Youth + Social Change in Democratic Education

Freechild Project youth in a summer camp session

Democratic education is intentionally designed learning where young people experience democracy in action, attitudes and knowledge. With democracy as a learning tool, children and youth experience shared processes, sharing their voices, staying engaged and learning through action. By focusing on justice, equality and meaningful experiences, democratic education can be a powerful tool for youth + social change.

We have worked with K-12 schools, nonprofits and government agencies to develop programs, projects, classes and more that infuse democratic education into classrooms, school improvement activities, governance and much more. There are no limits to the places where democratic education can happen or who can be involved.

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

― Howard Thurman

Ways for Youth + Social Change through Democratic Education

Self-Driven Learning — When young people discover ways to learn, motivation to learn and the purpose of learning, they can learn what they want in powerful ways. Whether using life experience, studies or personal exploration, self-driven learning can change the world by fostering independence and personal engagement.

Young People as Whole People — According to Alfie Kohn, “Children, after all, are not just adults-in-the-making. They are people whose current needs and rights and experiences must be taken seriously.” Too often education treats students as humans becoming instead of human beings. The notion that young people are whole people is inherently democratic and could force the radical re-envisioning of education as a place of growth and support.

Meaningful Student Involvement — Engaging young people and educators in student/adult partnerships to discourage adultism can happen when students are planners, researchers, teachers, evaluators, decision-makers and advocates. This is the most systematic and engaging avenue for student voice in democratic education.

Needs for Youth + Social Change through Democratic Education

Training — Young people and adults can grow their learning together through educational opportunities to learn about democracy, education and the integration of each. The process of democratic education is never finished, and building the skills and knowledge of people learning together is a powerful way to foster succeeding generations of innovation and opportunity.

Opportunities — Practical and pragmatic opportunities for all students in every school to experience democratic education are the key to securing new generations of passionately engaged citizens. Developing and sustaining opportunities to co-create democracy in schools is vital to democratic education.

Reflection — Learning about democracy and learning from democracy are two different experiences that rely on each other; its not enough to do one and not the other. As John Dewey wrote, “Arriving at one goal is the starting point to another.” Reflection allows, encourages and facilitates learning and action, which is at the heart of youth changing the world!

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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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