Youth and Popular Education

Creating spaces for youth and popular education can support dynamic, powerful and just opportunities for social justice, youth empowerment and community engagement. Popular education is a way of facilitating learning that moves youth from being recipients towards becoming fully equal partners. Brazilian educator Paulo Freire taught that this approach can build learners’ beliefs they can change the world, by engaging them in the world instead of separating them from it. It can also integrate youth throughout communities by positioning them as co-learners, co-leaders and full members of society.


“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


Ways Youth can be Engaged through Popular Education

Youth-Led Programs — Supporting youth-led action moves popular education beyond traditional classroom learning towards interactive, engaging and hands-on social change. Youth design, develop and facilitate programming, including lesson plans, activities and projects, and more. This generative process builds knowledge and ideas while supporting the individual strength, self-esteem, and the overall capacities of youth, and it challenges assumptions about what youth can and cannot do.

Youth-Led Learning — Facilitating learning for themselves, their peers, younger people and adults allows young people to experience motivation, self-empowerment, hope and ability by positioning them in positions of capability while co-learning from others. Strengthening and challenging their knowledge, youth facilitators can grow the abilities of others in unique ways, too.

Youth Learning with Adults — Engaging youth and adults as co-learners through popular education can redefine their expectations of each other while fostering safe, supportive learning environments to grow and expand their knowledge, ideas and abilities. Providing access to each other as comrades in learning can foster healthy interactions between youth and adults, challenge negative stereotypes, improve intergenerational relations, and redefine social norms that negatively affect both youth and adults.


Things Youth Need to Change the World through Popular Education

Education — Comprehensive training on popular education should teach youth about the ability, capability and power inherent in co-learning, co-teaching and cooperative education. Youth should learn about the role of the facilitator (versus a teacher, trainer, leader, etc.) by experiencing group animation and motivation; staying focused on learning during a popular education activity; ensuring all the voices within a group are heard; seeking consensus, and; offering supportive and helpful feedback.

Opportunities — Young people need substantial opportunities to facilitate popular education. By actively employing popular education strategies, they can experience the humility and learning needed to become effective community advocates; inspire people to change the world, and; have real fun!

Youth/Adult Partnerships — Real youth/adult partnerships engage young people and adults in equitable relationships that can build the power, purpose and potential of youth through popular education. Transparency, communication, mutual investment and meaningful involvement in popular education can allow young people and adults to work together to transform communities in powerful, positive ways.


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

Youth Engagement in Portland, Oregon

Back in the early 2000s, Portland, Oregon, was another midline American city with nothing special happening. Sure, they had a city youth council, but it was under-energized and ill-equipped for the new century that just began. Then, action happened.

In 2002, Multnomah County hired a new youth development coordinator named Josh Todd, and he transformed the entire operation. Over the course of a half-decade, he basically super-charged the county’s youth programs and set them up for the future.

During that time, there were several significant developments. They included:

  • Focusing on youth of color and low-income youth to dramatically increase their participation in youth engagement activities throughout the entire county;
  • Expanding the Multnomah County Youth Council and including the City of Portland to make the youth commission a joint City-County policy body;
  • Creating a two-year, community-wide project that created a Youth Bill of Rights, with more than 4,000 youth involved in the creation and implementation of the final document;
  • Securing significant funding from the Youth Innovation Fund of the Kellogg Foundation. They gave the City of Portland and Multnomah County $325,000 over 4-years to support their countywide youth engagement work. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation Youth Innovation Fund supported “diverse groups of young people, working in partnership with community institutions, to create civic innovations that address public issues and problems using a service-learning framework.”
  • They trained a lot of people through their program.

According to youth and adults there, the City of Portland and Multnomah County still have issues in their youth development, youth engagement and youth/adult partnership work. However, the work of the Youth Commission has made great strides today and into the future that all communities worldwide can learn from!

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The Voices We Don’t Hear

  • Who talks that we don’t listen to?
  • What’s said that isn’t heard?
  • Why do we say that all youth voice matters, but then only listen to the voices that sound like our own?

With the visible outpouring of support for youth voice across the US in the last month, it can be easy to feel like youth voice is finally being heard. Years of standing up to shout and being ignored are finally being leveraged against the power of the internet and the will of a generation that’s been denied, ignored and otherwise rejected from joining the public dialogues that affect them most.

