Our society is filled with systems. A lot of them affect youth. A system is any group of coherent connections resulting in a predictable result.
Whether we’re talking about obvious systems like education, health care and juvenile justice, or less tangible systems like culture and families, it is important to understand how each of these systems affects youth engagement.
Parts of Systems for Youth Engagement
Systems are made of many parts. Some of these are the ways youth engagement is supported and happens; others are the various systems for youth engagement.
WAYS: The ways youth engagement happens through systems include Procedures, Policies, Practices, Possibilities, Products, Places, Personnel, and People.
VARIETY: The various systems for youth engagement include Education, Racial identities, Friendships, Mental health, Economics, Nonprofits, Faith communities, Healthcare, Culture, Business, Sexual identities, Recreation, Ethnic identities, Families, Governments, Entertainment, Public health, and Gender identity.
While I’ve worked with schools, nonprofits, government agencies and other orgs for decades, I’ve explored how and these systems operate. I’ve seen “under the hood” in dozens of communities, watched the bad and the good arise in times of crisis and seasons of apparent ease… and every time I’m reminded of the systems at work.
Wherever they’re sustainably connected, youth engagement happens in systems.
Education—Education systems are formal and informal, apparent and subversive. Youth engagement starts in the space where they’re learning.
Sports—The youth athletics system includes rules, teams, scores, morals, codes and more
Culture—The cultural system all youth belong to includes obvious and not-obvious rules, behavior, attitudes and beyond
Economics—The youth employment system exchanges goods and services for money and more
Other systems of youth engagement include school, faith, justice, health, family, civic action, social services, mental health, recreation, or other systems, ALL youth EVERY where can experience the positive, powerful potential of youth engagement. Let’s explore that together!
Learner mind is the experience of staying open, honest, humble and accepting of opportunities to learn, examine, critique and explore who we are, how we are and what we do in life. Adults with learner mind are committed to learning from young people as well as other adults.
Adult allies work to stretch themselves both personally and professionally. Whether you are a parent, teacher, youth worker or other adult who supports young people, you have to risk embarrassment, misunderstanding and even failure in order learn as much as you can from the people you serve. Having a learner’s mind helps us do that
Seeing through the differences between being stuck in a rut and moving through a groove, adult allies know every youth and every adult has more potential than they ever realize. Adult allies work to constantly unlock that potential, both in themselves and the young people we work with.
Adult allies know they will never “get it right,” and that’s a reality we gladly accept. The only way young people and adults can address new challenges that arise is by learning and growing ourselves to meet them head-on.
Do I judge young people too quickly?
Do I assume things about young people without evidence, proof or experience?
Is it okay for me to become overwhelmed?
Do I ask young people for help when I need to?
What do young people teach me unexpectedly?
Can other adults teach me about myself?
Adult allies strive to keep learning, especially from young people themselves.
It is important for adult allies of young people to have humility. Humility is a modest view of your own importance. It means adults see who we really are and what we actually do with young people.
Whether adults are parents, youth workers, teachers or otherwise, being humble can improve relationships, foster partnerships and transform lives.
Adult allies of young people develop and maintain a modest view of their own importance in public and personal perspectives regarding our efforts. Despite all the things they may have accomplished in the past, adult allies will always be challenges ahead.
When adults are not humble, they can show arrogance, which is the opposite of humility. When we work with children and youth, this is shown as adultism and adultcentrism. It diminishes the ability to connect with young people and takes away the effectiveness of every activity we try to do with youth. Adult allies remain committed to challenging their own adultism as well as others because we all struggle with the arrogance instilled in adults simply because of our age–not because we deserve it, earn it or otherwise should have it.
No matter what happens, adult allies want to always respectful towards everyone. Adult allies love to celebrate youth successes, but not in an arrogant or boastful way; instead, adult allies have a quiet confidence because in the long run their character will speak to young people.
Research shows youth are using the Internet more than ever right now. Based on almost 20 years experience, the Freechild Institute is interested is exploring the reality that this usage is complex and sophisticated, and shares youth voice in nearly countless ways. This article explores how youth voice is happening on the Internet, where it is happening and why it is happening.
