Youth + Social Change through Radical Transparency With Children and Youth

Youth in Seattle with a Freechild Project summer camp

After 15 years of promoting youth/adult partnerships, Freechild Institute has decided that one of the most important elements of them, including Youth Voice, Youth Empowerment and Youth Involvement, is transparency. Here are some thoughts on radical transparency with children and youth.

“If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.” ― Booker T. Washington

How To Be Transparent With Children and Youth

  1. Start when they’re young. While young people are still young, that’s the time to make be radically transparent with them. Having a transparent conversation with a 17 or 18 year old can be difficult, if only because they’re conditioned to accept adults obfuscating. By starting early, you weave into your relationships with young people your own ability to be honest, and show your expectation that your relationships with children and youth are motivated by fully mutual accountability.
  2. Take issues one at a time. When creating a radically transparent relationship with young people, go in steps. Being completely open and honest all at once can be really difficult and daunting. Every time you would typically keep information to yourself, ask yourself, “Why can’t I share this with young people?” Unless you come up with a strong argument against it, opt for openness. But in increments.
  3. Make time to explain your logic. As a radically transparent adult ally, you must be honest and fair. Young people need to understand how you came to your decisions and why. Be ready to spend a huge amount of time with children and youth explaining everything. The extra time will pay off, when ultimately, your effort will inspire trust and respect.
  4. Clearly outline the steps for action. Radically transparent organizations need clear ways for young people to take action. You might set specific goals or show young people which skills and outcomes they can be developing. Being fair in this process prevents you from expecting any young people to do something beyond their abilities. Make sure your organization is focused on process more than product, and let young people know that’s the case.
  5. Question your own discomfort. Making traditionally adult-only information available to young people naturally stirs up discomfort. A lot of the time its uncomfortable because it’s never been done before. Whenever you hesitates, ask yourself if sharing that information would help or engage the young people you’re working with. If it would, do it. Once it’s out in the open, discomfort quickly fades. If it doesn’t, its trying to show you more.

What Transparency Means

There is no such thing as genuinely non-coercive relationships with young people. The best writing about that topic is full of coercion and attempts to get kids to do things, but from particularly obtuse or obfuscated angles. There’s are political causes behind everything- not party politik, but philosophical politics.

Those philosophical politics inform all our ways of being, including and especially our relationships with young people. Its from this place that philosopher/theorists like Freire, Illich, and even Neill become so relevant. However, they represent different perspectives, and as a critical theorist I hang my hat closest to Freire.

It is from this perspective that I find myself wondering lately about the notion of radical transparency with children and youth. Growing up in the mire of post-naive capitalism, I deeply appreciate attempts to reveal the political considerations of the systems and society I occupy and participate in. The dark forces of gross consumerism routinely pile up cheap plastic crap around us in piles so big we can’t see what’s going on around us.

Those piles are formed of the detritus of our lifestyles, including the stuff we buy and the places we attend. However, they’re also made from the shady forces of popular culture which seek to block us from seeing why things around us happen the ways they do.

Why Transparency Matters

Given an opportunity to identify clearly what they see in the world around them, I believe young people have the innate capacity to discover and examine why things are the way they are. They can also identify how things operate, and how they can be transformed. With consistent and relevant exposure throughout their lives, all children and youth could gradually, purposefully, and truly become operative democrats—that is, fully engaged citizens in a democracy—at much younger ages than we afford people now.

The believe that there’s a static experience of childhood that should be preserved through ignorance and limited exposure to the world is idyllic and has been proven misguided, if only because we know that for all intents and purposes, that experience is limited to so few young people. Right now it seems as if the domineering modus operandi in society is to “throw them to the wolves” of pop culture consumerism that defines their identities for them. I want young people to be able to choose their identities, connections, and engagements, rather than allowing corporations to choose for them.I don’t think transparency equals full access or authority. It may lend itself to that, and when it’s appropriate it will. But I’m not inclined to hand over the keys to the house and invite everyone in, as it were. If a young person wanted more of an institution at will and of there own volition, that’s something different. But rather than foist everything upon every young person all at once, I wonder of there’s a need for degrees of transparency. Is transparency only necessary/appropriate when young people request it? If that choice isn’t radical transparency, then what is? Cynicism is popular in some communities, while in most others there’s gross apathy. What other options are there?