But while that’s happening, there’s another group of youth who feel even more repressed and oppressed in their attempts to express their voices. These young people live in areas where pain and trauma are almost as constant as the denial of their place, space and race at the table.

These youth aren’t courted by major national nonprofits and foundations who are handing out resources and money to support youth voice while its trending. They aren’t given passes from school to attend rallies and they don’t have parental permission slips to get on buses going to capitals for protests.

Instead, the youth I’m talking about are going to their evening jobs, or going home to watch their brothers and sisters after school and can take a day off. They’re literally in juvenile detention and in school suspension, waiting as prisoners at the whim of adults to set them free. They’re struggling to get passing grades in school, struggling to make and keep good friends, and struggling to stay safe tonight when they’re walking from the bus stop to their homes.

This is the reality: There are many youth voices that aren’t being heard right now. This moment isn’t being shared by all youth everywhere, even if we’re pretending and being told it is. Some young people are actually being suffocated by this particular pop culture moment that’s supposedly uplifting youth voice because their voices are being stifled in the midst of it all.

So, adults: Do youth have things to say that we don’t want to hear, but should regardless. Yes is the answer. Here’s a space where you can share those things, in the comments below.

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Youth and Gun Control

Guns are everywhere across the United States. After being massacred in schools and neighborhoods throughout the nation’s cities, suburbs and rural places, youth are upset about the absence of gun control. Luckily, today young people are taking action to make a difference. They are working with adults and on their own to change laws, change hearts and minds, and make a difference throughout the country. Here is some information the Freechild Institute has collected regarding youth and gun control.


Ways Youth can Change the World through Gun Control

Youth-Led Activism — Taking direct action to raise awareness, challenge assumptions and change the country’s opinions about gun control can allow young people to change the world. Youth activism allows children and youth to be democratically represented in the media, at home, in legislatures and throughout every discussion across the country, even in places that would deny them.

Running for Office — Whatever age they are, young people can run for office; making a stand and drawing attention to gun control is the point, always. Building momentum requires young people stay committed to gun control throughout their campaigns and if they are elected. Staunch adult champions for engaging youth in politics to build support for gun control is necessary too, whether they are young people or adults.

Youth as Voters — Demanding youth rights and fighting for youth suffrage can transform gun control. Whether using a protest vote by going to a voting place and casting a blank ballot to show youth dissatisfaction with the current gun laws, practices and attitudes across the country. Youth as voters can also vote for a youth candidate who is capable of sharing youth voice.


Things Youth Need to Change the World through Gun Control

Learning — In order to become engaged in changing the world through gun control, young people can learn about political systems, political actions, political issues and other realities within and around the political system. They can also conduct learning activities to leverage social change beyond laws.

Training — Training young people to change the world through politics means teaching them the skills they need to become involved in gun control. These skills can include communication, problem-solving, change management and conflict resolution skills. It also means participating in knowledge-sharing activities designed to build their capacity to take powerful action for gun control.

Inspiration — After 12, 14, 17 or 21 years of being told their voices don’t matter in gun control, young people may need inspiration to become engaged. Never in history have children and youth been seen or treated as serious political actors; given the opportunity, they will be. Inspiration from stories, parables, biographies and other sources can help prepare and sustain youth in gun control and beyond.


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

Don’t Mimic The Monster: Engage Everyone

You know the state of the world today. We say we’re going to engage the masses, but fail miserably. We want to retain everyone, but they still don’t show up or quickly drop out. We want to connect everyone, but everyone says or acts too busy. We want to empower people, but still they stare at their phones and dance to pop music.

Does that make them bad or wrong? Does that mean they are lost causes? Do we have to leave them behind and simply move ahead? I believe the answer is no.

Freechild Project youth in São Paulo, Brazil.
Youth in São Paulo, Brasil, working to change the world in positive ways.

What’s the Monster?

We’re struggling to defeat a beast.

The monsters of apathy, disregard, disconnection and disgust have led our society around for hundreds of years. They’ve forced friend against friend, neighbor against neighbor, and family member against family member.

