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!
Freechild provides workshops across the United States, Canada and internationally in four main areas:
VOICE—Freechild teaches that youth voice is any expression of any young person anywhere, at any time for any reason. We facilitate workshops that help people learn how, when, where and why youth voice matters!
ENGAGEMENT—Choosing the same thing over and over allows young people to establish their purpose, power and possibilities in life. Freechild’s learning activities show that when those choices are intentional, positive and motivated, they can connect youth with what matters for their entire lifetimes.
INVOLVEMENT—Fostering systemic opportunities for youth in activities, programs, organizations and communities requires planning, learning, action and reflection. Participants in Freechild workshops find out how youth engagement happens and where it matters most.
ACTION—You wouldn’t give the keys to a 16-year-old and tell them to figure out how to drive, but you would turn them loose with a budget and no learning about planning, facilitating and improving youth action? Freechild facilitates learning about youth action in positive, powerful ways! This includes our new Social Action Recharge for Youth & Adults workshop (see bottom!)
Community development is a vague, overarching concept that attempts to group together any attempts by groups of people who work together to transform the places and spaces they live, work and play. Concerned with justice, equity and transformation, community development includes structured government and nonprofit programs; grassroots social justice activism, and; much more. People working together to transform the economy, education, culture, housing, healthcare, public health and many other issues are included under the umbrella of community development.
Adultism—bias towards adults that discriminates against youth—appears predominate throughout community development. Attitudes reflecting adultism drive the agendas, goals, activities and outcomes of community development worldwide. In turn though, adultism is routinely dismissed by practitioners and researchers who are dismissive of the roles of children and youth in their work.
Young people are concerned about the appropriation of community development, too, especially as its been overwhelmed by neoliberal goals that diminish or simply take away the radical heart of community development. The critical consciousness necessary to maintain this commitment needs regular reinforcement and encouragement. Rather than being holistic, many actions are interested only in parts of youth and/or their communities, unconsciously perpetuating the neoliberal concept of youth as marginally useful instead of being central to community development.
Concerns affecting youth and community development include questions of engaging diverse youth and communities; generating fiscal sustainability; training, educating and otherwise building the movement, and; ensuring the relevance of youth-led action.
The radical possibilities of community development reflect the broadest, deepest and greatest potentialities of the field overall. Engaging youth as equitable partners might be the best possibility to actualize a lot of theoretical conversations about diversity and nontraditional engagement. Focusing on the many avenues for engagement identified by the Freechild Institute, community development advocates, organizers and participatory researchers can move beyond the suspected and routinely disproven limitations of youth to build the capacities, possibilities and hopes throughout the field.
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?
Do you want to take action with young people? Children, youth and adults around the world are working together more than ever to make a difference. It can be hard figuring out the process though!
After almost 20 years of launching youth action projects around the world, Freechild thinks we should share what we’ve learned. In addition to our workshops and books, we want to make sure anyone can take positive, powerful action to make the world a better place.
Here is the Freechild Institute’s youth action planning process.
Explore power. In a world run by the powerful, it’s important to rise above being powerless. When we work together in community to make a difference, children, youth and adults can create power and challenge those in power. Read a focus on youth power here »
Define the issue. What do you want to change? Research what matters to you, explore how to make a difference, and get info. Read about the issues here »
Build community. The powerful want to cut off youth from each other and adults. Challenge that by rallying your friends, strangers, older and younger people, and people who are different from you. Get everyone involved in taking action. Read about youth organizations here »
Network. Find people who aren’t invested in your issue who’ll be your allies and build coalitions to for them to share space, ideas, knowledge and strength with you. Read more about the youth movement here »
Celebrate. Reach out to the people, organizations, elected officials and others who are your allies, as well as people in your networks using social media and in-person contacts. Tell what’s happening, gather ideas and support, and keep moving. Read stories of youth changing the world here »
Reflect on it. Look back on what’s happened, explore what you have done and could do, and plan your next steps using your new learning. Read about how to reflect here »
Once you’ve planned action, take action! Remember Freechild’s motto: “Once through action do words take power!”
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!
Guns are everywhere across the United States. After being massacred in schools and neighborhoods throughout the nation’s cities, suburbs and rural places, youth are upset about the absence of gun control. Luckily, today young people are taking action to make a difference. They are working with adults and on their own to change laws, change hearts and minds, and make a difference throughout the country. Here is some information the Freechild Institute has collected regarding youth and gun control.
Ways Youth can Change the World through Gun Control
Youth-Led Activism — Taking direct action to raise awareness, challenge assumptions and change the country’s opinions about gun control can allow young people to change the world. Youth activism allows children and youth to be democratically represented in the media, at home, in legislatures and throughout every discussion across the country, even in places that would deny them.
Running for Office — Whatever age they are, young people can run for office; making a stand and drawing attention to gun control is the point, always. Building momentum requires young people stay committed to gun control throughout their campaigns and if they are elected. Staunch adult champions for engaging youth in politics to build support for gun control is necessary too, whether they are young people or adults.
Youth as Voters — Demanding youth rights and fighting for youth suffrage can transform gun control. Whether using a protest vote by going to a voting place and casting a blank ballot to show youth dissatisfaction with the current gun laws, practices and attitudes across the country. Youth as voters can also vote for a youth candidate who is capable of sharing youth voice.
Things Youth Need to Change the World through Gun Control
Learning — In order to become engaged in changing the world through gun control, young people can learn about political systems, political actions, political issues and other realities within and around the political system. They can also conduct learning activities to leverage social change beyond laws.
Training — Training young people to change the world through politics means teaching them the skills they need to become involved in gun control. These skills can include communication, problem-solving, change management and conflict resolution skills. It also means participating in knowledge-sharing activities designed to build their capacity to take powerful action for gun control.
Inspiration — After 12, 14, 17 or 21 years of being told their voices don’t matter in gun control, young people may need inspiration to become engaged. Never in history have children and youth been seen or treated as serious political actors; given the opportunity, they will be. Inspiration from stories, parables, biographies and other sources can help prepare and sustain youth in gun control and beyond.
Other tools are out there, too – share your thoughts in the comments below! For more information about how The Freechild Project can support youth involvement in politics in your community or organization, contact us.
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.
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.
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 ending sexual abuse in your community or organization, contact us.