I’m thinking mostly about social institutions like families, schools, policing, the economy, government, nonprofits, religions. What if Toto ran up and pulled back the curtain on any of those institutions? What would young people themselves see? Can we be that revelatory and transparent?

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

Youth, Sexual Abuse and Sexual Assault

Adult allies of youth explore what they need to learn for themselves.

Young people around the world are standing against sexual abuse in many ways. They are joining forces for policy change at state and federal levels; educating their peers and adults; and creating new cultures within families, throughout schools and across communities that do not tolerate abuse, victimization or discrimination against children, youth or adults who are sexually abused.

Sexual abuse is an abuse of power and a betrayal of trust. Sexual abuse happens when anyone is forced or tricked into sexual activity by anyone else. Sexual abuse can be physical, visual and verbal. Examples include sexual touching, oral-genital contact, rape, incest, any penetration with objects or body parts, making a child touch someone else’s private parts or play sexual (“pants down”) games, exposing private parts to a child, showing pornography/making child watch sexual acts, taking sexual pictures, watching a child undress or go to the bathroom and obscene/sexual language.

 

Ways Youth are Changing the World Focusing on Sexual Abuse

Youth as Advocates — Standing up for what they know is right requires youth stand against what they know it wrong. As advocates, youth are making the issue of sexual abuse obvious, apparent and meaningful to policy-makers, law enforcement, the courts, and others everyday. They are letting their stand inform land-lasting conversations and moving essential ideas into the mainstream.

Youth-led Training — By training their peers, younger people and adults, youth are leading the education revolution focused on sexual abuse. They are helping their siblings, parents, and teachers understand youth voice in this area, and moving the agenda forward.

Youth/Adult Partnerships — Forming and sustaining equitable youth/adult partnerships is a vital key for a lot of youth engagement activities focused on ending sexual assault and sexual abuse. Through transparency, mutual respect, trust and constantly meaningful involvement, young people and adults learn to work together to transform the world.

 

Things Youth Need to Change the World Focusing on Sexual Abuse

Education — Young people want to learn what it takes to successfully challenge and hold back sexual abuse and sexual assault. Through comprehensive sexual education and learning not to assign males roles to assault girls and women, education can change the world.

Research — Substantive research of all sorts can empower youth to take action to against sexual assault and sexual abuse. Learning how to read research, utilize it most effectively and interpret it for others can be essential.

Motivation — Simply changing youth to make a difference isn’t enough. Instead, we’ve found that young people need four pillars to change the world: Policymaking; Targeted educational activities; Substantial assessment, and; Practical culture transformation activities that honor older knowledge and infusing younger innovation.

 

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Cultural Adultism

Cultural adultism is a very ambiguous, yet very prevalent, form of discrimination and intolerance towards youth. It is one of the pillars of adultism that informs our society’s conception of adulthood.

Adultism informs our society’s conception of adulthood through our cultures, structures, and attitudes.

Any restriction or exploitation of people because of their young age, as opposed to their ability, comprehension, or capacity, may be said to be adultist. These restrictions are often attributed to “better judgment”, the “wisdom of age”, or other popular age-related euphemism that is afforded to adults simply because of their age. Examples of where this plays out include:

  • Portrayal of youth as apathetic by media
  • Anti-youth store rules
  • Child abuse
  • Academic misconceptions of youth, supported by bad research
  • Ongoing commericalization of the culture young people partake in
  • Online filters
  • Corporal punishment
  • Literature
  • Child labor
  • Mass marketing of pre-packaged youth culture to youth and adults
  • Peer pressure
  • Child prostitution
  • Fashion controversies
  • Political and sociological scapegoating of youth
  • Stereotypes about youth subcultures
  • Teen sex
Time Magazine Cover
A very adultist magazine cover reflecting cultural bias towards adults, and discrimination against young people.

Causes of Cultural Adultism

Adultism is bias towards adults. Bias towards adults happens anytime the opinions, ideas, knowledge, beliefs, abilities, attitudes, or cultures of adults are held above those of people who aren’t considered adults because they’re not considered adults. Because of this, our very conception of childhood itself is adultism at work. Anyone who works professionally or lives in society with young people as an adult is inherently adultist.

