« 10 essays from May-Aug 2005 uploaded | Main | Generator turns 3 years old! »

September 15, 2005

Exploration: Criteria for YL Organizations

I had this idea a few years ago, and am very pleased with it; it's astonishing that I haven't written about it sooner. I know that Adam Fletcher has a similar concept -- but I know that I didn't nick the idea, because I recall verbally outlining to Adam when we met. Plus, y'know, I have the various hand-written notes I've taken.

Originally, I was going to title this essay "Youth Liberation - Definition" -- but over time I've come to realize that I'm really only talking here about activist organizations. Me, I tend to think that YL is purely activism -- that ideology on it's own isn't very meaningful. I realize that probably goes too far. Still, I imagine I could write an essay discussing the extent to which a movement is it's activism vs. its ideas...

Anyway, enough caveats. My intent today is to write about the criteria for YL organizations, straight out of my head, without referring to my notes (which got me stuck the last time I attempted this topic)


A Youth Liberation organization is one which does (1) youth-led (2) activism (3) for the benefit of youth, (4) challenging adult power.

I've numbered the key terms, so I can focus on them one at a time. I've worded the definition today in a way that makes it easier to read. Previously I've worded it more like this: "Youth Liberation is activism that is (1) led by youth, (2) for youth, (3) against adult power." As you see, I've added the word "organization" to the mix now... And I've also problematized the word "activism".

I'm not sure whether or not I need to go into the issue of what constitutes activism. On the one hand, it doesn't seem very relevant to whether or not a group is Youth Liberationist. On the other, there's an interesting discussion to be had.

On one end of the continuum there's "direct action" activism, which entails face-to-face interactions with adult decision-makers (e.g. the mayor, the city council). ...Then there's this gray area, where education is involved. Is education activism? Most people would say yes. I have a bias that makes me want to say no... But I've recently been doing some further thinking about direct-action activism that might transform the matter. See, the key to direct-action activism is leveraging key decision-makers. My usual gripe with "education" tends to be that it's abstracted, it doesn't actually impact how people act; it can even do harm, by teaching oppressors how to more effectively hide their misbehavior. But perhaps, again, the key is decision-making. I workshop that presses people to make actual decisions -- that might again fall within the realm of what I consider activism. If in a workshop you asked the adult participants to decide to do something from this day forward -- for instance, never use the word "brat" again -- you're actually using the tools of change. Are these the most important decision-makers to be talking to? Ah, now that's a good question -- but at least you've you're using the tools of activism now.

Now that I think about it, I seem to recall that in a previous attempt at this essay I also problematized the term "organization". By narrowing my definition from "Youth Liberation" down to "Youth Liberation organizations", I've made that issue moot. Still, it's another interesting question: is it activism if you're an individual working alone? Sure, it can be. But I so want to encourage people to work in groups, I neglect the issue of solo activism. [I suppose I could also get into the difference between a "group" and an "organization"... How much structure is truly necessary?]

Anyway, my conclusion: "activism" and "organization" (vs. "loose group" and also vs. "solo work") are probably terms that I don't actually want to problematize here. And, though I haven't talked about it here at all, "movement" is another term to leave out for the time being.


So, having eliminated some extraneous terms from my definition, three key terms remain: (1) led by youth, (2) for youth, (3) against adult power. [Apparently I'm reverting to my older phrasing.]

The power of this essay, as I see it, is that rather than setting a cut-off point, drawing a line in the sand for each of these criteria, I'm going to describe a continuum. This should circumvent controversy by avoiding the opportunity to boldly declare certain groups as NOT YL. I imagine it will also be useful because it will allow for a more intelligent discussion: by naming certain points along each continuum, participants in a discussion should be better able to locate their differences.

That said, let's now embellish upon the criteria. [Hm. I now see that it would have been wiser to identify the key terms using letters rather than numbers, since numbers will be better used in the continua.]

A. Led By Youth

  1. all youth, no adult involvement
  2. led by youth, adult participation limited
  3. adults and youth work together as equals
  4. led by adults, youth participation limited
  5. all adults, no youth involvement

B. For Youth
  1. issue deals with all youth, and only youth
  2. issue deals with some youth, but only youth
  3. issue deals with youth significantly, but also adults
  4. issue deals with youth because all people are effected

C. Against Adult Power
  1. goal is to change the system by which decisions are made
  2. goal is to influence an adult leader to make a certain decision
  3. goal is to influence average adults (w/o institutional power)
  4. goal is to influence / educate youth only
  5. goal is purely social

Alright, let's quickly move on to discussing these continua.


