January 11, 2010

Radical Youth Rights Activism: Foundations

All human beings have reason to speak out in defense of their own well-being. Young people are no different.

Toward the goal of helping youth become more effective in their efforts at self-defense, I offer the following principles… A foundation upon which future collaborative projects might be built.

1. Youth have self-interest.
Even before a human being is able to articulate spoken words, they can recognize the difference between their own body and those of people around them. They can recognize hunger, pain, desire. While it is debatable whether a person at any age necessarily knows what it "good" or "best" for them, there is no denying that youth — even at pre-verbal ages — have self-knowledge of various things that they want and/or need.

2. Sometimes youths' interests and adults' interests conflict.
A human being, at any age, has interest in making the world around them a pleasant and convenient place. Existing in the company of other human beings, however, is not always pleasant or convenient. For example, a youth might be hungry at the same time the adult they are with wants to leave the house. Or, a youth might want to run and be loud at the same time an adult wants to rest. Conflicts may arise over where these two people want to be, what they believe, who they want to see, how to use space or time or money — any number of things.

3. Some adults abuse their power.
When the things that two human beings want/need come into conflict, there is motivation for someone to try to take control of the situation. One person might try to control another by shouting (intimidation), inflicting physical pain, restricting the other's movements, taking away or destroying property, attempting to set rules or turn rules into laws. When adults use methods such as these to control young persons, we should always question whether their actions are fair and just. It is self-evident that the way in which some adults pursue a pleasant and convenient life is neither fair nor just: it is abusive.

4. Youth have reason to work against absolute adult power.
Sometimes adults harm youth. Harm may include inducing fear, causing physical pain, harassing with insults, confining, preventing outside relationships, taking away or destroying personal property, blocking access to money, or denying participation in decisions that affect the youth — all things that are equally harmful when done by one adult to another. Likelihood of an adult doing harm becomes much greater when when they have permission from society — friends, family, community, government — to use power however they see fit. Without limitation, oversight, or interruption, the adult gains absolute power over a youth. For the sake of avoiding harm, youth have an interest in seeing that no adult is able to wield absolute power.

5. Youth have reason to work together for their collective self-interest.
The practice of absolute adult power is more alive in some families, communities, and states than in others. Where absolute adult power exists, it is seldom easy to break its hold. Because being in control makes life more convenient and pleasant, adults — like any group of people would — resist demands for sharing or limiting their powers. Youth become more effective at demanding change when they work together. The struggle remains difficult — but sharing intelligence, courage, and resources gives youth a better chance of success.

Based on these principles, radical youth rights activists might organize themselves into a larger political movement: one that is led by youth themselves, for the sake of all youth, working to end absolute adult power wherever it exists.

Posted by Sven at 9:50 AM | Comments (0)

October 29, 2005

Hybrid YL Philosophies

In a previous essay I talked about three main varieties of Youth Liberation. In this essay I will talk about a wide variety of Youth Liberation philosophies that can be generated by creating a hybrid of YL and some other school of thought / political movement.


In my essay "Three Types of Youth Liberation: Youth Equality, Youth Power, Youth Culture" (07.30.03) I described what I feel are the most "pure" forms of YL.

YE, YP, & YC each attempt to describe the plight of youth and propose a solution. Three aspects of how they go about doing so contribute to their "purity": (1) Their solutions do not make YL an adjunct of another movement. (2) They claim to address the needs of all youth, rather than just a subset of youth. (3) They are not constrained to a single issue, but rather suggest principles for social change that could, one supposes, be applied to many different issues.

To say that these three philosophies represent YL in its "purest form" does not mean that they are somehow "perfect". Each of them has shortcomings.

None of these three necessarily deals well with the unique issues of girls, youth of color, queer youth, street youth, etc. Consequently, they may all be legitimately criticized for having a bias toward serving straight, white, middle-class, male youth.

Furthermore, for each of these philosophies there are issues that are less easily addressed than others. For instance... Youth Equality, with its emphasis on civil rights, has a difficult time addressing power relationships within the family that aren't legally actionable. Youth Power, with its emphasis on confronting adult authorities, may be a difficult sell to parents and other adults whom we might like to enlist as allies. Youth Culture, by focusing largely on youth getting to express their "true nature" via alternative institutions, lacks motivation to undertake the undesirable (but necessary) work of watchdogging the actions of adult authorities.


In addition to the "pure forms" of YL, a wide variety of hybrid philosophies exist. I will now identify and discuss four categories of these:

  1. YL as an adjunct to another political philosophy
  2. YL as one project of a psychotherapy movement
  3. YL from the point of view of a particular subset of youth
  4. Single-issue activism that furthers YL's cause

1. YL as an adjunct to another political philosophy

There are several political philosophies that have the potential to be friendly to YL. These include:

Each of these political philosophies is defined by the form of national government (or lack thereof) that it would like to exist. Each one has an interest in developing a broad base of support, in order to build the popular movement that would be required to change our current form of government. Toward this end, each potentially has an interest in mobilizing youth to help in the project of social change.

Each of these philosophies has its own analysis of how abuse of power comes to exist -- and thus can make an appeal to youth interested in YL. Socialism sees adult abuse of youth as the result of capitalist interests. Anarchism, with its strong association with anti-police activism, has a natural appeal to youth (especially street youth) who have been persecuted by the police. Libertarianism, with its emphasis on personal freedom and limiting governmental intervention has an appeal to youth who feel that adults have created too many laws regulating their lives. Activists who work to promote and maintain a healthy democracy can recruit youth by talking about the need for "youth voice" in the schools and in society at large.

For the most part, each of these movements does not see adultism as an independent phenomena. They see mistreatment of youth as a function of whatever problem they are already working against: capitalism, organized government itself, overactive government, or democracy that is inadequately inclusive.

A YL that bases itself upon one of these political philosophies is derivative, and maintains at least a psychological tie to the broader movement. In practical terms, it may be valuable to have access to the adult movement's intelligence and physical resources. However, there is also the risk that when there is turn-over in the adult leadership, sympathies will dry up and youth interests will be dropped from the agenda. When YL is merely an adjunct to another movement, you can almost guarantee that it will be a ways down on the priority list.

[Note: I'm tempted to add Liberalism to the list of political philosophies here. By "Liberalism" I do not mean "Democrats", but rather the philosophy created by Locke and others upon which the U.S. was founded. If it were added to the list, then Youth Equality would also have to be seen as a derivative form of YL, rather than as a "pure form". However, my gut sense is that this is not the case...

Because Liberalism represents the form of government that currently exists, there need be no effort to install a new system. If YE subscribes to Liberalism, but Liberalism already exists, then YE is not at risk of merely being an adjunct to an adult social change movement. It seems to me that YE's autonomy as a movement means that it should not be lumped in with these other movements for a change of government.]

2. YL as one project of a psychotherapy movement

I have seen several psychology-based movements pick up Children's Rights as an issue. These include:

People doing therapy have a natural tendency to become interested in both youth and in social change. When one delves into the psyche, many (if not most) current psychological problems are going to be found to have their origins in childhood. Similarly, when one delves into healing work, there will be times when one discovers that the origins of a problem are not so much in how one interacted with other individuals, but in how society's norms are set up (e.g. racism as a source of mental trauma).

Within the Co-counseling community, there is an active discussion about adultism as one of the oppressions that generate "distress". I cannot prove this, but I see certain buzzwords in the writings of Tony Harris & Jacob Holdt and John Bell that suggest they come out of a Co-counseling background. Alice Miller is a good example of a Freudian thinker advocating for Children's Rights (e.g. "For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence"). For an example of psychohistory, see Lloyd DeMause's classic essay "The Nightmare of Childhood" (collected in "The Children's Rights Movement: Overcoming the Oppression of Young People", eds. Beatrice Gross & Ronald Gross).

One of the troubles with psychotherapy movements is that they are not geared for doing social change work. Their theories may have explanatory power -- but forming activist groups falls outside of the realm of therapy work.

...Is therapy that helps one deal with the psychological consequences of adultism -- but doesn't address the institutions that cause this suffering -- a kind of social change activism? Is an analysis of adultism without a program for social change still YL? In my opinion, the answer to both questions is "no". Nonetheless, the spirit of YL is strong enough within these psychotherapeutic movements that they're worth mentioning as a form of YL hybrid.

3. YL from the point of view of a particular subset of youth

There are several subsets of youth who have a clear history of youth rights activism (that I know about). These include:

Additionally, I would like to suggest several subgroups of youth that have a strong potential for organizing, based upon the actions of their adult peers and youth-specific issues associated with the identity:

When any of these groups of youth organize themselves to address their specific needs, a hybrid-YL group comes into being. These groups may or may not make explicit reference to adultism or Youth Liberation -- but simply by the virtue of being made of youth who are addressing youth-specific issues, they add "topics of interest" to YL's master agenda.

Again, I want to emphasize that being a "pure" YL organization -- one that addresses issues faced by all youth, rather than just a subset -- does not make one superior. A YL movement that addresses only the "pure" issues is failing to care for the needs of a great many youth.

[I'm not sure whether or not to include students in this list. My gut sense says "no", that students belong in the next section, the one about issue-based activism. Perhaps this is because school attendance is nearly universal. School attendance is currently part of what it means to be a typical youth -- going to school puts you in the majority, rather than in a minority.]

4. Single-issue activism that furthers YL's cause

A "pure" YL group tends to have some sort of "Bill of Rights" or laundry list of agenda items that it wants to pursue -- even if it can only practically pursue one issue at a time. To an extent, having that big vision is what really and clearly makes a group Youth Liberationist.

However, having lots of agenda items does not necessarily make one an effective YL organization. Being instead a single-issue group allows focus, and makes it easier to create a coalition of like-minded activists who might not agree on any other points.

Here are a few single-issue projects that might overlap with YL:

Several issues are almost guaranteed to be motivated by a pure Youth Liberation philosophy: the right to vote, eliminating the curfew, lowering the drinking age, etc. With the issues listed above, however, adults and youth may find themselves seeking a common goal, but for different reasons.

For instance... Home-schooling might be an issue of youth escaping the oppressive school environment -- or of parents seizing further control of their children's lives. Anti-police harassment may be about police picking on youth -- but it may also be about how the police treat people of color or the homeless. Teen abortion rights may be approached as an issue impinging upon young women's rights -- or it can be seen as part of protecting all women's rights. School reform and prohibiting spanking can be done for motives that are either liberationist or protectionist.

Deciding whether a particular single-issue campaign should be considered "pure" or "hybrid" may be impossible for an outside observer. If a campaign has described its goal narrowly enough -- that is, in a way that may appeal to many people, without regard to their overarching ideology -- then ideological motives may well be invisible. You'd have to be on the inside of the group, listening to people talk about their personal reasons for being involved, to figure out how to classify it.


To summarize... There are organizations that embody a "pure form" of Youth Liberation. These groups can be recognized in part because they (1) advocate a multi-issue agenda, (2) address issues that are experienced by all youth, and (3) operate independently of adult organizations whose main focus is something other than the needs of youth.

In addition to "pure" YL groups, however, we need to recognize that a variety of "hybrid" organizations exist. In this essay I looked at four types of hybrid:

  1. YL as an adjunct to another political philosophy
  2. YL as one project of a psychotherapy movement
  3. YL from the point of view of a particular subset of youth
  4. Single-issue activism that furthers YL's cause

Being a "pure" Youth Liberation organization should not be viewed as a mark of superiority. In fact, organizations that are single-issue or that work under a "parent" movement may have several advantages: (1) Youth working under a "parent" movement may have better access to resources and training than youth who work independently. (2) Single-issue groups may be better able to mobilize allies when a concrete goal, rather than ideology, is in the spotlight. (3) Activists who work at the intersection of youth and another identity (e.g. female, black, queer) address issues that a more generalist group may fail to notice, find too controversial, or lack direct knowledge about. (4) Working on a single issue allows a group to specialize, to develop their analysis and strategies to a higher degree.

It seems to me that we need both "pure" YL organizations -- which articulate a broad and general vision of social change -- and hybrid organizations, which are well-suited to specialized work. The danger of hybrid philosophies that we must beware of, however, is that the "parent" philosophy may overwhelm YL -- either diverting YL activists to its own cause, or simply jettisoning youth when the adults in charge lose interest in them.

Posted by Sven at 8:49 PM | Comments (0)

October 23, 2005

Outline: Youth Power - Four Theory Frameworks

Back on October 11, while I was working on the "Youth Power Framework" series, I had a little epiphany. I can view the "Youth Power Framework" as several interlocking frameworks, rather than one big one.

This is a good thing. It creates "severability". There's a core YP framework -- but then there are several useful add-ons. If you disagree with one of them, that's OK -- it can be jettisoned without harming the other pieces.

The other useful aspect of thinking about several frameworks rather than just one, is that it makes my job of juggling all the pieces much easier. There's less chance that I'm going to forget to talk about something important, if my subject areas are narrower.

I've written I-don't-know-how-many outlines that try to sum up all the topics that I would like to cover in my lifetime. This organization of information, however, is slightly different. Rather than listing everything, I'm just going to describe several main chunks that can be removed without hurting the whole. ...They're like modular components. They're built to complement each other -- but can all function independently.


The stripped-down Youth Power framework, I believe, has to include these components:


I think that you can talk about the power relationship between adults and youth without defining where the line between adults and youth lies. Still, it's an awfully nice to be able to explain what you mean when you use the terms "adults" and "youth".


You can pursue the goals of YP without putting any strictures on adults who want to help. However, if you're concerned about well-meaning adults nonetheless taking over formerly youth-led organizations, this can be a useful bit of theory.


There are a variety of ways of understanding what "oppression" is. There has to be some comparison between different models here. Still, however you explain why adultism happens, it doesn't change the fact that it does happen.


A framework is different from a strategy or a position. It's a theory which allows you to understand the world -- it's a lens that you look through. Here are several topics worth writing about that wouldn't belong in the frameworks that I've described:

Posted by Sven at 9:45 PM | Comments (0)

October 22, 2005

Exploration: Difference - Accommodating the "Average" Human Being vs. "Normal Variations"

I want to suggest an alternate way of conceptualizing age and difference.


One way of conceptualizing age differences, the current way, is to think of adults as "normal", the average or standard human being. The Youth Equality (AKA "Youth Rights") movement accepts this premise. Their argument is that youth and adults should be treated as equals. The problem, then, becomes one of minimizing the differences between youth and adults.

How do we do this? Rhetorically, there are just a few ways to go.

(1) You can argue that youth are underestimated -- that youth in general are more competent, intelligent, and responsible than they have been given credit for. You can draw upon anecdotal evidence, or you can appeal to scientific studies (such as those of Mike Males).

(2) You can point to youth prodigies. The argument could be that prodigies represent what most youth would become if they weren't oppressed. Or, on the other hand, the argument could be that we must remove oppression because it would wrong to stand in the way of prodigies, even if there are few of them. That is, punishing the exceptional few for the failings of the many is wrong. [John Stuart Mills used a strategy like this to argue for the equality of men and women in his book "The Subjection of Women" (1869).]

(3) You can point to the flaws of adults -- their stupidity, cruelty, and misbehavior -- and argue that youth are at least no worse. It's hubris on the part of adults to deny youth rights; the burden is upon them to prove that youth should be excluded -- and the burden of proof has not been met.

(4) You can argue that certain rights are innate, regardless of qualification. For example: adults can believe that the earth is flat and still vote -- there's no IQ test to vote -- that's because it's meant to be a right that one possesses simply for being a participant in society.


The "average" human being isn't necessarily so average. The U.S. began with the notion that only white, adult, wealthy, heterosexual men should enjoy the full privileges of citizenship. Rights have been extended to more and more groups -- but we continue to imagine those men as the standard people, whom all others deviate from.

This thinking gets expressed in some very practical ways. Let's consider differences between men and women for a moment... Light switches are placed at a height on the wall that is based on the average man's height. In medicine, for a long time (this may have changed by now), the "average" body temperature was based on men rather than women. While not all women are pregnant, nearly all women have the potential -- yet, this is seen as a mark against them in a male-dominated workplace -- rather than as an aspect of life that is simply accepted and accommodated.

It seems to me that rather than imagining the fixed characteristics of a single, average person, we should carefully consider the variables inherent in the human condition, and then construct society so that a range of differences are all considered "normal". [I'm supposing that we are able to build society anew, which isn't possible -- but this is a useful perspective if we are interested in transforming what-is into what-could-be.]

...In a village that is struggling for survival, in which all the townsfolk may starve come winter if adequate food is not stored away, it is understandable that the weak may be cut off. But we do not live in that village. We have wealth and abundance in the U.S., and if people starve, it is largely due to how wealth is distributed -- concentrated into the hands of the few. Transforming society to one that is more just, then, has a great deal to do with redistribution of resources...

This is a fairly traditional Marxist line of argument -- but here I want to diverge somewhat. I want to bring in the key concept of "accommodation". I want to say that if our society is not in a state of desperate poverty, then surplus should be dedicated first to re-shaping institutions to be inclusive of the needy -- not simply redistributed among the totality, as if all people are identical. [I may be doing an unfairness to Marxism here. There is that principle of "each according to their need"... But I want to get very specific here about what needs we are dealing with. And I am not arguing for an abolition of capitalism -- merely setting limits on how much one person is permitted to take for themselves, meanwhile taking away from the rest of society.]


As a thought experiment, can we construct an adult who is in all ways except appearance a facsimile of a young child? My sense is that if we do so, we will be better able to get a grasp of what variables society must provide for -- what variations among human beings must be considered "normal", and be accommodated for.

I also want to take this route because I believe we must be vigilant about how we imagine difference. We must continually compare different groups against one another in order to ensure that we are not inventing "false otherness".

...For instance, men in the U.S. during certain periods have imagined women as being more morally virtuous, more poetic, irrational -- yet, in other countries women are viewed as the more pragmatic sex, and the notion that women are irrational has fallen into disrepute, and the idea that women are inherently more noble is quickly slipping away.

...Along these lines, I reject the notion that youth are uniquely zestful, playful, energetic, irresponsible. There may be subcultures among youth that embody these qualities -- but to posit that they are part of youth's essential nature is a case of "false otherness".

That all said, here is the meat of the essay -- constructing an adult that is philosophically identical to a young child:

(1) dwarf

Let's get this one out of the way. There are adults who are very short. The wikipedia entry for the word "midget" says everything I would want to:

"In the 19th century, midget was a medical term referring to an extremely short but normally-proportioned person (e.g., with growth hormone deficiency), and was used in contrast to dwarf, which denoted disproportionate shortness. Like many other older medical terms, as it became part of popular language, it was usually used in a pejorative sense. When applied to a person who is extremely short, midget is now considered derogatory. The word dwarf has generally replaced midget even for proportionally short people, and the term little person is also sometimes used. According to the Little People of America, the human definition of this term is stated as such 'a medical or genetic condition that usually results in an adult height of 4'10" or shorter, among both men and women, although in some cases a person with a dwarfing condition may be slightly taller than that.'"

Building a society that accommodates the needs of little people (e.g. lower light switches, easily opened doors, lower urinals, etc.) will also benefit youth.

(2) impoverished

A young person is born without (a) home, (b) money, (c) clothes, (d) food. In these respects, a young person is essentially impoverished -- even homeless. Creating a social safety net that deals with needs of the extremely poor would also benefit youth.

(3) immigrant, non-English-speaking

Youth are much like newly arrived immigrants from an alien culture, who don't understand the culture or know how to navigate its institutions. Learning to survive here requires an orientation to American customs and systems. Like adults for whom English is a second language, youth are born without the ability to articulate themselves -- though they quickly gain the ability to conduct at least basic communications. [Being born to parents might be likened to being brought to America by a host family, as an exchange student.]

(4) disability

There are many forms of disability. One can lack a sense, such as sight or hearing -- this is not the case for most youth. One can have limited mobility, e.g. needing a wheel chair -- or lack motor control to the extent that a full-time care-giver is required. This is the case of the newborn or the toddler.

There are also a variety of mental disabilities -- these are a thornier issue. It's more difficult (for me at least) to sort out how society ought to accommodate adults with mental disabilities -- but looking at how competency is tested, and how care-givers maximize independence is an intriguing starting place for further research. There are impulse-control disorders, "developmental disorders" that impair reasoning, and other mental issues that lead to what we understand as incompetence. ...What humane options for dealing with incompetency among adults have been developed? ...And how can one ever prove one's competency once the label has been applied?

(5) suggestibility

The quality of young people that I'm least able to find an analog for, which is perhaps most uniquely belonging to youth, is their lack of experience. Youth are impressionable / malleable in a way that adults generally aren't simply because they are experiencing things for the first time. As much as I criticize the notion that youth are empty containers just waiting to be filled with knowledge, there is a way in which this is also true -- at least in terms of there being a vulnerability to manipulation. How important is this? I'm not sure.


I feel like I probably should have started with the metaphorical section first, comparing youth to other social groups. It's easy enough to say this: There are few ways in which youth are unique. Youth have common cause with several vulnerable adult populations...

I think I've got a good concept, criticizing the notion of the "average" person and replacing it with a notion of "normal variations". I think "accommodation" is an incredibly key term here -- one that has potential for reshaping the YL dialogue about equality. However, until I have a better sense of how vulnerable adult populations are / should be accommodated, I think my argument is a bit weak.

...I'm also pleased with the concept of "false otherness". I could probably go farther with that.

Hm. I also notice upon re-reading this essay that I didn't talk about variations among human beings that have practical consequences, versus those that are of purely social significance. Skin color, for instance -- apart from the significance that people project upon it, I can't think of any practical difference it creates. Pregnancy, on the other hand, is a prime example of a practical difference with significant consequences. [In the same way that Susan Moller Okins has coined the term "false gender neutrality", I think we could talk about "false age neutrality" -- badly ignoring age differences that do exist.]

Posted by Sven at 9:26 PM | Comments (0)

October 13, 2005

The History of Youth Liberation

I have a pretty decent understanding of the history of YL... But now I'm wanting to do some serious research to make sure all my facts are straight. Before I go to the library again, or do another Google search, I want to briefly state what I know at present.


Around 1970, the organization "Youth Liberation of Ann Arbor" was formed.

My first exposure to the existence of this group was probably via the book "Encyclopedia Brown's Record Book Of Weird And Wonderful Facts" by Donald J. Sobol (1979):

"When Keith Hefner of Ann Arbor, Michigan, was 15, he formed Youth Liberation, Inc. The group championed kids' lib.

Among other things, it supported giving children the vote and the right to divorce their parents and get alimony.

Somehow it failed to catch on.

When last heard from, Keith was fighting the battle alone.

'I'm not giving up on this yet,' he said."
(pp. 33-34)

Since that first discovery, I have found three other books that talk about Youth Liberation, Inc.:

To the best of my knowledge, Youth Liberation of Ann Arbor was the first modern YL organization: a fully formed doing organization, run by youth, guided by a youth rights manifesto.

...I've been told, via Adam Fletcher of freechild.org, that Keith Hefner is still involved in YL work of some sort (although it's changed in nature). I believe I've also seen a history of the organization online -- possibly by Hefner -- that I need to hunt down again.


Around this same time period, two adult authors published their own YL manifestoes:

Abbreviated versions of their manifestoes were reprinted in "The Children's Rights Movement". eds. Gross & Gross. Misplaced, but somewhere in my collection, I know that I also have a copy of "Ms. Magazine" circa 1976 that has an interview with Farson.

Holt and Farson merit being called the "fathers of the movement" -- their books, I believe, are the enduring inspiration for the YL variety of Children's Rights. No others have been as influential -- but I've found a few leads for other authors that I need to hunt down.

Laura M. Purdy has published a book titled "In Their Best Interest? The case against equal rights for children" (1992). It's a philosophy book, and is dense as convoluted, as such books often are -- and despite being anti-YL, is surprisingly fair. One of the real benefits of this book, for me, is that Purdy identifies a bunch of authors whom she describes as "Youth Liberationists". Based on her footnotes, I think I'm most interested in hunting down:

...I've seen this book on the shelf at Portland State University, and it has a similar feel to Holt's and Farson's manifestoes. I suspect that I missed it previously because it was published after Children's Rights' heyday in the seventies. ...It looks like most of the other texts that Purdy cites are academic, rather than polemic -- and mostly just essays contained in scholarly journals.

Another lead I've found was in the "International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family", under the heading "Children's Rights":

"In 1959, the United Nations approved a modest but much-cited ten-point Declaration of the Rights of the Child. In the early 1970s, writers John Holt and Richard Farson both promulgated bills of rights for children, as did New York attorneys Henry Foster and Doris Jonas Freed."

