Who Are Youth?

Students in the SoundOut Summer Camp in Seattle

Freechild Institute Youth Engagement Toolkit

Are you a young person who wants to be engaged? Because of your age, you have special abilities to make things happen, and the world needs you to make positive, powerful changes. Are you an adult who wants to engage young people? You can learn how its done by learning WHO can be engaged!

Youth are young people who lead social change, cultural change, educational change, and much more. Depending on where you live, youth might be ages 12 to 18, or 11 to 21, or 8 to 35.

Every youth can lead youth + social change. Here are some examples; if you’re not listed here you can still make a difference. Your race, social class, sexual orientation, economic level, educational level, attitude, religion, family, and many other identities can help you.

Which Youth?

At the Freechild Institute, we believe every young person of every age should be engaged everywhere all of the time. Following are some of the young people this includes.

Youth of Color—Young people who identify as Black, Indigenous or Native, Latinx, Hispanic, Asian, and other non-white races are youth of color. Around the world, these young people are dismantling white supremacy, defeating racism, challenging racial discrimination, and otherwise changing the world in powerful ways. Learn more about engaging youth of color »

Disengaged Youth—Youth who appear disengaged from youth programs or classes often want very much for their voices to be heard. Disengaged youth can change the world by focusing on the direct experiences in their lives and those of their communities’, including improving community development or developing conflict meditation skills. Learn more about engaging disengaged youth »

Highly Motivated Youth—Creating engaging and sustainable activities for youth who are academically and socially successful can be challenging for the most experienced youth worker. Providing highly motivated youth opportunities for mutual mentoring experiences can be a particularly successful strategy for these young people. Learn more about engaging highly motivated youth »

Young Women—There are few opportunities for young women to make their unique experiences, voices, and actions heard throughout our society. Deliberately engaging young women can the world in powerful ways. Learn more about engaging young women »

Migrant Youth—Youth who move to different areas of the country or continent throughout the school year face particular challenges. Their constant movement, which may follow the farm season or other economic cycles, may conflict with the intentions of adults who work with them. Youth workers may feel pressure to “catch up” other migrants, and youth program workers might feel discouraged at what they perceive as their inability to support these youth. Learn more about engaging migrant youth »

Children—Youth changing the world is often seen as the domain of teenagers, thus the name “youth + social change.” Young children are sometimes seen as incapable of informing, making, challenging, or reflecting on what is routinely done to them, without their input. However, the phrase “Youth + social change” applies to the energy of children by encapsulating the potential of their roles as active, meaningful, and significant contributors in their lives. Everyday elementary-age students become engaged in changing the world. Elementary students begin to associate their families within their larger communities, and can strengthen their own engagement by mapping their influence and authority in their community.

LGBT+ Youth—Youth who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, or Pansexual are changing the world in powerful ways. Advocating for themselves and others, LGBT+ youth are transforming the ways society thinks about, educates, serves, and otherwise treats people no matter what their identities. Learn more about engaging LGBT+ youth »

Young Teens—When working with young students, Youth Voice seems like a great idea that inherently feels good. However, perhaps more than any other age group, positive experiences with Youth Voice are essential to middle school students. Youth development relies on identity and belonging during these years, and Youth Voice is central to strengthening those traits. Positive experiences with Youth Voice can help young people feel empowered and purposeful, and create a pathway for action throughout their teens. For others, Youth Voice can make difficult experiences less challenging, and make difficult adults less alienating. In middle school young people can strengthen their sense of community-belonging through youth councils and advisory committees that guide decision-making and improve services.

Older Youth—In high school there are a lot of opportunities to connect young people to change. That can mean opening the doors of service learning, media-making, political action, and other methods. In some communities that means making new doors where none exist. Youth Voice makes sense for high school-age students as a learning tool, a community connection, and a lifelong influence. High school students can conduct broad examinations of social, educational, political, legal, or cultural bias against young people, and develop specific and concrete projects that respond to their observations.

Alternative School Students—Students in alternative schools across the state may be at these schools because it is their “last stop” before dropping out or being expelled. They may also see their schools as a “last chance” to graduate on-time. They generally have a high need for ownership over their learning and belonging to a community. By engaging youth in alternative schools in changing the world, adults can foster and support feelings of ownership, belonging, purpose, and empowerment among students who desperately need – and want – those experiences. Students can create classes, evaluate their own performance, teach peers and train teachers, as well as make decisions about every facet of learning.

