ALL Youth Are Already Engaged

Many adults don’t understand what youth engagement actually is. This article explores alternate visions.

“Kids these days don’t care!”
“When I was young, we were always busy.”
“I’m worried these teens are just zoned out!”

Whether its parents, researchers, youth workers, politicians, teachers, or just the older man gabbing to his seatmate at a coffee shop, it seems that young people are always getting a bad rap for being disengaged. They are decried for playing video games, doing drugs, having sex, and vaping, as if these are the signs of disengagement we should all be concerned about.

While its true that we should be concerned about negative behaviors, it’s not true that these youth are disengaged. However, it is true that many adults don’t understand what engagement actually is.

This is a definition of the word engagement: "Engagement is simply choosing the same thing over and over." - Adam F.C. Fletcher (2015) The Practice of Youth Engagement.

In my 2015 book, The Practice of Youth Engagement, I sought to simplify and redefine the word engagement in order to pragmatically reflect my work and what I’d learned in my research about youth engagement. I wrote, “Engagement is simply choosing the same thing over and over.” I understand this even more today than I did then.

Since the pandemic began three years ago, there have been a plethora of damning headlines focused on children and youth today. This includes:

  • Schools: K-12 schools raging about student disengagement in education, railing against learners who appear to be disengaged from learning and the purpose of schools;
  • Economy: The World Economic Forum is talking about “youth disillusionment” disillusionment and disengagement in employment is a top concern among youth workforce development;
  • Social Change: Despite massive efforts by young people worldwide to raise awareness and fight for systemic change in the climate crisis, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and other issues, nonprofits and other social change organizations are railing against what they see as a youth disengagement in their issues;
  • Families: Children and youth disconnecting from their home and family lives, choosing online social interactions and gaming rather than family interactions;
  • And much more.

This engagement is equated to simply showing up, attending, and participating in the places and activities that adults want, when they want, and how they want.

And understand this, please: I’m not even talking about young people having substantive roles throughout their own lives like we talk about in Youth Infusion. I’m not talking about anything specific like engaging youth as decision-makers, researchers, advocates, or anything else, either. I’m merely saying that adults are calling youth “disengaged” because youth aren’t doing what adults want them to.

Of course, this kind of treatment isn’t new. Instead, its part of a widespread, multi-millennial trashing of young people that’s been happening since time immemorial. Supposedly it was Socrates who said, “Children; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. They no longer rise when elders enter the room, they contradict their parents and tyrannize their teachers. Children are now tyrants.” That was 3,000 years ago.

More recently, it was in the 1930s that teenagers were labelled the “Lost Generation” by the mass media. Scoffing at young people who left America to experience the Great Depression in Europe, Gertrude Stein invented the phrase. However, newspapers soon took up the title to describe the apparently listless, roaming hoards of teens who were riding the rails and moving from town to town for work instead of going to school and “making something of themselves.” Although it took nearly 50 years and might’ve been complete hyperbole, these same youth in this same generation were eventually lionized as “America’s Greatest Generation” by Tom Brokaw as he celebrated their contributions during World War II and afterward.

I bring up those examples to say that the continued labeling of youth today as disengaged is inaccurate at best, disingenuous, and ultimately, oppressive and appalling. Whether its the evergreen critical analysis of Mike Males in the late 1990s or the ongoing take down of neoliberal nonsense by Henry Giroux and others, anyone who is actually an adult ally to young people has learned to view these indictments with skepticism, if not immediate dismissal. Because they are bunkus.

The Reality of the Situation

This graphic shows two types of engagement by Adam F.C. Fletcher.

Right now, there are young people all around the world who are choosing the same things over and over. They don’t need, want, or seek adult approval for many of these things, and because of that adults don’t value their engagement, and we label them “disengaged.”

This includes young people who are doing positive activities filled with potential, including creating art, developing social messaging, fostering community, and devising innovative solutions to everyday problems. This type of engagement is convenient youth engagement, because it works for adults. We generally like what we see, what is shown, why it happens, and what happens because of it.

Look across the Freechild Institute website for examples of youth people of all kinds everywhere doing things to change the world in positive, powerful ways. Learn specifics from Youth Infusion, including how and where and why this change is happening.