...I haven't heard of Henry Foster and Doris Jonas Freed before. I can only guess that I haven't run across their writings before because they did not publish full books. If they were attorneys, however, I may be able to track them down in legal journals, at Lewis & Clark college's law library.


"Re-evaluation Counseling", also known as "Co-counseling" is a form of peer-counseling-based therapy. It was founded by Harvey Jackins, a friend of L. Ron Hubbard (founder of Scientology), and has been described by some as a psychotherapeutic cult. Nonetheless, "RC" has done a great deal to promote the concept of "adultism".

Jackins' first book was "The Human Side of Human Beings". I would cite the date -- but once again, the actual book is misplaced in my collection. The "Fundamentals of Co-Counseling Manual (Elementary Counselors Manual)", however, is at hand -- it was first published in 1962.

My understanding is that when the various liberation movements of the late 60s hit, RC leadership seized upon the oppressions of racism, sexism, adultism, etc. as things that people would need healing from -- they used interest in oppressions to promote the RC "community".

RC does not involved in social change activism (as far as I am aware) -- but promoting the idea that youth are oppressed is a contribution to YL. Youth are encouraged to do co-counseling themselves, and at least for several years there was a publication titled "Young and Powerful".


Prior to the existence of the internet, it was extremely difficult to find YL writings. Youth-run organizations typically couldn't publish books and didn't receive news coverage -- so they simply disappeared from history when they folded. Pre-1995, finding a YL pamphlet was a very precious find indeed. My two prized publications that I found during this period are:

Sometime during the early 1990s there was a organization called the National Children's Rights Alliance (NCRA). They had a newspaper that they put out, and had interesting membership guidelines -- adults could be members, but only if they were survivors of child abuse (as I recall).

NCRA folded. Two more national organizations have appeared in its wake: Americans for a Society Free from Age Restrictions (ASFAR), and the National Youth Rights Association (NYRA).

Here is what the NYRA site says about the recent history of YL:

"The youth rights movement first utilized the internet to help the struggle in 1991, with the creation of the Y-Rights listserv mailing list. Two members of that original internet presence, Matthew Walcoff and Matt Herman, began a non-profit organization out of that mailing list known as AS-FAR. Not too long after AS-FAR was founded, a Rockville, Maryland high school student named Avram Hein began a youth rights group called YouthSpeak. At the same time, a third youth from Canada, Joshua Gilbert, was starting a youth rights organization for his country, CYRA. Walcoff, Hein and Gilbert all met through AS-FAR, and decided to start a non-profit corporation to help unify the youth rights movement, which at that point consisted of almost a dozen different groups around North-America and the world. They eventually joined with Herman and created NYRA, the National Youth Rights Association. By June, 1998, NYRA was incorporated as a non-profit benefit organization with intention to lead the Youth Rights political movement in the United States.

(http://www.youthrights.org/whatwevedone.shtml, accessed 10.13.05)

Posted by Sven at 4:11 PM | Comments (5)

Outline: What is Youth Liberation?

My current project is envisioned as a brief booklet (30 pages?) titled "What is Youth Liberation?" I want to give the most basic answer to this question, therefore excluding discussion about different types of Youth Liberation. ...That's a much more complicated topic -- possibly one that I would take on after the "What is Youth Liberation?" booklet.

I want to make a distinction between "defining" YL and "characterizing" it. A definition, as I understand it, is going to set down boundaries so that you can decide whether a particular thing falls within the category of "Youth Liberation" -- or whether it does not. Characterizing, in contrast, only attempts to identify the most important features of a thing. It describes the heart of a thing, rather than its boundaries.

At present, I see three key features that will need to be discussed:

  1. Inspired by / descended from the seminal work of adult writers John Holt ("Escape from Childhood") or Richard Farson ("Birth Rights") -- or the youth-led activist group "Youth Liberation of Ann Arbor".

  2. Advocates youth being given the right to vote.

  3. Young people are themselves included as activists in the struggle for social change.

To an extent, I will also need to discuss a taxonomy of Children's Rights / Youth Liberation...

Youth Liberation is a subset of Children's Rights. At present, it looks like there are two main threads within Children's Rights: protectionism / paternalism which seeks to defend youth without enabling them to independently access their rights, and Youth Liberation which emphasizes autonomy and youth being granted civil rights on an equal basis as adults. At this point I don't know to what extent there are more radical and more conservative versions of autonomy-based Children's Rights. My suspicion is that even among those who advocate youth autonomy (rather than dependence upon adult protectors), Youth Liberation's inclusion of youth activists still sets it apart.

So if there are a number of branches underneath the heading of "Children's Rights", there are also a number of branches of thought underneath the heading of "Youth Liberation". I've written about the main trains of thought elsewhere -- Youth Power, Youth Equality, and Youth Culture. However, I need to mention that there are further flavors. There are those that arise out of the struggles of a particular minority group -- e.g. youth rights being championed by girls, black youth, queer youth, street kids, etc. There are also flavors of YL that arise from schools of political thought -- e.g. anarchism and libertarianism. [Most YL thought draws upon liberal political thought, whether or not it realizes it... There's also plenty of room for flavors of YL to arise out of Marxism or Socialism.]

...Oh, I suppose there's also room for psychotherapeutic flavors of YL. Co-counseling is the strongest variety for that -- but Shulamith Firestone and Alice Miller might arguably be presenting Freudian versions of YL. [Sort of like how Nancy Chodorow presented a Freudian vision of Feminism, or Luce Irigaray presented a Lacanian vision (Lacan merely being a disciple of Freud, I suppose).]

Although I specifically don't want to go into discussing all these varieties of YL, I feel that it's important to at least mention that there is a diversity of schools of thought.

Another reason why I need to mention this taxonomy is in order to explain a discrepancy: I use the term "Youth Liberation", but most contemporary youth activists are using the term "Youth Rights". Minimally I need to point out that YL is not a consensus umbrella term. I'll probably justify myself by pointing to the term "Youth Liberation" as a historical touchstone. ...I'm tempted to go into an in-depth explanation of how the "civil rights" and "oppression/liberation" models differ from each other -- but this is best saved for a the booklet on different types of YL. [Still, I think the time for writing at least of an exploration of "Why YL instead of YR" is just about upon me. At least so I have something down on paper to return to later.]

...As you can see, the taxonomy section of the booklet is giving me the most grief.

I've been figuring that I would structure the booklet around the three characterizing features of YL. That means four essays, thus:

  1. Introduction / overview of the three characterizing points.

  2. Inclusion of youth activists. YL does not equal Children's Rights. A bit of history about Children's Rights? YL as the Children's Rights movement that is owned by youth themselves. Youth objections to the word "children" in the name of the movement. A call for power, rather than protection. Holt and Farson being included as seminal voices, even though they were adults writing... The profound difficulty pre-internet of finding and preserving youth-written YL essays. [Avoid going too in-depth into criticism of the term "rights". Focus on where youth participation has existed within the Children's Rights framework. ...This leads to researching "youth participation" in two ways: (a) youth as individuals accessing rights, and (b) youth as activists instigating institutional change.] Explain how writing can still be considered YL if it is not created by youth themselves. ...Is YL ideology, or a living movement? Adults can advocate YL -- but unless they're attached to youth themselves in some way, it's just theory and YL doesn't really exist. [A distinction between a live movement vs. belief system that exists only in theory?]

  3. A history of YL. It has seminal authors back in the 70s. There have been several national organizations that are youth-led. ...Local organizations that are working from a YL ideology and pushing the agenda forward?

  4. A consensus agenda, based on looking at several manifestoes and comparing the similarities/differences.

Perhaps I need to add an additional essay on political taxonomy, simply so I can get it out of the way, rather than trying to avoid it. I might be able to do a two page essay saying more or less what I've said here: YL is a sub-variety of Children's Rights, and YL itself has sub-varieties of its own; "YL" is not a consensus term -- but neither would anyone from the Youth Rights camp deny that they're for YL. This would allow me to get into "YL's relationship to Children's Rights" (or place within Children's Rights) in-depth in the next essay. ...Thus:
  1. Introduction / Overview

  2. Political taxonomy of Children's Rights branches. YL's position within Children's Rights. An overview of branches of Children's Rights thought.

  3. Youth participation and the Children's Rights movement.

  4. A history of YL authors & activists.

  5. A consensus agenda.

...Perhaps what I'm struggling to articulate here is a fourth characterizing point: YL is a "movement". It is a movement within other movements, which has internal currents of it's own. It's not simply an ideology, nor an isolated individual spearheading a youth-related cause. There have been YL organizations, and there is a YL program for social change. If there aren't organizations and agendas, it's hard to point to a movement. To say that YL is a "movement" is even more basic than saying that youth participation is critical. It lets me say that YL is, honestly, a fringe movement. And that there is an important distinction between abstract thought about youth (e.g. in Plato's "Republic") vs. actually trying to put your ideas into action.

And with that, I think I have a working outline that I'm comfortable pursuing now:

  1. Introduction / Overview

  2. A movement with organizations and manifestoes.

  3. Youth participation (a) in adult rights and (b) in the process of social change.

  4. A history of YL authors & activists.

  5. A consensus agenda.

Posted by Sven at 2:10 PM | Comments (0)

October 12, 2005

Fragment: Limits of the "Civil Rights" Model

This is an unfinished essay that I was working on two years ago. The document appears to have been begun on August 4, 2003 -- and was last updated on August 6, 2003. I was intending to send this to the "YouthRightsLeaders" email list, but got sidetracked. I remember putting a fair amount of work into this one, so I wanted to save it from the dustbin of history -- put it into my official log of essays. I'll be leaving it essentially as-is, including a bunch of notes and alternate paragraphs at the bottom. -- Sven, 10.12.05


Since the emergence of modern Youth Liberation thinking in the early 1970s, the movement has largely worked within a "civil rights" model. Winning civil rights is an important part of fighting adultism -- but it is only one piece of the picture. Adult oppression also manifests on an interpersonal level, which is difficult (if not impossible) to address by just changing the law.

Organizations that focus on legal struggle are vital to the movement. However, at times they seem to suggest that rights are all that is needed for Youth Liberation. For the well-being of the movement, it's important that they come to understand the limits of the "civil rights" model.


The "civil rights model" is a set of beliefs about the nature of justice, and how to go about fighting injustice. It is common within most minority movements, and particularly within Youth Liberation. I will try to summarize the key ideas:

* The "civil rights model" grows out of ideas found in The Declaration of Independence: "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness".

* The word "Men", as originally defined, was understood too narrowly. Today, we would replace it with the word "people". The work of broadening inclusion in "Men" is ongoing. Much progress has been made toward including blacks and women -- now youth should be included in the vision of justice as well.

* We live in a society of laws. Justice requires that all people should be treated the same under those laws.

* Any law that does not treat youth as "equal" to adults, is unjust. The struggle for justice is a matter of rewriting civil rights laws to include youth, one law at a time.

* On an individual level, the injustice of treating someone unequally is called "discrimination".

* Because the equality of human beings should be "self-evident", we explain discrimination primarily as a result of misconceptions, "stereotypes". [Note: this use of the word "stereotype" differs from how psychologists understand the term.]

* Public education is an effective means of fighting discrimination. After their stereotypes have been debunked, most people will stop treating youth unjustly.

* While not universal, there's a common sense that progress is inevitable -- the truth will finally become "self-evident" to all.


The influence of our nation's founding documents on Youth Liberation is fairly obvious. Richard Farson, John Holt, and Youth Liberation of Ann Arbor -- arguably the founders of modern Youth Liberation -- each presented their visions of change in a "bill of rights" format.

Today, 30 years after the publication of Youth Liberation's seminal works, the "civil rights" model remains strong. Consider this passage from a National Youth Rights Association statement titled "What is Youth Rights" (Resolution 00-L):

"The organization deals only with civil rights -- freedom from oppression or discrimination by government, business or other powers -- rather than entitlement rights. We do not deal with issues like the quality of education or health care young people receive."

It seems to me that the "civil rights" model dominates the movement. This is worrisome. There are aspects of oppression and aspects of Justice work that the model addresses only poorly. I will proceed to examine its faults under the following four section headings:


Getting a moral right turned into a legal right is only a first step toward justice -- not the final achievement of equality. Besides the law itself, at least three other issues are important: enforcement, the complaint process, and defense against the law being overturned.

Without enforcement, a law is just a piece of paper. Suppose you go to a restaurant, and then the owner throws you out just because you are young, thus violating your right to freedom from discrimination on the basis of age. The existence of that right is going to be meaningless unless there is some agency to contact, that will investigate your case and make a judgment about whether or not the owner is guilty. But then, what good is a judgment if there isn't also a punishment -- a fine or imprisonment? The owner still gets away with their crime unless there are police and a prison system to back up the adjudicating agency's decision with force.

Even if all of the necessary government agencies are in place -- and they're adequately staffed and funded -- it still won't do a young person much good if they don't know that they have a right, and how to navigate through the complaint process. Very few victims of discrimination actually decide to pursue justice; even fewer have the necessary documentation to demonstrate that they have a case; of those, only a minority actually win their case and get some form of reparations -- and the process may take months or years to complete. It's important that these laws do exist; but they don't seem to be a very efficient means of combating wrongful behavior...

If a good pro-youth bill is passed into law, that's not necessarily the end of the story. Laws get repealed, or their effectiveness is eroded away over time by opponents' amendments. Abortion rights are a good case in point. Thirty years after the Roe v. Wade decision, abortion opponents continue the fight for repeal. They've created many legal exceptions (e.g. requiring parental consent for minors), and made it more difficult to access the services that are permitted (by intimidating doctors, so that few are now willing to provide the service). Youth rights activists should anticipate continuing legal opposition, even in the afterglow of a legal victory.

From its writings, the current Youth Liberation movement seems unaware of these issues. As much as winning new rights, I think we need to be concerned with making sure that enforcement agencies are willing to prosecute age discrimination cases, and making sure that these agencies are adequately staffed and funded for the job. We need to put a great deal of effort into educating youth about what their rights are, how to document a case of discrimination, who to contact, and how to navigate through the complaint process. Finally, we need to recognize that youth rights are going to remain controversial for some time to come. If we win new rights, we need to be prepared to defend our victories.


Not all injustices can be dealt with by law. The law can prohibit (or license) activities like voting, driving, drinking, and marriage. It's equipped to address harms that can be easily documented: like being fired from a job, or struck in a way that leaves bruises, broken bones. What it cannot easily deal with is subjective feelings.

One of the main ways that youth suffer at the hands of adults is by constantly being disrespected and denied dignity. The law protects essentially all of this behavior as "free speech" -- but a youth movement that ignores it is failing to deal with some of the issues that "sting" youth most of all.

In the public domain, we see defamation of youth in news coverage, TV sitcoms, magazines, and movies. Youth are commonly portrayed as fundamentally flawed beings: stupid, reckless, dangerous to themselves and others, laughable for their foibles, lamentable in their tastes.

Interacting on a personal level, parents' and teachers' attitudes toward youth often range from belittling to punitive. Being in a position of authority, these adults feel that they are entitled / obligated to stand in judgment of youth -- freely expressing their disapproval, doling out lectures, and attempting to coerce the youth to their will. While so sensitive to rudeness from youth, most adults seem entirely blind to their own disrespectful behavior.

Among themselves (or even in the presence of youth), many adults feel free express their naked bigotry toward youth: ridiculing youth culture (e.g. dyed hair, piercings, music), commiserating about how awful their own children are, joking about how "we should be able to lock them up until they're 18".

Most youth are used to the idea of not having civil rights. The fact that they won't be able to vote or apply for a driver's license until a certain age can recede to the back of their minds; disrespect, however, is not so easy to forget. It's perhaps the aspect of adultism that most impacts upon quality of life. It is a major failing of the "civil rights" model that it is unable to meaningfully address these issues.


To fully understand adultism in the U.S., we need to look at the history of how adults have treated youth...

At the beginning of the 20th century (and before), youth were viewed as the property of their parents. Like animals or slaves, much of youths' value was as exploitable farm labor. Just as the owner of a mule or the owner of a slave could inflict pain to discipline their possessions, so too have parents been entitled to use corporal punishment on their children. Strides have been made toward treating young people better, but vestiges of youth-as-property remain visible today in laws that prohibit running away, and in the description of legal independence as "emancipation".

The essence of treating youth as property is this idea: that adults should command, youth should obey. Government, schools, the family -- in almost every institution where adults and youth interact, we see the "command / obey" relationship manifested. I believe it is the fundamental dynamic of adultism. Adults don't simply have mistaken ideas about youth; they have a stake in adultism -- they personally benefit from being in positions of control (whether or not they realize it).

People working within the "rights" model don't seem to talk much about the actual history of adultism. It could be attributed to optimism: looking forward to a time when youth are full-fledged equal citizens, they see the present as "a glass half-full". The problem I see with this is that it can lead to very inaccurate ideas about adultism. In a future where our utopian bills of rights have all come to pass, then perhaps the nature of adultism could be reduced to "discrimination". However, looking back at the past, it seems absurd to sum up the injustices as "treating youth as if they're different from anyone else". The youth-as-property model of the past has not yet been defeated. Adults still maintain and promote the "adults command / youth obey" relationship as what's natural and necessary. It seems to me that we need to acknowledge this, rather than "discrimination", as our main problem at present.

Being in control, getting your own way, is its own benefit. There are lots of ways to rationalize and justify it. An adult can feel that they have young people's "best interests" at heart, and deserve power because they're better qualified than youth to make decisions. On the other hand, they could justify control by putting youth down, finding (or inventing) all sorts of faults in their character, depicting the latest generation as worse than any before. It seems to me that the best way to describe the negative things adults say about youth, is as a sort of propaganda, meant to justify adult power.

People working within the "rights" model tend to discuss bigotry and defamation in terms of "stereotypes" (or "prejudice"). These are some typical recommendations that I've heard in anti-adultism workshops: avoid ever making generalizations about youth; make no assumptions about a person before you get to know them; avoid "either / or" thinking. ...In themselves, these may or may not be wise ideas. As ways of avoiding adultism, however, they seem to me very much beside the point.

"Rights" model advocates tend to ignore the roots of adultism and adults' personal stake in maintaining control. They act as if "discrimination" has no history (except that it's been going on for some time). They act as if "stereotypes" are just the result of mistaken thinking. If the movement cannot accurately describe the origins and motives of adultism -- its cause -- how can it hope to effectively challenge the problem?


Youth Liberation's founding thinkers described their visions of justice in the form of bills of rights. The format seems to suggest that Justice will be achieved only after all the principles that it describes have been passed into law. Once that's done, Youth Liberation activists will be out a job.

I think this is a false idea. Imagine a time when all the best possible laws have been put into place. Even then, the world will continue changing. Year-in and year-out, there will still be new inventions, new celebrities and politicians, powerful people saying stupid or cruel things, events and public debates that keep newspapers publishing and the six o'clock news on the air. We can do an enormous amount toward eliminating adultism -- but we be trying to "put ourselves out of a job". Youth need to always be prepared to weigh-in on issues. Youth should aim at becoming permanent participants in society's decision-making processes.

I think the bill of rights format also suggests to many people that social change work will be a steady march forward -- that once a point on our agenda is won, we can just move on. As discussed earlier, this is unlikely to be so. Youth Liberation is controversial, and if there are victories, they will have to be defended against erosion or repeal for years to come.

Most of our efforts, however, probably won't be about winning ground. The opponents of Youth Liberation are strong and aggressive. We keep on having to defend against new attacks, exhausting ourselves just to protect the rights that we've got at present. Realistically, the better part of the movement's energies will probably go to this end.


To summarize: As a model for achieving justice, the notion that "all we need is civil rights" is flawed...

* It ignores the need for good enforcement agencies, educating youth about how to use the complaint process, and defending good laws after they've been passed.

* It fails to address bigotry and defamation -- which also hurts youth -- because it is protected as "free speech".

* It ignores the history of youth being treated as property and adults' interest in maintaining the "adults command / youth obey" relationship throughout society.

* ...Consequently, it wrongly identifies "youth being treated differently from other citizens" as young people's main problem, and promotes advice that has little bearing on adultism's real cause.

* It implies that once rights are won, permanent justice will have been achieved.

Winning civil rights is still important -- it's just not the *only* battle that needs to be fought.

Organizations such as NYRA probably shouldn't change their current mission statements. If they are going to work on legal issues, then they'll probably be most effective by keeping their focus narrow -- not trying branch out to address every issue at once. [Even attempting to address all legal issues may be too broad of a focus, to be really effective.]

Youth Rights organizations can shift their perspectives while still working on the same projects. A better model of how to bring about justice can only make the movement stronger. In the following section, I'll discuss what I think is the best alternative to the "rights" model of justice and social change.


[Note: This is as far as I got when I was writing back in 2003. Following this point, it's just notes to myself and alternate paragraphs. -- Sven, 10.12.05]

* Society is made of groups with conflicting points of view.

* Justice is an ongoing process, in which different groups each attempt to negotiate for their own best interests, hoping to arrive at deal that is felt to be fair by everyone involved.

* At various points in history, one group has gained the upper-hand over another, benefiting from an arrangement that is not fair to others. A historical relationship where one group has power over another is defined as "oppression".

* The motive behind oppressive... XXXX is simple self-interest.

* Laws -- along with courts, police, and prison systems -- are tools for asserting control over a population. Whether the laws are fair, or enforced at all, has a great deal to do with what group's members are in positions of power.

Some Children's Rights authors have discussed the historical oppression of youth, using the word "oppression" in a fairly loose, but evocative sense. I mean to use "oppression" here in an almost technical sense, linking these issues to an alternate political framework. Alison Jaggar, in her book "Feminist Politics and Human Nature", explains the difference:

"Earlier feminists used the language of "rights" and "equality," but in the late 1960s "oppression" and "liberation" became the key words for the political activists of the new left. [...] The change in language reflects a significant development in the political perspective of contemporary feminism. [...] [O]ppression is the imposition of unjust constraints on the freedom of individuals or groups. Liberation is the correlate of oppression. It is release from oppressive constraints. [...] Oppression is the *imposition* of constraints; it suggests that the problem is not the result of bad luck, ignorance, or prejudice but is caused rather by one group actively subordinating another group to its own interest. Thus, to talk of oppression seems to commit feminists to a world view that includes at least two groups with conflicting interests: the oppressors and the oppressed. It is a world view, moreover, that strongly suggests that liberation is likely to be achieved by rational debate but instead must be the result of political struggle." (pp. 5-6)

The concept of discrimination is meant to be used in the context of applying laws to the citizenry. It is a stretch to use it in a social context, not treating a person as if they are the same to everyone else. Why do people do so? Stereotypes? Stereotypes are frequently described in incredibly passive terms: bad mental photographs, overgeneralizations, making assumptions before you get to know someone, "either / or" thinking. While some adults may not fully understand their own motives, adultism is motivated.

Why do adults treat youth so badly? I don't find the "rights" model's explanation convincing. It only identifies one form of mistreatment: discrimination. Within it's original context, discrimination means not treating everyone the same under the law. The concept can be stretched to cover social situations, like youth not being treated with respect equal to that of adults -- but it's still not a good fit for all aspects of adultism.

NYRA Mission Statement

"The National Youth Rights Association is dedicated to defending the civil and human rights of young people in the United States. We believe certain basic rights are intrinsic parts of American citizenship and transcend age or status limits. As the world's leading democracy, the United States should not lag behind other nations in granting first-class citizenship to its young people.

"NYRA aims to achieve its goals through educating people about youth rights, working with public officials to devise fitting policy solutions to problems affecting young people and empowering young people to work on their own behalf."

This mission statement was adopted by the NYRA Board of Directors on Tuesday, January 25, 2000.

Posted by Sven at 10:54 PM | Comments (0)

The "Youth Power" Framework (short version)

"Youth Power" is a variety of Youth Liberation. Advocates of YP focus on how individual adults abuse power, how the governmental system structures power relationships between youth and adults, and how youth can win greater power to control their own lives.

This is the ultimate goal of YP: for youth to be able to control their own lives when they choose to. YP advocates share an interest in "equal rights" with Youth Equality ("Youth Rights") activists -- but do not place the same weight on youth receiving governmental treatment identical to adults. Instead, YP asserts that youth and adults both have a right to control their bodies -- and that it is wrong for either individuals or governments to use coercion. Justice is not based upon equal, non-discriminatory treatment (accommodating needs for care-giving is encouraged!) -- but rather upon respecting control.

1. Powers properly reserved for the individual

YP builds its philosophy upon principle that a person owns their own body. They have a right to say who will touch it or not touch it, whether it will stay still or be moved, whether it will be altered in any way, or destroyed. They have a right to a bubble of personal space and to owning property -- which will be treated as extensions of the body.