I believe that one of the key features of Youth Liberation is that youth themselves are involved in the process of social change. Let's refer to the criteria again:

  1. all youth, no adult involvement
  2. led by youth, adult participation limited
  3. adults and youth work together as equals
  4. led by adults, youth participation limited
  5. all adults, no youth involvement

In my opinion, #5 is clearly NOT Youth Liberation. An organization may do "Children's Rights" work without any actual involvement of youth -- it may have only adult members. It may be doing good work that is in line with Youth Liberation philosophy, but I wouldn't call it in itself Youth Liberationist.

Option #4, where youth participation is limited, I would also see as fairly clearly not YL.

I think where the controversy within YL circles is going to be is with whether the line should be drawn at #2 or #3. Option #2 is what activists have sometimes called a "by youth, for youth" group. Option #3 is what has sometimes been called a "multi-generational organization". Many YL activists feel that the ideal world we are seeking is one where youth and adults live in equality -- so #3 embodies this perfectly. The counter-argument from advocates of #2 would be that even well-meaning adults have a tendency to dominate in meetings -- inadvertently turning what was supposed to be a #3 group into a #4 group -- so certain limitations, voluntarily honored by adult volunteers, is the only way to preserve something more like equality for the youth.

My own bias is that I favor #2 groups -- but I would not like to say that #3 groups are not "real" Youth Liberation simply on principle.

Option #1, "all youth, no adult involvement", I think is the most clearly Youth Liberationist option. However, for practical reasons I don't advocate that this is an organizational form that YL should promote. Youth working on their own can be done, and can be effective. However, for a variety of reasons there's a greater risk of the group quickly falling apart (there tends to be less activist experience in the room; adults help compensate for high turn-over; etc.).


What issues are "Youth Liberation" issues? Once you have a group of individuals committed to doing activism, what projects might they take on that would fall within the realm of Youth Liberation? It seems clear to me that a defining feature of YL is that youth must be the primary beneficiaries of YL's efforts. Let's consider the relevant list again:

  1. issue deals with all youth, and only youth
  2. issue deals with some youth, but only youth
  3. issue deals with youth significantly, but also adults
  4. issue deals with youth because all people are effected

Option #1 is most clearly Youth Liberation. For instance, curfews affect all youth and only youth. As does the prohibition upon youth participation in national elections.

Option #2 concerns issues that deal with only a segment of the youth population, e.g. girls, black youth, queer youth, homeless youth, etc. Parental notification about abortion is an issues that deals with some youth, but only youth. So is the issue of whether or not queer youth are allowed to start clubs in high school.

Some YL activists would see abortion as being outside the purview of Youth Liberation because it's a girls' issue. I disagree. It seems to me that the Youth Liberation movement must embrace its own internal diversity -- otherwise it becomes a movement that solely benefits straight, white, male youth.

An example of an option #3 issue would be the minimum wage. Adults are also effected by what the minimum wage is set at -- but this issue effects youth disproportionately. Personally, I would see this as a good issue for YL groups to take on -- if the option #1 and #2 issues are also being addressed. If a group's energies go solely into #3 projects, the group becomes a borderline case.

Option #4 issues might be "the environment" or "war". I've heard progressive adult activists make appeals like this: "the environment effects everyone, including youth -- therefore it is a Youth Liberation issue". While the environment is an important issue, I reject the notion that it is inherently a Youth Liberation issue. Youth activists should certainly participate in work to save the environment -- but I don't see that they can be said to be furthering Youth Liberation while doing so. [YL is concerned with adult oppression -- and while there may not be youth without the environment, working to save the environment does nothing to unseat adults' power.]

...Something to consider in this "for youth" section is that activist groups frequently take on more than one campaign at a time. Thus, you can evaluate a group's work for whether it is "Youth Liberationist" on a project-by-project basis -- but whether or not the group itself is an instance of YL ultimately is a matter of where the weight of its work falls. A particular group may be tackling two option #1 issue, but also a #4 issue -- I wouldn't want to disqualify it from the "honor" of being included in the Youth Lib movement just because of that.

[Here's a caveat for the top, too: What does it really matter whether a group is "really" Youth Lib or not? There is lots of important work to do that is borderline YL, or not YL at all. The purpose of this definition is merely to help us in our thinking about YL, to help us sharpen our intent, if that's what we want.]


I've been wrestling with this part of the definition for quite some time. An alternate phrasing might be "against adult oppression". After all, as I was just saying, I think it is clear that one of the ultimate aims of any YL group is to eliminate adult oppression. This is what distinguishes an environmentalist group from a YL one -- both help youth, but a saving rainforests doesn't address adult power.