However, youth engagement also includes young people who are doing things adults don’t agree with. They do these things to meet their own needs, including:

  • Self Medicating: Seeking to meet their mental health needs, youth are choosing drugs, alcohol, sex, and other activities over and over to make themselves feel better where access to healthy mental health are inaccessible;
  • Making Opportunities to Belong: Whether they are leading or joining gangs, tagging and graffiti-ing their neighborhoods, or having parties, young people are making opportunities to build belonging, support, and trust where none exist;
  • Expressing Themselves: When geographic and social communities don’t welcome youth voice, young people are sharing social media memes, producing videos, tagging buildings, making music, and otherwise expressing themselves when and where adults generally don’t want to be;
  • Entertainment: Where life is devoid of self-defined purpose and meaning, young people create opportunities for themselves to become entertained instead of substantially engaged. The outcomes of this might mean texting or gaming with their peers for hours, which isn’t inherently negative or wrong, but often rubs parents, youth workers, and teachers the wrong way because those spaces are harder to control than so-called IRL forms of entertainment.
  • And many other ways, including making and spending money, critiquing and challenging authority, and building hope for the future where there appears to be none.

I call these activities inconvenient youth engagement because of the nature of their existence: They aren’t prescribed by adults, and the outcomes can’t be predicted by adults. I don’t mean this facetiously; instead, I mean it truthfully that adults are almost wholly and completely uncomfortable with reactionary, self-driven, and situational youth engagement in which young people continuously choose things for themselves over and over that adults wouldn’t choose for them. However, in the absence of not choosing anything, adults inadvertently choose for young people to create their own ways to meet their needs.

And ultimately, please learn to see the reality right now: All youth are already engaged, whether its in ways adults want or not, for reasons adults approve of or not, and at times adults think they should be or not.

5 Ways to See Youth Engagement Differently

If you’re concerned about youth engagement, there are practical things you can do right now. Don’t be concerned with whether youth are engaged or not; simply be aware that if they aren’t engaged in what you want, when you want, where you want, and in ways you don’t want them to be, you’re going to have to provide a more compelling, honest, and authentic reason for them to be engaged in other ways.

Here are five ways you can see youth engagement right now, and do other things to engage youth.

  • Real Talk: Have REAL conversations with young people and actually listen to what they want to say;
  • Real Action: Provide practical, meaningful, and purposeful alternatives to what they are already engaged in;
  • Real Power: Create substantive and powerful ways to infuse youth throughout the operations of your organization in ALL ways;
  • Real Reality: Recognize the ways young people choose to be engaged on their own by engaging them in similar ways, and;
  • Real Reinvention: Sustain, evaluate, re-invent, and re-invent in youth infusion every season for every young person who becomes engaged.

Starting with these steps as a guide, move forward knowing that ALL young people are already engaged, right now.

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Youth Infusion in Systems

This article by Adam F.C. Fletcher explores what Youth Infusion can look like in systems, including education, government, healthcare and more.

Youth Infusion is the idea that as humans in our society, young people must be viewed and treated as full and integral members of every system they are part of, and this graphic shows what is included…

A system is a set of things that work together to accomplish a goal. Young people today can be parts of many systems, including their homes, families, schools, neighborhoods, youth programs, and more. Youth Infusion is the idea that as humans in our society, young people must be viewed and treated as full and integral members of every system they are part of.

Education, government, families, the economy, and healthcare are all examples of systems.

Understanding Systems

Made by humans in order to deliver various functions, every society in every nation worldwide is made of systems. The economy, law enforcement, healthcare, religion, and public health are all systems.

Systems are made of many interconnected parts. There are eight elements in any system:

  1. Cause: Every system exists for a reason.
  2. Parts: Every system operates with different parts.
  3. Functions: There are ways that every system functions with.
  4. Roles: Whether passive or active, everybody has a job in the system.
  5. Flaws: Every system has problems, challenges and breaks.
  6. Redundancy: Systems can have unnecessary or backup parts.
  7. Organization: Every system has at least one beginning, middle and end.
  8. Additions: There are parts attached to systems.

An Example System

Think about schools. Schools are systems. This is a breakdown of each element of a system as we look at schools.

  1. Cause: Schools exist to support democracy, including the economy and politics.
  2. Parts: There are grade levels and topics throughout the school system.
  3. Functions: More than learning and teaching, there are social, administrative, and many other functions in public schools.
  4. Roles: Schools have specific roles for each person involved, sometimes named and often unnamed.
  5. Flaws: Every school all the time; there are no perfect schools.
  6. Redundancy: Summer schools and in-school suspension are redundancies in education; sometimes entire schools, teachers, or districts can be redundant.
  7. Organization: The hierarchal structure of the education system within a school and beyond the building are the organization.
  8. Additions: Along with the academic and cultural purpose of schools, there are additions to the education system including public health, social conditioning and more.

Youth Infusion can ensure that young people are meaningfully involved throughout systems instead of being tokenized, over-simplified, or otherwise excluded.

