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

Creating a Youth Engagement Map

When we’re planning for youth engagement, its important to have a vision, dream big and hope for the absolute best. Its vital to hold out for the most positive, powerful outcomes no matter what the odds, and to stick our necks out. However, to do that best we should put youth engagement plans on paper or type them up and share them with the people involved.

The locations for youth engagement vary according to the community or organization doing the mapping. They can include formal and informal spaces; adult-approved and youth-driven places; and other sorts of possibilities for people to gather, belong, dream and take action. In the research and practice of the Freechild Institute since 2001, we’ve found there are three consistent factors affecting these locations for youth engagement. Those factors are:

  • Personal attitudes
  • Structual systems
  • Shared cultures

Our youth engagement mapping process can help communities and organizations expand their activities with intention and purpose while deepening the impact they have on young people and their communities.

This is a graphic of the Freechild Institute youth engagement mapping tool.
This is a graphic of the Freechild Institute youth engagement mapping tool.

Here’s a process Freechild uses with youth and adults to map youth engagement.

  1. Define a goal. Name what exactly you’d like to do; don’t just say, “Engage youth.” Instead, name who, what, when, where, why and how you’re going to engage youth.
  2. Identify allies. Find younger and older people who will support you while you’re engaging youth.
  3. Identify likely challenges. There are a lot of forces working against youth engagement; name them.
  4. Uncover layers of power. Power affects youth engagement a lot. Name the ways, show their faces and write them down.
  5. Develop a strategy. There’s no magic wand and it doesn’t often just happen. How exactly are you going to engage youth?
  6. Create a message. Young people are saturated by media of all kinds. Appealing to them requires a real message that’s authentically delivered to them. What’s your message?
  7. Get out there. How are you taking action for youth engagement? What are the places, people, preparations and outcomes you’re looking for? Get to work!
  8. Create a calendar. Show people how, where and when youth engagement is going to happen by creating a visual calendar and sharing it.
  9. Estimate needed resources. Youth engagement takes resources – what are yours?
  10. Monitor and evaluate. Keep your eyes open, your heart beating, your feet on the ground and your hands in the mud through monitoring and evaluation.


Once you’ve started a youth engagement map, consider what’s missing, find other people to contribute, and keep building!


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Freechild Youth Handbook: Get Engaged and Change the World by Adam Fletcher for the Freechild Institute
Freechild Youth Handbook: Get Engaged and Change the World

Youth Action Planning

Do you want to take action with young people? Children, youth and adults around the world are working together more than ever to make a difference. It can be hard figuring out the process though!

After almost 20 years of launching youth action projects around the world, Freechild thinks we should share what we’ve learned. In addition to our workshops and books, we want to make sure anyone can take positive, powerful action to make the world a better place.

Here is the Freechild Institute’s youth action planning process.

Steps for Planning Youth Action

  1. Find history. Young people have been making positive, powerful change for a long time. Learn about it, read stories, ask older people and get connected. Read more »
  2. Explore power. In a world run by the powerful, its important to rise above being powerless. When we work together in community to make a difference, children, youth and adults can create power and challenge those in power. Read more »
  3. Define the issue. What do you want to change? Research what matters to you, explore how to make a difference, and get info. Read more »
  4. Build community. The powerful want to cut off youth from each other and adults. Challenge that by rallying your friends, strangers, older and younger people, and people who are different from you. Get everyone involved in taking action. Read more » 
  5. Network. Find people who aren’t invested in your issue who’ll be your allies and build coalitions to for them to share space, ideas, knowledge and strength with you. Read more »
  6. Map engagement. Match action to your issue, map out the steps to making a difference, name your communication strategy, and get to work. Read more »
  7. Celebrate. Reach out to the people, organizations, elected officials and others who are your allies, as well as people in your networks using social media and in-person contacts. Tell what’s happening, gather ideas and support, and keep moving. Read more »
  8. Reflect on it. Look back on what’s happened, explore what you have done and could do, and plan your next steps using your new learning. Read more »

Once you’ve planned action, take action! Remember Freechild’s motto: “Once through action do words take power!”


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Quotes about Critical Pedagogy

Critical pedagogy is a revolutionary approach to teaching and learning, as it strives to create an equitable, just and fair world through the radical facilitation of social justice within communities of learners. A growing tradition among youth engagement facilitators, critical pedagogy is sometimes referred to as problem-posing education or popular education.