Understanding the Issue
With the COVID-19 pandemic sending young people online worldwide, its more important than ever to understand how youth voice can be heard on the internet. This means understanding who shares youth voice, how it happens, why it matters, when youth voice occurs online, and what it means to listen to youth voice online.
Adults’ concerns for young people are often and accidentally distrustful and disrespectful of children and youth. Without intention, we assume the worst of our students and participants in many spaces. Relying on cold data and calculated statistics, our programs and classes figure young people are doing the worst possible things they can be until we correct their course.
Unfortunately, this is true online too. With sensational headlines and screaming pronouncements we decide learners aren’t learning, leaders aren’t leading and youth are going to hell in a handbasket whether they’re playing video games, chatting with friends or otherwise not doing what adults want them to, where they want it done, in ways they can predict.
In order to defeat these worst projections, we have to understand the value of youth voice on the internet.
The graphic above includes four different factors I believe are important when we examine youth voice on the internet. These factors are:
Expressions of Youth Voice on the Internet
Aspects of Youth Voice Online
Types of Youth Voice on the Internet
A Continuum of Youth Voice Online
The following sections explore these four factors.
1. Expressions of Youth Voice on the Internet
In my early writing, I explored how youth voice is best defined as any expression of any young person anywhere, about anything, any time, in any way for any reason at all. This definition reflects the wide-ranging intentions, forms and outcomes of youth voice. It is meant to deny the necessity of adults in youth voice, and instead affirms the most authentic forms of youth voice. Young people do not need adult permission, activities or acceptance to share youth voice; it is already shared wherever youth are all of the time. The question isn’t whether youth are sharing their voices; its whether adults are willing and able to hear what is being said.
All of that said, it is important to expand on what and how adults think youth voice is shared. When I listen to youth voice in my projects, research and home, I look for the following directly from youth themselves:
Since youth voice can be expressed in virtually countless ways online, I believe it is vital to examine different aspects of these expressions. One way is by observing the ways youth voice online is private, and the ways youth voice online is public. The difference between these two can be seen like this:
Private Youth Voice can be transient, fluctuating, isolated, direct and immediate. In different types of private youth voice, the expressions of young people can appear and disappear quickly; they are targeted towards certain people, frequently their peers; and they are often intimate, personal and emotional, whether funny, depressing, angry or just blah. It is most often shared alone, between just two people, or within a small group of people. Private youth voice fluctuates and reveals the differentiating nature of young people, changing according to their increasing knowledge, skills and abilities. Finally, its immediate and sudden, often reflecting reflective thinking and critical analysis, but also showing whit, style and perception at the same time.
Public Youth Voice can be more permanent, steady, expansive, indirect and gradual. When young people are talking with adults in large group settings, working together with their peers to lead movements or make large-scale statements, building online strategies and creating massive social change, they are sharing public youth voice. Public youth voice typifies young people because it can seem like these expressions freeze young peoples’s voices in a single place and time, making it appear as a steady, regular phenomenon. With countless issues it can be expressed towards, public youth voice can seem very broad too, and with its apparent permanency public youth voice can seem to make a gradual appearance, as if it comes from a logical, intentional and strategic place.
3. Types of Youth Voice on the Internet
The Internet provides a unique avenue for youth voice because it is public and private at the same time.
When youth share different types of youth voice online, they are often hyper-conscious of these different aspects. For instance, in the traditional types of youth voice on the internet, young people create public artifacts for the masses to consume on the web. This includes commenting, web design, blogging, video-making, and conference calls. These are all static ways the Internet has been used for a long time, if not throughout its entire existence.
In current types of youth voice, the internet is used in private ways, including emails, private chat, texting and messaging. These are all transient ways that can and often do completely disappear after they are consumed. Examples of this technology include TikTok, Snapchat, iMessages, Discord and much, much more.
Along with several other ways, social media, gaming and hashtags can represent both private (transient) and public (static) types of youth voice online.
Understanding why youth express themselves online isn’t rocket science, but isn’t always clear, either. It can be useful to understand all youth voice online through the lenses of the “3 C” continuum: Creation, Consumption and Criticism. These three C’s can help us listen to youth voice on the Internet more effectively:
Are youth creating the Internet by producing content and communicating, including chatting, blogging, creating websites, PDFs, infographics, photos, videos, etc.?
