Neoliberalism in Youth Programs

Democracy is a practical, hands-on approach to operating our society. Everyday, every young person can contribute to the health and well-being of themselves, their families, their neighborhoods, the nation, and the world. That’s the power of democracy today: More than ever before, it’s changing the world.

But there are forces trying to undo democracy. Right now, neoliberalism is tearing at youth programs across the nation today. It’s happening so deftly and insidiously that most youth workers and organization leaders have no idea what’s going on. 

Here are some characteristics of neoliberalism in youth-serving programs. They can be found in nonprofit or government settings at the neighborhood, city, county, state, or federal level.

Signs of Neoliberalism in Youth Programs

  • Bean counting. Counting youth-adult “encounters” as a measurement of change. This makes youth-adult interactions transactions similar to the way a salesman encounters a customer.
  • Pay to play. Charging youth to participate in historically free programs, including educational, recreational, cultural, and similar activities. Reducing youth work to a fiscal transaction incapacitates youth workers and denies the human right all young people have to access the resources of their communities.
  • Pre-packaged programs. Increasing “impact” in the lives of youth through by increasing the number of adult-facilitated, corporate-produced, curriculum-driven programs. This makes youth attendance in pre-packaged programs consumption, like a candy bar that is filled with empty carbs and nothing healthy.
  • Racist implications. When the same organization offers wildly different programs in different neighborhoods to meet different youth needs, they’re being responsive. When they track poor youth and youth or color into different programs than white youth and middle class youth, they’re being racist. 
  • Tracking to fast food. Teaching youth that the only jobs they’re eligible to get and the only impact they can make on their families and communities is through fast food and other service sector jobs denies their democratic roles and responsibilities. 
  • Signed in blood. Using contracts between youth and adults as a basis for interactions. This makes behavior and attendance a consumer interaction, and equates it to a consumer contract enforceable by law.
  • Poverty pimps. Selling donors on the horrors faced by youth in their neighborhoods without exposing the reality they’re faced to, including deep neighborhood roots, strong family backgrounds, and positive adult role models, is neoliberal to the core. It relies on feelings of noblese oblige for donatinons, and sells the worst side of youth today.
  • Youth as consumers. Referring to and understanding youth or parents as consumers of programs. This reduces nonprofit programs into supermarkets, and sells youth on the idea that “The customer is always right.”
  • Dramatizing reality. Writing grant applications or recruiting youth by over-emphasizing neighborhood challenges or youth inabilities is responsible and belittling. It sells programs on perceived need and hysteria rather than practical applications and meaningful community building. 
  • Zero tolerance. Enforcing zero-tolerance rules, particularly in low-income communities and with youth of color, who attend youth programs. This makes youth who comply eligible to participate, and pushes those who don’t further to the fringes, promoting a youth program-to-prison pipeline.
  • Being buddy buddy. Partnering nonprofits and for-profits in relationships that emphasize company values, corporate ideas, or consumerist perspectives.
  • Not all that counts… Using rigid evaluations and assessments of youth, youth performance, and program impacts in order to justify funding, employment, and youth activities. This makes all the impacts that aren’t measureable largely irrelevant, and promotes a “what you see is what you get” mentality, undermining the fabric of community in order to maximize the look of programs.
  • Sleeping with the enemy. Using corporate volunteers from local businesses to teach youth about financial responsibility and equity is an easy way to infuse youth with anti-democratic ideology and community apathy.
  • Over counting. Measuring every single component of a program. This makes all program activities artificially responsible for impacting youth, when there are many activities that indirectly affect them or don’t effect them at all that need to be done.

If these characteristics seem sensible or practical to you, you might consider what assumptions are driving your perspectives. That’s how neoliberalism works: Gradually taking over our conscience, we routinely and coincidentally perpetuate the very problems that caused our programs to need to exist in the first place. 

About Neoliberalism
In my work across the country over the last few years I’ve met and talked with many youth workers who are very concerned. They see their organizations faltering under pressure from foundations and donors, they’re watching young people become consumed by corporate identities and values, and they’re being laid off and replaced as workers caught in a seemingly never-ending cycle of hiring-and-firing.

At the same time, nonprofit organizations once committed to community development are now promoting consumerism and low-wage efforts to pipe up local economies. Executive directors and fund development managers have to pit corporate interests against the public well-being, often hiding sophisticated consumerist agendas behind simple-appearing neighborhood programs. They generally do this not from their own conscience, but as a response to threats from corporatized transnational foundations.

This is neoliberalism, which is a way the world is run. Neoliberalism places capitalism before social good, privatization before the public good, and business interests before the government. The ultimate idea of neoliberalism is to let capitalism run society, wholly eliminating the role of the government for the benefit of money-driven profiteers. 

In 2004, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said, “Privatization is a neoliberal and imperialist plan. Health can’t be privatized because it is a fundamental human right, nor can education, water, electricity and other public services. They can’t be surrendered to private capital that denies the people from their rights.”


Stop Neoliberalism

As my mentor and The Freechild Project advisor Henry Giroux has written, democratic education- which many youth-serving programs should be embodying- is under assault from neoliberalism in a huge way. But there are things we can do right now. 

  • If you’re a youth, stand up to neoliberalism by teaching your friends and educating youth workers. Share this article. Learn more about neoliberalism and work to stop it whenever, wherever you find it. Please.
  • If you’re a youth worker, stop neoliberalism by treating all youth as humans, right now. Stop enforcing dehumanizing zero tolerance rules, throw away company-mandated curriculum, and using your body to advertise for companies. 
  • If you’re a nonprofit board member, stand up to funders that are pimping your nonprofit for corporate gain. 
  • If you’re a neighborhood member or parent, check up on the nonprofits your youth is involved with or that serve youth and find out where their funding comes from, what it’s teaching youth, and how it’s being measured.

I offer websites, including The Freechild Project and SoundOut, social media, and outreach activities as weapons for this ongoing work, and I look forward to fighting with you along the way.

Long live democracy.

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