I worry that I may be building controversy into my definition here. After all, I've come to recognize that I advocate a very particular form of YL -- "Youth Power". Other thinkers favor "Youth Equality" (A.K.A. "Youth Rights"), and yet others favor "Youth Culture". I think members of both these camps would be with me on in the "led by youth" and "for youth" sections -- but they might not agree with this last section.

I'm also concerned that rather than focusing on the aim of "eliminating adult oppression" [which might not be a bad alternate phrase!] I'm mixing in my opinions about activism here. Am I ignoring potentially Youth Liberationist organizations because I'm so focused on direct action? What sorts of organization might not be showing up on my radar? Perhaps youth advisory councils? Or youth-run collective living arrangements? Should I insist that YL is about activism -- since I think we all agree that youth liberation is about social change -- or should I narrow my focus further, and say that these criteria only apply to groups doing direct-action work? [A criteria, I might add, that NYRA and ASFAR might not live up to!]

I'm simply going to have to leave a big question mark here for the time being. In the meantime, I'll elaborate on the continuum here as if I have no doubts about it. To review:

  1. goal is to change the system by which decisions are made
  2. goal is to influence an adult leader to make a certain decision
  3. goal is to influence average adults (w/o institutional power)
  4. goal is to influence / educate youth only
  5. goal is purely social

Probably the single most defining YL agenda item is the vote. While there could be an YL organization that doesn't advocate youth participation in our nation's decision-making processes, nearly any organization that does is clearly going to be Youth Liberationist. Projects that change how decision-making is actually done, procedurally, address adult power in the most direct way.

Very little direct-action activism attempts to change the system itself. Most tries to work within the system, leveraging key adult decision-makers to make change in our favor. An example of option #2 is trying to get adult legislators to prohibit physical assault against children and teens that has traditionally been protected as "discipline" (e.g. "spanking").

In the hierarchy of power, there is the decision-making system that transcends the specific decision-makers holding positions inside it during a particular time period. Beneath the decision-making system are the decision-makers, who are granted powers that can effect the lives of the many people beneath them. Beneath the decision-makers, there are the constituents of the decision-makers' districts, the people whom they represent, the intended beneficiaries of their work. These are the "average" adults. "Average" adults have little decision-making power in the system-at-large except for electing people to represent them -- but if they're parents, then they do have enormous power over their children, direct control of the youth who are (in some ways) non-persons in the eyes of the law.

With this criteria, I'm trying to address the directness with which a group of YL activists strikes at the heart of adult power. It is most direct to change the system itself. Less direct to ask for the favors of an adult governmental official. Less direct still to appeal to average adults. And perhaps least direct to address one's messages to other youth.

...However, directness doesn't seem all that important, now that I look at it. The "hierarchy of power" as I've described it is interesting -- but also over-simplistic. Government is not just the mayor and city council -- there are bureaus beneath them (e.g. the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, or the school board).

Furthermore, I'm not sure that I want to imply that talking to other youth is irrelevant. You have to talk to other youth in order to get new members -- or better yet, to train them in how to file a discrimination lawsuit. It's almost as if there are two unrelated power-nodes: the government, and the family. If you're trying to win victories within the family, then equipping individual youth is only one level removed from ultimate power -- not four.


What I'm trying to capture here is that YL is concerned with (1) social change and (2) eliminating adult oppression. I interpret "adult oppression" primarily in terms of power and control -- which can also be reduced to decision-making authority. However, I'm increasingly uncomfortable with simply ignoring work that addresses adult supremacist propaganda -- e.g. adultist TV ads. Advertising is outside of the governmental structure entirely -- but it still matters.

My problem here may be that while I see power as the most important aspect of adult oppression, I still recognize age dualism and adultcentrism as important components of oppression. In my recent essay "Youth Liberation Simplified" I discussed three things that YL folk get angry about: unfair rules, use of force, and disrespect. The continuum I've described here only seems to deal with unfair rules.

Oh, that last point on the continuum -- "purely social" -- what I had in mind with that was a group that doesn't even make contact with the outside world: they only talk to themselves. Or, if you simply threw a party and invited other youth... Having fun may be good for youth, but I don't see that it directly relates to Youth Liberation.

I'm nervous about introducing the term "oppression" into my definition. "Oppression" is such a nebulous term, it deserves at least an essay for its own definition.