Are youth consuming the Internet by reading, buying, watching, listening, playing, and otherwise intaking different content already produced on the Internet?
Are youth criticizing the Internet and its content with critical thinking and interacting with other web users through conversation, commenting, recreating and remixing the Internet and its content?
When considering these factors, it’s important to understand that youth voice is never simply one thing for all youth, everywhere, all the time—not simply online, but also at home, throughout the community, and far beyond!
Instead, this article is meant to show youth voice on the internet as a broad, dynamic and constantly shifting reality. It can be an avenue for democratic engagement and culture building, as well as critical pedagogy and social justice. However, it can just as easily be weaponized to implement fascism and enforce the will of tyrants.
Do you have a favorite type of youth voice online? What are your questions, comments or concerns about this article? Please share your thoughts, ideas and responses in the comments!
During the COVID-19 Pandemic we’re being asked to shelter at home and socially distance ourselves from our friends, family and coworkers. Young people are suddenly without schools, the basis of many of their social networks, and they are constantly surrounded by their family. This is a new reality that demands adults learn how to shelter at home with youth voice.
Youth voice is any expression of any young person about anything, anywhere, at any time, for any reason.
I define youth voice as any expression of any young person about anything, anywhere, at any time, for any reason. There are no limits or boundaries for youth voice because it isn’t up to adults when, who, where, how, what, or why children and youth choose to express themselves. Young people don’t even have to strive to make themselves heard because they’re always expressing themselves. The question isn’t whether youth are sharing their voices; its whether adults are listening to what’s being shared.
While we’re all locked up at home right now, some of us live with young people. In many homes, adults don’t know what youth voice is. They aren’t familiar with programs at school or in the community seeking to elevate the expressions of young people in positive ways. The thoughts, ideas, knowledge, wisdom and actions—all of which are youth voice—are valid and important at home, too.
Right now, as a father and advocate, I’m more concerned than ever with how parents listen to youth voice, and engage youth voice intentionally. Based on my professional research and practice as well as my personal experience, I compiled the following for adults who are interested in supporting youth voice at home.
Types of Youth Voice at Home
Following are some types of youth voice at home.
Decision-Making—There are two types of decision-making at home, personal and household. Household decisions affect everyone in the home; personal decisions only affect individual people. Youth voice can be shared in decision-making in many ways, including places to go together, family food, decorating, shared activities and household budgets affect the household; Eating, clothing, and bathing are personal decisions. Since young people are members of houses, everything they do can affect every other person in the house, including seemingly personal decision-making.
Feedback—Giving feedback doesn’t just happen from adults-to-children; instead, it happens from children-to-adults and children-to-children. It happens all the time too, whether or not adults are listening or even want to hear it. Youth voice can be shared in feedback given about any subject or activity at home.
Creativity—Young people are constantly creative, whether they are in their own space being personally creative or creating out loud for everyone around them to see, hear, feel, taste or touch. Creativity shows youth voice within houses in all kinds of ways, including music, painting, poetry or knitting, as well as moving furniture, making meals or other expressions.
Learning—Children and youth are teaching and learning all the time at home. The subjects and the issues they’re learning about vary, and include things unique to their home like family history, making food, and constructing walls; as well as things they share with young people around the world, like gaming and tech, creative writing or academic subjects. Young people also learn through teaching their siblings and their parents. Youth voice comes through learning in all these ways and many more.
Problem-Solving—When faced with challenges affecting the whole family, children and youth can be partners with adults in the home to solve problems. Creating opportunities for that collaboration can foster family cohesion and positive belonging for everyone involved. Youth voice can come through problem-solving at home in many ways, especially in day-to-day activities as well as long-term.
Energy—The way people in a house think and feel affects how they treat each other. This treatment sets the household tone and culture, and is a visible factor to anyone within the home. The energy of the house is reflected in the language, attitudes, beliefs and ideals within and among the people who live there.
Recreation—As young people having fun, relaxing and recreation is essential to daily living. Whether its gaming or reading, dancing or bicycling, there are many ways recreation happens. Recreation can share youth voice in many ways, including making decisions and the tone of the recreation, the choice of activities and the people who are chosen to participate.
Consumption—Household consumption is a choice everyone makes all the time, and those choices are a type of youth voice. Whether young people are consuming food, electricity or otherwise, they can make their decisions about consumption on their own, help others in the household make their choices, and partner with adults at home to choose how to consume things.
