Updated: May 18
Yesterday I attended the opening ceremony of the annual JugendPolitikTage initiated and organised by the Jugendpresse which is a federal association for young media makers in Germany.
The JugendPolitikTage (Youth “Political” Days) brings together 1,000 young people who exchange views on current challenges, engage on their role as young people in finding suitable solutions to todays political challenges and get the opportunity to engage directly with German government and this 'initiative' seems to work: this event has become a milestone in the implementation of the Federal Government's youth strategy. This is a clear sign from those in power that they take the youth agenda and agency of young people in Germany very seriously. This time around, young people will develop recommendations for the National Action Plan for Child and Youth Participation - in this way, they are given a direct mandate by the federal government to provide impulses to further develop the youth strategy and lend weight to their demands for a youth-friendly future.
This model of engagement is common and is often seen in other parts of the world - essentially what is crucial in successfully engaging youth was at the core of this conference, however, I think what set it apart for me was the legitimacy and by that I simply mean the degree to which this event was taken seriously. The right decision makers were in the room and were actively engaged with concrete commitment to support the follow up processes and outputs and young people steered the entire planning and execution of the programme with the adequate support. This is a step that is often missing - young people are simply tired of being mere attendees and seat fillers used for engagement and tokens with no concrete commitment.
“The active, empowered, and intentional partnership with youth as stakeholders, problem solvers, and change agents in their communities.” (Youth Leadership Institute 2009, p.13).
It is important to prioritise the participation of youth based on the premise that youth have the right and interest to express themselves, be involved in decisions that affect their lives, and be active participants, rather than just beneficiaries and participants. Relevant to this is the idea of “youth choice” or the notion that for young people to be truly engaged, they must be active and informed participants. It is important that the young people involved in any planning are aware of what they are doing, what is expected of them, and why they are doing it. Without this, the danger is that youth can be used merely as tokens of youth participation and included only in a perfunctory manner. In this case I had the impression these important steps were taken very seriously.
Roger Hart touches on 8 important steps that occur in a youth engagement process (both good and bad - ladder of participation) and my personal favourite and one that is overlooked is the importance of shared decision making between young people together with the appropriate mentorship and support from adults (child initiated, shared decisions with adults). To simply give young people ALL the responsibility simply isn't effective nor is it sustainable. Nor is it anything young people truly want either. Young people want to be given the opportunity to initiate and lead, however, support and guidance is needed hence intergenerational exchanges accompanied by sufficient mentoring need to be factored into any youth engagement and participation processes - something that I also observed during the planning and execution of this event. All youth engagement and participation should organically happen in a progression of sorts, however, what has set apart some of the youth led/centred processes that I have been successfully a part of, this step was carefully integrated and considered. Mentorship is vital and appreciated.
Hart’s typology of children’s participation is presented as a metaphorical “ladder,” with each ascending rung representing increasing levels of child agency, control, or power. In addition to the eight “rungs” of the ladder represent a continuum of power that ascends from nonparticipation (no agency) to degrees of participation (increasing levels of agency). It should be noted that Hart’s use of the term “children” encompasses all legal minors from preschool-age children to adolescents.
I have found that the most successful youth led/centred initiatives have strong mentorship and support that is also accompanied by weight, backing and support (in terms of resources). Without running the risk of comparing where German approaches and processes with others and thus seen as 'better' there was a lot to be learnt from how accessible German decisions makers are not only in this particular example but in many others. This is unfortunately not always the case in other contexts and perhaps without oversimplifying the 'why' it is important to explore the benefits of this and in this case the benefits seem to be immeasurable specifically within the German context.
Like any model, the ladder reflects some degree of cultural bias, and it may be less accurate or useful when applied to certain cultures. For example, the ladder primarily reflects a “Western orientation,” which tends to emphasize individualism and the value of progressive independence and autonomy in child development, and therefore it may be less useful or even problematic when generically applied to cultures that emphasize the value of collectivism and the maintenance of familial or communal interdependence in child development. According to Hart, “It is most surprising to me that I could not find more cultural critiques of the ladder, particularly from Asia and Africa, for I can think of some important ones. The reason may well be that many of those who write about the issue of children’s participation are themselves educated in the West and rely on Western theories of children’s development which, sadly, almost completely dominates the child development literature globally.”
What may be important to reflect on moving forward is a similar process and initiative in an African context so we can appreciate the pros and cons that the cultural nuances that participation comes with. How participation is received and what it truly means for people whose realities are embedded in non Western contexts. If anything I would love to exist in a world where excellence and efficiency does not only look one way. For now I am feeling inspired and reassured after the JugendPolitikTage about how youth are taking up spaces in their own way and even more so by the support mechanisms in place to ensure not only success but sustainability - this is truly something to add to my backpack of learnings.