Our adultist attitudes are primarily demonstrated as discrimination against children and youth. This comes across in our national, state, and local laws; educational, health, nutritional, and social policies; family norms; religious and spiritual beliefs; and social customs. Everything from the height of dinner tables to compulsory education passively and actively reflects adultism. Seeking to make the world into our vision of things, adults invented the phenomenon of childhood to ensure that kids were comprehensible and controllable. Because of that, the status of children has become passive, static, and predictable.

Does that make adults wrong or bad? Not all the time and not everywhere. There are times when, as an adult, I am discriminated against. Legally, I cannot go into a hospital and operate on someone, nor can I drive an 18-wheel semi-truck. Culturally, it is inappropriate for me to use a women’s changing room at a store or attend a self-help group for narcotics. None of those examples are inherently bad or wrong. They are intended to keep myself or others safe. Its the same with much well-meaning adultism that is intended to keep young people or others safe. If a building is burning down, as an adult I feel its my responsibility to grab everyone and make sure they’re out of the building, regardless of age.

However, in our society adults always act like the building is burning down. That’s what must change. People who want to change the miserable state of affairs facing the world must take action to stop adultism now. We must challenge the ineptitude of adults and their intransigence towards the changing abilities and roles of young people throughout society. We must push back against age-based assumptions that have nothing to do with the capacity of young people.

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Structural Adultism

Freechild Project youth at a summer camp in Seattle

Structural adultism may be apparent in any instance of systemic bias where formalized limitations or demands are placed on people simply because of their young age. These limitations are often reinforced through physical force or police actions.

Adultism informs our society’s conception of adulthood through our cultures, structures, and attitudes.

This is increasingly seen as a form of gerontocracy, explained by James Carville when he wrote,

“This is not class warfare, this is generational warfare. This administration and old wealthy people have declared war on young people. That is the real war that is going on here. And that is the war we’ve got to talk about.”

From every report I have read, structural adultism rages across our communities, and includes banks, courts, police, schools, nonprofits, churches, mosques, synagogues, and all levels of governments. I would summarize the effects of structural adultism as:

  • Compulsory education
  • Access to contraceptives
  • Legalized corporal punishment
  • Curfew laws
  • Anti-youth loitering policies
  • Criminalization and demonization of youth via media
  • Voting age
  • Age of candidacy
  • Access to healthcare
  • Typecasting of youth by police
  • The Draft

Total institutions, which are the organizations in our society which dominate the entire being of a person, include the military, prisons, schools, and hospitals. Young people are affected by total institutions more than any other social group.

Ultimately, the normalization and legitimization of historical, cultural, structural and interpersonal dynamics that routinely advantage adults while producing cumulative and chronic adverse outcomes for young people is best summarized as structural adultism.

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Attitudinal Adultism

Students in the SoundOut Summer Camp in Seattle

Attitudinal adultism, also called internalized adultism, is the deeply personal attitude of children, youth and adults that is biased towards adults.

Adultism informs our society’s conception of adulthood through our cultures, structures, and attitudes.

In his booklet called, Adults as Allies, [PDF] Barry Checkoway of the University of Michigan School of Social Work writes that

adultism causes youth to “question their own legitimacy, doubt their ability to make a difference…” and perpetuate a “culture of silence” among young people.

In his article called “Understanding Adultism A Key to Developing Positive Youth-Adult Relationships”, John Bell expands on that assessment, with a series of examples of what internalized adultism looks like. I summarize and expand on them as:

  • Adults envying the “personhood” of young people
  • Adults discounting or underestimating the ability of young people
  • Young people seeking constant approval from adults
  • Young people denying solidarity with their age-similar peers
  • Peer-to-peer violence
  • Corporal punishment
  • Sexual abuse
  • Verbal abuse
  • Forced religious attendance
  • Home curfew rules
Adultism is 1) Bias towards adults; 2) Addiction to adults; 3) Discrimination against youth

Exploring Internalized Adultism

What makes internalized adultism so terrible is that it is so pervasive. Everywhere we look, every time we see adults and children and youth interacting, it is there. Stores, daycares, schools, restaurants, playgrounds, city halls… Internalized adultism is so pervasive that I often hear myself in the middle of saying something adultist to my own child before I catch myself and stop.

Unfortunately, adultism is supported by a scaffolding in our society that does nothing more than reinforce and extend the effects of adultism on children and youth. In workshops, The Freechild Project defines adultism as bias towards adults. This definition is supported by the attitudes, behaviors, and practices that many individuals – young and older – take against young people.