Communication—The styles of communication in a household reflect youth voice indirectly and very directly. Whether its communication between adults and children or from child-to-child all communication in a household is an expression of countless factors. These expressions can happen through spoken words and unspoken body language; actions by a person as well as inaction; and many other ways. Youth voice is shared in the ways young people express themselves; the topics and subjects expressed about; the timing of expressions; who they are expressed towards and with; and where they are expressed.
Health—Our health, including our mental, physical and spiritual realities, includes our sleep, food, exercise, surroundings, activities and much more. Youth voice is expressed through health in all ways, because ultimately every way a person treats themselves reflects their thoughts, knowledge, feelings, ideas, and wisdom.
Mindsets—Our mindset is the mental framework we approach the world with. Youth voice reflects mindsets, and mindsets reflect youth voice. Young people share their core beliefs, personal assumptions, cultural wisdom and much more through their mindsets.
These are some types of youth voice at home. What would YOU add to the list? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!
After we look over these types of youth voice, it’s important to think about what we’ve read. Maybe some of this is new to you, maybe it’s a reminder. Either way, we should all take action to apply our new knowledge at home as well as in our work and throughout our community. Here’s some questions to consider:
What difference does a household’s income, race, education, economic ability, gender identity, or religion make to youth voice?
Can every child and youth experience youth voice everywhere, all of the time?
What should adults do to open their hearts and minds to youth voice?
Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below, and forward this to your friends, colleagues and others.
Cynicism eats at the hearts of adults. With media and politicians relying on negative feelings towards youth, many adults have stopped seeing youth as the future. Instead, they view young people as lazy, hostile, apathetic and incapable. Luckily, there is another way to be.
When youth become adults, they have the potential to become allies to youth. Whether they are young adults, parents or elders, all adults can become adult allies to young people.
“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.'”
How Youth Become Adult Allies
When youth age out or transition from youth programs into adulthood, they can be some of the most powerful adult allies in our communities. Here are ways youth can become adult allies:
Reflect. Looking at their experiences as youth program participants, community members, or the subjects of different activities, adults should acknowledge who they were as youth, how they were involved, what they did, where they were and why they were involved.
Learn. Exploring different activities and issues affecting youth and communities today, adults should learn about what matters most to young people today.
Engage. Find opportunities to interact, connect, expand, appropriately deepen and meaningfully sustain your engagement with young people. This means asking young people what matters most to them, empowering them to make change, connecting them to resources and sustaining your support.
Advocate. Position young people to advocate for themselves, and when they can’t you should advocate for them. In adult-only spaces, work to transform them to bring youth into planning, research, decision-making, evaluation and advocacy.
Sustain. Do everything within your power to sustain your interest and commitment to engaging youth throughout their own lives, our communities, democracy and social change.
Becoming an adult ally isn’t something that just happens one time. Instead it takes commitment and re-commitment and a sustained interested in personal engagement and social transformation.
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:
Youth Voice is any expression of any young person anywhere, anytime, for any reason. Learn more »
Youth Involvement is the systematic placement of young people to affect, drive, or take action within an activity, organization or community. Learn more »
Youth Engagement is when youth choose the same thing over and over. Learn more »
Youth Empowerment is when young people take charge of their lives, actions and surroundings. Learn more »
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Draft a petition or sign-on letter to express views about adultism and recruit youth and/or adults to sign on.
Organize a rally, town hall or press conference to build public awareness about adultism and to hold policymakers accountable.
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.
Participate in a town hall and ask your elected officials questions about their position on adultism overall and in specific laws.
Encourage citizens to vote (through nonpartisan voter mobilization efforts).
Submit comments or feedback on policies affecting children and youth as they are being developed.
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!
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 an Assessment
Plan a systemwide 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 Citywide Policies
Review the policies that affect what’s happening in your city. 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
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
Service needs and other systemic opportunities
Youth engagement times and costs
Locations for youth engagement, length of engagement, and costs
Step 4: Collect Qualitative Data
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:
Stakeholders who work in the youth engagement system
Step 5: Collect Information
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
Analyze the quantitative and qualitative data together, allowing each to inform the other. 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 Strategy
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:
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?