From these basic principles, we derive many freedoms. For instance, the right...

2. The role of a government in protecting the powers of the individual

While YP has a strong vision of what freedoms should be guaranteed to the individual, it does not take individualism to an extreme. We live in a society, depending upon each other for survival, and have an ethical obligation to contribute to the common good.

Maintaining the well-being of society could be achieved through a variety of social structures, including (for instance) small locally-based collectives, as anarchists advocate. YP, however, is committed to the existence of a fairly large scale government, with the power to police its citizens. While creating such a government creates the strong risk of governmental oppression, it is deemed a necessary counterbalance to the tyranny that parents are able to enact within the privacy of their homes. YP relies upon there being a government structure that creates a public sphere which youth can escape into -- a government that can overpower individual parents, should they abuse their power.

The existence of an organized state government means giving up some personal freedom -- particularly in terms of contributing taxes. However, YP expects this loss to be counterbalanced by valuable services that increase safety. A government has the power to imprison persons who do violence. It also has the power to offer free monetary welfare, food and clothing and shelter programs, health care, and public transportation. Youth, being born with nothing, are essentially an impoverished people. To the extent that a government confronts poverty, youth become less vulnerable.

[Note: Politically, YP finds common cause both with persons in poverty and persons with disabilities. Youth are born impoverished, and born with significant physical and mental disabilities. Society should not treat rich, able-bodied adults as the standard human beings -- it should strive to accommodate these variations.]

3. The nature of the group "adults"

Within the society of all human beings, adults have organized themselves into an organization, and established a government that excludes youth. While there is a biological basis for recognizing a group called "adults", "adulthood" is an artificial categorization projected upon natural differences. YP, thus, understands "adulthood" primarily as membership within an organization.
Consider the various ways in which adulthood looks like an organization:

Adulthood is unlike other organizations in at least two respects: one does not voluntarily join, one is inducted in by default; and rather than there being a single line between members and non-members, there are several (although the majority fall on the age of 18). Despite these uniquenesses, the metaphor still holds.

Because adults as a group have power over youth, it is desirable to be adult, and undesirable to be a youth. Youth -- and the qualities, mannerisms, and interests associated with it -- is stigmatized. Both youth and adults attempt to minimize being stigmatized by being seen as too youth-like.

Strategies for dissociating oneself from childhood include: (1) denial of membership ("I'm not a kid!"), (2) choice of peers (a ninth-grader avoiding eighth graders, trying to hang out with tenth graders), (3) contrasting oneself against others ("you're such a baby!"), (4) emphasizing other "superior" identities (e.g. manliness), and (5) passing as an adult (using a fake I.D., smoking, etc.).

Why is there no political conversion, youth renouncing their former allegiance to other young people, when they become adults? Because most spend their entire youth attempting to dissociate themselves from other youth, looking at "kids" from the point of view of adults, not including themselves in the category.

[Once "adulthood" is viewed as membership in an organization, it becomes possible for people to analyze and protest its policies. They can cease to identify with the group uncritically, instead becoming "conscientious objectors" within the group.]

4. How adult oppression is organized

All varieties of Youth Liberation share an anger toward three things: (1) unfair rules/laws, (2) youth being forced to do things against their will, (3) disrespect. The different forms of YL can be distinguished by how they understand the relationship between each of these issues.

YP views the family as the fundamental institution of adult oppression. Parents commanding youth, youth expected to obey -- is a model for adult-youth relationships that is elevated into law by an all-adult government that was created primarily by parents, and serves their interests. While parents may sometimes feel justified in commanding their children because the government sanctions this behavior, it does NOT make sense that parental behaviors are merely an imitation of how the government deals with youth.

Disrespectful portrayals of youth are viewed as a form of propaganda that supports the adult supremacist power structure. Parents commiserating about their kids, news items that portray the current generation as being morally worse than previous ones, scientific studies that demonstrate the biological inferiority of youths' brains, TV ads and entertainment shows that portray youth as ridiculous or needing serious moral guidance, government campaigns that encourage adults to closely supervise youth -- all these things justify and reinforce adults' belief in the rightness of what they do. There is a feedback loop involved here -- but it does NOT make sense that adult control originates with "stereotypes" or "misconceptions"... These beliefs didn't just passively spring into existence -- they were created, and there is a strong motivation for adults to continue creating them.

5. Power in the hands of parents

The original motivation for adult's command/obey relationship over youth is simple self-benefit. To a large extent, the relationship continues due to tradition -- but even if the tradition were stopped, adults would still have an interest in getting what they want. It is pleasant (though not ethical) to be able to impose your will whenever you want, and very convenient when you have agendas that you're trying to pursue.

YP does not pretend that youth and adults are identical. Youth, particularly during the early years, require care-giving: physical support, education about how to access society's services, and financial support. It requires conscientious effort to avoid coercion, and even the best parent is likely to occasionally find themselves in an impossible situation when dealing with toddlers. However, best efforts should be made to respect a young person's will, even when they are a toddler -- and as the youth masters communication, there should be no excuses. Note that there is still ample room for parents to non-coercively influence youth with opinions; it is coercion, and actually going against a youth's will that is prohibited.

YP recognizes parents' default right to custody of their offspring. However, parents ought have no power to detain a youth, should the youth want to sever the relationship. Leaving the parents home, and severing their economic obligation ought be dealt with as two separate steps. Parents, by having compelled a new person to come into existence, become financially obligated to provide them with a minimal means of survival. The relationship is not reciprocal: youth, having entered into existence without consent, are not obligated to obey their parents or financially support them.

6. Power in the hands of adult government

When the command/obey relationship is not entered into consensually, and a person is not allowed to leave it at will, this is the essence of treating a person as human property.

Parents have elevated this notion that youth are their property to the law of the land. We can see its logic in laws that prohibit youth (like slaves) from running away, that give parents permission to inflict physical pain as a means of discipline/punishment, that enable parents to "disown" incorrigible youth, that hold parents responsible for controlling their offspring.

However, because adults have organized themselves into a government, youth are not merely viewed as the private property of parents -- they are also viewed as a the collective property of all adults -- a "valuable resource" to be managed. At times, the government and individual parents come into conflict -- the government intervening in situations of abuse, removing the children. This is not a case of youth being given control over their own bodies and lives -- nor even violence being truly prohibited. Violence is merely being regulated; the collective intercedes when its property is going to be damaged by the private owner.

The adult government cannot be trusted to police itself. Opinion about what standards parents should be held to is likely to shift and change; but given how powerful a lobby parents are, there is a strong chance that they will not shift in youths' favor. Individual parents' interest in being in control is likely to be expressed in law again and again. In order to win positive changes, and to fight off new attacks on youth rights, youth activists must be vigilantly engaged in the political and legal systems.

7. Power in the hands of youth activists

It is in adults' self-interest to preserve control over youth; there is no reason for them initiate giving youth more power. Youth must demand their rights. The only way to win is to fight.

YP advocates forming "direct action" activist groups on the local level, to watchdog city, county, and state governments, responding to attacks on youth rights, and (when possible) initiating pro-youth legislation. These organizations must draw their support from the youth community itself, and should therefore host events that raise awareness among youth of relevant legal issues and foster discussion (partly as a means to develop new activists). Such activist groups must also pay attention to more than just the written law -- they must make sure that there is adequate funding for enforcement agencies, that such agencies are doing their job, and that youth actually know how to access these agencies and navigate through their systems.

Even if we reach a plateau of youth rights, a "youthtopia", the potential for adults to express self-interest again will always remain. In order to maintain justice, youth must always have a place "at the table", participating in the perpetual negotiations about how to juggle fairness for multiple parties.

8. Goals of the youth power movement

There is a great deal of overlap between YP's goals and the goals of other YL branches. Why YP advocates these particular goals, however, is a distinguishing feature.

YP's focus is on creating the means for youth to escape situations of suffering/abuse at will, without the help of adult mediators. [This does not mean that YP is against the existence of adult-run youth welfare agencies.] YP views violence against minors as the epitome of adult oppression, and generates its list of goals by imagining what would help a youth escape:

In addition to the principle that youth should be able to escape suffering at will, YP sets its goals according to a second principle: youth should be able to formally participate in all decision-making processes that effect their lives, and exclusive control over decisions where it is a matter of control over their own body. Adults have a self-interest in being in control of youth -- which constitutes a conflict of interests -- and so are not suited to be the sole guardians of youths' "best interests". While youth are likely to lose many debates over public policy, being directly involved improves their ability to protect themselves against oppressive legislation. Expressions of this principle include:

[With regards to schools, YP advocates transforming public schools rather than abolishing them. Although compulsory schooling may seem to force youth to do something, it also provides an invaluable escape from the private home into a public sphere. YP seeks to mitigate the coercive aspect by simultaneously promoting "unschooling" as an alternative educational route.]

Posted by Sven at 7:21 PM | Comments (0)

October 11, 2005

The "Youth Power" Framework (notes)


I just finished writing a multi-part essay on the "Youth Power" framework. [See the appendix for an overview.] It was a big enough concept that I didn't want to get stuck on outlining beforehand -- so I just worked off of a long list of notes. Now that I'm done, the first thing my mind wants to do is go back and reorganize all this material. I don't have time right now to do too much editing -- but I thought that I might at least sketch a new outline. Here is the overview:


The biggest changes are the addition of " A GOVERNMENT THAT PROVIDES FOR JUSTICE & WELFARE" and " SHARED INTERESTS IN ENDING OPPRESSION". I also split what was previously "THE NATURE OF YOUTH" into two sections: "HOW HUMAN BEINGS SHOULD BE TREATED" and "THE GROUP 'YOUTH'". The other sections have perhaps been re-titled and rewritten somewhat -- but their essence remains the same.


Here's the new outline, in full, for my essay-in-progress, "The 'Youth Power' Framework":


1. The fundamental "right" is ownership of one's own body.

2. Treating a person well means conscientiously respecting their right to consent or not consent in matters that concern their body.

3. It is unethical to treat any person as if they are human property.

4. Collectively, society has a responsibility to provide services to people who are impoverished or vulnerable to abuse.


1. YP presupposes the existence of an organized, democratic government.

2. YP advocates socialized services, a form of socialism.

3. There should be government-sponsored services that provide for the welfare of the needy. (e.g. Welfare, housing, food, clothing, healthcare.)

4. There should be laws that prevent oppressive treatment toward minority groups.

5. There should be well-funded agencies that enforce protective laws.

6. There should be some form of taxation that creating a pool of wealth, used to maintain justice enforcement agencies and social services.


1. "Youth" is a group whose members are characterized by: (1) being under 18 years of age, (2) living in the parents' house, and (3) being economically dependent.

[2. Youth are persons.]

3. Youth and adults are not identical.

4. Youth require care-giving. This does not justify granting adults absolute power.

5. Babies and fetuses fall outside of Youth Liberation's purview.


1. The line between adults and youth is artificial.

2. Adulthood is a membership organization.

[3. The implicit "mission statement" of the adult organization is this: "maintain control over youth".]

4. Both adults and youth try to dissociate themselves from childhood.

5. Members of the group "adults" can refuse to identify with the organization, and challenge its structure.


1. Adults oppress youth.

2. The family is the fundamental institution of adult oppression.

3. The all-adult government elevates the order of power within the family to a societal level.

4. Negative beliefs about and caricatures of youth are propaganda that supports the order of power.

5. "Ending" adultism would require a transformation of culture as well as laws.


1. Adultism is motivated by self-benefit: the desire to be in control.

2. The essence of control is to treat youth as if they are human property.

3. Parental tyranny inevitably produces situations of violence against minors. This is the epitome of adultism's harm to youth.


1. Adult authorities cannot be trusted to maintain fair and just institutions on their own.

2. Adult government must be kept in check by direct participation and activism initiated by watchdog groups.

3. The potential for injustice cannot be eliminated.


1. Youth need the means to escape suffering / abuse at will.

[2. Youth must have access to socialized services in order to lessen dependence.]

3. Youth need to be able to escape suffering without having to ask adults for help.

4. In all decisions that effect youth, youth should have direct participation in the decision-making process, or sole control.

5. To win these freedoms, youth must band together into activist groups.


1. Most oppression comes in the guise of "protection".

2. Adult allies pose a threat of cooptation.

3. It is important that actual youth be the voice of, and in control of, YL organizations.

4. There is more to being a YL advocate than just being a youth.


1. Oppression is a historical relationship between two groups, where one group has control over the other.

2. Adultism is an oppression -- comparable to racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, anti-Semitism, etc.

3. Youth have an interest in eliminating other oppressions because youth is itself a diverse group.

4. Other liberation movements have an interest in furthering the cause of youth liberation because adultism is one of the strongest models of the command/obey relationship.

5. While Youth Liberation may be encompassed within the goals of humanism, the need for youth activists who specialize in fighting adultism remains.


The goal of this essay is to describe the sub-variety of Youth Liberation that I call "Youth Power". Consequently, what I need to keep asking myself with each section is "Does this contrast YP against Youth Equality and Youth Culture -- or am I making statements that would hold true for all three flavors?" Here are a few notes about what I think of each section at present:


Identifying my principles for "right treatment" is pretty fundamental. It gets at a theory of human nature... I worry that I haven't gone far enough into exploring the implications here. I should refer back to Alison Jaggar's work... Youth Equality comes out of the political tradition of liberalism; that implies presuppositions about rationality. Am I falling into similar pitfalls? Or have I escaped them by creating a standard of "right treatment" that need not be earned? ...Do I need to say anything here about what punishments are appropriate for people who violate the principles?


This section feels almost ridiculously basic -- and yet, I think that it does a good job of contrasting YP's views against Republicanism and Anarchism. I think that YL is committed to there being a government, and depending on its authority as a means to escape being trapped under the power of individual parents. A while back I started realizing that YL has an interest in socialism; as I started digging into history, I came to see that my larger presupposition is that there be a governmental structure at all.


It feels like I'm doing two things in this section, and that perhaps I should only be doing one. Mostly I need to contrast YP with YE by talking about how we understand the differences between youth and adults. YE's notion of justice is based on treating youth and adults identically -- YP's notion of justice is based on accommodation of differences, as exemplified by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The other thing that I'm doing is stating my definition of "youth" -- although actually I'm avoiding a definition here, and using a "characteristics" approach instead. How important is it to write out my definition of youth here? Do definitions belong? Or is there room for different definitions that would still maintain the spirit of YP?

...I'm struggling with how minimalist I want this document to be. Should I eliminate all points that are not truly essential to a YP point of view? If so, I can see whole sections that could be jettisoned.


With the exception of the point about adult's "mission statement", this section seems very solid, and very vital to the YP point of view.


This section also feels pretty solid and pretty essential. The ways in which YE, YC, and YP understand what's primary, secondary, and tertiary, was one of my most exciting insights as I put this essay together.

I didn't have any point in the essay previously that said "adults oppress youth", so I re-titled the first point. I'm not sure whether or not I really need to invoke the oppression framework, though -- oppression is a extremely useful add-on, but not essential. I could probably add a section about the nature of oppression... E.g. "all youth are oppressed", "oppression is a system, not merely aberrant individuals", "oppression, privilege, and entitlement are three separate things", etc. The last section, "SHARED INTERESTS IN ENDING OPPRESSION" could go together with this new "add-on" framework.


I like the use of the word "power" here, tying back to the term "Youth Power". However, I'm not sure that "ADULT ABUSE OF POWER" is what I need here. I do like that the points deal with power within the family -- that seems to expand upon what is said in "THE ORGANIZATION OF ADULT OPPRESSION" -- but I'm left wondering, then, if there are other points about the family that I want to deal with. I'm considering going back to the original heading, "POWER AT THE INTERPERSONAL LEVEL".


Previously I had talked here about how youth need to organize themselves collectively. In this draft, I took all that out, and tried to just leave the bits about how adult power works at the governmental level -- basically that biases exist there, and that it can't be trusted to be impartial any more than individual parents can. Again, it seems like what I want to be talking about is the nature of power itself, more than the people who hold it. I'm wondering if I need to make my points a bit more general then, like "the government is a group of individuals, each of whom is corruptible", etc.


This section is now largely about what youth as a group can do that will make them as safe as possible. The point about them needing to organize into activist groups seem like less of an abstract principle, and more of a practical one, so it doesn't feel as right here... But I'm not sure that I want to move it back into the section about governmental power, either. Part of me thinks that this bit, since it deals with ideals, ought to come before the section on how the government works -- but that would break up the organization wherein I talk generally about "THE ORGANIZATION OF ADULT OPPRESSION" and then move to the family and to the government.

Maybe I need to change these two sections into "power within the family" and "power in the government" -- followed by "youth power outside of the family and government"... Sort of a "non-governmental organizations" (NGO's) approach. ...That, then would be followed by something about "YOUTH POWER AGENDA"? You'd identify three bases of power: the parents, the adult government, and youth activists groups -- then you'd say what the youth activist groups stand for. ...Which would certainly be a means of distinguishing YP from YE & YC.


This again feels a bit like an "add-on" framework. It's not essential to the YP frame, but it does derive from it, and is very complementary. Maybe I need to explicitly say that there are several interlocking frameworks here -- not just a single one... The Youth Power framework, the oppression framework, and the "by youth, for youth" framework!


I've already talked about this section. It is of one cloth, with general remarks about "oppression". [Note that I never define the term "adultism" here, either...] It really deals with progressivism -- which is, in my mind, the big reason for invoking the term "oppression" at all. It's tacked on -- but well worth mentioning somewhere. ...How do I want to go about interlocking frameworks, if I've now determined that more than one is at work here?


As a multi-part essay, there was no point in the presentation of "The 'Youth Power' Framework" where I displayed the entire outline in one place. For convenient reference, I include the original outline here.


1. The primary problem is parental tyranny and its inevitable result, violence against minors.

2. The family is the fundamental institution of adult oppression.

3. The all-adult government elevates the order of power within the family to a societal level.

4. Negative beliefs about and caricatures of youth are propaganda that supports the order of power.


5. Adultism is motivated by self-benefit: the desire to be in control.

6. The essence of control is to treat youth as if they are human property.

7. Parental tyranny inevitably produces situations of violence against minors. This is the epitome of adultism's harm to youth.

8. Right treatment of youth is founded upon their consent (and their freedom to not consent).


9. Youth should have the power necessary for self-protection, without mediation.

10. The most important freedom for Youth Liberation to win is the ability for youth to escape situations of suffering, at will.

11. Self-protection requires youth to band together, to work for their collective well-being.

12. Adult authorities cannot be trusted to maintain fair and just institutions on their own.

13. Adult government must be kept in check by direct participation and activism initiated by watchdog groups.

14. Self-protection requires direct participation (not merely representation) in all decision-making processes that effect the life of an individual youth or the youth community.

15. The potential for injustice cannot be eliminated.


16. Most oppression comes in the guise of "protection".

17. Adult allies pose a threat of cooptation.

18. It is important that actual youth be the voice of, and in control of, YL organizations.

19. There is more to being a YL advocate than just being a youth.


20. Youth are persons.

21. Treating someone "like a person" means conscientiously respecting their right to control their own body.

22. It is unethical to treat any person as if they are human property.

23. Youth and adults are not identical.

24. Youth require care-giving. This does not justify granting adults absolute power.

25. Babies and fetuses fall outside of Youth Liberation's purview.


26. The line between adults and youth is artificial.

27. Adulthood is a membership organization.

28. The implicit "mission statement" of the adult organization is this: "maintain control over youth".

29. Both adults and youth try to dissociate themselves from childhood.

30. Members of the group "adults" can refuse to identify with the organization, and challenge its structure.

31. "Ending" adultism would require a transformation of culture as well as laws.

Posted by Sven at 7:30 PM | Comments (0)

The "Youth Power" Framework (part 3)



27. Adulthood is a membership organization.

Adulthood is an organization. There are people who are members, and people who are excluded. Membership grants privileges. The rules for who is a member and who is not are explicit, they are written out. The organization has a government that makes policy decisions. The organization has a constituency of members who usually do not have direct control over policy decisions, but whom elect representatives and benefit from membership nonetheless. The lines that divide members and non-members are enforced by a police force. There's even an informal dress code, for what is considered appropriate for members to wear (as well as how they should behave).

Adulthood is unlike other organizations in several ways. Induction into the group is not voluntary, it is presumed. The majority of membership privileges are granted at age 18 -- but some are granted earlier, and some are granted later than this. Despite these peculiarities, adulthood is still fundamentally an organization.

28. The implicit "mission statement" of the adult organization is this: "maintain control over youth".

The U.S. government, by virtue of excluding youth from all participating in formal decision-making processes, could be called an "adultarchy". The government has relations with, and policies for, many groups, not just youth. Where youth are involved, however, the government's goal is to maintain control. This control may be viewed as being for young people's benefit -- protecting them, educating them, supervising them. Nonetheless, it is adults and not youth who are intended to be in control of youths' lives.

There is a tension between parents' interests and the interests of the government.

There is a long history of parents viewing children as their private property. The government, as primarily a collective of parents, raises this principle to the law of the land. A law such as a city-wide curfew is an example of rules that may exist within the home being elevated.

There are differences of opinion amongst parents about how to best manage youth as a "resource". This leads to creating standards for parenting, and intervention in situations of abuse. Youth are the private property of their parents; but they are also the collective property of all adult citizens. The question of what youth themselves want is seldom even discussed.

29. Both adults and youth try to dissociate themselves from childhood.

An important philosophical question for YL is this: If youth are oppressed by adults, why do they themselves go on to support the adultarchy? If adulthood is an organization, wouldn't becoming an adult require a sort of political conversion, wherein youth renounce their former identity as a youth?

It is undesirable to be underneath other people's control. It is an inferior status that bears stigma. Consequently, both youth and adults attempt to dissociate themselves from childhood and things deemed "childish". There are a number of strategies for doing this.

A young person may (1) simply deny membership ("I'm not a kid!") -- interpreting childhood as a matter of character rather than law. They may (2) avoid being in the company of people younger than them, and try to make friends with people older than themselves (tenth graders avoiding ninth graders, trying to hang out with eleventh graders). They may try to make themselves seem superior bullying or putting down peers ("you're such a baby!"). Youth may (4) try to emphasize another identity's superiority, in order to compensate for youth's inferiority (e.g. manliness). Or, they may (5) try to pass as an adult -- either by embracing "adult" activities such as smoking, drinking, and sex -- or by actually creating a fake I.D.

Adults, even though they are formally members of the adult organization, often continue to engage in these same behaviors. It is still possible for the stigma of seeming "young" to be attached to an adult. And, since adulthood is a largely artificial category, it may be difficult to feel secure in one's identity.

[Most people never "renounce" their former identity as "youth" upon becoming adults, because they never identified as "youth" to begin with. They have spent their entire lives looking at the world from the adult point of view, and attempting not to be marked as "kids".]

30. Members of the group "adults" can refuse to identify with the organization, and challenge its structure.

There is an important distinction to be made between "membership" and "identity". With regards to being a youth or an adult, one has no control over which group one has membership in. However, one can "identify" with either group at any particular time. One's identity is how one thinks of oneself, and presents oneself to the world.

People who have been given membership in adulthood need not identify with the organization's interests. One may in essence be a "conscientious objector", fighting against adults' control of youth. One may even consider oneself a sort of "abolitionist", attempting to do away with the organization (as it stands) altogether. In terms of the "dress codes" of adulthood, one may be an "age bender" -- mixing adult and youth clothing, behaviors, and cultural interests. Rather than aspiring to be either "young" or "adult-like" at all, one may aspire to embody "ageless being" -- transcending the stereotypes attached to either category.

31. "Ending" adultism would require a transformation of culture as well as laws.

Adult oppression of youth is not merely a matter of laws. Laws are simply the most clearly articulated expressions of adult supremacism.

If we were able to truly end adultism, we need to begin with revisioning the relationship between adults and youth within the family. Creating a new relationship there, which is based on egalitarianism and young people's ownership of their own bodies -- but which also deals with the practical issues of being a caregiver -- would give us a firm foundation for also creating new laws. Even within YL, work remains to be done. revisioning the parent-child relationship.

Even beyond the parent-child relationship, however, adultism is embedded in identity. Adult supremacism is not merely about seeing youth negatively -- it is also about adults feeling pride, feeling they are better than youth, feeling they deserve control. Adulthood itself must be re-imagined. Youth Power advocates a vision of "ageless being" -- a society wherein differences in anatomical and mental ability are grappled with seriously, but where there is no special glory in being adult or male or white or able-bodied -- these things are mere accidents. To invest identity in them sows the seeds for oppression.

