Understanding Roles for Youth in Community Development

This week I’ve had the honor of participating in a Thinkery in London with the Community Development Journal, an international academic publication produced by the Oxford University Press. Along with providing a keynote address to provoke conversation and growth in the field, I’ve sat in on three days of meetings with their international advisory board. I want to share some of what I’ve learned over this time, and share the ways I see community development intersecting with youth-led action around the world.

Opportunities and Avenues

Community development is a vague, overarching concept that attempts to group together any attempts by groups of people who work together to transform the places and spaces they live, work and play. Concerned with justice, equity and transformation, community development includes structured government and nonprofit programs; grassroots social justice activism, and; much more. People working together to transform the economy, education, culture, housing, healthcare, public health and many other issues are included under the umbrella of community development.

Youth have been the subjects of community development, participants in community development and critics of community development for more than 25 years. Internationally, youth have built movements, established conversations and spread the intentions and possibilities of community development, especially in the last decade. These include the 99% movement, the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter, #metoo and other actions.

Concerns and Challenges

Adultism⁠—bias towards adults that discriminates against youth⁠—appears predominate throughout community development. Attitudes reflecting adultism drive the agendas, goals, activities and outcomes of community development worldwide. In turn though, adultism is routinely dismissed by practitioners and researchers who are dismissive of the roles of children and youth in their work.

Young people are concerned about the appropriation of community development, too, especially as its been overwhelmed by neoliberal goals that diminish or simply take away the radical heart of community development. The critical consciousness necessary to maintain this commitment needs regular reinforcement and encouragement. Rather than being holistic, many actions are interested only in parts of youth and/or their communities, unconsciously perpetuating the neoliberal concept of youth as marginally useful instead of being central to community development.

Concerns affecting youth and community development include questions of engaging diverse youth and communities; generating fiscal sustainability; training, educating and otherwise building the movement, and; ensuring the relevance of youth-led action.

Similarly, many young people are engaged in specific issues in community development only because of the beneficence of adults who are well-meaning but poorly informed. Driven by the limited funding and the specific interests of adult-driven forces, youth are forced to concentrate on adult interests who inadvertently act as the puppets of organizations and agendas that are formed without their interests in mind.


The radical possibilities of community development reflect the broadest, deepest and greatest potentialities of the field overall. Engaging youth as equitable partners might be the best possibility to actualize a lot of theoretical conversations about diversity and nontraditional engagement. Focusing on the many avenues for engagement identified by the Freechild Institute, community development advocates, organizers and participatory researchers can move beyond the suspected and routinely disproven limitations of youth to build the capacities, possibilities and hopes throughout the field.

Most important, there is hope and perhaps that’s what we need to focus on most. For information, training and more contact the Freechild Institute today.

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One response to “Understanding Roles for Youth in Community Development”

  1. This was so insightful. I am doing a presentation on the importance of youth in community development and peacebuilding and my research led me here. I’m referencing Freechild Institute in my work and would like to say a huge thank you to all you guys here.

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