Internalized adultism is the way that children and youth use adultism against other children and youth. Being a “tattle tale” or a bully are obvious ways this happens; more subtle ways include what Alfie Kohn calls “parroting,” when young people repeat what adults say in their own language simply to gain that adults’ acceptance.

Another way is much more popular, and I believe, a lot more harmful. What students call “cliques” are social groups that form in community settings throughout young peoples’ lives, including schools and community centers. Sociologists sometimes call cliques “youth subcultures,” but I believe that labeling is adultist itself. Cliques are internalized adultism because they are prescribed to happen by adults through mass marketing and commercialism. Shortly thereafter, youth start to believe these negative stereotypes of themselves, suddenly joining through language, clothes, music, attitudes, and behaviors that were prescribed for them by whatever adult-driven mass media brought them there originally.

The reason I say cliques as a form of internalized adultism are so harmful are the social and economic impacts of cliques throughout society. In every community where I have worked intensively — including African American, middle class white, low-income Latino, rural, and urban — cliques have had their place among young people. In some areas they were gang-related; in others, popularity-driven; in still others, they were motivated by clubs or athletics or other stuff.

In sociology these are sometimes called “ingroups” and “outgroups.” Ingroup bias drives young people to oppress one another, both by alienating some at the expense of others, and reinforcing membership through clothing, music, and attitude. The first two suck, particularly because they support the last. It is that last affect – attitude – that is the kicker. The attitudes of ingroups inform how we behave all of our lives. Our consumer behaviors, our social norms, our cultural acceptance – those are all evidence of our attitudes when we are young. Even if our attitudes change drastically as we mature, they are still respondent to our exposures when we are young.

Ingroups also inform both why young people perpetuate adultism towards other children and youth, and why young people become adults who perpetuate adultism towards children and youth. What a vicious, ugly cycle.

(I will admit that in itself may be an adultist view, particularly because I allude to young people not making conscious decisions about joining cliques. However, that is not what I’m saying; instead, I am saying that what they are joining was prescribed by adults, and is not youth-driven itself. I do not believe that there is any “authentic” youth culture in America today. Instead, this country is so media saturated that we have lost authenticity, and any so-called youth-driven culture today is merely a response to some other adult-driven cultural assignment. That is a sucky situation.)

Adultism drives us to do many things. In order to stop it, we have to train adults to identify and fight their own behavior, and to challenge the adultist behavior of their peers. At the same time we need to facilitate learning experiences for young people to identify adultism, challenge it among their peers, and effectively challenge it among the adults in their lives. Only then will true social progress in the war against adultism (and ephebiphobia) be made.

ALL Adults Are Adultist.

Challenging Internalized Adultism

The tendency of being dismissive or disregarding of adultism by both young people and adults reflects one of the core, unspoken strategies inherent in the dominant relationships between children, youth and adults in our society.

Taking in that discrimination so deeply that it silences a child or youth is one effect; encouraging a young person to lambast themselves or their peers or younger people is another. This internalization disables young people from being able to form a positive identity based in their age, and further promotes the inability of young people to become effective agents for social change throughout our society.

Much needs to be written about identifying internalized adultism and drawing out its causes and effects on their lives of both young people and adults. I have found very little literature that does this in a sophisticated enough way to warrant response. In the meantime, I would suggest the following questions can be essential for challenging internalized adultism. They are good for any age, and only need to be adjusted for each individual’s usage.

  • What has been or is good about being a young person?
  • What makes me proud of being young?
  • What are children and youth people really like?
  • What has been difficult about being young?
  • What do I want other young people to know about me?
  • Specifically, how have I been hurt by other young people?
  • When do I remember standing up against the mistreatment of one young person by another?
  • When do I remember being strongly supported by another young person?
  • When do I remember that another child or youth (unrelated) really stood up for me?
  • When do I remember acting on some feeling of internalized adultism?
  • When do I remember resisting and refusing to act on this basis?

  We must examine these questions for their outcomes in our own lives and the lives of those around us, simply because they begin to allow us to go further.  In order to effectively challenge adultism we each have to examine its effects throughout our own lives. This is one attempt to encourage each of us to do that.