...And yet, there needs to be some third continuum that says more than just "by youth, for youth" -- somehow "adult mistreatment" needs to be invoked. Perhaps "adult mistreatment" is the term I'm looking for? Maybe at that point we don't have a continuum, but rather a multiple choice list: unfair rules, use of force, disrespect? Aesthetically, it was awful nice to have three continua... And the danger in a multiple-choice list is that there may be options that you haven't thought of yet.

In actuality, this third continuum seems to be about the level within the power structure of society that activism is happening at. Working at a level lower in the hierarchy may have a less far-reaching impact, but I certainly don't want to imply that it's less important. Getting one youth out of an abusive family may be more valuable than having a law on the books that doesn't get used, or never causes too much discomfort (e.g. something about driving permits perhaps?).

I'm looking for something that addresses the extent to which adults are the target of activism. I still like having the system for decision-making at the top of the list... At one point I was thinking about programs that help get youth employment; they help youth, but don't address oppression...

What if the south-side of the continuum had to do with the extent to which a group was focused on youth-and-not-adults? The adult government transcends individual adults; at the next level is working within the system -- which could incorporate both leveraging adult leaders AND teaching youth how to file law suits; ... A middle point might have to do with bridge-building and making friendships between individual adults and youth; youth community events might be a step farther toward youth-focus; and creating youth community centers / training youth activists might be a step farther in the direction of focusing on youth power. Hm.

At a very basic level, I need to state that in some way adult behavior is viewed as the problem. Perhaps the continuum's variable could be "the extent to which adults are seen as oppressing youth". Not bad.

  1. adults as a group actively keep youth-as-a-group out of power
  2. the legal system fair, but inadequately inclusive
  3. some individuals have prejudiced attitudes
  4. youth and adults need to better understand each other

No, not happy with that. This continuum seems to focus on the extent to which a group views the problem as systemic vs. a matter of individual personality. Furthermore, it's about ideology, rather than practical, structural aspects of a group. In terms of practical matters, I could focus on types of activism...
  1. direct-action activism (force a decision on an issue)
  2. education / advisory (change opinions, action only implied)
  3. discussion group (consider a issue, no action implied)
  4. social group (purpose of enjoyment, no action)

The focus on whether there are actions / decisions involved is nice, but still not right.

Oh! I see what the internal structure I'm trying to satisfy is: by youth = who is the actor; for youth = who is the beneficiary; against adult power = who is the target of action. It's as if there are three people in a little drama; an activist, the person they are defending, and the person they are defending the beneficiary against.

So, in the "by youth" category, I vary the continuum from "entirely youth" to "entirely adults". In "for youth" I vary two factors (hence the four options rather than five): all youth vs. some youth, and only youth vs. also adults. One would expect, then, that in this third continuum, we'd have "who is the problem" as the variable, where the south-side is "youth are the problem". In practical terms, how do we frame this? It's not just a matter of who you work with, since you could be training youth as activists to work against adults. What makes someone a "problem"? If the focus were on improving youth's self-esteem, there's a way in which that makes youth the problem -- whereas one might instead focus on adults as the cause of youths' low self esteem...

I guess I don't really have this third category yet. I'll have to just sit with it longer, see if something comes to me. ..."For" vs. "against" can be so nebulous -- lots of adults think that they're "helping" youth by spanking them; "tough love" approaches that are abusive, but in the name of assistance. Youth Lib activists could conceivably become oppressors to the youth they claim to be working for.

If your organization is not working "against adult oppression" or "challenging adult power", then what is it doing? Challenging youth? Not addressing power, but instead partying? What if I look at other movements -- e.g. queer rights, or feminism. What distinguishes friend from foe? One continuum that might be useful here (but which would focus us back on power) would be whether power is being shared. Thus

  1. means and ends involve collective youth-decision-making
  2. ends benefits youth, but decision-making en route to change excludes youth community
  3. goal is to press youth to make certain decisions
  4. goal is to force adults to make certain decisions
  5. goal is to give youth more options for independent, non-coerced decision-making
  6. adult decision is forced; youth decisions are made by group (not individual), transparently to all (not behind closed doors), without coercion (multiple options considered)

Bah. Interesting, but still not what I'm looking for (and not in any sort of order). ...As I'm working on this bit, I'm seeing some blurring between the "activists" and "broader youth community" categories. On the one hand, an activist can work in isolation, but in the name of their community. On the other hand, the activist can convene the community, so that it almost seems as if there is no one activist pushing the initiative. However, this notion of what activism can look like largely depends upon there being a smallish community. You can meaningfully convene a community when there are 500 or fewer people involved... Or if you have something like a city-wide voting system established. But in practice, youth tend to be too far strewn to bring "everyone" together for a decision. [And again I'm straying from "against adult power".]

