Building a culture of youth engagement

Youth Voice

By Hannah Graham at UK Youth, around the UK Youth ‘Building a culture of youth engagement’ members event on 15th March 2018 at Bolton Lads & Girls Club.

‘Youth voice’ and ‘youth participation’ has been a growing movement in a number of sectors for a long time. But the phrase ‘youth engagement’ is often overused and misunderstood. Effective youth engagement is one of the most critical priorities for organisations working with young people. With everyone keen to ‘do it’, many are considering how to ensure youth engagement practices are valuable across their organisation.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child applies to all young people aged 17 and under. Adopted by the UN in 1989, it gives children and young people a set of comprehensive civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. It includes specific rights to guarantee children’s participation in all matters affecting them.

What we do

In the UK Youth network, we aim to achieve a bright future for all young people, regardless of their background or circumstance. In order to do this, it is so important to constantly remind ourselves of the fundamental principles of youth participation. Youth participation is about young people having a say and influencing change in decisions that affect their lives, organisations and communities.

In particular it means that:

  • young people have an important contribution to make in decisions that impact on their lives, organisations and communities;
  • young people have the skills, knowledge and confidence to get involved with decision making; and
  • a culture exists within which young people’s opinions and contributions are recognised, valued and acted upon by wider society.

These principles must be built on the foundations of positive relationships between young people and trusted adults, equality of opportunity and effective safeguarding. Young people must voluntarily participate in purposeful roles and be empowered to share views influencing real, visible and tangible outcomes.

So what does good youth engagement look and feel like?

Valuable youth engagement is not without challenges. But with a few small changes you can make a big difference to your organisation.

Rather than have young people attend, speak and fundraise at events, why not give them an equal stake in pitching proposals for funding, allowing them to make financial decisions about your organisation? Placements or shadowing opportunities within the finance team? Technical, managerial work experience, learning and practicing essential life skills is absolutely invaluable to today’s young people.

When planning activities or programmes, are young people an afterthought or are they really driving the need for programme development and design? Youth advisory groups setting the agenda, becoming empowered advocates and owning the ideas are an essential tool to inspire the next generation of young people. The same applies to policy and campaigns. Rather than surveying young people or taking them along to meetings, youth participation workers should facilitate structured dialogue in accessible, creative and valuable ways between young people, stakeholders and policy makers.

Do you have young people on all recruitment panels? Young trustees? Young people driving the questioning or work experience with HR? Think also about your marketing and communications strategies. Youth takeover days on social media have become increasingly popular, but why not give young people the freedom to live report events: tweeting, live streaming, blogging, vlogging? Creative, original content gets noticed. And who better to engage young people than young people themselves.

There are of course, things that get in the way. Addressing the culture change is tough when staff continue to have ingrained beliefs and cycles such as ‘it’ll never work’. Policies and procedures can also be a barrier, alongside comments like ‘we’ve always done it this way’. You may also battle tight targets and deadlines and systems such as stringent sign off procedures.

 Youth engagement is everyone’s responsibility

A useful mapping tool is Roger Hart’s Ladder of Young People’s Participation where he explains youth engagement in levels. Think about engagement as power structures, where does the power sit in your organisation? At UK Youth, we believe Roger missed a ladder rung. One where young people are empowered to lead, guided to set the agenda and allowed to make mistakes. The notion of learning by doing is an essential part of development and critical in building confidence in young people. Always include contingency planning during activities to allow young people to try, and try again.

Changing the culture is sometimes institutional and systematic. However, implementing youth engagement champions in each team with regular training and a tailored framework for staff to follow, will result in more valuable youth engagement practices across all areas of your organisation. Individually, we can make a small change. Collectively, we can make a huge difference to young people’s lives and continue to provide high quality youth services for all young people.

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