I’ve been an activist and human rights defender from the age of 15, working on issues relating to gender equality youth voice. In that time, two things have become clear. Firstly, the idea of youth participation and consultation is beginning to move into the minds of decision makers, especially following the Year of Young People. Secondly, despite this enthusiasm, many still feel out of their depth and we are still some way off meaningful youth participation.
So whether you’re a minister, youth worker or just here for some light reading, here’s some advice on how to take young people seriously.
It sounds simple, but it’s essential. In many areas of life young people aren’t listened to because they don’t have any power and aren’t in a position of authority. So if you want to engage young people, you need to give them space to talk and actually listen to what is being said. This doesn’t mean that every word that a young person breathes deserves an automatic standing ovation. What it does mean however, is that when young people speak up, their ideas should be of no less value because they came from the youngest person in the room.
- ‘Experience’ isn’t defined by age
Young people are often told that we don’t have enough “life experience” to have valid opinions. However, young people have a wealth of “life experience”— from leaving school, to having families, to working. Just because someone is younger, that doesn’t mean that they’re any less capable. Young people have unique experiences and contributions to make because we are younger; we see the world through a different lens because it treats us differently.
- Young people aren’t all the same
If you read the typical article about young people in the media, you would assume that the “youth” are one homogenous group with identical opinions who spend all day on their phones. This is simply untrue. Young people are so diverse and different, something that is often forgotten. This means that you can’t just speak to a couple of young people and tick the ‘youth opinion’ box. Consultation with young people must be treated like any other consultation— it should be as representative and diverse as possible.
- Be flexible
This is a more ‘technical’ point, but is very important. Engaging with young people does not always fit nicely into a 9-5 working day as young people have school, college, university, work etc. Moving meeting times to weekends or evenings – although it may be a bit of a hassle – means that you are more likely to get young people involved. Simply having more of an awareness of things like exam diets and young people’s lives outside of activism is guaranteed to create more effective participation.
- Offer your resourcesand expertise
Navigating the world of advocacy can sometimes be daunting, so don’t underestimate the power that your support can have. Whether that means providing contacts in your own networks, physical resources or even an encouraging message over Twitter, all are ways that you can help to amplify the voices of young people further.
- Hand over power
This one sounds slightly scary but trust me. Some of the most innovative projects that I am part of are ones where power has been handed over to young people. When young people are trusted to make their own decisions, that is when you get the most exciting and inspiring ideas. Don’t be afraid to let young people take control – you’ll be amazed at the results.
- There’s no magicformula
This may seem slightly ironic given the last six points, but stick with me. In so many situations I’m asked, “you’re a young person, how do we engage with young people?” I’ve never been able to give a simple answer because I am just one person. Yes, there are things you can strive towards, but there isn’t a one-size-fits all solution. Meaningful youth participation isn’t a piece of cake. It requires time, patience and slightly different approaches for different groups of young people.
But don’t let me scare you! Across Scotland there are some brilliant examples of young activists making real change and organisations taking steps to introduce youth participation into their decision making. All it requires is some adjustment in mind-set, to ensure that young people can speak out and that our voices are taken seriously. We’re not just the future, we’re changing the world now. So people need to listen.