Thoughts on the Potential and Contradictions of Youth Participation – Paul Smyth

Interesting, insightful blog from Paul Smyth of the social enterprise initiative, Public Achievement about the involvement of two young people from Belfast in a UNESCO ‘Plan with Youth’ event – Reflections on a Visit to Paris

WIMPS stands for ‘Where is My Public Servant’ and Robert and Shauneen are 17 year olds.

Paul notes:

In terms of the exposure of WIMPS and our “Civic Youth Work” model – we were able to offer an alternative to some of the other models around the world.  There were 40 or so young people at the event from around the world.  Most were participants in structures such as national ‘Youth Councils’ or the global ‘World Assembly of Youth’ (WAY). They were generally older than Robert and Shauneen – mostly in their early 20′s.  My impression is that many of these young people are interested in building a career with some of the international organisations and institutions that were present at the event.  They are comfortable with the large-scale events, and used to dealing with international policy and the language of the United Nations and its institutions.

Shauneen and Robert

I have no doubt that such groups offer the young adults involved great opportunities – which will undoubtedly help shape the future of those involved, and hopefully inject the perspectives of young people into international decision making.  However, what is less clear to me is how these organisations represent the views of young people from tough social realities – or how these bodies consult and engage with wider groups of young people.  I also worry that the career aspirations of these articulate young people may inhibit them from rocking the boat at such events.  This can create the impression of young people being involved in decision making – but without young people being able – or willing – to fundamentally change the direction of the ‘adult’ institutions.  At its worst, this could boil down to the young people being compliant and the international agencies ticking a box to say that they have consulted young people.

These models depend on the ability of young people to participate in adult agendas – without demanding very much from the adults or their institutions – or giving young people the chance to shape and change those institutions.  WIMPS (and the wider work of Public Achievement) is based on a different premise.  Our model encourages a co-creative approach – where young people learn to work with and influence adults and their institutions – but where adults also learn how to listen to and engage young people – and invite young people to challenge their assumptions and ideas.

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