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Introduction to Adultism

Adultism is 1) Bias towards adults; 2) Addiction to adults; 3) Discrimination against youth

Definition of Adultism

There are three parts to the complete definition of adultism, from Adam Fletcher’s book Facing Adultism:

  • Adultism is favoring adults by dismissing young people.
  • It is also the addiction to the attitudes, ideas, beliefs, and actions of adults.
  • Because adultism is bias towards adults, it inherently and obviously leads to discrimination against children and youth.
ALL Adults Are Adultist.

Where Adultism Happens

It is a major factor in how society is organized: By assuming children and youth do not have anything of substance or value to add to the majority of social activities, adults keep their power intact. Adultism happens in government, education, social services, religious communities, and families. It is present in our laws, legal practices, economic activities, and the ways we share our cultures.

adultismaffectsprogramoutcomes

Why Adultism Happens

Adultism happens because adults think there is value to it. Adults believe adults sometimes act more responsibly and capably than young people. However, adults often act as if children and youth are never responsible and never capable. That is when adultism becomes a problem problem.

adultismaffectsprogramfunding

What Adultism Does

Adultism does many things:

  • Adultism ignores, silences, neglects, and punishes children and youth simply because they are not adults. Every young person experiences adultism from the day they are born until the day the world around them recognizes them as an adult. Every adult in our society today has experienced adultism.

Because of this unconscious sharing of the same experiences, adults often perpetuate adultism without knowing it. In some cases, young people themselves perpetuate adultism.

adultismaffectsyouthprogramdesign

The Outcomes of Adultism

The outcomes of adultism are severe.

  • Seeing and treating young people as weak, helpless and less intelligent than adults impresses inability in the hearts and minds of youth into adulthood.
  • Adultism often makes verbal, physical, and emotional abuse towards young people seem “okay”.
  • Adultism can make other negative opinions about people seem okay, so that young people see racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination being “okay”.

Adultism is a major concept in the organization of society. Adultism prevails in every sector, including government, education, social services, and families. The defeat of adultism is often seen as a bad thing, as adults are mostly capable only of seeing their own abilities as those that are truly needed to the function and well-being of our world.

Because of the long history and broad realities of adultism and its pervasive nature in our societies, essentially all people are affected by adultism. The resulting internalized oppression and distress is severe. For example, adultism forces us to treat young people as weak, helpless and less intelligent than adults. For a lot of people, there is verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. Adultism forces children and youth to accept all other oppressions that exist in the society.

adultismaffectsadultattitudes

Stopping Adultism

The most important thing anyone can do to stop adultism is to address how they perpetuate it, no matter whether they are an adult or a young person. Internalized adultism forces children and youth to unconsciously cause adultism to keep happening. External adultism is obvious throughout our society. Seeing our role in those internal and external things is a key to stopping adultism.

After we explore our personal attitudes and roles, we can face adultism in many other ways, too. There are three places adultism can show up throughout our lives:

If we are committed to facing adultism, we will look in those three areas of our own lives to see where adultism exists, what it does, how it appears, and why it matters. Then we can decide real, individualized steps each one of us can take to stop adultism.

IfightAdultism

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Convenient and Inconvenient Youth Voice

Freechild Project retreat participants in Seattle, Washington

Many well-meaning adults who advocate for youth engagement too often consider only those elements of the younger population with which they are familiar. This is comfortable and convenient for adults, but it doesn’t fully address realities regarding young people today.

Identifying aspects of youth engagement as convenient or inconvenient doesn’t convey a value judgment; it simply acknowledges an existing condition.

Convenient Youth Engagement happens whenever adults know who is going to be engaged, what is going to happen, where and when it will happen, and what the outcomes will be. Adults might not have written the whole script for youth engagement, but what’s going to be said is no surprise to them.

Inconvenient Youth Engagement takes place when young people become engaged in ways that aren’t predictable. They share ideas, shout out thoughts, take action or critique harshly. They do things that adults don’t know, understand, approve of or otherwise predict.

The difference between these two situations depends on context, including location, position and circumstance. A young person’s race, socio-economic status, gender, educational attainment or other characteristics frequently determines how engagement is perceived. A particular instance of youth engagement may be heard or ignored, approved or disapproved, praised or penalized by older adults.

 

The Freechild Project Youth/Adult Partnerships Tip Sheet
Check out our FREE Youth/Adult Partnerships Tip Sheet!