[It should be noted that investing identity in being a youth, female, black, disabled, etc. -- while oppression exists -- is another matter. Identity of this sort provides the basis for resisting oppression. It is the work of adults to learn to see themselves as more similar to youth; it is the work of youth to learn to see the ways in which they are treated dissimilarly from adults.]

Posted by Sven at 4:16 PM | Comments (0)

October 5, 2005

The "Youth Power" Framework (part 2)



11. Self-protection requires youth to band together, to work for their collective well-being.

Sometimes a young person's suffering is not simply the result of an individual adult, acting as a private citizen. Sometimes suffering is the result of how an institutional system is constructed. A law or rule is inherently unfair -- or it encourages adults to act in ways that are unfair or abusive -- or it prevents youth from engaging in a decision-making process that could change the situation.

12. Adult authorities cannot be trusted to maintain fair and just institutions on their own.

Adult leaders working in institutions such federal / state / county / city governments or the agencies thereof (e.g. police bureau, liquor commission, school boards) -- are lobbied by many interest groups. Elected and appointed officials themselves tend to be members of such interest groups, who have risen to power. Society will always have many segments to it, and will always remain diverse. Adult leaders -- serving both their constituencies and their own biases -- are likely to favor adult interests over youths' self-professed interests when youth-related issues come up. That is, if the adults are even aware of what youths' self-professed interests are.

It is in the self-interest of adults -- as individuals, and as a collective -- to exclude youth from decision making processes. Without youth participation, adults can make whatever laws / rules they feel are useful -- even if they seem outrageously unjust to youth. Being in control is a desirable position to be in. Adults' interest in control is in direct conflict with youths' interest in controlling their own lives.

13. Adult government must be kept in check by direct participation and activism initiated by watchdog groups.

Because adults cannot be expected to know how youth feel without consulting them, and because it is within adults self-interest to exclude youth from power, and because excluding youth from power leads to adults abusing power (perhaps merely out of convenience, or due to a mood) -- youth must play an active role in keeping adults in check.

Pragmatically, this means that youth must maintain activist organizations which both watchdog adult authorities for misbehavior, and train members of the youth community in how to do activism which will bring about change.

Adults have no motive to change on their own. Youth must confront adult authorities and demand it. The only way to win new freedom -- or even to just preserve the freedom that exists now -- is to fight for it.

14. Self-protection requires direct participation (not merely representation) in all decision-making processes that effect the life of an individual youth or the youth community.

This is a general principle: if youth are to be able to protect themselves against suffering and injustice, then they must be formally involved in all decision-making processes that effect their lives.

At the group-level, this means decision-making processes about things such as the minimum wage, taxes, requirements for drivers' licenses, etc., youth should be able to formally register their opinions with equal weight to adults. If that means a vote, then youth need the right to vote. If decision-making is done by a small committee, then youth must be members of that committee (e.g. a school board). If decision-making is done by representatives, then youth must be allowed to run for office, and to participate in electing their representatives. [Youth will not necessarily win elections, nor will their segment of the voting population necessarily ever be able to defeat adult voters.]

This does not mean that youth and adults should be equals in all matters. Especially within the family, there many decisions in which adults should have no say at all. Where a young person has a will for how they want to use their own body, a concerned and friendly adult might voice an opinion -- but they should have no right to veto power. Examples: when a young person chooses to have sex, get an abortion, get a tattoo, objects to being hit, travels at night, wants to spends time with whom they choose. [Respecting the will of toddlers is a more complicated matter -- but the principle stands.]

15. The potential for injustice cannot be eliminated.

Because self-interest is innate, the potential for adult leaders to seize unjust control over youth is permanent. We might be very lucky, and in one generation educate all members of society about adultism, convincing all that youth and adults should live together in a more egalitarian fashion. Even if this were the case, though, some one or more adults in a future generation could reinvent the notion of adult superiority and take action upon it.

Because the threat is permanent, youth activists must remain eternally vigilant against injustice, and continue to train the youth who follow them in how to fight back. Justice means that youth will always be at the negotiating table -- not that there is nothing left to negotiate, and youth can stop having to engage.


16. Most oppression comes in the guise of "protection".

The adult population circulates a great deal of anti-youth propaganda. Parents commiserate about their kids, adults make derisive comments about youth culture, the adult media runs news stories that imply contemporary youth are a problem generation, and the government (and non-governmental agencies) run campaigns urging adults to take control. Even so, much adult oppression is done with the intent of "helping", "guiding", and "protecting" children.

Adults must be judged not on their words alone, but upon whether or not young people's own wills are being heeded, and if youth are being granted more or less control.

17. Adult allies pose a threat of cooptation.

Even adults who explicitly support the Youth Liberation political agenda pose a threat. Growing up in this society, messages that adults should be in control seep into would-be allies minds; they are over-eager to voice their own opinions; perhaps they were youth activists themselves, and haven't transitioned into their new role as adult allies. The result is that the actual youth participants in a group feel stepped-upon, not listened to, and lose control of their organization.

This does not necessarily mean that adults must not participate in YL groups -- but there is a case to be made for limiting participation. For instance: speaking in discussions but not voting, and not speaking in public in place of actual youth members. It is scary and awkward to confront an adult when they have said or done something that stings; adults should not presume that they have not offended simply because they haven't heard a complaint. Adults in YL groups should go out of their way to encourage youth to criticize them; it's a good idea to leave a time at the end of each meeting when youth are invited to talk about any interaction that "stung".

18. It is important that actual youth be the voice of, and in control of, YL organizations.

If the main purpose of YL is that youth should have control over their own lives, then they should also have control in the organizations dedicated to winning that freedom.

Youth activists have an authenticity that supporters of youth rights should put at the forefront of the cause. Youth know about the problems they experience first-hand, rather than abstractly; they have insight into the details and emotional impact of life as a young person that others won't think of, or simply don't feel as profoundly. Youth are motivated because they are being directly impacted; outsiders are less likely to care as passionately about youth issues, if the going gets rough. Youth activists also lack the conflict of interests that adults -- because they benefit from being in control -- have.

Youth are also likely to be heard differently than adult speakers. Youth opinions may be discounted as "naive" -- but it is unusual to hear youth speak out as a group, which will seize adults' attention. Youth talking demanding control of their own lives makes it believable that youth can control their own lives -- whereas this is a point of debate when adults discuss the matter amongst themselves. The ideal world that we seek to create is one in which adults listen to youth; it's good to introduce adults to this experience in a very practical way.

19. There is more to being a YL advocate than just being a youth.

Being a good advocate requires more than just being a youth -- but also more than just good ideas.

Being an adult doesn't mean that someone is a bad ally -- simply that they aren't cut out to be the formal leader of a YL group, or be the main spokesperson for the group. Adult allies must be conscientious about not taking over youth-led groups -- but this does not mean that they are bad people, or the same as Youth Liberation's opponents. Still, good ideas alone are not enough.

Neither is just being young enough to make one a good YL advocate. Many youth -- happy to just wait out youth and then assume adult supremacist power -- are actually against Youth Lib. Being young does not automatically "enlighten" a person and guarantee their support for the cause.

Being an ideal spokesperson for young people requires both the vantage point on society conferred by living in a young body, and also a youth-centered politics -- one that grows out of having personal relationships with others in the youth community, and having a historical perspective that that comes from studying the history of youths' position within society.


20. Youth are persons.

Young people -- by which I mean anyone who is legally a "minor" -- have personhood and humanity that is equal to that of adults.

Youth should be treated with the dignity and respect due to persons. People -- all people -- should be treated as well as possible (given constraints such as time, energy, resources, threat) at all times.

...Often they are not. Youth are one of several groups that are treated as inferior persons, less-than-persons -- sometimes even as sub-human -- by much of the U.S. population, much of the time.

Youth Liberation seeks to promote treating youth like persons.

21. Treating someone "like a person" means conscientiously respecting their right to control their own body.

The key words that Youth Power uses to describe a person's humanity are: boundaries, will, consent. Youth are no less adults' equals in personhood if they are seen as lacking in any of these qualities. Youths' humanity is inalienable. We use these words to help describe how to treat youth well.

Youth have innate boundaries. They are the sole owners of their own bodies. They have a human right to control the immediate physical space around their body. They are entitled to own property, which is to be treated as if it were an extension of their body. That is, the youth has the right to control whether these things are touched, moved, remain in place, modified, or destroyed. They have a right to refuse to exert their body or mind's energies.

Youth have a will. That is, an emotional or intellectual opinion about what they want with regards to control of their body. Where a youth's own body is concerned -- so long as they aren't violating another person's control of their own body -- the young person's will should be supreme, no other person having veto power. There is room for ethical intervention in cases where a youth has no discernable will, and another seeks to do care-giving. There is also room for ethical intervention where a youth has discernable will, but due to ignorance of an immediate and probable physically harmful consequence (e.g. stepping in front of a car), their action must be interrupted immediately. There is not an exception for overriding the youth's will when physical harm will not be immediate (e.g. drug use); but there is room for stating one's opinions. A second person may conscientiously choose to force a youth to do something against the young person's will, for the sake of serving their own needs or convenience; doing so may not cause harm, but it is ethically undesirable. The person who aspires to being ethical will conscientiously seek to create means to avoiding such situations.

Youth have a right to give or withhold consent. Ideally, consent is an explicit verbal "yes", given enthusiastically, without fear or confusion. This is an ideal to aspire to; agreements are seldom so clear-cut. In virtually all situations, that which is consensual is also ethical. Whether or not something is consensual is the prime test for whether it is ethical.

Boundaries, will, and consent belong (somewhat obviously) not only to youth, but to all persons. The rights described here are those that should be enjoyed by all humanity.

22. It is unethical to treat any person as if they are human property.

That which is consensual is ethical. Doing something to a person -- or compelling them to do something -- against their will, without their consent, is unethical. The epitome of a non-consensual relationship is to treat someone as if they are property. Historically (in the U.S.) enslaved Africans, women, children have all experienced a similar level of subjugation, being treated as if they were the property to be owned.

The essence of this relationship is that one person commands and the other is expected to obey. If the "owned" person does not obey, the "owner" may inflict physical pain to compel obedience. The "owned" person is legally prevented from voluntarily leaving the relationship. [Whether or not an "owner" may at will transfer possession of the "owned" to another is perhaps a distinguishing mark of full slave status, but not, I think, essential to the persons-as-property metaphor.]

[Note to self: Here I am describing a relationship in which the oppressed are of use to the oppressor, e.g. as labor of some sort. But what about situation where the oppressed is seen as an obstacle to the oppressor? This would be the case for groups such as the Australian Aborigines, Native Americans, and Jews -- natives in the way of colonization, or perpetual outsiders. Oppression has two extremes: enslavement, and genocide. On the genocide side of things, I seem to be leaving questions about minimum care out. What about issues of neglect? An oppressed population can be suppressed with poverty, starvation, lack of funding -- as well as by violence.]

[This section sounds too similar to point #6 -- "The essence of control is to treat youth as if they are human property" -- and should probably be excised.]

23. Youth and adults are not identical.

Anatomically, biologically, mentally, and psychologically, there are important differences between children and adults. Of course, youth and adults are only artificially separate groups -- there is a continuum of age, "youth" metamorphosing into "adults".

At the extreme, you have babies, who are unable to understand language, find food or feed it to themselves, find clothes or dress themselves, walk, procure transportation, navigate to stores or buy things, procure or use money. They are profoundly ignorant and in need of assistance.

Youth as a group are not to be defined by this extreme, however. With amazing speed, these skills -- and countless more -- are acquired, and youth become capable of intelligently moving through the world. It is also worth noting that youth are not alone in their initial disabilities. For every disability that young people begin with, there is a significant number of adults who face the same challenge. There are adults who are illiterate, or who don't know how to speak English -- and there are adults with more significant disabilities, who are unable to feed or clothe themselves without assistance.

Rather than simply advocating that youth be treated identically to the average adult [which is what the Youth Equality movement does], Youth Power seeks to transform how we view the entire human population. Among the population as a whole, there is a diversity of ability. We must strive to make society increasingly accessible to people who do not have the abilities of the "average" adult citizen.

24. Youth require care-giving. This does not justify granting adults absolute power.

Youth Power finds common cause with the People with Disabilities movement. Both movements seek respectful rather than demeaning treatment. Both seek to maximize people's ability to live an independent life, following their own will. Both value the importance of good care-givers -- and believe that care-givers must at all times strive to assist the will of the ward, not impose their own.

Youth Power views parents primarily as care-givers. For having given a child existence, they are obligated to provide the necessities for continued survival; youth owe no obligation of obedience in exchange for this basic care. There is a presumption that birth parents will be the child's primary care-givers; we do not advocate automatically making children wards of the state. However, neither does Youth Power believe that obstacles should stand in the way of the youth leaving their birth family. A youth should be able to sever themselves from their family at will; severing the relationship of housing / care and severing the obligation of economic support should be two separate steps. Youth Power promotes alternatives to living with the birth family, such as creating youth communal housing, increased ability for youth to choose their own foster family, and increased access to welfare funds.

[This next bit is probably, again, off topic.]

In ancient Rome, fathers had (at least in legal theory) the power of life or death over their offspring. Offspring had no independent legal existence, being subsumed under the power of the head-of-household. They were expected to fulfill an obligation of obedience for having been brought into existence, and could be sold into slavery...

In England during most of the second millennium, a parent was no longer allowed to sell their child into slavery (although forced labor wasn't necessarily better), or murder them. A new legal obligation upon the parent to provide for their children came into being (to relieve the state of the burden). The obligation that youth give obedience and labor in exchange for existence remained...

In the U.S. during the first part of the 20th century, there was a major shift in adult-youth relations: youth labor was largely prohibited, and the prohibition was bolstered by compulsory schooling, which helped to remove youth from their parents' control. Youth were no longer obligated to give labor in exchange for material support -- but the obligation of obedience (and parents right to discipline) remain.

Youth Power challenges this fundamental notion that because a parent gave you existence, you owe them obedience. Rather, we believe that for forcing youth into existence, parents incur an obligation to support the person they have created -- and youth are not obligated to make "payment" to them of any sort.

25. Babies and fetuses fall outside of Youth Liberation's purview.

Youth are no less persons if they are unable to communicate. However, since Youth Liberation is primarily concerned with amplifying youth's ability to have their will (in matters of their body) win out, in practical terms our interests begin with verbal speech, when a youth is able to articulate will themselves. [Youth Liberation, then, has at least some interest in teaching infants sign language, as a means to making contact via articulate communication even earlier.]

With regards to fetuses, if one chooses to view them as persons, then there is a conflict between two segments of youth: fetuses and young women who would choose not to have the fetuses inside of them. In this situation, the rights of the girl win out, because no person -- adult or fetus has a right to inhabit her body without her consent.

The situation is likened to rape: a man has no right to be inside of a woman's body if she does not want him there. If there is a way to stop a rape mid-progress without killing the man, then that is the ethically preferred option. However, the man's life is forfeit if he refuses to leave. Rape, as we understand it, encompasses not only assault by strangers, but also rape that occurs on dates or within marriage. Sexual intercourse that began consensually may become rape if a man refuses to leave the woman's body. By the same reasoning, then, it may be ethically preferable for a woman rid herself of an unwanted child in a way that is non-lethal -- but the fetus' life is forfeit when it does not leave her body when she wills it. And, just as consensual sex may become rape, whether or not the woman consented to the sex that led to the pregnancy is irrelevant to the issue of whether or not fetus has a right to continue inhabiting the woman.

[Youth Equality is more likely to avoid the issue of abortion (because it's controversial) or be pro-life (viewing fetuses as the youngest of youth); it has less of an emphasis rights originating with ownership of one's own body.]


26. The line between adults and youth is artificial.

There are main ways of defining "adulthood": as (1) a biological phase, (2) a set of characteristic qualities and behaviors, or (3) a legal status.

Youth Power tends to focus on adulthood as a legal status, which is inherently artificial.

Youth Power tends to view the characteristic qualities and behaviors that distinguish adults and youth also as artificial. We posit the existence of "adult culture", which is not inherently superior to "youth culture".

Adult culture sets its ideal for behavior as "maturity", a word that perhaps means all positive traits: wisdom, responsibility, seriousness, emotional stability, competence, intelligence, etc... Adults collectively blur the distinction between "maturity" as an inevitable biological state and "maturity" as a personal achievement: thus, if you don't have one, at least you have the other. Youth get the short end of the stick with this arrangement. The opposite of maturity, "immaturity", is equated with nearly everything negative: foolishness, irresponsibility, silliness, emotional instability, incompetence, stupidity, etc. Youth are stigmatized for being immature of character -- but even if they are "mature" in this way, they are still by definition immature biologically. Biological youth then, is smeared by association. There is no way to escape the stigma of simply being young. [The Youth Culture branch of YL focuses on reclaiming youthful qualities as valuable: e.g. playful, emotionally engaged, curious...]

In addition to "maturity" as an ideal to aspire to, adult culture divides the world into "adult" stuff and "kid's stuff". There's adult music, adult movies, adult books, adult clothing, adult hairstyles, adult food, adult art, and so on. Adults are enticed to embrace their own culture, and to avoid / speak badly of youth culture. Just as it should not be said that Japanese cultural expressions are superior to Mexican cultural expressions (or some other such ridiculous example), it should not be said that authentic products of youth culture (e.g. youth music, fashions) are inferior to those of adults. They merely have a different aesthetic. [To what extent youth are able to have an independent culture that has not been marketed to them by adults is another matter.]

With regards to biological age, there are firm markers such as puberty, losing one's "baby teeth", growing taller, etc. However, there's a great deal of interpretation that can be done about what these things mean. Much of the behavior markers of youth that others would attribute to hormones and brain development, Youth Power would attribute to cultural or existential differences. ["Existential" here referring to things such as what it means to have had less time to explore the world.]

[Note: The bits about culture go on to long. It's also interesting that I skipped the usual bit about how definitions of adulthood have varied during different time periods, and in different places. I skipped issues of a drawing a numerical age line entirely... Very interesting. The "Adulthood is a membership organization" approach may make that bit obsolete now. It's not necessary; it's sufficient just to say that there is an organization that does set age lines and polices them.]

[It might have been useful in this section to say something about how youth don't naturally have qualities different than those of adults, that youth are able to display all those qualities that constitute "maturity" when it is what is they feel inclined to do...]


Posted by Sven at 12:00 PM | Comments (0)

October 3, 2005

The "Youth Power" Framework (part 1)


1. The primary problem is parental tyranny and its inevitable result, violence against minors.

There are several varieties of YL thought. All branches of YL are concerned with these three areas: (1) unfair laws & rules, (2) use of force against youth, (3) disrespect. However, each of the branches assigns different weight to these areas, and describes the relationship between them differently.

Youth Power does not necessarily prioritize which area is more important than another to work on, since issues tend force themselves upon activists -- however, it does view certain issues as more central to what causes adultism. Youth Power understands centrality and describes relationships thus:

primary problem:
parents being tyrannical, teachers being so in loco parentis

secondary problem:
nearly absolute parental control elevated into law, so that all adults have control over all youth

tertiary problem:
this order of adult power over youth is bolstered by pro-adult, anti-youth propaganda

[To contrast: "Youth Equality" (a.k.a. "Youth Rights) views unfair laws as primary, and tends to view disrespectful beliefs ("stereotypes" and "prejudice") as a secondary concern -- often positing these beliefs as the original cause of laws that discriminate. Parental tyranny tends to be ignored, except in terms of where it overlaps with the legal rights that a full adult citizen would enjoy.]

["Youth Culture" tends to posit disrespect of youth as the primary problem, largely ignoring both law and family as issues -- except with regards to how they constrain youth from being themselves. (School, however, does play a fairly large role in "Youth Culture" thought.)]

2. The family is the fundamental institution of adult oppression.

Stated differently, Youth Power views the family as the fundamental institution of adult oppression. Parents' power over their children is the model upon which all other institutions dealing with youth are based. The family is a hierarchy, wherein adults claim the right to command youth, and youth are expected to obey.

3. The all-adult government elevates the order of power within the family to a societal level.

The current government, because it explicitly excludes youth from political participation (running for office and voting) is appropriately termed an "adultarchy". The system of government we have elevates the familiar order of adults-over-youth to a societal level. At the familial level youth are essentially the property of their parents; at the societal level, youth are a resource owned collectively by all adult citizens. Adult society claims the power to limit youth freedoms in ways similar to the family (e.g. curfews, driving privileges...). The power of adults as a collective may override the rights of individual parents.

4. Negative beliefs about and caricatures of youth are propaganda that supports the order of power.

Negative beliefs about youth serve to rationalize adult's dehumanizing power over youth, in the face of youth's humanity. Anti-youth beliefs are transmitted in many forms, including: commiseration between adults, derision of youth culture, slanted news items, punditry asserting that the current generation is a sort of "problem people", scientific research that demonstrates youths' supposed irrationality (etc.), and public campaigns urging adults to take a stronger hand in supervising kids.

The fact that such propaganda has been going on for so long means that there's a feedback loop, so that adults exert control because of their beliefs. However, Youth Power differs from Youth Equality because it sees this propaganda as serving a motive of control, rather than being an original cause. Youth Power is critical of Youth Equality for not explaining where negative beliefs come from, rather explaining them as free-floating "stereotypes" arising from over-generalization.


5. Adultism is motivated by self-benefit: the desire to be in control.

Human beings are innately self-interested. It is natural to try to make the world around you suit your preferences. However, in dealing with other people, forcing them to do what you want is usually unethical. Self-interest is transcended when one is conscientious about the boundaries between oneself and others -- only enforcing one's will when one a matter when within one's rights, striving for consensual arrangements otherwise.

When another person is under someone's control, if there isn't a strong motive to be conscientious (or push back from the person being commanded), there is a gravitational pull to use power in ways that are not in the other person's "best interest" but simply suit the authority's preference, mood, or whim.

As infants, youth require focused care-giving to survive. As youth become able to care for themselves, they still require material and economic support. This is an inconvenient and sometimes burdensome situation for parents. It is convenient and desirable on selfish level to have absolute command over youth.

6. The essence of control is to treat youth as if they are human property.

"Power" and "control" are fairly abstract words. A more understandable term is "command/obey relationship": adults feel entitled to command youth, youth are expected to obey. When a person is expected to obey, but has not entered into this relationship voluntarily, and has no way of opting out of the relationship at will, then they essentially become the property of the person commanding them.

Historically, women, youth, and slaves (think not only of Africans abducted to America, but also slavery as it existed in Roman times) have suffered this status similarly -- and only during the past three centuries has the rightness of people-as-property begun to lose its veneer of naturalness. Youth Liberation joins in the project of erasing the last vestiges of people-as-property from the world.

7. Parental tyranny inevitably produces situations of violence against minors. This is the epitome of adultism's harm to youth.

Not all parents use violence against minors; however, intentionally inflicting physical pain is a tool of control legally available to all parents. Violence is a means to an ends: a means to compel youth to obey. Given the legal mandates for parents to control their children, and the culture sets up adult maintaining youth obedience as an end in itself, it is inevitable that some parents will use the tool of violence. Furthermore, it is inevitable that a minority of parents will not only cause suffering -- they will cause physical damage or death. Child abuse is not abnormal; it is a product of status quo attitudes. Legally "child abuse" is not prohibited; it is merely regulated.

These are the stakes for Youth Liberation: life and death. Violence against minors is adultism taken to its logical conclusion. It is the epitome of adult power over youth. It symbolizes what youth activists are fighting for, and is a tangible test for whether our proposed policies are on the right track: do our proposals help youth defend themselves against violence?

8. Right treatment of youth is founded upon their consent (and their freedom to not consent).

The antithesis of coercion is consent. Whatever a youth consents to -- fully understanding the bargain, without fear, and consent given explicitly -- is ethical. Consent is an ideal; most interactions fall somewhere along a continuum of consent and coercion, being neither extreme fully. The younger a child is, the more difficult it is to negotiate a consensual arrangement. Consent is an ideal to aspire to; failure is not always a terrible wrong -- but without aspiring to create a consent-based relationship, terrible wrongs are likely to occur.

Consent-based relationships represent an ideal for interpersonal relationships not just for youth, but for all people.

