Why youth participation is so challenging to understand?

In the end of May in the association I work, Cazalla Intercultural, we have organized the conference called ¨Céntrate¨, in the framework of the structural dialogue project. The idea came from the fact that we got a building to manage and to create there the youth center, and since we don´t have much experience in the topic of youth centers, how they should work and be managed we decided to invite people and discuss it.

During the conference many questions pop up into my head and I guess it might be interesting to dedicate here a bit of space to actually reflect on them. What really the youth participation is, or maybe better why still people think that if a person will come for the English class, this is already youth participation? Is youth center always a space for the youth participation? Are physical spaces a tool for the youth participation? And what other tools to support of the youth participation there are.

Why we still misunderstand what youth participation is?

The discussion about youth participation is different depending on with whom I am talking about. When I talk with any youth worker we usually talk about the ladder of participation, tokenism, and in general we refer to youth people having a real say and influence on politics (understand us political system + civic society). And when I am talking with whomever else, participation = participation in the activities, like signing up for skiing weekend. The difference in understanding is quite huge, but where it is coming from?

I see two challenges – first one is obviously the word we are using. Since word participate is generally associated with the concept of someone coming for the organized activity. And since it is logical, this leads people to misunderstanding.

The second challenge is a bit more serious – it is not so easy to understand something that we have never experienced and/or even never heard of.

Let´s have a look on the examples where there youth participation really takes place. One of the best examples for me would be the youth advisory council of Council of Europe, where the elections are transparent and both youth organizations, and youth can enter, and then there is a space for youth for the equal participation as politicians in decision making on the issues that are related to the topic of youth. There are other structures on the high level that usually invites youth to ensure the youth participation, but so far I was invited once, and had a very had experience, when the youth has been cut out from the programme, and we tried to protest and make it visible, and everything was perfectly cleaned upJ

That was on the global level, then on the municipality level, there should be as well the youth councils, and this works differently depending on the country, in Wroclaw (the city where I was born), it was something as youth parliament, where the youth was discussing the issues that later on were communicated to the politicians (just communicated!); in Lorca it works rather as association that offers free time activities, and is kind of umbrella of youth associations. The question is how those structures offers the real possibility to participate in the decision making process? Can deciding something and then pushing for it and being persistent to get it, be called youth participation? Or it is rather the activism?

Normally the closest to the real youth participation are structures with in the smallest groups, and here the example would be student’s councils in primary and secondary high schools. The council itself is a tool for youth to participate, and there are certain rights and possibilities that students have and to some extend that participate in the decision-making processes (again it depends on the school and country).

I hope that with this I made my point that there are not so many examples on the real youth participation, and therefore people in general are not familiar with the concept. And I will repeat it again, for me if you fight for your rights, and to change something is activism, and when the tools for you are offered (for consultation and participation in decision making) then it is youth participation.



Then looking from the perspective of the youth workers, we should think what kind of tools we can provide to actually support the youth participation. Is there anything that we can actually do?

It is not the easiest topic, but yes there are things to do, and tools that actually support youth participation:

  • Information – young people needs to know where to go, if they want to express the opinion, make a suggestion etc. Normally those communication channels are not known at all. And inform about all the ways in your surrounding for youth participation
  • Empower – quite often young people think that they cannot do things, who they are to make a change, and here comes education for participation and youth empowerment (some as well call it civic education).
  • Implement youth participation in your activities – yes the change comes from ourselves, so if we are youth workers, we need to find a way how to be an example, and in this way we as well teach participation. If we write youth exchange, do we write, and a week before the implementation we look for youth to participate, or we support young people in writing and implementing their ideas? If we run the youth center, do we offer activities, or we offer a space for young people to suggest ideas? Are there any resources that we can offer to young people – like spaces or money (famous participatory budgets that works in many places).


Top down versus bottom up approach?

An here comes the life long challenge, can we actually ensure to have the youth participation, by undertaking a top down approach, meaning trying from the top to put in place some rules and structure, educate young people etc. Or there is a pure bottom up form to do it?

I don´t have answers. I have just my hypothesis, and I am not 100% against top down approach. First of all because in this way the first steps can be done. There is nothing bad in offering young people activities to participate in, it is simply just not enough, but with the time this can keep being improved, and people can get being involved in the different way.

The top down approach is nothing bad in the end for me, but under one condition. The one with the ¨power¨ needs to understand and accept the fact that they need to share this power, it can take time, but this moment will arrive. So if your youth association is already being run by adults (is it happens already in many NGOs working with ERASMUS+), and it is just a small group of people deciding about the future of the activities etc. get ready for the change. Youth needs to be present. And when I am writing about the time, it is needed, since the channels of participation need to be developed. And here comes my top down way of thinking – I don´t imagine youth taking all the decision in the organization, where the consequences will be just on the legal representation of the institution. So we need to look for real and realistic ways of participation.


So what is a role of spaces in youth participation?

I wrote a lot about the participation, and very little about spaces, but it is because my previous reflections actually answer as well this question. And I see two different angle to this question.

First of all spaces is one of the tool – meaning it is important for youth to meet and change out, and be able to talk about what is important for them. Going further if they want to do something they need to have spaces and money for this (usually), so it is as well the tool from this perspective.

Other angle is the perception of the role of youth centers as a spaces of youth participation. That we can use those spaces to actually show that the real participation can exist, and that the young people can take an active role in it´s development.

How is the practice? It is still something that we are thinking about how to do (of course with the top down approach), and let´s hope that we will find our model that will work. When we will do it, I will let you know.

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