Following are some quotes related to critical pedagogy. It can be dangerous to take these quotes out of context or to minimize what is being said. As Paulo Freire wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “Manipulation, sloganizing, “depositing,” regimentation, and prescription cannot be components of revolutionary praxis, precisely because they are component of the praxis of domination.” If you’re serious about learning about critical pedagogy we suggest you learn more and take critical, conscious action. The following are quotes that inspire Freechild Institute; maybe they’ll inspire you, too.


Quotes on Critical Pedagogy for Youth

“We make the road by walking.” ― Paulo Freire and Myles Horton

“This movement of inquiry must be directed towards humanization — the people’s historical vocation. The pursuit of full humanity, however, cannot be carried out in isolation or individualism, but only in fellowship and solidarity; therefore it cannot unfold in the antagonistic relations between oppressors and oppressed.” — Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

“The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy.” ― bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom

“Critical pedagogy is a movement and an ongoing struggle taking place in a number of different social formations and places.” ― Henry Giroux

“The educator for liberation has to die as the unilateral educator of the educatees, in order to be born again as the educator-educatee of the educatees-educators. An educator is a person who has to live in the deep significance of Easter.” ― Paulo Freire as quoted by Paul Taylor in The Texts of Paulo Freire

“As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.” ― bell hooks, Teaching To Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom

“Getting ahead cannot be the only motive that motivates people” ― Henry Giroux, Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?

“Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift. It must be pursued constantly and responsibly. Freedom is not an ideal located outside of man; nor is it an idea which becomes myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion.” ― Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

“Home was the place where I was forced to conform to someone else’s image of who and what I should be. School was the place where I could forget that self and, through ideas, reinvent myself.” ― bell hooks, Teaching To Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom

“I have not forgotten the day a student came to class and told me: ‘We take your class. We learn to look at the world from a critical standpoint, one that considers race, sex, and class. And we can’t enjoy life anymore.'” – bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom

“The stories a society tells about itself are a measure of how it values itself, the ideals of democracy, and its future.” ― Henry Giroux

“Many of these leaders, however (perhaps due to the natural and understandable biases against pedagogy) have ended up using the ‘educational’ methods employed by the oppressor. They deny pedagogical action in the liberation process, but they use propaganda to convince.” ― Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

“Dialogue further requires an intense faith in humankind, faith in the power to make and remake, to create and recreate, faith in their vocation to be more fully human (which is a privileged of an elite, but the birthright of all).” ― Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

“When everyone in the classroom, teacher and students, recognizes that they are responsible for creating a learning community together, learning is at its most meaningful and useful.” ― bell hooks, Teaching Critical Thinking

“The central element of teaching for social justice is intended to address the supposed tyranny of the banking model – teachers must learn from their students, much as well-heeled revolutionaries must learn from the oppressed people they wish to liberate.” ― Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

“Power is never so overwhelming that there’s no room for resistance.” ― Henry Giroux

“Worse yet, it [banking model] turns them [students] into ‘containers’ to be ‘filled’ by the teacher. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.” ― Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

“The school system is mostly geared to the interests, skills, and attitudes of the middle-class child. Though I also argue that the system is failing to educate middle-class students, it is the children of poverty who really suffer, being streamed into courses that prepare them for a life of temporary, dead-end, underpaid, undignified, and menial jobs.” ― Peter McLaren, Life in Schools: An introduction to critical pedagogy

“The teacher presents the material to the students for their consideration, and reconsiders her earlier considerations as the students express their own.” – Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

“Critical pedagogy is concerned with teaching students how not only to think but to come to grips with a sense of individual and social responsibility, and what it means to be responsible for one’s actions as part of a broader attempt to be an engaged citizen who can expand and deepen the possibilities of democratic public life.” ― Henry Giroux

“Any situation in which some individuals prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence. The means used are not important; to alienate human beings from their own decision-making is to change them into objects.” – Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

“Engaged pedagogy does not seek simply to empower students. Any classroom that employs a holistic model of learning will also be a place where teachers grow, and are empowered by the process.” ― bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom

“Through dialogue, the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student and student-teachers’ who are ‘jointly responsible for a process in which both grow.” – Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed


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