Who are Youth Leaders?

Modern Youth Leadership by Adam F.C. Fletcher for the Freechild Institute for Youth Engagement

Young people today have many identities, and if you’re interested in helping them emerge, you have to understand who youth leaders are.

Some youth identities include:

  • Race
  • Economic class
  • Gender identity
  • Geographic location
  • Social status
  • Music taste
  • Academic achievement
  • Orientation
  • Family style
  • Religious or spiritual background
  • Neighborhood
  • Friends
  • Appearance including clothing
  • Body modifications including tattoos and piercings
  • Lifestyle choices
  • Social behavior
  • More…

Through my experience working with young people around the world, I have learned that engaging with youth identities is an important lens for Modern Youth Leadership. However, this engagement is like threading a needle: There are specific things to do, and other things you must not do. Following are some tips I have collected from youth focus groups.

Do Not…

  • Manipulate youth because of their identities
  • Try to guess, assume, or otherwise undermine youth voice because of how young people identify
  • Copy youth identities
  • Ask unwelcome questions or otherwise pry
  • Tokenize youth because of how they identify; No youth can represent all other youth
  • Engage Modern Youth Leaders because of how they identify
  • Maintain your biases while you work with youth who identify differently than you


  • Genuinely open your mind and heart to people who identify differently than you
  • Wait to be invited by youth to ask about their identities
  • Create safe and supportive spaces for youth to be themselves
  • See youth as diverse leaders who identify how they want and are capable of doing more than adults assume
  • Engage Modern Youth Leaders because of who they are
  • Treat youth as equitable leaders with different perspectives, attitudes and beliefs than other youth and than adults
  • Confront your own biases, discriminations and assumptions about people who identify differently than you

What would you add to these lists?

Diversity in Action

There are practical, everyday ways that you can embrace youth identities. Here are ten steps to follow.

  1. Come Correct. People who actively suffer trauma or are unconsciously afflicting pain on others are not in the position to foster Modern Youth Leadership. These are often the people perpetuating adultism and other types of discrimination the most. Arrive to your work with healing in your heart, humility in mind, and transparency in practice.
  2. Take Care of Yourself. Whether you are a young person or adult, you have to handle your own business. If you don’t feel safe, if you don’t feel supported, or if you don’t feel healthy then do not try to make others feel that way, because you cannot.
  3. Learn the Differences Between Equality and Equity. There is a time and place for each, and it’s important to know when and where those are. Don’t attempt to reach for one when the other is required.
  4. Educate Yourself. The worst thing you can do is work from your place of assumptions, ignorance and inabilities. Confront yourself through reading, watching videos, and talking with people who can help you grow. If you don’t know, it will show, and your ignorance can undermine your best intentions.
  5. Breakthrough Boldly. Don’t be held down by your assumptions, knowledge or ideas about who young people are and what they can or cannot do. Instead, breakthrough your biases and be bold in your actions to show you can be an ally.

What would you add to this list of actions? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Modern Youth Leadership by Adam F.C. Fletcher for the Freechild Institute for Youth Engagement

Why should we care? | Who are youth leaders? | What do youth care about? | What do youth leaders do? | Can Modern Youth Leadership help? | What difference can adults make? | Can I help? | What stops youth leaders? | What help is available for Modern Youth Leadership?

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