What if the key word here is "against"? You could set up a continuum like this:

  1. trying to abolish a thing
  2. trying to reform a thing
  3. leaving things as they are
  4. trying to create by using the thing as it is
  5. trying to create something wholly new

In a way, this continuum presumes that social change is the goal, and balances creation and destruction. Doesn't seem very useful. In general, discussions about whether we should be "for something" instead of "against something" ("because it sounds so negative") turn me off. We could leave the word "against" out, and simply focus on whether the target of social change is adults or youth.

If I give up the notion that adultism is something that can be "eliminated", now thinking rather that it can only be replaced by something else, something that we must imagine with precision, then maybe the third category encompasses the three branches of YL.

  1. youth must be given more power, adults must relinquish power
  2. youth and adults must become equals, sharing power
  3. youth should separate from adults, form their own culture

These are useful distinctions, but they feel awful ideological. They feel like they are ideas that overlap with the "led by youth" section, and explain the rationales. I don't see much in terms of in-between positions here, though.

Maybe I could focus on what sort of change is demanded of adults. This could dovetail nicely with that section earlier where I was talking about how I've come to see that workshops can be more activism-like if participants are asked to make a clear-cut decision about something.

  1. adults are asked to change their process for making decisions
  2. adults are asked directly to make a decision in youth's favor
  3. adults are not asked to make a decision, but merely to contemplate how youth feel
  4. adults are not addressed; youth are asked to contemplate how adults feel
  5. youth are asked directly to make a decision in adult's favor
  6. youth are asked to a change their process for making decisions

Hm. I don't think that I should have moved into youth territory, talking about YL activists essentially taking on youth as their "enemy" or target for change. I should have ended instead with:

4. adults are addressed indirectly
5. no communication with adults occurs

Ooh... That may be it.

Let me do it. Please do this for me. This is how I feel -- figure it out. I'm not even here, but I left signs. No interaction.

Instead of "asked" in option #1, I might say "pressed" or "urged". ...You can't very well just ask nicely for a whole system of government to change.

Option #2 covers going directly to an adult authority, which could be either someone in an institutional role or a parent in their private home, depending upon what the situation is.

Option #3 gets at what I was trying to say about why workshops are often ineffective: there's no action step -- and if there is one, adults are left to confront (or not confront) their own conscience, rather than having the question put to them directly.

Option #4 involves situations where youth aren't even going to be in the same room with an adult -- e.g. defacing an adultist billboard. Perhaps I want to say something about youth being anonymous at this point. ...I'm not sure though if I would put writing letters to the editor, essays, graffiti, etc. at this level. Writing where there's a physical person attached to it feels different from writings where you're never going to meet the person. The writing seems almost from an imaginary person -- even if it's a very persuasive demand for something. This raises odd issues of embodiment and the role of youths' physical bodies in the process of social change...

Option #5 covers parties -- or endless, pointless meetings. If you never actually engage with adults, nothing can happen. Ooh! "Level of engagement with adults" might be the category heading.

Thus: "A YL [activist] organization is one that is (1) led by youth, (2) for the benefit of youth, that (3) engages with adult targets."

Hm. It's not as smooth in my ears, but I think it covers all the bases. It may just be that I need time to get used to it. ...Glad that I kept pushing, one way or another. I'll leave it there for now, let it compost in my head for a while.

Posted by Sven at September 15, 2005 12:00 PM


Great analysis, Sven, as always.

I've written a response over at One and Four: http://www.oneandfour.org

Check it out.

Oh, and make use of trackbacks, I hope to respond to a lot of stuff you write, and trackbacks are nice for linking everything together.

Posted by: KPalicz at October 4, 2005 01:14 PM

Hey Alex -- thanks for reading and commenting! I've read your response and will comment over on your blog.

Trackbacks: I had a huge spam problem going on a while back, and wound up turning it off. My sysadmin/partner and I take note, and will commence mulling over whether or not we should turn it back on now. ;-)

Posted by: sven Bonnichsen at October 5, 2005 10:21 PM

I am conducting a survay for KASA (Kids As Self Advocate). Basically I'm searching the web for youth run/led organizations in particular regions of the US. Can you help me with any information I can access via the web.

Posted by: Sebastian Kline at June 21, 2006 09:37 AM

I recommend checking out the Freechild Project (http://www.freechild.org/) and the National Youth Rights Association (http://youthrights.org/). From the links on those two sites, you should be able to find just about every youth run/led organization that has an online presence.

Posted by: sven at June 24, 2006 09:37 PM

Post a comment

Remember Me?