The way things were are over now and we’re moving ahead. In the past…

  • Education systems routinely left behind students who weren’t learning the ways they were being taught.
  • Social services stopped supporting people who apparently refused to support themselves.
  • Neighbors on the block quit knocking on the door of the old house where nobody ever answered.
  • Customers were seen solely as consumers who simply pick a color and pay on their way out the door.
  • The legal system stopped trying to work with people who resisted their authority and started punishing them instead.
  • Politicians were allowed to make decisions on a hierarchy of financial impact, as if that was the prime and sole relevant determinant of value, purpose and belonging.


When we leave behind the young people and adults who don’t come along with our agendas we are simply perpetuating those systems, actions and beliefs.

Sometimes, life situations cause us to become the monster so the monster doesn’t break us. When we settle for engaging some people instead of everyone, everywhere, all the time, we’re mimicking the monster. We might believe we’re not the monster, whether that’s formal systems, “the Man,” or social trends. Unfortunately, we might be by accident.

A lot of us are following Einstein’s formula for insanity by doing the same things we’ve always done and expecting different results. Just because we dress up ugly programs with fancy words and phrases or storm the same meetings and conferences with radical new ideas that have no actions behind them doesn’t mean we’re changing anything.

Arizona youth teaching Freechild's Adam Fletcher how to change the world. Photo by Slingshot Photography.
Arizona youth teaching Freechild’s Adam Fletcher how to change the world. Photo by Slingshot Photography.

Quiz: Are You Mimicking the Monster?

If this bothers you or sounds a little too close to home, I want you – I implore you – to ask yourself:

  • Is my shiny new engagement project just like traditional leadership programs that benefit the few instead of the masses?
  • Does the group of people I’m leading look, talk, act or think just like me?
  • Can my school or organization do more to engage more people, but just not know how to do it?
  • Is there a possibility that I’m causing things to continue existing like they always have instead of creating new possibilities for different realities?

If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, I want to congratulate you. Its hard getting honest about our inadequacies, and if you said yes to any of those, you’re acknowledging that you or your organization has been inadequate in engaging diverse and broad numbers of people.

If you didn’t answer “yes” to any of those questions, then you can rest securely today knowing you’re doing all right.

Mimicking the monster can be a self-protective measure designed to help you feel better about yourself and the effort you’re putting into changing the world. However, feeling better about yourself isn’t a new thing for the world; and the world needs new ways of being, not more of the same.

The new ways of being can include…

  • INNOVATION: Understanding that “a new world is possible” is a practical, plausible way of planning programs, and without that as a guiding idea we’re likely continuing to harbor the past in the cracks and crevices of our activities, attitudes and outcomes;
  • CAPACITY: Generating bold, assertive and intentional outcomes that satisfy goals without compromising democracy, education, community  or interdependence along the way;
  • UNITY: Creating new ways of doing things that bring people together, build on both/and approaches rather than supporting either/or mentalities, and create new pathways that rebel against dominant culture;
  • ENGAGEMENT: The old way of being focused on seeing people as the passive recipients of decisions made by others for them. The new ways of being compel everyone to see everyone else as an active partner throughout their own lives, to the point of self-exhaustion and community completion, and yet striving forward from there, too.
Adult allies of youth explore what they need to learn for themselves.
Adult allies of youth explore what they need to learn for themselves.

Breaking the Monster

Right now, we’re moving beyond the past and into the future by creating new human technologies that engage vastly new people in dynamic ways to foster broad, bold new outcomes for the future.

We have to create new responses that acknowledge the differences, resistances and separations between “us,” the people trying to catalyze transformation, and “them,” the people who we want to engage in our efforts. If we don’t do that, we’re not actually transforming anything; we’re just giving the old ways of doing things permission to continue and even causing that old way of doing things.

If all of that looks good to you and if you want to move forward, then I would suggest you discover what you can do in communities and schools. If you immediately think of barriers and limitations, I would suggest you check out this and this. If you want to know what’s available for you to DO SOMETHING in these ways, check this out. If you want to talk about it, reply to this or get in touch.

This isn’t inevitable, but it’s also not elusive. The transformation of our society is underway right now, and has been. Let’s move ahead together!


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