Understanding Youth Infusion

Youth Infusion is based in the idea that every young person is a full human being right now, and not simply an adult-in-the-making. It assumes that people value young people and want justice, equity, and possibilities for every child and youth in our society. Youth Infusion is a way to think about who, what, where, when, why, and how all young people can have meaningful roles throughout the places that impact them.

Understood through its parts, Youth Infusion affects three pillars of our lives:

  • Individuals—Every person has their own feelings, thoughts, ideas, and beliefs that form their attitudes towards young people.
  • Communities—Geography, proximity, relationships or otherwise define our culture, and every young person is part of at least a few different communities.
  • Organizations—These are formal entities or structures that serve young people include their families, schools, nonprofits, and other organizations.

These three pillars are the basis of Youth Infusion. There are many other aspects to understanding this approach, including Youth in Day-to-Day Operations, Intergenerational Reciprocity, Infusing the ‘Y’ in DEI, and more.

Youth Infusion in YOUR System

There are many layers in systems, and Youth Infusion can happen in every one from the personal level to the community level, and from the community level to the national and international levels – and all points in between!

Are you ready for Youth Infusion in YOUR system? Whether you work in a nonprofit organization, government agency, K-12 school, or run a counseling firm or consulting company, YOU can benefit from Youth Infusion. For more information about moving forward, contact us today!

Does Your Youth Program Transact or Transform?

Transformational or transactional youth activities
Are your youth activities transformational or transactional?

When was the last time you thought about WHY young people come to your youth program or classroom?

  • Do they come to get jobs, earn money, and in order to become gainfully employed?
  • Are there rewards for attendance or contests for participating?
  • Are youth punished in some way for not attending?

These are traits of a transactional youth activity.

  • Do youth see their capacity to create, build, change, and make the life they want to live as the most important reason for coming?
  • Are adults seeking to learn with youth or take action together for change?
  • Can young people choose whether or not they want to be there and adapt for changing times?

This is a transformational program.

Transactional Youth Activities

A lot of youth programs in general are built on transactional relationships based in giving and receiving, i.e. “I give you this and you get that.” Forming the premise for much of our economy, this type of relationship is evident in…

  • Many schools where students earn grades by performing certain tasks;
  • Stores where youth pay money for food, clothes, music and more;
  • Friendships that are reliant on trading attention when needed.

A lot of youth involvement, youth voice, and youth engagement activities are transactional relationships where young people become involved because they can get a reward for being there. This might be a grade, kuddos from adults, or a bullet point on their resume.

Transactional youth activities have several elements. They…

  • Focus on extrinsic motivation
  • Appear practical
  • Resist change
  • Discourage independent youth actions, thinking and reactions
  • Reward performance
  • Constrain thinking
  • Rely on passive youth voice
  • Deliver directive youth activities
  • Emphasize formal structure
  • Focus youth on their own self-interest and reassure adults’ self-interest

They are also common, and easily compared to other youth-serving activities. Sometimes these relationships are necessary, especially at the outset of a youth activity. However, the challenge is that many adults believe this is the only way to involve young people.

Transformational Youth Activities

Alternatively, Youth Infusion insists that youth and adults join in together because each age group changes because of the interaction. These transformational relationships allow everyone the room they need in order to be whole, become engaged, and make a difference in their own lives as well as the lives of the people around them.

Transformational youth programs have many elements. They…

  • Check adultism
  • Are clearly co-led with youth and adults
  • Encourage healthy risk-taking
  • Engage youth in difficult decision-making
  • Share organizational consciousness between youth and adults
  • Inspire and foster new thinking
  • Adapt, pivot and respond
  • Are proactive
  • Are visionary

Transformational youth activities are unfortunately rare throughout the youth service sector, and throughout education. Throughout their processes, they are revelatory, teaching youth and adults new things while expanding the impact each has on the other and on themselves. By their nature, transformational youth activities are creative, necessitating unique, divergent, and eclectic thinking, actions, and outcomes. Because of this, they are also particularly lifting to those who are involved.

Is your program transactional or transformational? Are you ready for transformation? It’s exciting, rewarding and enlivening to be engaged in transformational work, but can be frustrating to change from one style to the next. It can also be necessary to focus on basic human needs and interact in a transactional way with youth, at least for a period of time.

If you’re ready to explore whether your youth activity, youth program, youth organization or K-12 school can move from transactional to transformational approaches, we want to help. Contact us to learn more about Youth Infusion right now »

That Certain Something

One assumption behind youth infusion is the belief that deliberately, strategically, systemically, sustainably, and powerfully weaving youth throughout organizations will lead to less exclusive, more popular, and more common experiences of youth engagement for every youth in every community, all of the time.