[To contrast: Youth Equality bases its understanding of "right treatment" upon the notion of identical treatment. Justice, according to this framework, is a matter of non-discrimination, of treating all people the same. This leads to several difficulties: (1) Are we to ignore the biological differences between people and different levels of need for care-giving? (2) Who is the standard person upon whom rights should be based? (3) What if the benchmark for how all people should be treated is low? [It's no good to be treated the same if everyone is treated badly.] (4) Attempting to be "age blind" blinds one to the ways in which youth and adults are treated differently. (5) It is impossible to not make generalizations about people, and some assumptions turn out to be well-founded -- trying to deal with everyone purely as an individual ignores this intelligence.]

[To be fair, the Youth Power principle of consent is also problematic. For instance, what is a parent to do if they are out in public with a young child who is doing damage to a merchant's merchandise? Consensual interaction becomes difficult or impossible if the youth is for some reason unable to engage in rational discussion... I expect that there are work-arounds for situations such as this, that arrive at some sort of ethical solution, one that minimizes coercion.]


9. Youth should have the power necessary for self-protection, without mediation.

Youth must have the power to protect themselves from suffering, without having to call upon an adult to represent them. [Note the "no, go, yell, tell" and "stranger danger" programs.] This is not an ideal world; adults do not necessarily believe a young person's complaint, or believes considers just, or simply ignores the problem. Youth should be given the ability to use physical self-defense in the moment, trained in how to do emergency planning, and be given many options for how to escape situations of suffering. [I am thinking here most of abusive parents, but a bad school situation, or oppressive laws also fall into this domain.]

[Self-protection does not preclude there also being adult-run advocacy groups. It's just that youth should not be compelled to be utterly dependent upon the protection of others.]

10. The most important freedom for Youth Liberation to win is the ability for youth to escape situations of suffering, at will.

There are "positive" and "negative" freedoms. A positive freedom is the legal right to do something: to vote, to drive a car, to hold a job. A negative freedom is a guarantee that one will not experience something: hunger, child abuse, discrimination. [Laws cannot actually guarantee negative freedoms -- they can only set up service programs (e.g. free school lunch) or punishments if a perpetrator is apprehended.] The freedom that Youth Power is most interested in is termed "exit freedom" -- the ability to leave situations of suffering at will. It is a power that it can be bolstered by appropriate laws and service programs, but which is ultimately invested in youth themselves.

Examples of things that would support youth escaping a violent home: a knowledge of physical self-defense; hostels, shelters, or safe-houses to immediately escape to; no city-level curfew in the way of traveling; inexpensive or free public transportation; laws that deal with violence against minors as assault rather than "discipline"; eradication of laws against running away; easier ability to self-emancipate ("divorce one's parents"); independent access to welfare; guaranteed scholarships for school based on having left one's parents; access to free healthcare (in cases of injury); youth control over the decision to stay with or leave their parents; partnerships between child protection agencies and schools, so youth are familiar with their options; legal aid funds for youth who allege violence.


Posted by Sven at 12:00 PM | Comments (0)

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 12:00 PM | Comments (4)

August 29, 2005

Exploration: Blueprint for Revolution (part 4)

[NOTE: This document was added to the blog on September 6, 2005]

Well, apparently I have enough material in me for a fourth installment. Once again, this is not so much an essay as a brain-dump -- getting all the various practicalities of activism out of my head so that I'll be able to reshuffle the pieces into formal essays later.


Thinking once again at the national level, I'm interested to note that specialist organizations seem more effective than generalist organizations. Think about the early 70s when the National Organization for Women (NOW) is really expanding quickly. The dialogue about women's rights is at its early stages in the popular mind, so it's possible to conceive of an organization with enough committees to cover every women's issue. Thirty-plus years later, the various feminist issues are now championed by separate organizations -- if not separate movements. Getting women elected, abortion, domestic violence -- each cause deserves its own focus.

With regards to YL, the national organizations that I'm familiar with (e.g. NYRA, ASFAR) are still very generalist in nature: their manifestos lay out many various issues that we see as hanging together. Is this a stage in the growth of the movement? Maybe we'll be evolving in the right direction if we establish an anti-curfew movement with a national coalition, and another that deals only with voting rights, and so on. On the other hand, I've noticed in looking at feminism that while the activists have become pretty specialized, there's still a need (particularly among men) for groups that show how all the issues are related. It seems to me like there's a gap right now that needs to be filled -- there should be an organization (or two) at the national level promoting a "101" level of anti-sexist awareness.


There's a strong impulse to found an organization. We can see that the problem of adultism is going to be around for a while, and we can think of lots of issues that we want to tackle... So we want to pledge our commitment to tackling all these issues by creating a group with an infrastructure that will allow it to last for years to come.

This may be a mistake. It takes a great deal of effort to maintain the existence of an organization. It also takes a great deal of effort to spearhead a political campaign. The work that it takes to simply maintain the organization may get in the way of actually doing the work that it's supposed to support. You can find yourself in a position of having endless weekly meetings where you're trying to figure out how to get more members -- but no one's going to join because you're not actually tackling the real problems, you're only promising to do so once enough people are present. If your energy is limited -- and it usually is -- it may make sense to dive into working on a political campaign; if you start making progress, that will interest people in joining you.

Youth groups are particularly prone to turn-over. If you yourself aren't going to be a part of this organization for several years to come, trying to stabilize the internal structure is probably a bad use of energy. Do something that can get done -- and be called "finished" -- during the year or two or three that you can personally give.

The wish for an ever-lasting youth organization is related to setting up a multi-issue group: you see that there's lots of work to be done. Again, rather than trying to tackle the vote and the curfew and discrimination against youth at a chain of restaurants, you'll probably do better to focus your energy on a single project. ...If you have 45 or 50 youth actually attending your meetings, rather than a typical maximum of 15, then maybe you're ready to branch out!


Suppose you've settled on trying to eliminate the curfew. There are (at least) two major approaches to how to construct your organization for this purpose. On the one hand, you can frame this as a Youth Rights issue, and thus name your group "Youth Rights Portland". If you do this, you'll be attract people who believe in youth rights as members, and the name of the group will keep people coming at the issue from this angle.

On the other hand, you could name the group something like "Project No Curfew". By making your group's campaign part of the name, you're able to attract anyone who wants that goal -- even if they wouldn't endorse a broader Youth Liberation agenda or ideology.

I've seen a conflict of opinions on this matter emerge (and boil over) several times, in various contexts. One faction wants as many people involved as possible, and doesn't care who's involved -- so long as they agree on this one issue. Another faction feels that you shouldn't ally yourself with groups that would be against you in other contexts. For instance, during the 80s there was a coalition against pornography that included both some feminist groups and some religious conservative groups. This created a lot of controversy in the feminist community, activists being unhappy with the company they found themselves keeping.

In identity politics, putting the issue first may also lead to problems within organizational meetings themselves. When men and women work together against sexism, whites and blacks against racism, adults and youth against adultism, there is potential for members of the oppressor group -- though well-meaning -- to engage in typically oppressive behaviors. At worst, members of the oppressed group can feel that their organization has been stolen from them. In less severe situations, it can simply feel like the men / whites / adults can't be confronted for their bad behavior, because they're "one of the good ones".

Adult allies bringing their patterns of oppression into an anti-adultism group can be an argument for youth separatism. I am not in favor of pure separatism -- for practical reasons: adults have valuable resources that youth stand to benefit from. However, I do think it's important to confront oppressive behaviors, even when coming from one's "allies". The compromise I advocate is building processes into youth organizations that encourage youth to discuss words and actions that "stung" either when they happen or at the end of each meeting.

This practice of "processing" does have the potential to take up valuable time when one is in the middle of a campaign. When one is tight-for-time in the middle of a campaign, in fact, is probably when conflicts are most likely to arise. Having the campaign fall apart because group participants are too busy processing is unacceptable. Still, being in the habit of dealing with "stings" during times when the group is not under pressure can help build a trust that gets the group through the more challenging periods.

[Another strategy for naming organizations that I should mention: to pick a slogan that responds directly to the opponents' criticisms. For instance, in Oregon civil rights for gays and lesbians have been called "special rights" by opponents. In response, one of our most powerful organizations has dubbed itself "Basic Rights Oregon". This naming strategy may be a more advanced concept, since it comes into play when the opposition is already well-organized. Most of the activism I'm discussing here begins in a context where the opposition has not yet organized itself.]


It can be difficult for representative organizations to do political activism. If you initially set up your organization so that people could be dues-paying members, then you've probably implied that your group exists to serve their will. If there are board members who are periodically elected to their positions, this impression is strengthened.

Having a base of many members strengthens your position as a voice for a community -- you can say "I speak for the 500 dues-paying members who elected me". However, how do you choose to serve them circumstances are changing quickly?

For example: Suppose you've had a meeting with a the mayor, in which you gave her the text of a new law that you'd like passed. She says she'll think about it. A week later you find out that she has decided to bring the proposal to the city council for a vote -- but she's changed the wording. In some ways you'll get what you want -- but in other ways you may actually lose ground. The vote is in three days. What do you do?

On the one hand, you could decide that having been elected by your membership, they trust you to make decisions in cases like this -- so you decide to either support or oppose the new text on your own, and the members can vote you out of office later if they didn't like your decision.

On the other hand, you could try to call an emergency community meeting. Community members could talk about their opinions in person, so you'd know how they really feel, and you'd probably get ideas that you wouldn't have had on your own. But because you may only be able to give 36 hours notice before this meeting, attendance may be pretty bad.

I've been through dilemma very similar to this, myself. You may never find yourself in this situation, though... Let me come at this from a different angle.

The smaller the group you are in, the more likely it is that you'll be able to arrive at agreement. The larger the group you have, the more diversity of opinion there will be, and the more difficult it will be to reach a consensus. Politics are inherently matters of opinion. If an issue is not part of your mission statement -- if perhaps it has recently emerged and you are trying to respond -- then you may not be able to unify your membership and rally them behind the cause.

A small group, a "cadre", does not have this problem. When your activist group is only as big as the number of people who are in your meeting room, then you can make decisions without being concerned about what non-participating members think.

Again, I seem to be making an argument for single-purpose organizations. When I was with the Portland Bisexual Alliance board of directors, we tried to be a one-stop all-in-one organization. We had social events, educational events, and political events... But while the leadership was committed to doing politics, many of the members were purely interested in social events, and were disinterested in the projects that we hoped to rally their support behind. Had we approached politics as a cadre rather than from a "serving the members" point of view, we would have saved ourselves an amount of grief.


The "Portland Bisexual Alliance" was poorly named, not being an "alliance" as I understand the term.

An "alliance" is when two or more groups share common values, and support each other's work. The alliance may result in collaborative projects, or it may be more loose -- a sort of network of like-minded groups.

A "coalition" is a collection of groups that band together to work on a single issue. The participating groups may disagree on all other issues, but they agree to set those differences aside for the sake of achieving this one goal.

[I learned this distinction at a Portland Women's Crisis Line training at least a decade ago. Possibly from Guadalupe Guajaro?]

When you're pursuing a political project, often you'll want other organizations to support your work. You try to establish as broad a coalition as possible, to give the appearance (if not the reality) of community support.

Over time, you're more likely to get support, and more likely to be seen as a trusted organization, if you develop relationships with the groups you want to be working with. In practice, what this means is that you go to their meetings, you staff a table at their events, you show up at their protests in solidarity, you invite them to coffee to get to know them better. It's great if you can get multiple people from your group to come -- but as a leader, getting to know other leaders personally, getting to the point where they know who you are -- that's valuable.

But you also need to not be disappointed when they say "no" to joining your coalition. Consider for a moment if the roles are reversed -- if another group asks you to be a part of their coalition.

The easiest requests to deal with are for a donation of money or for a simple endorsement. Your group can discuss the matter and send off a check or permission to add your group's name to a list of other supporters. You do that, and your commitment is done.

Things get trickier if the other group wants you to actually collaborate. When I was running a board, my policy was that representatives from other organizations were always welcome to attend our planning meetings to present their case. You don't need to decide in advance whether or not your group collaborates -- you can decide on a case-by-case basis. After hearing what the other group is trying to do, you discuss how closely aligned your aims are, whether there's overlap between the membership of their group and the membership of yours, whether you have adequate energy to take on another commitment, and so on. ...Coalition work isn't such a simple matter when it's someone directly asking you for a contribution!


There are several debates about how to do politics that are likely to never go away. To an extent you can circumvent them by making some decisions about the nature of your organization when it is first being formed.

(1) Bridge-building vs. Confrontation

This is largely a matter of style. Do you want to challenge the people who oppress you? Show them how outraged and angry you are? Condemn bad behavior in no uncertain terms? ...Or do you want to peacefully educate the people who have done harm -- arriving at a sense of understanding and friendship?

In my opinion, both styles are valuable tools -- it's really just a question of when each one is appropriate. A confrontational style can often get people's attention, so that an issue will get dealt with rather than ignored. On the other hand, when you're trying to get a person or group to change, they ultimately need to feel like there's a potential solution. If your group will be against them no matter what, then there's no motive for change.

(2) Separatism vs. Partnership

If you are an oppressed group, should you welcome members of the oppressor group into your organization? Strict separatists want to prohibit members of the dominating group for several reasons: to prevent take-overs from within, to allow the minority culture to flourish, to allow space for healing...

Activists who prefer partnership tend to feel that separatism excludes, and therefore is a matter of doing the same behavior that we complain about. There are men, whites, adults (etc.) who are strong supporters of anti-oppression causes -- and there are women, blacks, and youth who are against the cause of liberation. Shouldn't belief rather than body be the criterion for involvement? And, if a world of equality is the ultimate goal, shouldn't this be embodied in the organization itself?

As I've said many times before now, I am in favor of a compromise: organizations where oppressor and oppressed work together -- but where members of the oppressed group are given special encouragements to speak up when their "allies" (presumably unwittingly) do things that hurt.

(3) Cultural pride vs. Melting pot

Should members of minority groups try to emulate and fit into the oppressor's culture -- or should they work to reclaim and celebrate their own unique heritage? Youthful character-traits, clothes, music, etc. have frequently put down by adults. "Youth spaces" where these things are celebrated can help youth feel pride in who they are, shed conscious and subconscious shame for not measuring up to adult standards.

However, using slang, and dressing in youth fashions may lead to adults dismissing youth activists rather than listening to them. Politics may not be the best time for self-expression. Recall that African-American protesters in the Southern civil rights struggles of the 60s wore their Sunday best. Youth wearing formal clothes, such as suits, who may look like National Honor Society students, may (or may not) make the better impression at an election day protest about youth not being allowed to vote.

I think there's a place for both approaches. Self-expression motivates youth to become part of the movement. I think we want to create more room for youth to be themselves... Trying to dress, speak, and act "adult" is a form of costume that one can put on when necessary. ...But then, I don't believe that either "youth" or "adult" cultures are natural and real -- both seem artificial to me, so I'm happy to mix and match. My preference is to transcend age entirely.

(4) Unified front vs. Taking care of our own

Oftentimes "progressive" leaders will make the argument that the various liberation movements (feminism, black empowerment, youth lib, etc.) will never succeed alone -- we need to all band together into one big movement. These leaders may point to ways in which oppressor groups set oppressed groups against each other, and thus let us keep each other down, saving them the work.

However, an organization only has so many people -- no one has time and energy to take on all issues at once. Sometimes one group has been asked to put their agenda on the back burner, to work on the "more important" issue first. Sometimes groups on the Left -- Socialist groups in particular -- have actually infiltrated other movements specifically with the intention of subverting them, bringing them around to doing the other movement's work. Being back-burnered or infiltrated isn't OK. If we don't fight for ourselves, who will fight for us? And who knows our agenda better than we do? A progressive agenda might have a hundred points on it -- our small agenda might have only ten -- which is much more workable.

I believe in a realistic progressivism. It is worth our while to learn as much as possible about other oppressions. Because we ask others not to oppress us, we should care about not oppressing others. Furthermore, learning about other groups means we don't have to reinvent the wheel -- our own oppression becomes more easily understood when we look at the suffering of others and how they have struggled. We should take on coalition commitments when it makes sense to do so -- and always be open to hearing other people's requests for help.

(5) Role of Allies

I have talked about this above, so I will say little here except to note this as a perennial point of contention. Some people feel that anyone who believes in justice should be welcomed into the movement. Others feel that the subjects of oppression have special knowledge about it and deserve special considerations in the process of doing activism. Me, I feel that members of the oppressor group are not universally evil, ignorant or untrustworthy -- but that because we are often unaware of our own oppressive behaviors, those who want to be allies should be careful not to take over groups (voluntarily removing themselves from votes, for instance), and should take extraordinary measures to make themselves safe people to criticize, should criticism be needed.


There are a number of types of political functions that an organization can fulfill. In part, it is worth considering these because it is difficult for a single organization to undertake all tasks. Thus, at the local level and at the national level, a healthy movement should have a variety of organizations.

(1) Watchdog Group

A watchdog group pays attention to known opposition groups or government bodies (state legislature, county commissioners, city council, government agencies, etc.) or media outlets. A watchdog group may or may not take action in response to current events... But someone has to notice that things are going wrong if anyone's going to do something about the situation.

(2) Lobbying & Legislative Activism

There is work to be done to prevent bad laws from passing, to strike down bad laws on the books, and to propose good new laws instead. This work can be done at the federal, state, county, or city level.

(3) Court-based Activism

Good laws aren't worth much if your community doesn't know how to use them, can't afford lawyers to pursue their cases, or judges interpret those laws in ways that render them ineffective. There is work to be done teaching youth what youth they have and how to use them. Legal defense funds can be set up to help youth get lawyers to help defend them. We tend to think of the legislature as the only place where laws are shaped -- but putting our energies into a significant court case can be just as effective (or more so!) in terms of pushing the legal system in the direction we want.

(4) Against Media Defamation

There are biased or downright inflammatory articles, advertising, and entertainments being produced all the time for TV, newspapers, billboards, movies, the net, etc. Letters to the editor, protests, etc. can use these items to our advantage, pointing out oppression when it occurs and critiquing it.

(5) Education

It can be argued that education is not true activism because it does not directly address power. However, running workshops or producing videos is a time-honored way of attempting to win support for your views, which perhaps means translates into more activists joining your group. [Beware training oppressors how to discriminate simply without getting caught!]

(6) Social Events

Social events are decidedly not activism. However, helping establish a community is a first step towards mobilizing that community to activism.


Activists want to mobilize their communities to action. However, this can be difficult to do when a population -- such as youth -- has not even recognized itself as a community yet. We want youth to care when a new anti-youth law is created, for them to get angry and get working to stop it. But if youth haven't developed their perspective as a youth, it's almost as if the law deals with someone else.

Let me take a moment to explain how people get involved in activism and why they stay.

People get active when an issue directly affects them, in a deeply personal way. Lots of issues effect you, but you're not so bothered that you care to do anything. ...Having a friend or partner who cares deeply about an issue means that that issue impacts you in a personal way.

People get involved in groups because they know someone else who's going. It's very hard to walk into a room of strangers; it's much easier to come along with a friend. Really, nearly all social change happens because of the bonds that people have with each other. This is why good activists know put effort into getting to know quite a few people quite well.

People stay involved in groups, and become committed to a larger movement, because the ideas that they hear help them make sense of their lives. A movement that gives you a worldview is a movement that becomes home.

...Because youth organizations have such high turn-over, they must constantly concerned with recruiting new activists. The first step is not necessarily a hard-sell to join (which too often means just giving money to become a member). The first step can be to ask questions. Host a community forum about what issues matter most to youth in your community now. As youth work on answering this question together, they begin to see themselves not just as "people" but as "youth". This is probably the first step towards mobilizing the community -- and it's an action that doesn't necessarily have an immediate outcome. It's outreach, but without too forceful of a hook.


In much of my past writing I have been extremely skeptical about parents' ability to be allies -- the motivation to stay in control is so strong. However, I have recently been reevaluating this position. I am seeing pockets of radical parents emerging, such as the readers of "Hip Mama" magazine. I don't know how closely our ideologies align -- but there's potential.

Parents are a valuable source of money which could go toward hiring lobbyists to watchdog the state legislature. They are also a constituency that would have a voice that is well-received when it speaks up in legislative struggles. However, I think that YL would want to try to assert some standards for what constitutes acceptable parenting and acceptable participation in the movement, in order to prevent being steam-rolled.

I've been imagining (but haven't yet written) a sort of domestic bill of rights -- a set of entitlements that parents of conscience voluntarily extend to their offspring. Ex: I will not spank or hit; I will not invade the privacy of your room; you are allowed to call me by my first name; you can choose your own name; you will not be constrained by a curfew; I won't prevent you from dying your hair, wearing clothes of your choice, getting a tattoo, etc; and so on. A document such as this might be a good core document for radical parents to organize themselves around.


I seldom talk about what sorts of activism an individual can do -- even though an individual is very powerful on their own. Rather, I'm always talking about groups and organizations. Why is this? Because I believe that groups are the social unit that will push forward social change. Working in a group has several key advantages over working as an individual.

Working in a group gives you courage. Alone, you are full of doubt and uncertainty. Being with people who believe what you do gives you confidence. They support you in taking risks that you'd never actualize on your own.

A group is smarter than an individual. When you discuss something together, you come up with many more ideas that you would alone. You get different perspectives, you come up with more solutions. And if you're wrong, you're more likely to discover it if there's a friendly group to check your thinking. [This collective intelligence can also be very useful when you're actually in a meeting with an authority!]

A group is taken more seriously than an individual. If you go into a principal's office alone with your complaint, s/he can fairly easily dismiss you. But if a group of eight students come in together, the complaint has much more weight to it.

Adults aren't used to hearing youth speak as a group. Adults generally only listen to one youth at a time (when they're listening at all). When a group of youth all speak together, their voices take on a different quality: it's as if all youth are speaking. Rather than just listening to individual persons, an adult feels like they're listening to what youth as a group feel.

Working in a group you can get more done. You pool your efforts, each taking on a few small tasks, and something very large can be accomplished.

A group continues to exist even if it loses a member. When a cause is important, you want someone to keep working on it. Creating a group is a strategy for making a force in the world that will continue on even after you've left it.


Here is a very basic principle. We act as if an organization is a person that can do things, some kind of giant robot that we can order around. In reality, there is no organization -- only the individuals who work under it's name. The organization is an illusion. It's worth perpetuating: people on the outside take an organization more seriously than they take an individual. For the sake of the illusion, the people who are making it happen don't emphasize their own unique identities and contributions so much -- they contribute to the group project. And yet, it is absolutely crucial that the activists on the inside remember that the organization is only themselves. If there is work to be done, someone at the table is going to have to do it. Talking about what "we" should do is a waste of time if no one is volunteering to be the individual who takes on a specific task.


An activist's most powerful tool is one-on-one, face-to-face conversation. I'm not exaggerating -- most powerful tool.

If you want to raise money, the most effective way to do so is to ask. Make a list of everyone you know. Make appointments to meet them at coffee shops. Tell them what you're doing and why you need money, and then ask them for a specific amount. Wait silently, let them consider it. Then they give you some money, or they don't. Maybe they can give you time volunteering instead. ...You're far more likely to make money this way than by sending letters to strangers.

Politically too, make a point of inviting people out to coffee. Get to know the other political leaders in your town. Get to know the members of your organization. When you know about the lives of these people -- and they know about you -- they're no longer strangers, but rather acquaintances whom you can call upon. Knowing something about their lives gives you better knowledge about their motives, their interests, what kind of time and money they can bring, etc.


Too many people seem to think that you can do activism entirely via email. Not so.

Email is notoriously bad for group discussions. If you want to plan something, do it in person -- or at least over the phone. With correspondence, there's too much opportunity for a tone of voice to be misread. Or for someone to not respond to an important point. Or for the reality of a situation to not set in. These things are quickly dealt with face-to-face.

Face to face, you have much richer conversation -- there are facial expressions and tones of voice. You can talk much faster, progressing through much more material. There's a physical sense of commitment to each other.

Use email for invitations, RSVPs, and reminders. Do all your planning face-to-face.


Before you leave a meeting, always figure out when and where you're going to meet next. Leave adequate room for this discussion on the agenda. [This point should be under "how to facilitate a meeting".]


Justice and fairness aren't very compelling issues. Pain and suffering are. Legislators tend to be pragmatists rather than idealists. If you can't dramatize how a problem makes someone suffer in a practical way, they probably won't be interested.

Furthermore, I'm not sure that we should be interested, either. On a theoretical level, there are a lot of things that aren't fair. However, ultimately I think we should be devoting our energies to lessening real suffering in the world. I've sometimes described this in terms of "bread and blanket" issues. Feed the hungry, give a blanket to people who are cold. Issues that are purely a matter of pride matter -- but keep them in perspective.





...On youth turf.


