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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Elsewhere Online

Spectrum of Youth Action

Freechild Institute Spectrum of Youth Action, https://freechild.org
This is the Spectrum of Youth Action from the Freechild Institute.

In order to understand the breadth and ability of youth to change the world, we have to understand what exactly is happening through youth action. Over the course of working with hundreds of organizations across North America in the last 20 years, Freechild Institute has learned, listened and led dozens of projects focused on youth action.

To share our experience, we’ve summarized some of our learning into this graphic we’re calling a Spectrum of Youth Action. It includes five main points:

  1. Youth Voice⁠ is any expression of any young person anywhere, anytime, for any reason. Learn more »
  2. Youth Involvement⁠ is the systematic placement of young people to affect, drive, or take action within an activity, organization or community. Learn more »
  3. Youth Engagement⁠ is when youth choose the same thing over and over. Learn more »
  4. Youth Empowerment⁠ is when young people take charge of their lives, actions and surroundings. Learn more »
  5. Youth Participation⁠ is when young people actively belong in activities, organizations or communities. Learn more »

Use the links above to learn more about the points on the Spectrum of Youth Action.

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The Practice of Youth Engagement by Adam Fletcher!
Order The Practice of Youth Engagement by Adam Fletcher!

Adultism in the Law

After a decade of research focusing on United States and international laws, the Freechild Institute has found there are many laws that both enshrine and combat adultism. Many of these try to protect youth from discrimination.

Issues Addressed By Laws

These laws prohibit or ban things that are done to youth or things that youth are excluded from, including:

  • Discrimination against youth by physical, sexual, and/or psychological maltreatment or neglect
  • Discrimination against youth through illegal labor, endangerment and infanticide
  • Discrimination against youth through parental actions including youth maltreatment
  • Discrimination against youth because of their gender identity and/or sexual orientation
  • Discrimination against youth through sexual abuse/exploitation
  • Discrimination against youth through neglect or abuse
  • Discrimination against youth through sexual or labor trafficking
  • Discrimination against youth with disabilities
  • Discrimination against youth through familial migration
  • Discrimination against youth through unaccompanied children in a situation of migration
  • Discrimination against youth without parental care or who are in alternative care
  • Discrimination against youth in police custody or detention
  • Discrimination against homeless youth
  • Discrimination against youth with parents in prison or custody
  • Discrimination against youth in court or other judicial proceedings
  • Discrimination against youth in custody disputes, including parental child abduction
  • Discrimination against youth because of their race
  • Discrimination against youth in minority ethnic groups
  • Discrimination against youth through female genital mutilation or forced marriage
  • Discrimination against youth through who are not in compulsory education or training or working children below the legal age for work
  • Discrimination against bullying or cyberbullying against youth

Who Is Affected?

Stakeholders in these issues space all the areas touched upon, including youth, parents, law enforcement, teachers, community educators, public health workers, social workers, government officials, school leaders, elected representatives, youth workers, business owners, medical doctors, NGO leaders, community advocates, mental health counselors, and many, many others.

Lawmakers who could make laws to further prevent youth discrimination include local elected officials include mayors, members of a county commission, city counsel, school board, utility or hospital district; a judge, a justice of the peace, a county or city attorney, a marshal, a sheriff, a constable and a registrar of deeds; tax collectors and assessors; and members of advisory boards and committees.

These individuals control, have power over, legislate or otherwise represent all people in democratic societies, including youth. They can make, enforce, modify or otherwise affect youth in countless ways, and are essential all elected officials who can prevent youth discrimination.

Similarly, in many countries a president and the vice president or another democratically elected official on the national level can prevent youth discrimination. In many states, a governor, a secretary of state, or a member of a legislative body such as the Congress or a state legislature can affect youth discrimination.

How To Change Laws

Organize and mobilize youth to speak up, take action and advocate for change! You can change laws to stop adultism even more effectively. Here are some steps you can take.

  1. Invite policymakers to freechild.org to learn about adultism. Educate legislators by providing them with data, research, stories and general information about adultism. They might not know what it is, what it does, who it affects and what the outcomes are. Share us!
  2. Meet with policymakers in person while they are at their in-district offices during congressional recess. Make appointments and go to meetings and share data and research that highlights adultism in your community.
  3. Call your elected officials’ offices to weigh in on specific adultism-related issues. Host educational meetings and trainings to gather, network and share information on adultism in policies, rules and laws.
  4. Share stories, data and resources with elected officials to illustrate how their decisions promote adultism. Educate the public about the policymaking process and how it promotes adultism. Introduce youth and their adult allies to elected officials who represent them, and talk about adultism.
  5. Participate in lobbying visits or hold anti-adultism advocacy days to advocate for or against specific legislation. Build public awareness by educating community members on adultism in specific laws that impact young people and their communities.
  6. Draft a petition or sign-on letter to express views about adultism and recruit youth and/or adults to sign on.
  7. Organize a rally, town hall or press conference to build public awareness about adultism and to hold policymakers accountable.
  8. Write an op-ed or letter to the editor to share your expertise on adultism in laws that recently became important in your school or community.
  9. Participate in a town hall and ask your elected officials questions about their position on adultism overall and in specific laws.
  10. Encourage citizens to vote (through nonpartisan voter mobilization efforts).
  11. Submit comments or feedback on policies affecting children and youth as they are being developed.
  12. Use social media like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to educate the public and lawmakers about adultism. Don’t forget to tag them and include #facingadultism hashtags!

Related Articles

Series on Adultism


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

Citywide Youth Engagement Strategies

Transforming a city—one that is likely complex and has been in place for centuries—into a place that engages all youth everywhere all the time can be difficult. Questions commonly raised by youth and adults looking to foster citywide youth engagement strategies include:

  • Who should be engaged?
  • What should our youth engagement strategy look like?
  • How will we know if it works?  

To help address these and many other questions, the Freechild Institute has written this article to guide the development of citywide youth engagement strategies. We have worked with several communities to develop these strategies. The approaches we develop strive to build youth engagement systems that help communities design, implement, and sustain strategies to youth engagement that are data-driven and focused on your community’s unique strengths and needs, making your systems much more likely to succeed.

Step 1: Plan a System Assessment

Identify the extent to which current operations align with or deviate from the features of an effective citywide youth engagement strategy. Specifically, it can offer guidance on:

  • Reviewing the scope of youth engagement;
  • Reviewing the roles and responsibilities, and;
  • Affirming the timeline for youth engagement throughout your community.

Step 2: Review the policies that govern youth engagement

Examine the rules and policies that govern youth engagement throughout your community to figure out what is and is not needed at each point throughout your community.

Step 3: Collect quantitative data on how and who is using the system

Explore how to gather data on the volume and characteristics of youth engagement throughout your community, allowing you to identify those areas that are working well and those that are broken and in need of repair. Specifically, collect high-level, aggregate statistics on the following data elements:

  • Types of engagement
  • Demographics of young people, communities and stakeholders
  • Purposes, intentions and visions
  • Champions
  • Service needs and other systemic opportunities
  • Youth engagement times and costs
  • Locations for youth engagement, length of engagement, and costs
  • Outcomes

Step 4: Collect qualitative data on how local stakeholders perceive youth engagement

Gather the impressions, opinions, and general insight of youth engagement system stakeholders. This can help order to form a more holistic narrative of the community. Specifically, gather this information from the following groups:

  • Young people
  • Stakeholders who work in the youth engagement system
  • Family members

Step 5: Collect information on local service capacity

Determine the existing local capacity for facilitating youth engagement with young people, parents, nonprofits, schools, government agencies, and others. Specifically:

  • Develop a list of youth engagement champions, providers and facilitators
  • Survey champions, providers and facilitators

Step 6: Analyze the Data

Actively and intentionally use the policies and quantitative, qualitative and service capacity information you have collected to inform and drive your work. Specifically:

  • Uncover the narrative of your youth engagement system
  • Present and reflect upon key findings as a citywide youth engagement strategy

Step 7: Create a Citywide Youth Engagement Strategy

Using the data you’ve collected, create a citywide youth engagement strategy. As you develop your tool, consider each of the data points you’ve collected and your analysis of the data. Your strategy should be applicable throughout your entire city and reflect your goals. Essential elements of the strategy should reflect:

Your citywide youth engagement strategy should also unveil a clear action plan for implementing youth engagement for all youth, everywhere, all the time.

After presenting your citywide youth engagement strategy, contact the Freechild Institute to share your plan! If you’re looking for examples of what citywide youth engagement strategies do, check out our features on Portland, Oregon and Hampton, Virginia.

When you’ve implemented your strategy, remember to reflect and celebrate throughout the process, and stay committed to social justice while you’re at it!

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This is a map of any city youth engagement strategy by Adam Fletcher for Freechild Institute
A MAP OF ANY CITY This is a map of any city showing citywide youth engagement. It includes the following places: 1. Youth in city hall 2. Youth on school boards 3. Youth engagement at home 4. Youth owned businesses 5. Youth engagement in the outdoors 6. Youth led nonprofits 7. Youth infused community planning 8. Youth centric public transporation 9. Schools focused on engagement instead of achievement 10. Obvious youth made art, writing, theater, music and other creations 11. Training and educational opportunities for everyone focused on youth engagement knowledge, skills, ideas and actions 12. Community-wide investment in youth engagement 13. Youth action research 14. Youth led training and technical assistance on youth engagement 15. Youth led spaces, activities, programs and organizations 16. New technology supporting youth engagement 17. Places where youth and adults interact as equals 18. Training for adults on all aspects of youth engagement 19. Educational opportunities to learn how to change the world 20. Safe places for youth to be, do, create, dream 21. Clear rules, laws, policies and procedures to build youth engagement 22. Sustained funding to build, support and grow youth engagement 23. “Edge spaces” for youth engagement that make some adults uncomfortable 24. Transitional activities to support young adults becoming independent 25. Specific activities to engage young people together for racial, cultural, social, educational, economic and other kinds of harmony and peace 26. Places to engage LGBTTQQ youth 27. Places to engage youth in racial, cultural and ethnic identities 28. People who think beyond youth engagement and towards solidairty 29. Opportunities to engage kids before they become youth 30. Youth voting rights * A single, unified, wholistic strategy for the entire city SUPPORTS * Personnel dedicated to youth engagement * Practices building youth engagement * Policies supporting youth engagement * Procedures that sustain youth engagement (c) 2018 Adam Fletcher for Freechild Institute for Youth Engagement

Start Anywhere and Go Everywhere

Do we need more special opportunities for particular youth to change the world? In these years of Freechild, we’ve discovered many youth engagement activities are merely opportunities for young people who are already privileged to exercise their privilege. Instead of making more opportunities for engaged youth to become more engaged, the Freechild Institute promotes the idea that we need to create new opportunities for youth engagement throughout our communities.

That’s why when we teach communities about youth engagement today, we say that in order to engage youth, you should start anywhere, go everywhere with every youth and every adult in every community all of the time.

That means that…

  • …If you’re a parent at home, watch what your youth are already doing right now, choosing to do again and again and build from that. Support them, help them expand their thinking, work with them to build their skills, and share new ideas about those things your youth are engaged in right now.
  • …If you’re a community-based youth worker, find out what issues matter most to the youth you support, and support them in taking action to address those issues instead of making everything focus on your issues that you or your organization have chosen for them to be involved in.
  • Teachers in classrooms can base their curriculum – whether its math or science or reading or public speaking – in the experiences, ideas and knowledges students bring into classrooms right now. Find out what they’re struggling with and make your lessons relevant to them, and move forward by sending them into action to learn from.

…No matter who we are or what we do, we each have an obligation to do what we can with what we have where we’re at right now. That’s what youth engagement is – practical, pragmatic and purposeful action, right now.

Start anywhere, go everywhere with every youth and every adult in every community all of the time. What can you do today?


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Freechild Youth Handbook: Get Engaged and Change the World by Adam Fletcher for the Freechild Institute
For more info, read the Freechild Youth Handbook: Get Engaged and Change the World