also felt that these same activities sometimes “choked” the vitality and urgency of youth voice.  There are other stories from young people who were not invited to participate, and who felt discouraged and denied when they didn’t feel they were heard by adults at school and in their local community centers.  Their experiences were balanced by the strong voice of youth who had powerful roles on several of their city’s commissions; but these experiences were opposite of local young people from a neighboring American Indian reservation who said they felt disconnected – even though they shared the same services.

After looking at these results and exploring my own experiences with youth voice in service learning, I believe that there are two primary elements missing from many youth voice programs: first, an understanding of the complexity and depth of young people today, and second, the capability of individuals and organizations to engage young people in meaningful service learning.

Fortunately, there is a growing effort to change those trends.  The Freechild Project website identifies thousands of local groups and dozens of national organizations that are shifting the youth voice movement towards positive new practices.  These new practices are different from the past in four primary ways:

  1. Young people are taking the lead.  By coupling their growing awareness with a particular sense of urgency, many young activists today are not waiting for adults to lead them forward in action.  A growing number of sophisticated service learning projects are being led by young people in schools and community organizations across the nation.
  2. Diversity is central to taking action.  Young people of color and low-income young people are speaking out for themselves and their neighborhoods, encouraging their younger sisters and brothers to do the same, and representing their elders and communities with respect and dignity.
  3. Young people are continuing involvement as adults.  Instead of conducting
    one-time, single issue projects that limit the impact and validity of youth voice, young people today are becoming lifelong advocates with sophisticated understandings of divergent movements for social change.
  4. Adults are becoming authentic allies.  In the past adults were encouraged to serve as facilitators of youth voice, wisely inserting it when and where appropriate.  Today young people are making those decisions, with support from
    adults who coach and mentor instead of lead and drive their activities.

The nation is ready for a renewed youth voice movement.  Pollsters have recently called youth activism the next “in” thing, saying that young people want causes that deliver real results (Trend Watch 2004).  Researchers have shown that youth today are volunteering more than adults, a sign that they are hungry to make an impact (CIRCLE 2003).  Last year a report was published entitled Making Youth Voice a Community Principle.  As the culmination of a series of forums across the nation, the report reinforces the growing call for youth voice with a closing challenge to local organizations:  “We would like to challenge groups to map their communities for solutions to problems leading to this idea of youth voice as a community principle” (Youth Service America 2003).

Answering this challenge from a traditional perspective would turn up the usual suspects, including youth councils, youth board members and youth summit participants.  It would also show the “normal” issues: amplifying youth voice, promoting youth service, and challenging stereotypes of youth today.  However, with the above points in mind, a scan of the renewed youth voice movement identifies the growing breadth of the youth voice movement: youth-led organizing, intergenerational partnerships, youth-led research, hip hop activism, student-led school reform, youth as grantmakers, and youth-led media are now important program models, vital to engaging diverse youth voice through service learning.  education reform, nonviolence, the rights of homeless youth, the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Queer youth, juvenile justice reform, anti-ageism and ephebiphobia, revitalizing inner-city and rural communities, and more.

There are thousands of examples of what the youth voice movement looks like today.  The following are some examples from The Freechild Project website:

  • Youth as Researchers – The Youth Action Research Institute (YARI) trains young people as ethnographic (human) researchers using service learning.  In turn, these youth researchers train other youth researchers, as well as conduct important studies on their communities and schools to help their personal growth, group development and community change.  Youth researchers are also involved in developing curriculum and community outreach approaches.  YARI is a program of the Institute for Community Research in Hartford, Connecticut.
  • Student-led School Reform – A youth-led group called Sistas and Brothas United (SBU) is working to change schools in the Bronx, New York.  After years of working for safe schools, up-to-date textbooks and adequate school funding, these young people have collaborated with local school officials to create a school that will teach community leadership.
  • Youth Organizing & Youth as Grantmakers – In 2003 the National Service Learning Partnership launched the Youth-Directed Civic Action Innovation Fund.  The Fund awarded money to eight sites across the U.S. where young people are in turn granting money to their peers to promote youth-led service learning projects.
  • Youth as Advocates – The Institute for Community Leadership in Kent, Washington works to develop and sustain within individuals the strength, hope, leadership, relationships, and integrity to bring about a more just nation and world.  Their programs teach young people to advocate for social justice and nonviolence.

Communities across the country face the dire necessity of engaging all young people for today and the future.  While voter apathy increases, support for public services flounders, and popular concern for social well-being goes down the drain, small towns are literally dieing, entire generations of young men of color are being locked up in prison, and many schools are buckling under the weight of heavy political mandates.  Service learning is an important methodology for reaching increasingly affected students in diverse schools and communities across the country.  Because of that position, it is vital for service learning practitioners to address the issues that young people face.  Engaging youth voice is the way to do that.

Not only is youth voice important to the future of service learning – it is important to the future of our world.  In the same way youth participation keeps service learning vigorous and necessary, youth voice keeps our communities honest, urgent, and responsive.  By deliberately providing dynamic opportunities to engage diverse youth voice, service learning practitioners can continue to provide a vital response to looming threats in these urgent times.  We all must take responsibility for moving Youth Voice into the future by engaging young people right now.



Other tools are out there, too – share your thoughts in the comments below! For more information about how The Freechild Project can help support youth voice in your community or organization, contact us.

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