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!
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Other tools are out there, too – share your thoughts in the comments below! For more information about how Freechild Institute can support radical transparency in your community or organization, contact us.
The practice of teachers assigning students letter or number grades to illustrate how students are performing is an outmoded method, left over the times when schools were regarded as factories, teachers were supervisors, and students were workers. Not only is grading just outdated, research has shown that grading students is damaging as well. Research has shown that grades can:
Cause students to regard learning as a chore
Avoid challenging tasks
Think less deeply
Fall apart when they fail, and
To value ability more than effort.
In today’s society the process is as important as the outcome; schools should reflect that.
“The students, motivated/rewarded (or not) by grades, try to shape their writing so as to get a better grade, and that may become their primary goal in some cases. In turn, the teachers feel grading forces them to give up some of their role as “fair-minded judges and sympathetic readers.” – Lotto and Smith in College Education.
Ways Youth Can Change the World Without Grades
Teaching Classes — One of the best ways young people can learn is through teaching. Young people of all ages can teach people younger than themselves, the same age and older than themselves.
Reforming Schools — Becoming actively engaged as partners in school reform at the local, district, state and federal levels can allow students to advocate against grades in powerful, effective ways.
Youth as Education Advocates — If youth stand against grades, they should make student voice heard to education decision-makers everywhere. Providing substantive alternatives and stepping into action are priorities.
Tools Youth Need to Change the World Without Grades
Inspiration— Children and youth need stories to motivate them against grades, while teachers and school leaders need the vision to eliminate them.
Education— Leaving the traditional grade structure of schools can be challenging, but with education and training in alternative scoring teachers and students can become committed to not relying on these false measures of academic success.
Youth/Adult Partnerships— Working in classrooms, across schools and throughout the education system can be a key to eliminate grading forever. Fostering and sustaining substantial youth/adult partnerships throughout the education system can be a powerful way to do that.
SoundOut Student Activism Map – Find out where students are organizing to challenge schools to listen to student voice and engage students as partners in school improvement. Includes examples and organizations from across the US.
Rise Against Terrible Schools – While there are many different ideas on how schools should work, we share one common goal: changing schools for the better. Whether that means getting students to unschool or homeschool or just simply campaigning for some rights of students in schools, the goal of RATS is to students work together so they can be more effective.
Students Against Testing – Students Against Testing was created to be a strong force against the score-obsessed education machine known as standardized testing. At the same time, SAT also exists as an advocate for bringing positive, creative and real-life learning activities into the schools. SAT believes that for the reasons stated below urgent action from the student body itself is the most direct way to counteract the boredom and petty competition that currently plagues the schools.
Alternative Education Resource Organization – AERO advances learner-centered approaches to education. AERO is considered by many to be the primary hub of communications and support for educational alternatives around the world.
“The Costs of Overemphasizing Achievement” by Alfie Kohn in School Administrator. This article (and this author) is completely committed to eliminating grades. The author is a widely regarded researcher who has written extensively about the dilemmas of “Rewards and Punishments” (the title of one of his many books) in schools.
A Youth Action Council is a group of young people who develop a group approach using their individual abilities in order to solve serious social issues. In Youth Action Councils, young people develop, implement and evaluate actions through youth/adult partnerships. Youth Action Councils can be hosted by nonprofits, local/state/federal government agencies, school districts, community groups, international NGOs, and other organizations. Member ages, terms, numbers, issues and actions vary according to organizational priorities, youth voice and other factors. Youth Action Councils are the activity that changed everything for youth engagement. Before Youth Action Councils, organizations didn’t imagine what youth could do to change the world; after they started to exist, organizations only wanted to dream bigger.
How to Build Youth + Social Change through Youth Action Councils
Youth as Trainers ― Working together with their communities, Youth Action Councils are teaching adults, other youth, and young children about issues that matter to them. Some of these topics, including sex ed, environmentalism, and racism are at the core of major struggles today, while others are emerging issues.
Youth Grantmaking ― Young people are partnering with foundations and philanthropic organizations, as well as leading their own efforts, to raise funds and support causes that matter to them. This is happening through Youth Action Councils at the community level, nationally, and internationally.
Youth as Policy-Makers ― Youth Action Councils are active on the federal, state or provincial levels, and local levels around the world, making policy, informing elected and appointed officials, and evaluating decision-making that affects rules, guidelines, laws and regulations.
Tools for Youth + Social Change through Youth Action Councils
Motivation ― After years of being routinely disconnected from real activities that change the world, it can be challenging for youth to want to join Youth Action Councils, and when they do join them, it can be hard to feel inspired. Motivation can come through storytelling, action research, and other opportunities.
Training ― Simply being appointed, selected or choosing to be on a Youth Action Council does not make a youth capable of being successful. Careful self- and group assessments should be conducted to learn what skills are present in the group, and what needs introduced and developed.
Opportunities ― When an organization creates a Youth Action Council, it becomes essential to provide real, practical and obvious opportunities for that group to change the world. Developing SMART goals, identifying useful tools and other resources, and having Youth Advisory Councils conduct meaningful evaluations and reflect on their work midcourse and at the end of their projects is essential.
Our society is deeply entrenched in adultism, which is bias towards adults and consequently, discrimination against young people. It is prevalent throughout the institutions of our society. In order to re-negotiate adultism, we have to identify what support has to exist throughout society. I call this support “scaffolding”. I call this re-negotiating “youth integration”.
Youth integration will occur in two steps:
The first step is desegregation of youth, which is deliberately ending the segregation of young people throughout society. Today, segregation happens implicitly and explicitly throughout society, including schools, at home, in commerce, and in law-making, enforcement, and courts. Desegregation will address the tools of segregation, including policies and practices, as well as the attitudes and opinions that reinforce them.
The second step is integration of youth. When young people are re-established in equitable relationships throughout society, including their relationships with parents, teachers, youth workers, police, and others, integration is present. It is a deliberate step meant to stop and reverse segregation.
Scaffolding Against Adultism
Supporting young people as adultism is defeated throughout society has to be done with deliberation and determination. Challenging adultism and fighting discrimination against youth must be situated in the larger struggle for nonviolence and social justice across our society. Awareness of these struggles and attuning with great legacies of transformation positions young people as the substantive leaders in social change they have been for more than 100 years.
Following are three central elements in the scaffolding.
Element One: Culture
The first column of scaffolding for youth integration is Culture. Culture is made of the beliefs, habits values, visions, norms, systems, and symbols within a specific and definable community. Adultism is made in the fiery furnace of culture, as groups of people work together to define and reinforce stringent perspectives that re-enforce adultism. In the same way, culture can help examine those assumptions and redefine them in line with social justice through youth integration.
Element Two: Structure
The named activities, policies, strategies, processes, allocation, coordination, and supervision of people throughout a community happens through the structure of a definable group of people. In schools, structure includes school rules and curriculum; in society, it includes laws and policing. Structure makes things happen, enforces those things, and encourages them. Structural change promoting youth integration requires deliberate action for transformation. It should actively engage young people in equitable relationships while establishing and maintaining adult allyships.
Element Three: Attitude
Where culture and structure belong to a group, attitude belongs to individuals. “Your attitude determines your altitude” applies to adult understandings of youth: “Adult attitude determines youth altitude.” In our adult-dominated, adult-driven society, young people are subject to and subjugated by adult opinions, actions, attitudes, knowledge, and beliefs. This is the full effect of adultism. In order to counter this effect, we must change our own attitudes and provide opportunities for the people around us to change theirs, including youth and adults. This takes new ways of communicating, interacting, and being. It takes personal engagement within our selves and throughout the worlds around us.
We must address each of these elements when we seek to integrate young people in any part of society. Each is present throughout all the formal and informal institutions throughout our society. You can find culture, structure, and attitude in individual homes, schools, governments, and other places. By creating scaffolding for youth integration, we can re-negotiate adultism throughout our lives.
Cultural adultism is a very ambiguous, yet very prevalent, form of discrimination and intolerance towards youth.
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
Academic misconceptions of youth, supported by bad research
Ongoing commericalization of the culture young people partake in
Mass marketing of pre-packaged youth culture to youth and adults
Political and sociological scapegoating of youth
Stereotypes about youth subcultures
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.
Institutional 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. 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, institutional 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 institutional adultism as:
Access to contraceptives
Legalized corporal punishment
Anti-youth loitering policies
Criminalization and demonization of youth via media
Age of candidacy
Access to healthcare
Typecasting of youth by police
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, institutional and interpersonal dynamics that routinely advantage adults while producing cumulative and chronic adverse outcomes for young people is best summarized as institutional 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Cultural adultism, which is the way all adults affect adultism, either consciously or otherwise.
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.
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.
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.