(disrupt & occupy city hall; election day protests; take back the night marches)

Posted by Sven at 12:00 PM | Comments (0)

August 25, 2005

Exploration: Blueprint for Revolution (part 3)

[NOTE: This document was added to the blog on September 6, 2005]

The past two days I've been writing about the nitty-gritty details of doing activism. After 23 pages, apparently I still have more to say! I'm seeing several threads in this material that I might later pull out and hone into more succinct essays.


The two main options for how to make decisions as a group are either use a "consensus" process or to vote. Personally, I favor voting.

The idea of "consensus" is that a group can talk about a decision that needs to be made until everyone is in consents to a particular option. This can be an extremely long, convoluted process. It can take 3 hours, 6 hours, 12 hours or more to arrive at a decision... And often there will be long tangents, talking about other matters that seem to have a bearing. Nonetheless, this is a process that can work -- even with very large groups (e.g. 50+).

Making decisions by a vote is a way to arrive at a decision more quickly. The downside is that you may be skipping the work that brings about a sense of unity, which ultimately leads to rifts in your organization.

Consensus and voting don't have to be at odds. When I'm facilitating a meeting, often times I get the impression that our discussion has led us to a point where everyone pretty much agrees. At this point it's useful to speak up with this observation: "I think we've reached a consensus. Does everyone agree that what we want to do is __________?" [It's important at this point to echo back to the group what it is that you think they all agree about.]

Another important thing to understand about consensus is that you don't have to be 100% in agreement to move forward: a person can decide that while they don't entirely agree, they're willing to let a decision pass. This is perhaps one of the most important things I know about participating in decision-making -- that I don't always have to get my way. I can decide that my differences of opinion really aren't all that important: "I don't entirely agree, but I'm satisfied enough with the current solution to let this pass." I can also have very strong differences, and decide that it's OK if the group goes forward nonetheless: "I have to say that I strongly disagree with this decision, but for the sake of moving forward, I can let the group go in this direction."

In an organization that votes, you can create complex rules about who gets to vote. Usually it's easier just to go with a simple majority. However, if the vote is extremely close, a facilitator might want to suggest further discussion, to try to hammer out some more differences.

If you've got a legal status as a non-profit, your by-laws may require that you have a certain quorum of members present to vote. It's very frustrating if you don't have enough present to move forward! If you are a small group, I recommend having a policy that whoever is present at a particular meeting constitutes a quorum, so decision-making can move forward. Even so, if only two of you show up, it probably behooves you not to make any drastic decisions without more people present.

In order for a vote to occur, someone actually has to say "I think we should vote on this now." As a facilitator, part of your job is to notice when a vote is appropriate and make that proposal. People can say that they don't feel they're ready for vote, and discussion continues -- but there's nothing wrong with making the proposal.

Oftentimes there seems to be more disagreement in a room than there actually is. It can be very useful occasionally to ask people for a "straw poll". Ask: "So if everyone was going to vote right now, how many people would say yes? I just want to have an idea of where we stand." The results of the straw poll lead to new options. You can decide that discussion needs to continue, or that the group really is ready for a vote -- or if there's only a small minority of dissenters, you can either ask them if they're willing to step aside, or what would quell their concerns.

There are several ways to run an actual vote. You can write your decision on a slip of paper and put it in a hat. You can get complicated and print out ballots, making sure that only people who are qualified to vote are allowed to. You can ask people to verbally say "aye" or "nay". You can ask people to show thumbs up or thumbs down. You can ask people to raise their hands. Personally, I find raising hands tends to be easiest. Most decisions don't need the formality of writing on slips of paper; it can be confusing to count votes when a vote is verbal; and it can be difficult to see people's thumbs (especially if they want to wave them sideways to show that they're ambivalent!).

A nicety of voting that I recommend is to not simply ask "all in favor?" -- but to also ask "all against?" and "all abstaining?" If you're not going to win a vote, it's nice to feel like your vote is being counted, rather than just stopping when it's clear that the majority agrees. Also, a person may have reasons to remove themselves from a vote -- they should be allowed to show that, rather than being accidentally counted as a vote against.


It's very easy for one leader to stay in power for a long time. This can lead to feelings on the part of other group members that this leader really owns the group, and if you disagree with them frequently... Then what's the point of being involved?

Leaders are often the persons who do the most work. To an extent, the fact that you're willing to do a greater share of the work of an organization is what gives you the right to lead it. It can be extremely frustrating to be criticized for having too much power by persons in the group who want a say, but refuse to do any of the work.

Oftentimes, leaders don't want all that power, anyway. They would rather that other people would do more work, so that it's not all on their shoulders. This can lead to resentment towards the other participants. "Why am I the one who has to do all the work?"

One strategy for sharing power that can be effective -- especially in youth-led groups -- is to have a rotating chair and co-chair. The chairperson has a term of two or three months, during which the co-chair learns from them how to the job. Their most important meeting outside of the general meeting is probably the one where agenda items are brainstormed. [This is something that can sometimes be done over the phone rather than in person.] At the end of the two or three month term, the chair steps down, the co-chair comes into power, and a new co-chair is elected.

With regards to people brainstorming what the group should do without offering to do any work... An important thing to understand about organizations is that it is impossible for an organization to do anything. An organization is an illusion, the fiction that a group of people are actually one more powerful person. In reality, there is only you and the individuals sitting at the table with you. It is an important practice to get into, to stop talking about what the group should do, and instead talk about who in the room can do what.

As a facilitator, when I hear a discrete task that needs to get done -- for instance putting up posters -- I pick someone who I think might be willing to do that job and I ask them directly if they'll do it: "Morgan, can you take care of putting up the posters?" It's may be a little uncomfortable at first, feeling like you're singling someone out -- but when you ask lots of people during the meeting to take on tasks, it seems less so -- and people start to volunteer to take tasks as soon as they've been identified.

Many organizations start out by creating positions that they think should be filled: publicity director, political director, social director, etc. In my experience, this is an ineffective way to run a group. A person may take on a position without really knowing how to get the job done. They will feel isolated and guilty for failing. If, instead, you discuss what concrete tasks need to get done in the group, then people who know how to do the task and have the energy to do it can identify themselves. A leader does NOT have the right to force a task on anyone, even if they said they'd take a position. Everyone has the right to say "no" when asked to take on a task. People also have a responsibility to say "no" if they aren't going to have time to take on a task. For the sake of having realistic expectations, it can be very useful to talk about what's actually going on in people's lives -- find out who has time and who doesn't.

When a leader feels overworked, they're often told "you need to learn how to delegate!" I find that this is fairly useless advice. The best way to share work around is to talk about the work in a meeting, and ask specific individuals -- not the room as a whole! -- if they're willing to do certain jobs. How many people seem to interpret "delegation", however, is to think that committees should be formed.

I recommend against creating committees. People think that what you should do is brainstorm all the tasks that there are to do, and then create a committee for each of them. You quickly discover that there are far more tasks than people in your group. Instead, if a task really does seem like too much to do during your regular meeting time, then suggest that there be a special meeting to deal with this topic later. Ask who would like to attend such a meeting; if no one does, then there simply isn't will to pursue the project at this point in time; if more than one person wants to attend such a meeting, then they're in charge.

...This resolves a potential conflict that committees raise. Suppose you have a committee whose job it is to come up with a T-shirt design. What if they spend a long time making their design -- and then when they bring it back to the group, everyone else hates it! Does the T-shirt committee have the authority to make a decision, or do they need an OK from the rest of the group? If they put in a lot of work, it can be crushing to find out after the fact that the group gets to veto their work. ...By working with meetings rather than committees, you either attend the work meetings or you give up your right to have a say in the decisions being made. It's a general principle: for the most part, the people doing the work have a right to control their project.

The idea that a group shouldn't have committees applies in formal non-profit organizations, too. I was on the board of the Portland Women's Crisis Line for about a year and a half. Originally the group had seven or eight or nine committees that we were supposed to keep staffed. However, we only ever had between nine and fifteen board members. The solution that was recommended to us by an outside consultant -- which worked out well -- was to have just two committees: the executive committee and the development committee.







Posted by Sven at 12:00 PM | Comments (0)

August 24, 2005

Exploration: Blueprint for Revolution (part 2)

[NOTE: This document was added to the blog on September 6, 2005]

[I'm breaking my own rule and trying to pick up an essay I was working on yesterday. The preceding 12 pages were written in 3 hrs 15 min on Tuesday Aug. 23. Today is Aug. 24.]

I can see maybe four sections emerging: (1) the national level, (2) how a movement gets subverted, (3) direct action tactics, (4) running a local organization.

Beyond these, there are clearly more topics: etiquette for adult allies, why limit adult participation, how to draw age lines within a youth organization... Perhaps these topics are all a subset of the "running a local organization" topic, since they seem to belong in that context.

In the meantime, I had several additional topics that I was thinking about addressing yesterday that I didn't get to.


We have terrible role models for being a "leader". We think a leader is a president or a general or a teacher who commands other people. Don't think of it that way. If you want to be a leader, you'll have the power of initiating events -- but once they're under way, everyone's opinions have fairly equal weight. You'll also have a fair amount of power in terms of setting the agenda of meetings -- but again, this is largely about being more prepared for the meeting than other people in the room, not controlling discussion with an iron fist. If you've prepared an agenda (a list of topics that you think should be discussed), people will pretty much naturally look to you to guide them through an evening.

A leader is the person who decides a meeting needs to be called and invites people. A leader is the person who decides that even if no one else attends, they will be at the designated meeting place on time. A leader takes it upon themselves to make sure that meetings continue, and does whatever is necessary to ensure that they do.

Being a leader often doesn't feel fair. Shouldn't other people be helping more? People seem to depend upon you to do this organizing work, when they should be responsible for it too. Being in the lead can be tiring. But you take on the job because you think it's important that a group should exist, and when you look around you don't see anyone else stepping up to the job. Everyone would rather that someone would do the work of changing the world for us. The impulse that makes you a leader is: "well, I guess if I don't make this happen, it's not going to happen at all."

Oftentimes the job of being a leader merged with facilitating meetings. You might say that being a leader breaks down into two parts: what you do outside of the meeting in preparation, and what you do as a facilitator during the meeting.


(1) Meeting length.

One hour is almost always too short to get much real work done. Three hours is too long -- people get tired and cranky. Two hours is standard meeting length. An hour and a half can be a nice compromise if people are feeling like meetings are eating up too much of their lives -- but when business isn't finished by 8:30pm, these meetings often stretch into 2 hours anyway.

Start on time. Easy to say -- but more difficult in practice. Youth frequently have transportation problems; it's not uncommon for someone to show up 30 or 40 minutes late. Don't accommodate this behavior -- even if there are good excuses or a person calls to say that they're on their way -- if you do, meetings will start increasingly late, and people won't want to come at all. If you make a practice of starting when you say you're going to start, people will try to be there on time because they know they'll miss the meeting otherwise.

There's an almost universal acceptance that meetings actually start ten minutes late. If you think no one is going to show up, you don't have to stay after waiting 30 minutes -- and leaving after just 20 is acceptable. Waiting for an hour for someone who promised they'd come but never shows up is incredibly demoralizing, and an intolerable waste of your time. Being a leader does not require that kind of sacrifice from you!

...By the same token, end on time. This can also be difficult in practice. If you say you're going to end at 9pm, but everyone is in the middle of a heated debate, what do you do? You interrupt. Which can be hard. But at five minutes to nine, you have to pause and draw people's attention to the time. You say: "I think this conversation is going to take more time than we have. Do people want to stay another half hour? If not, let's talk about scheduling another time when we can continue this conversation." ...What you're doing is asking for people's permission to continue. That way people have an option to opt out, and don't feel like they were forced to stay against their will, unable to leave for fear of interrupting.

(2) The agenda.

Meetings tend to be much more productive if you have an agenda. It sounds fancy, but it's not so bad. You just try to think of all the topics that you're going to want to cover in the meeting, and then write them down.

There are several ways introduce people to the agenda. You can have it written down in front of you and verbally tell people what's on it. You can make photocopies and pass them around. You can get a big piece of paper, tape it up on the wall, and write the agenda there with big markers, so everyone can see. This last option is the most "professional" and has some advantages to it -- it also requires that you haul big clumsy pieces of paper, markers, and tape around with you. The worst option is to write down your agenda, but not tell anyone what's on it -- simply telling them from time to time that everyone has to move on to the "next topic" now.

If everyone can see the agenda, on big paper or on photocopies, then it's customary to quickly (1-2 minutes) explain the items and ask if anything has been left off that people want to add. Most often the answer will be no. If someone has something to add, though, it's your job to suggest a where in the agenda it should fall, and write it down so it doesn't get forgotten.

(3) Time-keeping.

There are only so many topics that you can cover during a 2 hour time-span. Before the meeting, it's a good idea to estimate how many minutes you want to spend on each of your agenda items. Write these estimates on the agenda itself so everyone can see.

When people are suggesting additional items, that's also a time when they can suggest that you'll need more (or less) time for particular topics. Anything that involves ideology is likely to take a long time (45 min - 1 hr, or more), and it's unlikely that you'll arrive at consensus in just one night. Projects that involve concrete actions can be dealt with more quickly.

These time estimates are merely estimates! Don't try to stretch a discussion out to 30 minutes if it reaches a natural conclusion at 15. And don't be surprised if a topic you thought would take 5 minutes winds up taking 40 -- that happens even to the pros.

However, don't just let your time markers pass silently because conversation is heated. It's your job to interrupt the flow and draw attention to time. I advise against simply cutting conversation off -- being the leader doesn't make you dictator -- and people will begin to resent a brusque style. Instead, I recommend "renegotiating for more time". Simply say: "Our five minutes is up; can we renegotiate for more time? How about five more minutes and then we cut it off? Is that enough?" By doing this, everyone has some control over the schedule.

Trying to pay attention to the conversation and the clock at the same time is always difficult. A very good idea is to ask at the beginning of the meeting for someone to be "time keeper" -- to let everyone know when the time for each topic is up. Help the time-keeper by not writing your agenda in terms of "7:30 - 8:00 discuss fundraising" -- the exact time is likely to change. Instead, write "discuss fundraising = 30 min" -- that way the length of time is relative.

A nice tool to have along is a kitchen timer that beeps. Even if you have someone else doing time-keeping, they too can get caught up in discussion -- and they too can feel awkward interrupting conversation. The beeping alarm takes the burden off of them for interrupting, and you don't have to constantly be paying attention to it.

Another nicety of time-keeping is to not just suddenly say "time's up!" -- instead, say "we've got 5 minutes left on this topic". It allows participants to collectively decide whether they have time to wrap up a big topic, or if they want to renegotiate for more time. When you're suddenly out of time, there's more pressure to just keep going, rather than manage time responsibly.

I've discussed this in lots of detail -- it sounds more complicated than it really is.

(4) Introductions.

Typically, the first two items on an agenda are: (1) OK agenda, and (2) introductions / check-ins.

Introductions are appropriate if you're hosting a workshop or meeting of people who don't all know each other. The basic intro is: name, your organization's name, what you hope to get out of this meeting. It's nice to spice this up with things that help you get to know the people at the table. The questions can be serious or silly: Why did you first get involved in Youth Lib? What matters most to you about this work? Who is someone that inspires you? What is your favorite fruit?

There's enormous room for creativity in introductions -- there are lots of games you can use to get people in a good mood and get their energy up. That's a whole essay unto itself! Most of the time in a two-hour meeting, however, you won't have time for these things.

Check-ins are similar to introductions, but it's like you're asking participants to stop and introduce themselves to themselves. How do you feel emotionally? Physically? Spiritually? What are you bringing with you from your day? What would you like put aside from your day, so you can be wholly present here? These questions can be particularly useful when your group is working on emotionally charged issues with each other. If you draw attention yourselves as emotional beings at the beginning of the meeting, it's easier to acknowledge the emotions in the room later on when things get heated.

A word of warning. Figure that it takes 3 to 4 minutes for each person to introduce themselves / check-in. If you've got eight people at a meeting, you can easily use up half an hour checking in -- which may be more like 45 minutes if people arrive late. Take care not to eat up all your work time just getting started!

(5) Facilitation.

I'm a fairly hands-off facilitator. I try to notice who hasn't been talking much and occasionally ask them if they'd like to add anything. Do this gently -- it's not fun to be put on the spot, forced to talk when you really don't have anything to say. A nice stock phrase to use: "Is there anyone who hasn't spoken yet who'd like to say something?"

Some people feel that facilitation should involve encouraging people by comments such as "that's a good point, John" or "Mary, what do you think about that?" In my experience, this is heavy-handed. People feel less free to talk on their own -- they wait for the facilitator to prompt them... Ultimately the facilitator wonders why no one speaks up on their own. Me, I advise becoming comfortable with pauses in the conversation. It's OK if there's a short period of silence -- someone will speak up to fill it, and it doesn't have to be you.

Having said that, there are points in conversation where it seems like conversation has come to a dead stop. I find it's very useful to brainstorm some questions before coming to the meeting -- that way, I'm prepared with new angles, and can reinvigorate the conversation when it slows down. Avoid yes/no questions. [This aspect of facilitation is really more appropriate for when you're in a discussion group, rather than when you're in a business meeting.]


The essence of any meeting or event is this: (1) there is a meeting place, (2) a date, (3) a begin time and end time, and (4) one person who is committed to being present to speak.

If you are making a poster for an event, these are the four basic pieces of information that you must include. ...Always mention the day of the week, not just the calendar date. Always include the street address of the location where you'll meet. Oftentimes you don't have to publicize who precisely is going to speak -- you simply need to say what the content will be. Example:

Friday, Sept. 20
7 - 9pm
@ Common Grounds Coffeehouse
4321 SE Hawthorne
Discussion: How can we eliminate curfews?

This formula works for all kinds of events, with minor adjustments. If you've got a rock band playing at a dance club as a fundraiser for you... If you're hosting a rally in a public park with twelve speakers... If you have a guest speaker coming to a bookstore after hours... If you're hosting a community discussion about what political issues youth currently feel are most important... These are all essentially the same event -- all that varies is where you meet, and who the person guaranteed to be speaking (or singing) will be. ...The person introducing the event will always be you.


There are groups where everyone is essentially an equal participant. You can have an ongoing support group, discussion group, "consciousness raising" group, etc. where everyone is there because they are personally benefiting from the meetings. When a person feels that they aren't getting as much out of it anymore, they leave.

Another sort of group exists to host such events. The members of this group plan when and where the discussion group will happen, they attend and facilitate -- but their personal investment is in making sure that other people in the community are served. When one is concerned with taking care of the community, then there's a greater concern with things such as publicity, public meeting spaces, and facilitation. In addition to the discussion group then, there is a second set of ongoing meetings dedicated to planning future events.

Activism can be accomplished at either level.


Not many -- but a few -- people grow up in households with activist parents. For most, activism is alien territory, and pretty daunting. In my opinion, it takes great courage to get involved in activism -- it's in bad taste to complain about the "apathy" of the uninvolved.

Let's talk about how one becomes committed to activism in terms of levels.

At the first level, activism seems almost imaginary to a person -- it's nothing they've considered getting involved with personally.

At the second level, a person is aware of an active group -- almost certainly because a friend is involved -- and becomes curious to attend. It takes a large amount of courage to finally attend, and there's a strong sense of not belonging, and fear that the other participants will condemn one. This is the curiosity phase, exploring.

At the third level, a person has sufficiently enjoyed attending a group that they come back. At first irregularly, then with loyalty. There's a sense of belonging. This is the membership phase.

At the fourth level, a person takes responsibility for the perpetuation of a group. Quite possibly it's because there's a crisis where a previous leader is leaving, and it seems that the group will disappear if one doesn't personally make sure that it keeps meeting. This is the step from participation into leadership.

At the fifth level, the activist now explores other groups. There's an interest in the cause in general, and how organizations in general function. The original organization may end; the person may have multiple memberships. The activist has transcended their particular group and moved on to a position of activity / leadership in the larger movement.


I want to return to the topic of direct action. I talked about interacting with various authority figures and what sort of research is useful. Here's more detail.

[Note that direct action pretty much only works with institutions. It's not designed for shaping public opinion, shifting the attitudes of your average adult, e.g. eliminating stereotypes. Activism, as I understand it, can use the system to punish adults for prejudice, and teach youth how to navigate the system -- but it's not for changing their minds. Changing minds is the work of propaganda (a loaded word, I know). For that sort of goal, host workshops, put up posters or billboards, write persuasive articles. Be aware, though, that what you are doing is only dialoging with people's opinions -- not actually changing the rules that we live by.]

(1) What level of government is involved?

The curfew exists at the city level and at the state level; it does not exist at the federal level. Prior to an amending the U.S. constitution, the voting age for state and federal elections varied; the amendment gave the U.S. government the power to set the voting age for states -- but the age at which one may run for office at the state level still remains under the control of the states. For whatever issue you want to tackle, it's important to discover what level the relevant law exists at: federal, state, county, or city.

It is easier than ever before to find the original text of the law that you're wanting to change. Most cities and states now have their entire legal codes online. It's daunting at first to look at the texts of laws -- but it's exciting, too, to see them in their raw form. Explore. Slowly look into these online realms. Believe it or not, the texts of laws are reasonably readable by your average human being.

(2) How does law-making happen at that level of government?

It's important to understand the big picture in terms of how, say, your city council functions. If you can find your state or city's legal code, you can probably also find an explanation of how proposals for laws get turned into law. Still, if you know an activist who works at this level, it's even easier to ask them to meet you at a coffee shop and then pick their brains, asking every question you can think of. That's how I learned most of what I know in this area.

Some questions to ask -- because these things vary from state to state, or city to city. [I'll focus on a city council, because it's a simpler structure.] How many city councilors are there? How long is a term? How long as each councilor had their position? Are there term limits? Which city bureaus (e.g. water, the police bureau, etc.) does each councilor oversee -- or is the mayor in charge of all bureaus? Does the mayor have a veto? How many votes does it take to pass a law? Do the councilors get paid, or are they volunteers? Do they meet part of the year, or all year round? Do they work every year -- or every other year? What positions are elected in your city, and which ones are appointed?

(3) Where exactly do governmental meetings happen?

Those are basics of the governmental structure. Here are some more specific, practical things that you should find out, too.

Where does the city council meet? When do meetings occur? Are meetings open to the public? Is the public allowed to speak at the meetings? If so, where do you have to sign up?

If possible, I strongly recommend actually going to a city council meeting, just to physically locate the building and get a feel for how meetings work.

(4) Who are the people sitting in the seats of power?

What are the names of the councilors? What districts do they represent? Where are each of the councilors' offices located? What are their phone numbers, and what are their secretaries' names? [ALWAYS treat secretaries well -- they're much of the real power in the government!] Are there specific times when each councilor is available to meet one-on-one with the public?

And, as I said before, google each of the councilors -- find out what their pet issues are, what their career prior to becoming a politician was, what laws they've passed previously, etc.


City and county level politics are reasonably approachable -- there tend to be only 5 to 9 council members involved. State-level politics are more challenging -- because there are many more legislators involved, a larger volume of laws are being passed each year, and the state capitol is often a longer drive away.

Particularly toward the end of a legislative session, there can be mere hours notice before a bill gets a hearing. If you want to make a statement before the relevant committee at this point, you may need to be prepared to drop what you're doing and hop in a car to rush to another city.

This is one of the reasons why state-level organizations tend to hire paid lobbyists. You need someone at the capitol building keeping an eye on what's going on. [It can be very effective for like-minded organizations to share a paid-lobbyist.]

Posted by Sven at 12:00 PM | Comments (0)

August 23, 2005

Exploration: Blueprint for Revolution (part 1)

[NOTE: This document was added to the blog on September 6, 2005]

I've got some ideas, but haven't outlined anything yet. So I'm just going to start writing and see where I end up. If I'm lucky, there'll be material that I can do something with in a more organized essay.

Based on what I've recently seen on the NYRA online forums, the Youth Rights movement is desperate for ideas about tactics -- how to recruit people to the cause, how to effectively win battles. I've been chewing on these questions myself for years, and can't say that I have the final answers. However, I do (apparently) have a lot more experience working in political movements than the vast majority of folks in NYRA -- and much of my curiosity has been devoted to questions of movement-building, which can benefit Youth Rights. I've worked both on the local level, with the Portland Bisexual Alliance -- and on the national level, with the National Organization for Men Against Sexism.


The hub of a movement we imagine as an organization which commands the chapters. This is a military metaphor, and not how things actually work. There are a couple of options.