Youth from Diverse Socio-Economic Backgrounds—Class and economic backgrounds make important differences in Youth Voice. Many young people today are sedated by mass media, culled into believing that the brands they wear and the soda they drink are the most important ways their voices can be heard. In many middle class communities it has become a cultural norm for young people to be habitually disengaged from the decision-making that affects them most. Similarly, young people in low-income areas may feel routinely distrustful and angry towards adults, as their interactions are regularly marked by negativity. Young people from affluent areas may feel overly influential and controlling of the situations in which they are change the world. Each of these differences is important to acknowledge.

Out-of-School Youth—Whether young people homeschool, “unschool,” or dropout of school, Youth Voice can provide an effective way to continue learning, engaging, and interacting with the communities they live in. By creating projects, leading programs, or evaluating their own life experiences, Youth Voice can become an expectation – not an exception – in daily life and learning. Learn more about engaging out-of-school youth »

Incarcerated Youth—The situations that incarcerated youth face are clearly different from young people in the community – but their need to be heard, acknowledged, and empowered is just as vital. Youth Voice in juvenile justice programs can be realized through reflective writing that simply shares the stories of youth. By encouraging incarcerated youth to critically examine their experiences, adults can empower these young people to learn from their mistakes. Then, by working with supportive adults, incarcerated youth can be successful contributors to their future by creating a life plan based on their past experiences. Learn more about engaging incarcerated youth »

Homeless Youth—Physical, mental, or emotional abuse, parental alcoholism, poverty, multi-generational homelessness, and myriad other factors drive children and youth onto the streets. Programs designed to meet the needs of these young people can actually do the greatest justice by acknowledging youth. Meaningful decision-making, skill-sharing, life planning, and reflection on their lives can lead homeless youth to reengage as community members. This sense of belonging has as many positive affects as there are factors that make youth homeless in the first place, if not more. Learn more about engaging homeless youth »

Foster Youth—Growing up in unstable situations, sometimes being forcibly removed from family, being thrust into the lives of strangers… these aren’t ideal situations for youth to change the world. However, when young people participate in the decision-making that affects them most, they consistently report feeling empowered, purposeful, and stronger. Research shows these experiences build resilience and belonging. Foster youth can be engaged in designing life plans, informing system operations, and consulting their learning and living situations, as well as many other ways. Learn more about engagingengaging foster youth »

Linguistic Youth—Learners focus on language and how it is used. They might remember names, places, and dates easily, and spell words quickly. Youth Voice programs can focus on words, sounds, and meanings, and spend a lot of time reading and writing.

Musical Youth—Learners focus on music, rhythm, and pitch. They concentrate more when music is played, sing to themselves a lot or make up songs to remember details. Youth Voice programs involve these learners in making music, analyzing music, and teaching other people music.

Logical-Mathematical Youth—Learners focus on patterns, numbers, and logical relationships. They are good at math problems, puzzles, and mental challenges. Youth Voice programs can use computers, graphic design, and logic activities.

Spatial Youth—Learners focus on shapes, locations, and distances. They are good designers and builders. Youth Voice programs can focus on community planning, building design, and creating charts and maps.

Bodily-Kinesthetic Youth—Learners focus on physical skills and movement. They are good actors, athletes, and craftspeople who do not like to sit still. Youth Voice programs teach these young people through constant activity.

Interpersonal Youth—Learners focus on understanding and dealing with other people. They are very social, often trying to understand peoples’ motives and feelings. Youth Voice programs can focus on communication, and give young people opportunities to organize their communities.

Intrapersonal Youth—Learners focus on understanding themselves. They are self-sufficient, confident, and opinionated, and do things on their own. Youth Voice programs can empower young people by giving them more control of their surroundings and through self-driven activities.

Urban Youth—Young people growing up in inner-cities can take powerful, deliberate actions to change their communities and the whole world. Learn more about engaging urban youth »

Rural Youth—Growing up in the country, in small villages or remote towns can provide young people with distinct challenges. However, overcoming those challenges through social change. Learn more about engaging rural youth »

There are many ways that young people identify themselves, and adults often miss the mark. Rather than simple categories or convenient definitions, trying seeing the complexity in some of the following ways youth identify themselves:

  • Race
  • Culture
  • Language
  • “Street” smarts
  • Online identity
  • Peer reputation
  • Athletic involvement
  • Economics
  • Neighborhood
  • Grade level and school
  • Sexual orientation
  • Gangs and clubs
  • Music preference
  • Family make-up
  • Spiritual/religious beliefs

The point is that every youth everywhere can become engaged all of the time.

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