 

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The cover of Facing Adultism by Adam Fletcher
Order Facing Adultism by Adam Fletcher.

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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 help improve adult perceptions of youth in your community or organization, contact us.

Youth Political Action Institute

The Freechild Project is excited to announce the availability of our Youth Political Action Institute. Designed to inspire, inform and empower young people ages 12 to 18, Freechild facilitates online workshops with powerful, positive and practical lessons that will change the lives of youth in your community!

Our institute covers five areas:

  • Motivation — Why is it absolutely essential for YOU to take action?!?
  • Knowledge-Sharing — You know what you know; now share it with others!
  • Skill-Building — Developing the POWER to create change is critical.
  • Action Planning — Learning how to DO SOMETHING takes commitment!
  • Reflection — Its not enough to just do stuff. You should learn about action with us.

Call The Freechild Project today to discuss costs, availability and more at (360) 489-9680 or email info@freechild.org.

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Activist Learning

Freechild Project youth with picket signs in Seattle

Activist Learning is an intentional strategy for creating knowledge characterized by taking action to realize just relationships that transform unequal power structures in our personal, social, political, environmental, spiritual, and economic lives. This page describes what it is, how it happens, where it occurs and what difference it can make.

This is accomplished by linking critical reflection to activism with intentional opportunities to connect the action to self-reflection, self-discovery, and the creation and comprehension of values, skills, and knowledge.

What is Activist Learning?

Activist Learning can be a youth-only, actively encouraging self-direction and self-education through community activism. Activist Learning with young people can also happen in partnership with adult allies, although in this situation the emphasis should always be on youth-led action, with opportunities for adult-shared learning facilitation optional.

Why Activist Learning?

  • Activist Learning can challenge ideas that educators can deposit knowledge into the empty minds of students by engaging co-learners as the co-creators of knowledge.
  • Activist Learning can engage young people and educators as co-facilitators of learning, encouraging young people to become knowledge creators and adults to become allies.
  • Activist Learning can empower activist/learners to articulate themselves in a way that is relevant to their lives and their roles as agents of change.
  • Activist Learning can move activist/learners from acts of charity and sympathy towards solidarity and allyship.

Activist Learning can allow activist/learners to…

  • Prioritize ethics and a work towards social justice;
  • Challenge the ways schools perpetuate power structures in our society;
  • Support teachers in reflecting on their complicity in this perpetuation;
  • Show students that knowledge is socially constructed – and is not the ‘truth’;
  • Assist students in deconstructing knowledge to see how and why it is that way and whose purposes it serves, teaching them to “read the world differently” and “resist the abuse of power and privilege” that abounds (Henry Giroux, 1991, p. 49);
  • “Create new forms of knowledge through … breaking down disciplinary boundaries and creating new spaces where knowledge can be produced” (Henry Giroux, 1991, p. 50)

Important Concepts

  • Activist Learning — A community learning approach characterized by people taking action to realize a society based on just relationships by seeking to transform unequal power structures in our personal, social, political and economic lives.
  • Adult Ally — Adults in unity or connection with young people in personal relationships, as in friendship or partnership.
  • Collective — Flat organizational structure where the all members of a group are responsible for or involved in making all decisions.  There are no ranks or structures that make one person more powerful than another
  • Community Learning — A knowledge-creating practice in which traditional student-teacher roles are eliminated; co-learners are simultaneously encouraged to facilitate and receive knowledge.
  • Critical Reflection — Thinking about what we are thinking and doing, and then acting on what we have thought about; A circle of learning that promotes continuous action for social justice.
  • Praxis — Bringing together critical reflection and concrete action with/in a community in order to transform it.
  • Social Justice — The practice of putting democracy into daily practice with regard for the social conditions within a community.  Often associated with, but not limited to, racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, poverty, and discrimination against persons with disabilities.
  • Popular Education — A space where young people and adults can learn together to foster a more equitable, just and democratic world. Facilitators use social justice, youth empowerment and active learning to foster and support real, positive and empowering relationships that teach and learn.
  • Solidarity — A union of interests, purposes, or empathies between people; a fellowship of responsibilities and interests.

Elements of Activist Learning

Activist Learning doesn’t just happen. There are critical elements that make Activist Learning the powerful, purposeful tool it is. Here are some of them:

  • Activist Learning develops communities as places that promote radical democracy, where diverse, consensus-based, non-hierarchical and non-discriminatory learning takes place.
  • Activist Learning fosters critical analysis of institutions and social structures, takes responsive action to promote justice and equity, teaches the history of social movements.
  • Activist Learning encourages learning to cross disciplines, issues, cultures and communities in order to foster knowledge creation, challenge and exploration.
  • Activist Learning honors and accentuates life-long learning that engages learners through community-based, innovative and effective pedagogy.
  • Activist Learning uses technology and media as liberating tools that support community needs.

Activist Learning in Schools

Following are a few suggestions for integrating Activist Learning in schools:

  • Organize a class project with all of the elements of Activist Learning.
  • Students can research news stories about social injustice by collecting and analyzing news clippings or Internet printouts that portray unjust sentiments, statements, or actions in their area.
  • Students can collect accounts of protective and supportive acts toward people of color, low-income people, differently-abled people, environmentally sensitive areas, etc.
  • Create a class mission statement about responding to one’s fellow citizens in a productive way. This can be an opportunity to brainstorm and model consensus-building.
  • Assign an essay comparing contemporary events to analogous events in history.
  • Dedicate an hour every week or month for students to locate and read publications written for largely minority audiences (e.g., Asian Week, Hispanic Review, Black Enterprise, Indian Country Today).
  • Work with interested students to form a Student Civil Rights Team in your school. Student Civil Rights Teams work in schools or other settings to teach their peers about prejudice, discrimination, hate crimes, and protecting victims or potential victims.

Activist Learning in Communities

YOUR voice is YOUR power!  You’re an activist, and you know you’re learning!  Around the world people are learning through activism and grabbing hold of learning and owning what they know.

And by the way – you probably aren’t already doing this. Activist Learning requires several important elements named above, and most groups don’t have them all.  But you can, and that’s why we offer these examples.

Young people always learn through activism.  By working with friends and partnering with adult allies, young people are developing powerful, effective Activist Learning projects.  The following are stories of young people learning through activism (click on the heading for the link):

  • Youth Act! Students Testify on Mayor’s Budget – Read this story from 2000 about young people in Washington DC who learned about homeless issues and advocated to the city’s Mayor for change.

  • Global Uprising: Stories of a New Generation of Activists – Read excerpts from this exciting book that documents young activists work today.  The stories on this page include the personal narratives of young people standing up for peace, the environment, and for social justice.

  • Talk to Us. Listen. Take Us Seriously. – Eighteen young people from small communities across America—from the Mississippi Delta to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, the Navajo Nation to the northern California coast—speak about their efforts to promote youth leadership and voice in their schools and communities. They recount their successes while offering pointed advice on ways adults can partner more effectively with kids.

YOU can get inspired, get informed, get active and learn something!  The following websites offer great information to promote young people taking action – all you’ve got to do is make something of it!  You can do that with Activist Learning.

Summary

Young people have increasingly been at the front of rallies, marches, and activism around the world over the last several decades. Children and youth organize, research, educate, analyze, and advocate for change around the world through local, national, and international movements. While this action is powerful and often effective, there has been one component that is usually missing: the intentional learning.

For several years The Freechild Project has been researching youth-led activism in several areas, including environmental activism. Using this research and our own experiences in activism, we have developed an exciting new model for youth engagement in social change work called “Activist Learning.”

We define Activist Learning with young people as an intentional strategy for creating knowledge characterized by taking action to realize just relationships that transforms unequal power structures in our personal, social, political, environmental, spiritual, and economic lives.

Activist Learning is a process that…

  • …develops communities as places that promote radical democracy, where diverse, consensus-based, non-hierarchical and non-discriminatory learning takes place.

  • fosters critical analysis of institutions and social structures, takes responsive action to promote justice and equity, teaches the history of social movements.
  • …encourages learning to cross disciplines, issues, cultures and communities in order to foster knowledge creation, challenge and exploration

  • …honors and accentuates life-long learning that engages learners through community-based, innovative and effective pedagogy
  • …uses technology and media as liberatory tools to support community needs

Elements of Activist Learning include shared assumptions and purposes; negotiated co-learning goals agreed upon among activists; common action and learning (“praxis”); continual critical reflection, and; emphasis on co-learner/community voice.