You can have a chapter structure, where local groups are affiliates. The benefit to them is the feeling that they're attached to something larger than just their own work. The national leaders, however, may find themselves asked to mediate in local conflicts that they don't feel qualified to intercede in. Chapters may challenge each other, and ask the national leadership to excommunicate a group. This is not a franchise like "Taco Bell"; the national HQ is very poorly suited to make such decisions. The best you can do is set down general principles that all chapters must adhere to; if the ideological questions are ambiguous or controversial, then you probably just have to live with the suffering.

You can also have a national congress / convention structure. This, as I understand it, is a direction that U.S. Socialists have pursued. Each year, representatives from around the country get together and argue about directions and policies. There's a vote, and everyone goes home from the convention with a commitment to pursue a certain direction, or abide by a new policy. While in theory, you've got a more focused movement via this route, it also buys you a lot of in-fighting. Groups that are insistent about their own point of view splinter off. Sometimes the national group splits in half; sometimes you just lose a single chapter. An additional down-side for youth is that sending a representative to the congress annually is a huge burden; most youth don't have the money, vehicle, or time-off to make such trips. To an extent a congress can be imitated using online forums -- but really there's nothing that can the energy and clarity of face-to-face meetings like this.

I suppose on the opposite end of the spectrum from the congress structure is the network. With a network, there are no trappings of membership -- simply a list of groups that feel they have enough in common to share ideas and resources with each other. Where you lose in terms of a sense of unity, loyalty, and strength -- you also gain, in terms of avoiding conflict and splintering. There are no pretensions of agreement, so people can have their disagreements, but still feel that it's worth associating with one another.


I'm going to focus on a national organization that uses a chapter structure, since that's what I'm most familiar with.

National organizations tend to be mostly smoke and mirrors. Frequently there are only a handful of chapters, and their connection to the national group may be in name only. The national organization perhaps doesn't have an office, it's just nine or fifteen really committed activists who make a road-trip once or twice a year to see each other. In reality, it's probably just one, two, or three really strong personalities who put themselves out into the media as spokespersons. ...And that's OK. This is just how things work.

The value of a national organization is largely symbolic. People in their home towns can point and say "Look, a national organization exists!" to acquaintances who won't take the cause seriously. People who are isolated can pay some money, get a membership card, and feel like they're part of something larger than themselves. Or, they can pay their money and feel a bit less guilty about not being activists, because they're paying someone else to do the work. [That's probably the main reason why people give money. It's fee for service: I'm paying you to change the world for me.]

But what is a national organization actually good for? Less than you'd think. Suppose I'm a national organization -- just me, Sven, myself. First of all, I need to have a directory of organizations around the country that I want to work with. Compiling that list is challenging work in itself! Once I have it, there are basically two things I can do with it.

One. I can create or collect posters, tri-folds, and booklets, and send them out to the chapters. That's the essence of being a "national clearinghouse" or a "resource center". Notice that there's going to be substantial costs involved: photocopying or printing materials, postage to mail them out. Nowadays you can do a lot with PDF files online -- that's an option; but you may feel uncomfortable making all your best thinking available to the opposition as well. This is also more or less what a "think tank" can do -- but if you're wanting to promote "best practices", then you're going to need to get some additional deep-thinkers to join you... To help find out what's been tried, evaluate the options, and draft recommendations.

Two. If I'm a national organization, then I can come up with a great idea for an action, and then recruit as many local organizations to participate as I can -- all on one day, giving the appearance of a unified movement. For instance, we could declare that October 20th (completely random date) is National Anti-Curfew Action Day, and get youth in 20 cities to all hold marches / candle-light vigils. Or, we could ask youth from all over the country to descend on Washington D.C. for a "million youth march" (a very expensive and likely-to-fail option that I don't recommend).

So, in my opinion, those are the two things that a national organization is good for: sending out resources to chapters, or organizing chapters to all do something at the same time.

What national organizations actually do most of the time, unfortunately, is try to get money. I'm not saying that we shouldn't raise money -- I just don't what this confused with actually creating social change. Imagine if you will an organization that does nothing at all; it just has a name: "The National Alliance for a Perfect Utopia". Based on the name alone, you can recruit members: $20 apiece for a year long membership. Say you get 1000 people to become members; that's $20,000 -- just enough to hire a part-time employee. But wait, we're still not doing anything! At this point, the organization may decide that to give members value for their money, there should be a quarterly newsletter. The organization's not actually doing anything; the board of directors doesn't have a physical HQ and only meets once a year; and there's only one real gung-ho activist willing to do any work... So the organization goes into debt to put out just two newsletters, both of which are late, and the organization has now gone into debt because it didn't have enough money for printing costs and postage -- it was all spent on the employee.

Don't let this happen to you! If you can assemble an address list, then you've got what it takes to do national-level activism. Membership dues and paid employees are what makes you a business, not necessarily a force for social change.

All that said, there is one more potential function for a national organization that I failed to mention. If you're in Washington D.C., you're in a position to do lobbying. That is a function that can be useful to a national movement -- but it's entirely dependent upon location.

Oh. Hm. Other options... You could collect a legal defense fund. That would be a pretty good use of funds collected from members -- although how you would choose to disperse the money, I don't know.

You could host a national conference. Since you're preaching to the choir, I hesitate to call it social change -- but it does have a function. Functionally speaking, however, it does fall into the "everyone do something at the same time" model -- rather than everyone go to a rally, you're asking them to go to a conference.


[After an hour of writing, I just took a break for a few hours, to have dinner.]

Looking back at some of the stuff I just wrote, I realize that I've wandered into another topic, which deserves it's own heading. It's not exactly about how to organize a movement -- rather, it's about how to recognize an "national organization" which isn't pursuing its proper mission -- social change -- but is instead purposelessly sucking money out of its constituents. One could make a very reasonable argument that such a group is exploiting the community that it claims to serve. I won't rebuff that argument -- but neither will I champion it.

It's entirely plausible to have a well-meaning group of activists trying to create a national organization who are simply unable to do so. They may be stymied by not really knowing what the organization should do, not having enough gung-ho activists with time to spend, by the distances that have to be crossed to meet. If a group is simply ineffective, some would argue that it should dissolve, in order to clear the way for a new organization to form. I don't think I necessarily agree. When one group ceases to exist, there is no force of nature compelling a different set of people to emerge. Furthermore, there's no reason why a second national organization can't emerge while the first exists. Having two (or more) national organizations could easily be seen as a sign of a movement's health, rather than its demise.

Please note that my comments are not pointed at NYRA. Rather, they are more informed by the controversies I listened in on while on the leadership council of NOMAS some years ago. The principles transcend the organization; I think they're illustrative for any group that's trying to embody a national movement.

A national organization can vacuum money out of its constituent community simply to line the pockets of its employees, without producing any meaningful change...

Another problem scenario involves national spokespersons. To have an impact on the national stage, we imagine that the organization must have a face -- a person who is authorized to speak to the media. Expect internal conflict if/when that spokesperson publicly says things that several leaders within the group don't agree with. If you don't have an actual building for an HQ, if the group only meets once or twice per year, then this is likely to happen. You need a fairly close camaraderie amongst your core activist group in order to feel like you're all "on board" with policies and "on message" when speaking.

Sometimes -- and from what I've encountered, this doesn't seem like an uncommon scenario -- there's really just one charismatic leader who's running the organization and acting as its spokesperson. You need to have a strong will, strong opinions (which is different from ego), to pursue social change at this level. It's an understandable position that one can arrive at. However, the more one becomes a benevolent autocrat, the more likely it is that one will lose connection with the constituency...

In the world of activism, a lot of people say "I can only speak for myself" or "I can't speak for all youth" as caveats. A leader who speaks publicly claims the right to speak on the behalf of others. He or she asserts authority to do so by having a constituency that has elected him / her, or by being gregariously connected to many people in his/her community, by having studied the written history and opinions of the people her/his community. ...You start looking like a "self-appointed leader" without legitimacy if those things don't exist. And then, if you're also the sole person getting a salary... You look like a fraud, financially exploiting an already oppressed group.

I am aware that Alex Koroknay-Palicz, president of and spokesperson for NYRA, has just been given a the first paying contract with the organization. Again, my comments are based on other organizations I am familiar with. I see that Alex could be heading into an ethical snarl during the next few years, but withhold judgment, hoping that this situation will not go the direction that others have.

Perhaps another section title might be "aborted revolution" or "the sham revolution" or "sham national organizations". ...This section's such a disruption, it would probably be best to move it to the end of the essay, as a warning. Possibly to another essay entirely -- still, the topics of self-appointed leaders, cooptation, front groups, sham organizations, and other ways that a movement can go wrong, are important, and need exploration somewhere...


Parents, teachers, and other adults can be important political allies. But they can also destroy Youth Rights organizations from within. I am increasingly thinking that one could plausibly found a group called "Adults for Youth Rights". The trick to it would be to clearly articulate what is required of members / contributors / participants to avoid co-opting the authentic, youth-led YL movement. That would require several position / policy papers, and I wonder what it would take to get a core founding group to agree to these...

Radical parents are a group that has been coalescing on its own. There are parents who unschool their kids, and readers of Hip Mama magazine... They're a source of money, labor, physical resources (vehicles, meeting spaces), that I don't think we can afford to pass up. I've been imagining a "household bill of youth rights" that such a group might form around. A core set of principles for what democratic public schools should look like might also be a founding document for a similar group for teachers. I've often looked at teachers as an enemy of YL -- but what I must remember is that within any group, there are conscientious objectors. Still, we must be very careful not to let even well-meaning teachers steal control of the movement from youth themselves.

There is an etiquette for adults who want to work with Youth Liberation that I have written about elsewhere. It involves simple but important things, such as not interrupting youth while they're talking, being careful not to just talk to the other adults in the room, moderating how often and for how long one talks (let youth talk, too!), and abstaining from actually voting when the time comes for youth to make their decision.

I often talk about "by youth, for youth" organizations. Within the realm of organizations that might be called "youth lib", there are: (1) groups that exclude adults entirely; (2) groups where adults are involved, but youth are in control; and (3) groups where adults and youth participate as equals ("multi-generational organizations"). I am in favor of option #2 rather than option #3 because #3 so often slides down the continuum to an undesirable option: (4) youth participate, but adults are in control. Nonetheless, I want to be very clear: I believe that option #2 is preferable to option #1.

Organizations that have no adult involvement have several major problems to overcome. Youth are inherently a high-turnover group. There are ways of building recruiting into the regular activities of an organization; nonetheless, having adults onboard helps create stability and "organizational memory". Adults have access to vehicles, meeting spaces, photocopiers, etc. that youth typically don't. Perhaps most importantly, adults -- including those whom have recently aged out of Youth Liberation -- have knowledge about how to do activism. Youth can do meaningful activism within a nine-month period (before the "summer bomb" hits), and they can do it with almost no resources -- but if you don't know about how activism is done, then you're really stuck.


Protests are often thought of as synonymous with activism. In certain situations they are useful -- but they are only one tool. On their own, they can be nearly pointless.

The very core of activism -- as I understand it -- is "direct action activism". This is theory that I learned from SPIRIT (Sisters in Portland Impacting Real Issues Together), but which is borne out in other reading and workshops I've encountered.

In "direct action", one identifies a target decision-maker, and leverages them to make a specific decision-maker in your favor. That's one of the most important sentences you'll ever learn as an activist, so I'm going to say it again: In "direct action", one identifies a target decision-maker, and leverages them to make a specific decision-maker in your favor.

Who is a decision-maker? It's a mayor. Or a city council member. Or a county board of commissioners member. Or the head of a school board. Or a school board member. Or a police commissioner. Or the head of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. It's a person who has the power to make a decisions regarding your issue. Typically someone who has other people working for them.

How do you leverage them?

Set up a meeting and talk to them. But first, do as much research as you possibly can. Maybe you don't have a lot of time to google them and find newspaper articles -- that's OK. Go with what you've got... But the more about them that you can find out, the better you'll be able to talk with them. Find out what kind of issues they've supported before. Find out where they go to church. Find out who gave money to their political campaign. Find out what their spouse does for a living, where their children go to school. These things help you figure out how to spin your usual talking points just for them.

If talking to them doesn't work, then you start building public pressure.

Get as many people as possible on your side. Authorities typically have public meetings. When you go and speak at these meetings, bring as many people as you can with you. If possible, make them visually identifiable -- wear shirts or pins that you've made, or silently hold signs in the meeting room. See if you can get other organizations to join you in your cause, e.g. a teacher's group, a union, a crisis line, a youth shelter, etc.

I could say a bunch more about specific tactics in a campaign like this, I'm going to leave it there for the moment.

[Note: How do you bring people to your side? Face-to-face conversation, and then directly asking them for something. That's the most powerful tool. Ever.]


A "movement" doesn't exist but for its local organizations. Really, there's just not that much that a national organization can do! Spend some time looking at the age laws... Most of them are state or city level, not federal level. Winning issues at the national level is premised upon building a foundation of support at the local level. First we win victories at the city, county, and state levels -- then we'll be able to approach federal laws. In fact, our local victories are likely to have a ripple effect: our state representatives will take their opinions of what's going on at home (good or bad!) with them to Washington D.C.

A caveat to begin with: we don't necessarily need to build local organizations. Fighting a campaign and running an organization are almost two separate issues. A campaign, if you're lucky, may only need to run for 2 - 12 months. You can run this kind of campaign out of people's living rooms...

Running a sustainable organization, on the other hand, doesn't necessarily lead to initiating (let alone winning) campaigns. There's plenty to do just to manage meetings, even if they had no content for discussion!

So, let me take a moment to address doing activism without an organization.

Meet at someone's home. Don't bother with setting up a power structure; use a set of rules that I learned from the Lesbian Avengers (paraphrased): (1) Anyone can bring an idea for action; (2) if you raise and idea, you're responsible for spearheading it; (3) people in the group can either participate in the action, or choose to abstain -- otherwise, there is no discussion.

...This last rule is the key one. Getting everyone to agree can be difficult -- if not impossible -- and the arguments that it takes to get to consensus may be so exhausting that people simply drop out, out of frustration. Using a system like this may not be as coordinated as one would like -- which can be frustrating if you're working on a big campaign -- but at least it actually results in actions -- and it discourages people from making proposals that they aren't willing to do any work towards, themselves (a huge time waster!).


You don't need a fancy meeting space, certainly not a building of your own. You can meet at someone's house -- but I would advise against it. When you meet at someone's house, you're imposing on someone's hospitality -- few people can offer up their home with regularity; you're going to have to find another meeting space soon. And private homes are often away from the areas that have common reference points; people get lose the directions, and even with directions get lost on their way to the meeting. And -- particularly for YL -- there are issues of having to leave by a certain time, particularly with parents watching over the proceedings.

Free public spaces are better. Public libraries often offer meeting rooms -- if you sign up for them far enough in advance. Sometimes youth-oriented dance clubs or music venues will let you use their space -- but it may depend on having a personal relationship with the owners. College campuses are OK -- although increasingly administrations are restricting student groups' ability to host outside groups. Youth drop in centers can be pretty good. Meeting rooms held by other organizations are particularly good (e.g. the Urban League, Cascade AIDS Project, etc.). One of the big benefits of volunteering for other causes is winning friendships that literally open the doors to such resources.

Meeting at restaurants has pros and cons. Restaurants (Denny's I've noticed in particular) can get irritated at "boisterous" youth and arbitrarily make rules that prevent good use of the space. Still, it can be nice to have food -- particularly if you're meeting in the traditional 7-9pm time block. Me, I'm very proud of having run board meetings in Taco Bell for several years -- everyone got fed, and most of the meals were for under a buck! ...Coffee shops -- they're probably where I've had more meetings than anywhere else. Ideal, if you don't have more than about six people there.


The best days to meet are Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, between 7 and 9pm. Mondays, people tend not to be thinking about their week yet; Friday night people have started their weekend; and on weekends people are off doing other things. Friday and Sunday nights are probably the worst times to meet. Nonetheless, any time that you can get people to commit to is a good one.

Most youth don't carry a calendar or planner with them. Don't bemoan it -- work around it. It's easiest to remember a meeting that happens every week on the same day. Avoid changing your meeting time around each week unless you have a very small group of committed activists (five or less) who you know to be conscientious about such things. If you're not going to meet every week, meeting every other week is easier to remember than "first and third Thursdays" or "second and fourth Sundays".

I advise against meeting only once a month in the belief that it will give people more time to get work done; most work is done immediately before a meeting -- you'll get the most work out of people when they're meeting 2-3 times a week. Meeting once a month -- or worse, twice a year -- tends to be very demoralizing: you carry the guilt of not doing the work you've committed to, everywhere you go. It is talking with other people that gets us energized.

Send out reminders -- this dramatically improves turn-out, for adults as much as for youth. Some people are phone people, some people are email people; use both modes if you're able.

It's extremely difficult to keep meetings up during the summer; I advise against even trying. People travel. And not having the imposed schedules of school, etc., that exist in the spring and fall, there's less context for a structured existence. Psychologically, we're conditioned to think of summer as time off -- we subconsciously feel that we should be resting, and rebel against work. ...And it's too hot!


time, place, person to talk
introducing agenda - default leader
clear on when to start and end. don't wait to start late. end on time or "renegotiate"
nicety: who hasn't spoken; don't interrupt; introductions; ground rules unnecessary


consensus vs. vote; stepping out of the way
sharing leadership, rotating & apprenticing
calling the vote
straw polls

Posted by Sven at 12:00 PM | Comments (0)

July 22, 2005

Youth Liberation Simplified

[NOTE: This document was added to the blog on September 6, 2005]

Youth Liberation has many voices. Its activists have differences of opinion: different theories about why adults oppress young people, and about how to better young people's lives. In this essay, however, rather than working to distinguish the different branches of YL thought, I want to focus on what unifies us. In the simplest possible terms, I hope to say what it is that binds Youth Liberationists together.

In my opinion, what YL activists have in common is a sense of anger and injustice at the way that many adults and adult-written laws treat youth. There are three essential things that offend us:

  1. unfairness
  2. force
  3. disrespect

Let me now discuss each of these in a bit more depth.


YL supporters feel strongly that artificial age lines are unfair. It's wrong to deny young people rights based purely upon calendar age -- and it's wrong to deny them rights based on the average abilities of the group, not taking individual competence into account.

It should be recognized that artificial age-lines are attempts at dealing with several different categories of issues. These include:

YL has not necessarily generated better solutions than those that exist for each of these issues. Still, wherever possible, we prefer equal access to rights, or age-blind tests of ability.


We don't like youth being forced to do things against their will. We object to coercion in the form of emotional pressure, verbal harassment, hitting / spanking, and various punishments that "take away privileges". We object to youth being put in positions where they are given no choices, and thus coerced by a lack of options.

We prefer consensus between youth and adults where possible. In cases where youth are members of a large institution (e.g. a school), we feel youth should be able to formally participate in decision-making processes, and in ways that give their voices / votes real weight.

We also stake out a variety of areas where youth should always have the final say -- because the matter in question concerns their own body, their own property, or their life path. We want youth to be able to escape people who use force against them -- particularly parents and teachers -- immediately, and on their own volition.


We object to the idea that youth are inherently flawed or beneath adults. We object to the idea that any contemporary generation of youth is qualitatively worse than the ones that preceded it. We object to negative generalizations about young people, and to mocking the things associated with youth (e.g. fashions, music). We assert that bigotry against youth exists and is morally unacceptable.

We are concerned both with increasing youth pride in those things that make them different from adults -- and increasing the perception of how similar youth and adult abilities and psyches actually are.

We challenge adults' sense of superiority over youth, encouraging them instead to embrace humility and empathy.

Posted by Sven at 12:00 PM | Comments (0)

June 25, 2005

Historical Research on Adulthood, draft #1

[NOTE: This document was added to the blog on September 6, 2005]

Reviewing what I have learned -- without checking my source materials (much) for accuracy. The purpose of this: before I get too bogged down with checking my facts, I have to get a sense of what exactly I've learned so far.


The first (known) town was built circa 6000 BC. It had a stone wall around it, suggesting that it was engaged in warfare. There is evidence of slavery.

[See Chronology of World Slavery.]


We're dealing with about a thousand years of history here. The Assyrians and the Babylonians are the major peoples of the time. There are maybe 12 major cities. There are about six surviving legal codes from this time period to look into. However, "code" is not precisely the correct term -- the written laws are seen as proof to the gods of fulfilling one's duty as king.

There is slavery. Marriage is a private contract between families. Adulthood begins at marriage. Adults may be punished by punishing their children in their place.

[See A History of the Family, Vol I.]


Some of the earliest laws were written by Draco. These were substantially rewritten by Solon. Plato's notion of communally held children is rebuffed by Aristotle. Aristotle's Politics is a significant work, in which he describes women, children, and animals as the property of men. He also describes the household as a miniature state.

The Greeks have the clearest transition to adulthood that I've found. Children are brought into the forum, stripped naked, and given an adult toga. The "put away childish things". The city is organized into demes -- a political subdivision. People have three-part names; the name of the deme is part of how they are named. It appears that there is a census, and that entering new adults into this record is significant aspect of entering into public life. This may have to do with military service.

[See the Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood entry on Greco-Roman history.]

The extent to which Greece Hellenized Rome and Rome Romanized Greece is unclear to me at present. Greece did not turn law into a "science"; lawyers are viewed essentially as sophists paid to lie.


Rome is a high-point in the creation of law; there are two major systems in the course of world history -- Civil Law (Roman) and Common Law (originating in England).

Prior to the creation of the Roman Republic, there are seven kings. Most of this history is legendary -- however, I have seen fragments of legal code from this period that declare the father's right to control his children.

[See "The Roman Law Library" online, "http://web.upmf-grenoble.fr/Haiti/Cours/Ak/index.htm".]

In the Roman Republic, the earliest legal code is the Twelve Tables, followed by the works of Gaius. Toward the end of the Roman Empire Period, as the Empire is becoming Christianized, the Emperor Justinian creates a great collection of previous law: the Corpus Iuris Civilis, the Civil Law.

Adulthood is identified with puberty: 12 for girls, 14 for boys. Early on there is a debate about whether adulthood should be marked by actual physical changes, or by an artificial age line. Identifying the point at which a person becomes physically able to procreate requires an embarrassing exam, and is not possible for male eunuchs. The debate goes on for a very long time, but eventually the artificial age line approach wins out.

[See A Casebook on Roman Family Law by Frier & McGinn.]

The Romans explicitly recognize themselves as having a unique legal system in terms of how much control they have over their children. The system is called patria potestas; all power is vested in the male head of household, the paterfamilias. No one but the paterfamilias is allowed to own property. The paterfamilias is the oldest male in the household, and only cedes power upon death, along the lines of primogeniture. In the case of there being no male children, an agnate (the closest male relative) is chosen.

The Roman System of law is based on the view that households are responsible for self-governance. [See the final chapter, "Conclusion: The Face-to-Face Society" of Being A Roman Citizen by Jane F. Gardner.]. The system of patria potestas, however, sets up a conflict between private and public life. A son may take a public office while still technically under the control of his paterfamilias.

Adulthood at puberty is modified by the additional institution of tutelage.

There is a long-standing conflict in Roman society between the older families, the patricians, and the newer families, the plebeians. It appears that originally only patrician members of the senate may vote, but that the vote is expanded to include sons above a certain age -- probably because they are an armed infantry, which must be given vestment in the political structure, or risk losing control of them (rather similar to how Viet Nam precipitated lowering the voting age in the U.S.).

[See Roman Private Law by R.W. Leage?]


Rome occupied England prior to approx. 400AD, at which point the Empire withdrew to deal with more pressing matters closer to home. The native inhabitants of England at that point were the Celts. There is widespread agreement that almost all traces of Roman culture were wiped away. The one enduring contribution of the Roman Empire was Christianity, which successfully dominated. Traces of Roman law persisted in the Canon Law of the Church's ecclesiastical courts. It is unclear to me at this point what of Roman Law persisted through Canon Law, except that I know Canon Law holds jurisdiction over marriage, divorce, and probate.

[See An Introduction to English Legal History, 2nd Ed. by J.H. Baker.]

With the Romans gone, two Teutonic (Germanic) tribes move into England: the Angles and Saxons. There are also invasions from the north by the Vikings. During the next six hundred years, there is a succession of kings. Aethelbert provides the earliest written legislation, albeit fragmentary. During this period, there are a number of artificial age lines. The primary sources are archaic, and English translations may be difficult for me to track down.

[See A History of English Law, Vol II, 3rd Ed. by W.S. Holdsworth, pp. 97-99.]


A great turning point in English history is 1066, when William I ("William the Conqueror") won the battle of Hastings, a.k.a. the Norman Conquest. The background of this battle is that three potential successors for the English crown came into conflict; one defeated another, William coming from Normandy in France defeated that victor, in his weakened state. Prior to 1066, there was already a fairly organized political system in England, composed of local governments (boroughs, etc.). William built upon this.