One assumption behind youth infusion is the belief that deliberately, strategically, systemically, sustainably, and powerfully weaving youth throughout organizations will lead to less exclusive, more popular, and more common experiences of youth engagement for every youth in every community, all of the time. 

Unfortunately, that’s not the norm. Instead, a lot of programs are missing that certain something that makes youth infusion different.

Many youth engagement opportunities are based on establishing an ambiguous set of experiences for a certain number of young people to achieve particular outcomes according to the will of adults. Unfortunately, these approaches can result in inequitable, unsustainable and sometimes imperceivable changes in organizations. Worst still, they can feel unjust, unequal, and ill-considered by the very youth who sought to become involved.

Through youth infusion, we’re proposing that organizations can go further with intention. Some of these intentions include:

  • Transform Traits: The innate values, ideas, beliefs and opinions of the people involved including youth and adults
  • Sharpen Skills: The actionable, practical abilities that young people and adults need in order to work together to change the world
  • Capture Knowledge: The concepts, strategies, facts, and other thinking accumulated and created by the people involved in youth infusion
  • Accentuate Actions: These are the tangible steps young people and adults take to make a difference in their own lives, communities and beyond

Once organizations, programs, projects and communities state their intentions in these areas, they separate themselves from typical youth engagement, traditional youth involvement, and stagnate youth voice. Instead, they step forward and make a conscientious choice to transform the world through transformative action with young people.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Self-Care for Youth & Adult Allies

Whether you are younger or older, here are some points you can learn to help with your self-care.

If you are engaging in youth infusion during the pandemic, you might be affected by online activities differently than other people in your family or organization, including other youth and adults, too!

Youth and adult allies need to take care of their mental health, social health, emotional health and physical health. Since people involved in youth infusion can feel more responsibility than many others, we need to be intentional about taking care of ourselves.

Whether you are younger or older, here are some points you can learn to help with your self-care.

1. Watch Your Thinking

Online activities can be isolating for everyone, and being apart from youth and adults can be hard. Adults—including youth workers, teachers, nonprofit leaders and others—should reinforce to young people that they need to maintain their friendships and other relationships. We should do that too! It is actually an important way to develop and build lifelong communication skills, and can also make stressful situations a little more bearable.

Youth and adults should learn together to…

  • Listen to your self-talk. You should give yourself credit for building youth infusion and not be too self-critical
  • Keep things in perspective, try not to gossip, get the facts, and assume the best intent when possible
  • Acknowledge to themselves and others when things are weird, whether during the pandemic or otherwise
  • Remember changing to online activities can be hard work for yourself, and remember that nobody should be expected to get everything right
  • Its essential to take breaks when needed

2. Keep In Touch

Youth infusion can be hard on emotional and mental health, especially when we’re working online! It is common for both youth and adults to feel more depressed or anxious during conference calls, video trainings, or other online activities, especially during the pandemic. Many people are still figuring out how to adjust to programs, learning and activities that requires so much self-motivation. This can make young people and adults feel guilty or stressed for not infusing youth enough into their organizations, movements or lives. 

Adults and youth should learn together that…

  • Communication and collaboration makes the distance feel less distant between partners, including young people and older people
  • It’s important for youth and adults to take time to do things with people other than youth infusion activities. They should know that living youth infusion all the time can make it hard to separate from non-infused life from the rest of life
  • Many young people and adults are dealing with similar hard things in online activities, and they aren’t alone

3. You’re Not Alone

It can be boring and feel repetitive to be on the computer for every interaction with youth and adults. Learning we’re not alone, even if we’re one our own at home during the day, is important for youth infusion.

Youth and adults should learn to…

  • Talk to other people—including other students and adults—about what they’re struggling with and how they are taking action
  • Find hobbies, ways to relax, and healthy places to process difficult feelings brought on by youth infusion, whether online or in-person
  • Be encouraged to focus on the positives as much as possible

4. Move Your Body

Sitting in front of a screen all day is hard on your eyes and your whole body. Feeling responsible for youth infusion can add to those difficulties. Remember that, even though young people and adults are exercising our minds throughout the day, our bodies needs care too. In addition to helping with learning, moving can help with mental and emotional challenges too. Things like stress and depression can affect the body in physical ways too.

Youth and adults should learn to…

  • Stretch, take walks and breaks, and get outside if they can
  • Pay attention to posture and go easy on their backs
  • Keep a routine with things like food, sleep, etc.
  • Exercise to release toxic thoughts and stress, whether its simple or complicated activity

These are just a few thoughts about what young people and adults should learn about self-care. What would YOU add?