Activist Learning can be a youth-directed, youth-only activity that encourages self-direction and self-education through community activism. Activist Learning with young people can also happen in partnership with adult allies, although in this situation the emphasis should always be on youth-led action, with opportunities for adult-shared learning facilitation optional.

Activist Learning challenges the idea that educators can deposit knowledge into the empty minds of students by engaging co-learners as the co-creators of knowledge. It engages young people and educators as co-facilitators of learning, encouraging young people to become knowledge creators and adults to become allies. Activist Learning empowers young activist/learners to articulate themselves in a way that is relevant to their lives and their roles as agents of change. Finally, and most importantly to our work, it moves activist/learners from acts of charity and sympathy towards solidarity and allyship.

Recent studies have shown that Activist Learning can allow activist/learners to:

  • Prioritize ethics and a work towards social justice;
  • Challenge the ways schools perpetuate power structures in our society;
  • Support teachers in reflecting on their complicity in this perpetuation;
  • Show students that knowledge is socially constructed – and is not the ‘truth’;
  • Assist students in deconstructing knowledge to see how and why it is that way and whose purposes it serves, teaching them to “read the world differently” and “resist the abuse of power and privilege” that abounds (Henry Giroux, 1991, p. 49);
  • “Create new forms of knowledge through … breaking down disciplinary boundaries and creating new spaces where knowledge can be produced” (Henry Giroux, 1991, p. 50) [From Con/testing Learning Models by Gaell Hildebrand (1999).]

While taking action is powerful, learning from it is even more important. There are millions of people who are working to save the environment and change the world everyday – shouldn’t you make your effort today?


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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 engagement in activist learning in your community or organization, contact us.

Urban Youth

Youth in Seattle with a Freechild Project summer camp

Living in a place shouldn’t condemn a person to poor health, weak education, unsafe living conditions or segregation from other races, socio-economic classes and religions. However, in cities around the world urban youth face countless barriers to successful lives. Experience and research shows that these same young people are engaged in substantive activities focused on changing the world, they become empowered, wise and transformative leaders. Urban youth can transform the lives of younger people, their peers, adults and elders living among them and throughout their cities.

There’s no reason why children in inner cities or rural areas do not receive the same quality education or opportunities as those in suburbs or wealthy neighborhoods. If we truly believe in giving all citizens a chance to pursue happiness and pursue their goals, then we cannot continue to marginalize entire groups of people. — Al Sharpton

 

Ways Urban Youth are Changing the World

Youth Leadership — When urban youth are needed to fill in gaps, or where adults refuse the power of youth, youth leadership can be a substantive tool for communities. Building skills sets like communication, problem-solving, change management and peaceful negotiations, urban youth leadership programs, activities and organizations can be beacons of hope.

Youth as Mentors — Providing positive, intentional role models is an important task urban youth can excel through. Whether mentoring with younger children or adults, young people can build trust, mutual investment, and meaningful interactions into the daily lives of their mentees, and learn from them, too.

Youth Media Makers — Learning how to make media that reflects their communities’ true realities without sensationalizing, glorifying or otherwise manipulating circumstances, urban youth media makers can change the world. Its vital to use the media popular within a community to reach that community and beyond, whether on the Internet, through video or print, or via texting.

 

"Precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience you must find yourself at war with your society." - James Baldwin

 

Things Urban Youth Need to Change the World

Education — Education in cities should focus on developing a strong commitment within children and youth to transforming their urban communities from within, and changing the entire world. They should learn about urban transformation, economic development, cultural enrichment, community building and youth-led activism.

Funding — Urban youth deserve every opportunity to build their communities, progress their lives and build social justice simply because they live in cities. However, simply because they live in cities they often don’t have access to the fiscal resources of other young people. Foundations, government agencies and other funders should provide specific, sustained and substantial funding opportunities for urban young people to change the world.

Inspiration —  Living in poverty, struggling with family / gender / gang violence, and experiencing daily discrimination and fighting community depression can challenge the strongest people. Children and youth face the outcomes far more than adults. Inspiration and motivation for understanding they can change  the world in positive ways; have meaningful, positive effects on their communities; and see relevant outcomes that affect their lives and their families can be absolutely essential.

 

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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 urban youth engagement through your community or organization, contact us.