The origins of English Common Law are in the 12th century. Circa 1118, an author from the continent attempted to summarize the laws of England in the Leges Henrici Primi. Then, in 1189, Glanvil wrote De Legibus et Consuetundinibus. Meanwhile, in Bologna, Italy, the monk Gratian attempted the first summation of Canon Law with his "Concordance of Discordant Canons", a.k.a. the Discretum (circa 1140).

[See Handbook of Anglo-American Legal History by Max Radin for a time-line.]

During the period from 1066-1485, feudalism is in effect, and the age of majority is important largely relative to holding tenures. There are different ages for different classes, with 21 being the age of majority for knights; it gradually becomes the age of majority for all. There are complexities of different types of guardianship here that need to be examined. ...Apparently the Magna Carta (1215), which limited the powers of the king, had a number of provisos that dealt specifically with lords abusing guardianship of their wards' lands.

[See A History of English Law, Vol III, 3rd Ed. by W.S. Holdsworth, pp. 510-520.]

The parental duty to care for one's children emerges out of the Elizabethan Poor Laws.

[See From Father's Property to Children's Rights by Mary Ann Mason.]

William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England was published 1765-1769, and represented a concise summation of English legal principles, which was influential when it was transported to America. It is not in itself the English Common Law; I was in error when I previously asserted this.

Note that it wasn't until the 1832 Reform Bill that the majority of the male middle-class (but not the working class) was given the vote. [See wikipedia, "History of England".] The Common Law system came to an end circa 1850. [See An Introduction to English Legal History, p. 79.]


Historians divide the colonies into four regions: New England, the Middle Colonies, the Chesapeake Colonies, and the Southern Colonies.

[See wikipedia, "Colonial America".]

During this period, although there wasn't an elaborate state mechanism yet, there were still local officials who would intercede in significant abuse / neglect cases. I am unclear who created ordinances, and how they fit into the governmental system of the time. However, at this point in time parents are required to provide (1) food & shelter, (2) basic literacy, (3) vocational education, (4) religious training.

Children are crucial as a workforce. Street children are captured in England and sent across the sea as slaves. A father has all custodial rights; mothers are only owed "respect". A child may be "bonded out" to another adult as labor. A child may also be apprenticed out, which is similar, except there's an obligation for the master to teach them a trade. Within the home, physical discipline is the norm. In Massachusetts (?) there is a law based on the bible that allows a father to murder a disobedient child -- but there is no evidence that it was used.

[See From Father's Property to Children's Rights by Mary Ann Mason.]


James Madison argued in the Federalist Papers No. 62 for setting the age requirement for senators at 30. George Mason of Virginia suggested 25 for the House of Representative (Records of the Federal Convention of 1787). At the same congressional convention, James Wilson makes the counter-argument that there is "no more reason for incapacitating youth than [old] age".

[See West's Encyclopedia of American Law under the article "age requirement for holding office".]

The age of 21 doesn't enter constitutional law until the 14th Amendment is ratified in 1868.


During the 1800s, divorce law is changed significantly: people can divorce by going before a judge, rather than having to go before the state legislature. The principle of coverture, under which women have no legal existence under the law (feme covert), is eroded as women win the right to initiate divorce, own property, and (consequently) take custody of children after a divorce.

Toward the end of the 1800s, and during the first half of the 1900s, a revolution in the institutions dealing with children occurs. Prior to this period, there was a bargain that in exchange for receiving care, children are obligated to provide for their parents. During the progressive era, the children's obligation to serve their parents is eroded. There are three main institutions that emerge: (1) child labor law, (2) compulsory education, (3) juvenile courts. The activists spearheading these changes are generally referred to as the "child-savers".

After several decades of work, child labor is finally brought under control by the FDR's Fair Labor Standards Act, as part of the New Deal. Compulsory schooling is explicitly linked to child labor law by the child-savers: it puts children somewhere other than at work for their parents. Juvenile courts also play into the fundamental change of bargain, by lessening liability on parents for the actions of their children.

Additionally, toward the end of the 1800s, child abuse also begins to be recognized. Originally laws prohibiting cruelty against animals are used to argue the case. In the 1950s or 60s, awareness of child abuse explodes with the publication of the book the "Battered Child Syndrome".


Viet Nam highlights that young men can die for their country, but cant vote. This leads the U.S. government to pass the Federal Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1970. The Supreme Court strikes down portions of this that make improper demands upon state governments. The Federal Government responds by passing the 26th Amendment. This legislation is rushed through, because an election is impending and all involved want to avoid confusion during the actual election process.

[See The Guide to American Law by West Publishing, 1984, under the article "infants".]

A series of Supreme Court decisions recognize the personhood of children. However, since a high-water mark for Children's Rights around 1970, a progressively more conservative court has made increasingly anti-youth decisions.

Children's Rights have been founded upon the principle of parens patriae -- the right of the state to oversee the welfare of all its citizens. However, there has been a conflict in approach to rights. On the one hand there is a right to be nurtured, on the other the right to autonomy. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is largely based on attempting to guarantee that children will be nurtured, rather than have autonomy. The strange outcome of this approach is that it leads to children not having rights that they can access -- they must be spoken for by an adult advocate.

Posted by Sven at 12:00 PM | Comments (0)

June 8, 2005

The Evolution of Youth's Position Under the State - A Hypothesis

[NOTE: This document was added to the blog on September 6, 2005]

I'm still working on researching this question: What is the earliest origin of the age of majority?

My search for answers has me doing in-depth research on the laws of Rome and Greece, and has gone as far back as Mesopotamia 2000 BCE. I've finally begun to find clues for what actually happened in Greece and Rome, historically speaking... But before I get the actual details in order, I want to state my hypotheses -- to either be proved or disproved by the historical record.

It appears to me that the emergence of the age of majority -- full legal adulthood, as opposed to biological adulthood or maturity of character -- is tied to the emergence of an organized state. Thinking structurally, I see three periods that need to be addressed: (1) before kings, (2) the monarchy, and (3) the republic.


1. When agrarian societies emerge, the male head-of-households (paters) use slavery to help tend the land.

[See Aristotle's comments in "Politics" about how at its most basic, the family is composed of a man, his wife, and his servant.]

2. The slave-owning mentality permeates the society; women and children are increasingly treated like property.

[See Gerda Lerner, "The Creation of Patriarchy" for ideas about the connection between enslaving members of other tribes and the subjugation of women.]

3. Marriage is dealt with as a private contract between paters. It is essentially an exchange of human property, which creates alliances.

4. Without a strong merchant class, the land is the primary means of producing the necessities of life. Consequently, rules regarding inheritance and lines of succession are all-important within the family power structure.


1. The king's primary duty is as warlord, protecting the community from outside threats. During times of peace, this power is redirected inward, to securing the domestic peace.

2. The king establishes his rule by forging relationships with the paters. He does not interfere in the private sphere.

3. The first laws, in an attempt to create domestic peace, set out punishments for crimes against persons (e.g. homicide). Only state violence is deemed legitimate: this stabilizes relationships between paters and ends the cycle of vengeance required by blood feuds.

4. Almost simultaneously, the king creates punishments for crimes against property. Given that women, slaves, and children are largely treated as human property, this addresses rape and abduction as well as simple theft.

5. The father's right to obedience from his children is probably formalized at this point. The king essentially makes this deal: I will maintain peace in the public realm; you, paters, are responsible for policing the persons within your private home.

6. Property disputes require adjudication. As a means of preventing some disputes, the king prohibits sons from making contracts, which might later be contested. All contracts must go through the pater. (This includes marriage contracts.)

7. After the father dies, there may be disputes between siblings over inheritance of land. This leads to formalizing rules of succession. Primogeniture, by virtue of vesting power in the (presumably) next most powerful male in the family, has a synergy with the system that originally put power in the hands of the father.


1. The overthrow of the king leads to a system where paters have votes within an aristocratic parliament / congress. While there may be an executive office, the lords / senators now have significant control over government.

[Incidentally, the power of the old families begins to come into conflict with newer families. Consider the conflict between the patricians and the plebeians in Rome.]

2. The bureaucratic apparatus of the state begins to use numerical age as a qualification for holding public office.

[Look at Aristotle's Greek Constitution.]

3. Conscription of sons into the military leads to an expansion of voting rights to individuals, not just senatorial paters. The armed forces constitute a threat that concessions must be made to.

4. For females, the transition from girlhood to womanhood is (and has been) marked by marriage. Eventually, marriage becomes a status conferred by state authorities, rather than a private contract.

[How does this serve the needs of the state? Is it purely a concession to organized religion?]

5. For males, the ability to hold public office creates a tension with the power of the father. This increasingly leads to individual rights based on attaining the age of majority, instead of legal invisibility under the control of the father.

Posted by Sven at 12:00 PM | Comments (0)

May 27, 2005

Exploration: Joining the Opposition?

[NOTE: This document was added to the blog on September 6, 2005]


I am currently deep in the midst of research, guided by this question: "What are the origins of artificial age lines?" The research is becoming very expansive, spanning from the time of Hammurabi (ca. 1700 BCE) to the present day, 2005 AD. Currently, I am at a stage where I'm skimming books and articles quickly, experimenting with skeletons that will presumably get fleshed out later.

Today I discovered the "Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood: In History and Society" (2004. Paula S. Fass, Editor in Chief. To be referred to as ECC from here on.). In the section titled "Law, Children and the", there's an illuminating account of minors' legal status from the time of the thirteen colonies to the present day. One interesting point was that there has been a backlash towards Children's Rights gaining in strength since a high water mark around 1970. The essence of this backlash seems to bee opposition to the notion that youth should be granted the full set of adult rights.

Curious about what directions the backlash has taken, I pulled out "In Their Best Interest? The Case Against Equal Rights for Children" (1992. Laura M. Purdy.) To my surprise, Laura M. Purdy is a feminist philosopher. I've had this book on my shelf for some time -- it was obvious that I had to own it -- but I haven't gotten around to reading it, partly because I expected it to come from a religious conservative perspective. My sense now, after a brief skim, is that Purdy is against YL as it has been articulated by Howard Cohen, Richard Farson, and John Holt -- but she is nonetheless in favor of getting rid of many of the obviously unjustified expressions of adult authority (e.g. dress codes, censoring reading material). Furthermore, her analysis is adequately in-line with my own values, that I'm prone to look at her book as a contribution towards improving the YL movement, rather than as the work of an enemy.

The ECC entry says:

"[A]ge-blind" rights became the goal of children's rights advocates, who argued that children should have the same rights as adults. Indeed, some even called for the abolition of minority status, which was likened to slavery and coverture." (p. 545)

I think this is a fairly accurate description of Cohen, Farson, and Holt's work -- as well as most of my own... However, the key phrase here that the backlash objects to is "the same rights as adults". Me, for some time now I've been going in a different direction from "equality" as it's been traditionally understood -- and I think perhaps it's time for me to hash through some of the fundamental differences between myself and these seminal authors, whom I've been so inspired by.


The crucial difference, perhaps, is that I don't think YL can afford to interpret "equal rights" as "identical rights". Instead, I think that we need to (1) recognize differences, (2) create accommodations for young people's actual disabilities, and thus (3) transform how we understand both adulthood and childhood.

To an extent, the YL movement should consider the civil rights movement of adults with disabilities our implicit ally. A premise of their cause is that people are not physically and mentally identical -- but by modifying the physical environment and institutional structures of society, the playing field can be leveled so that they can enjoy something like "equal rights". I do want an "age-blind" society -- but it is absurd to think that we could simply stop paying attention to the special needs of five-year-olds. We must change the practical arrangements of living: then age differences can begin to gently fade away on their own.

The strongest current incarnation of YL, the Youth Rights movement, seems to take it's inspiration from the civil rights movements of blacks and women in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. What I sense the YR activists may not be fully aware of, however, is that "equality" has been a problematic concept when it's been applied to women. Of the top of my head, I know of two books that deal with feminism's struggle with "equality": "Feminism and Equality" (1987. Ed. Anne Phillips.) and "The Equality Trap - Why Working Women Shouldn't Be Treated Like Men" (1988. Mary Ann Mason*.) I have suspicions that research into why the Equal Rights Amendment failed would also garner insight.

[*Note: I just realized -- Mary Ann Mason is the same person who wrote "From Father's Property to Children's Rights: The History of Child Custody in the United States", which I referenced in my last essay.]

The issue that I've most frequently seen discussed with regards to women and this issue of problematic equality is pregnancy. If you view the male as the standard human being, then work situations will effectively penalize women for having children. If one redesigns the workplace taking women's experiences as the norm, then one comes up with proposals regarding day care, health care, child support, and paid leaves. This is not "equality" if men get to set the standard -- but if the realities of women's bodies and lives are accommodated in the first place, a form of equally fair treatment can proceed from there. [See "The Lenses of Gender - Transforming the Debate on Sexual Inequality" by Sandra Lipsitz Bem, 1993, pp. 73 -79, for a discussion of androcentric laws regarding pregnancy.]

Youth are wrongly denied legal rights. We must fix this. But to simply say "treat all youth the same as adults" isn't good enough. Infants need care in order to survive; young children need to be taught how society functions; and even teens need financial support to get started in the world -- whether that be from parents, the government, or other sources. Youth need special benefits that not all adults will receive...

I believe we can deal with the issue of legal rights by appealing to the concept that youth must not be property, rather than the concept of identical treatment.


The title of this essay is "Joining the opposition?" -- which I intend to be tongue in cheek. I have no intention of giving up my loyalty to the cause. But it occurred to me to try listing a bunch of the points on which I agree with our opponents.

When trying to argue our cause, I've run up against the same objections over and over. Now, you have to realize, most of the workshops I've run have been for fairly like-minded people... When I start feeling like I'm just trying to slip out of their arguments -- maybe it's time to take a couple of months or years to really try to address what they're saying. In the process of doing so, I've abandoned certain arguments -- and there are certain objections that I now anticipate, and want to dispel before they're raised. It almost starts to sound like I'm agreeing with the opposition...

So, I say to myself tonight, let's not be scared of that. Let's try listing all the points on which I'm in (a sort of) agreement with the opponents.

1) I'm for maintaining the parent-child bond. It should be a default that a child stays with their biological parents.

2) An adversarial relationship between a youth and their parent(s) is not desirable.

3) Children are different from adults. The difference between a 17-year-old and an 18-year-old is negligible -- but an infant and a 40-year-old are very different. The younger the child and the older the adult you're comparing, the greater the difference.

4) Young persons have special needs. They need to be given food and shelter, orientation in society, and financial support. Some adults also need these kinds of support in a continuing way -- but all very young children minimally need these things for survival.

5) Simply sending a young person out into adult society to fend for themselves, without any support, is a bad thing.

6) There are a variety of ways in which treating youth as legal adults could seriously harm them.

7) Young people, particularly the younger they are, may be emotionally unstable, have irrational beliefs, and lack the competence to make important decisions about their own lives.

9) Legal guardians should have authority to take care of their children.

8) There are instances of conflict between youth and their parents where the parents, in good conscience, will be compelled to override the will of their offspring. Youth don't always get to have their way.

10) Parents should be engaged with their child. One should not simply leave the youth to their own devices.

11) Youth need warmth, nurturing, mentors, and role-models they can look up to.

12) It is the government's responsibility to intercede in cases of abuse, protecting children from unfit parents.

13) A form of state-sponsored compulsory schooling should exist.


How can I agree with all these things, given the body of my work to date? It's all about the caveats.

1) I'm for maintaining the parent-child bond. It should be a default that a child stays with their biological parents.

Plato, in "The Republic", advocated that parents should be separated from their parents at birth, and never allowed to find out who they are. I can't support this position. I think that when a woman gives birth, she has a inherent right to stay connected to the being that has exited her body. As soon as the baby leaves her, it becomes a separate being with rights of its own. However, having no discernable interest in leaving the mother at birth, the infant should be kept with her.

[In fact, to the greatest possible extent, the infant should be held against the mother's skin immediately following birth, not taken away. Studies on child abuse have shown that this is a crucial moment for the mother to bond with the child -- which can help found a warm relationship for the years to come.]

I do say "default", however. I do not think that a family should be kept together at all costs. If there is abuse, the parent shouldn't necessarily get to keep custody. Whether because of abuse -- or simply because the youth has a strong desire to leave -- if the youth wants to move out of their parents home, I believe they must be allowed to do so.

Most families *do* function adequately, though. No need to fix what's not broken! YL, in my opinion, deals primarily with giving youth more options for when things go wrong...

2) An adversarial relationship between a youth and their parent(s) is not desirable.

An adversarial relationship is not desirable -- but that doesn't mean that a youth should simply submit to parental authority. If there arguments in good faith need to happen, then they should happen. And if the parents exercise their authority unjustly, then the youth should fight back. Domestic peace mustn't be founded on either subordination or squelching dissent.

3) Children are different from adults. The difference between a 17-year-old and an 18-year-old is negligible -- but an infant and a 40-year-old are very different. The younger the child and the older the adult you're comparing, the greater the difference.

However, even if adults have more extensive abilities than youth, it is wrong to cultivate a feeling of superiority. Adults should be humble about their abilities, acknowledging all that they are *not* capable of -- and honoring the honest struggles of youth to manage their own life with the facilities that they do possess. Rather than yanking young people's lives out of their hands, adults should do all that they can to maximize young people's self-determination.

4) Young persons have special needs. They need to be given food and shelter, orientation in society, and financial support. Some adults also need these kinds of support in a continuing way -- but all very young children minimally need these things for survival.

Youth did not ask to be born. For imposing existence upon a youth, parents owe them at least the means for survival, without an reciprocal obligation of labor or obedience on the part of the youth. The parents' burden of support should be lessened by society, which should provide socialized services as a safety net that all citizens (including youth) can benefit from in times of need.

5) Simply sending a young person out into adult society to fend for themselves, without any support, is a bad thing.

Youth need caring assistance -- particularly during their earliest years. However, when a youth takes it into their mind to go out and explore, they should be enabled to do this. With regards to most rights issues, I am in concurrence with John Holt that rights should be made *available* to youth, at the asking.

6) There are a variety of ways in which treating youth as legal adults could seriously harm them.

There are several varieties of age-lines, some of which are problematic with regards to youth welfare. I've written about this elsewhere so I will merely synopsize here. (see "Exploration: Ageless Being - A Thought Experiment", section 5, from 12.20.04)

A) Skills required for communal safety
B) Minimal intelligence required for communal decision-making
C) Regulating the impact of vice
D) Assessing responsibility for someone's criminal actions
E) Identifying and empowering persons vulnerable to exploitation

At present, I don't think that YL has adequately addressed all of these types of age-lines. Particularly with regards to sexual exploitation, it is irresponsible in my opinion to simply erase age lines at present. I'm not happy with the age of consent on principle, but don't have a better solution. ...It's OK for us to not have all the answers yet.

7) Young people, particularly the younger they are, may be emotionally unstable, have irrational beliefs, and lack the competence to make important decisions about their own lives.

However, it is absurd to presume that youth are incompetent to control their own lives until they are 18. Rather subordinate youth to their guardians' will, guardians should strive to merely assist youth in following their own will. Standing in the way of a youth's will should be a grave matter, an action of last resort. Furthermore, the areas in which a parent *is* justified in overriding a minor's will should be clearly spelled out.

Parents predictably fear that young children will put a fork in an electrical socket, put a marble in their nose, run into the street, touch a hot stove burner, and eat nothing but cookies. Intervening in situations where there will be unintentional and immediate physical damage is justified -- punishment for these errors is not. [With regards to the cookies: why has an environment been created where these cookies are so available to begin with?]

With regards to teens, parents predictably fear drug use, teen pregnancy, gang involvement, and tattoos. If the behavior in question is criminal, then a parent has a legitimate dilemma about what to do. However, for issues where the teen is altering their own body -- e.g. through sex, pregnancy, dying hair, getting tattooed -- the parent can voice their personal opinions, but not try to veto. There may be serious consequences -- but none of them are the end of the world; they can all be dealt with.

It is more important for a young person to be able to have their own mistakes and be able to learn than for a parent to impose what they believe to be right. It is more important for a young person's sense of control of their own life to be respected than for them to be shielded from all negative consequences.

9) Legal guardians should have authority to take care of their children.

Parents or other legal guardians need freedom and flexibility in taking care of their children. However, there is a whole list of areas that parents should conscientiously, and in advance, decide that they will not control. The most fundamental principle that must be respected is that a youth is not their parent's property; the youth owns their own body and life.

[I have notes for "a new parent-child contract". See "Exploration: Youth As Their Own Property", from 10.06.04. ...I hope to expand upon this idea of an actual contract, or perhaps a "within-family youth bill of rights", in the near future.]

8) There are instances of conflict between youth and their parents where the parents, in good conscience, will be compelled to override the will of their offspring. Youth don't always get to have their way.

The younger the child, the more likely this is to be. For instance, you might go to a park with a child at 1pm, with a commitment to someone else to meet at 2pm. If the youth stubbornly refuses to leave at 2, then the conscientious parent has a dilemma. A conscientious parent can do a great deal to minimize the likelihood of having to overrule a child -- and I think there's a burden upon the parent to go out of their way to make concessions to the dependent youth -- but there will be unfortunate times when conflicts occur and the parent sees no other way out. It is forgivable.

However, come the teen years, overriding the will of the youth should be unheard of. If it comes down to a matter of criminal behavior such as drug-taking, the parent's choice is more or less to allow the behavior, or turn the child over to the police. This is the same choice the parent would face if they discovered one of their adult friends was using drugs.

10) Parents should be engaged with their child. One should not simply leave the youth to their own devices.

Generally speaking, young children want (kind) parental attention. Give it. Just because you don't stand in the way of youth freedom doesn't mean that you can't be interested in the youth and participate in their lives! Work to have a strong, meaningful relationship. Treat the youth with dignity, respect, and compassion. People, all people, tend to be attracted to someone who treats them this way.

But, if a youth wants privacy, or to have a life independent of you -- respect that wish.

11) Youth need warmth, nurturing, mentors, and role-models they can look up to.

All people, including adults need warm and nurturing people in their lives. It doesn't matter who they are. It could be two parents, a single mom, two married gay men, a familial collective -- so long as there's a strong personal connection with someone, it doesn't matter who. It just has to be someone who cares about you, and can listen and talk with you compassionately.

By the same token, we all need mentors and role-models. They can be people of our own age -- it doesn't matter. The point is that we need people we can learn from, and someone in the world who we respect and think is worth emulating. If a parent can provide this, that's great! But parents don't *inherently* offer these things, simply by virtue of having given birth.

12) It is the government's responsibility to intercede in cases of abuse, protecting children from unfit parents.

Youth need to be able to remove themselves from abusive situations at will, without having to go to an advocate that will then speak for them. This does not mean that adult-run child protection agencies should be shut down. Child protection agencies should remain in place -- and they should be adequately staffed and funded, which is not the case now. Very young children are generally unable to initiate self-defense measures. Older youth, however, should be given the tools to remove themselves from danger immediately -- and perhaps as well a knowledge of physical self-defense techniques.

13) A form of state-sponsored compulsory schooling should exist.

Compulsory schooling -- because it is compulsory -- is problematic for YL. There are three worthwhile courses of action here: (1) unschooling should be promoted as an option, (2) more alternative schools should be founded, and (3) mainstream public schools should be radically democratized. I am against abolishing schools altogether because they offer an important means to extract youth from a potentially abusive family situation, where they may be trapped. It is a bad thing for youth to be trapped in a tedious, degrading, or dangerous school situation, too. Yet, it seems to me that there must be some juncture where parents are legally required to allow their children to make contact with the public sphere. School seems like the best way to do that.

I also believe that education is important to the health of a democracy. To the extent that youth receive a benefit that adults do not, being given free education, I would like to see things equalized. I would like there to be some sort of system that gives people of all ages a means of furthering their education without expense. At higher-levels, this might deal with a system of scholarships... I've heard about programs that sound even-handed, but am not up on the topic enough to be able to reiterate how they work exactly.


The YL proposals of Cohen, Farson, and Holt suffer from an appearance of impracticality. Their lists of equal rights sound good in principle, but when you try to imagine what their world look like in practice, it's difficult to really picture oneself as a youth using all these rights. ...You only use the rights that you need. Most of us just sort of slide along in life... And this picture of the world doesn't necessarily feel very well suited to very young children (say, 7 and under).

A few concluding notes about a practical approach to youth justice -- including how we get from here to youthtopia: