It is a simple task to place participation, citizenship, and democracy into a sentence and keep politicians and bureaucrats happy. But it would be a mistake for several reasons: firstly, the three words represent concepts that deserve consideration on their own account, both their positives and negatives; secondly, placing them together runs the risk of conflating their distinctive characters into a single idea where they are conjoined; and thirdly, absent any political prism through which to view such concepts, they could be considered sterile, lacking value or meaning.
Participation is seen as a social good, operating in a community context, as a form of active citizen engagement. It is an intrinsic political process that demands involvement, enables the development of skills, contributes to the acquisition of knowledge, and develops experience of the application of judgement. The operation of participation within a youth work context is essentially an informal education activity that can be located within a broader public pedagogy. It is a process and a practice that does not serve to simply maintain the status quo but seeks instead to challenge, to interrogate, and perhaps even to disrupt. Such disruption is not designed to destroy but rather to strengthen, through testing, policies, processes, and practices. The complexity of an open and authentic engagement with participation can be painful: established ways of working may be challenged; historic modes of engagement may be no longer fit for purpose; extant policies may no longer be relevant. Turning certainties into uncertainties may be necessary in order to move matters forward as a process of renewal and regeneration
These divisions appear to draw their function from relationships with adults rather than explore the more problematic issue of power relations.
In the context of participation with children, young people, and community groups, the simplistic metaphors of ladders or a pathway have been deployed to illustrate a range of stages. These stages, with their ascribed statuses of ‘good’ (participation) or ‘bad’ (non-participation) serve to create divisions within their respective structures. These divisions appear to draw their function from relationships with adults rather than explore the more problematic issue of power relations. The tensions, dilemmas, and contradictions, inherent in many of our societies are ignored. A deeper understanding of the structure of our own contexts may reveal that we are complicit in our acceptance of superficial engagement processes and that we overly rely on democratic concepts but take little active part other than to vote when invited to by politicians seeking a mandate. If adults are not critically engaged how can we reasonably expect that young people will be any more successful?
A continuum that links concepts such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ uses a moral construct to attempt to locate participation within a socialized context. This can be considered as an exercise in misdirection, like a conjurer trying to distract your attention, so that the more fundamental issue of participation being interpreted in relation to power remains unseen. The authors of various participation models promote their ideas as representing opportunities for empowerment of the individual, of a personal exercise in emancipation. This focus on the personal may also be interpreted as misdirection; social change is not achieved by individuals acting alone, but as a result of collective action. It is this collectivity that moves the practice and process of participation into the realm of the political. Active citizens, of whatever age, operating together for the common good constitute a hallmark of an effective participatory democracy.
Citizen engagement should not be neat, simple, or predictable; rather it should be messy, complicated, and challenging. The involvement of young people in participatory processes and practices is a cornerstone of both youth work and of policy initiatives that seek to construct mechanisms for the engagement of young people. This involves a range of approaches that incorporate both the simple and the complex: from the involvement of young people in decisions about their youth work setting right through to formal conversations with bureaucrats and politicians within the framework of Structured Dialogue, the latter an integral part of the Erasmus + Programme that funds a variety of such youth voice initiatives.
Irrespective of level, participation is a sophisticated mix of both practice and process. When concepts such as citizenship and democracy are added to the equation it becomes a complex web of relationships, individual and collective understandings, and a potentially volatile compound of expectation, anticipation, and action. These relationships, both within and beyond groups, are necessarily complicated. They are social bonds that hold us together, that may be stretched and strained, and indeed break. Many external factors keep these bonds under tension: social, economic, political, cultural, and more. When these are multiplied by inequality and disadvantage, prejudice and exclusion, we can see that institutions must constantly review their practice to ensure the maximum capacity for enabling inclusion, valuing diversity, and celebrating difference.
Irrespective of level, participation is a sophisticated mix of both practice and process
Of critical importance is a commitment to inclusiveness; in free and open societies there is a breadth and depth to the concept of “community” that acknowledges the personal investment and embodies the common good. Successful community development has significant hallmarks by which it can be judged: practices and processes that value participation, that demonstrates how it encourages democratic virtues, and activities that engage and include all, irrespective of citizenship status.
In a Europe facing contemporary political challenges from populism, and a hate-fuelled narrative that seeks to demonize minorities, it is important that youth initiatives demonstrate an active commitment to ensuring that all groups feel welcome, feel included, feel valued. Europe is a culturally rich and diverse continent but there are real risks inherent within a complexity of vulnerabilities.
Practitioners, politicians, and bureaucrats, should be wary of only engaging with those easy-to-reach young people; policy makers, and programme funders, may need to take risks and support work with young people who identify their engagement in civic life as marginal to their personal, or collective, trajectories. Perhaps not every initiative will be successful but the option of doing nothing to seek to include the most vulnerable in our societies runs the real risk of alienation, and maybe even nihilism. Youth policy narratives, and local, national, and European youth dialogue structures, may offer no amelioration in such straitened circumstances.
But international Conventions, grand pan-European Charters, or worthy national policies, have little chance of success if there is no real and authentic engagement at local level, be that municipal or even within our neighbourhoods. So, rather than interrogating the big picture, perhaps we should encourage youth workers to “focus local”; it might be instructive to apply an examination of policies and practices at local level, and even within individual organisations. Such an audit might both highlight organisational successes and identify scope for improvement or development. Implementing an annual “participation audit” could become a truly defining hallmark of an inclusive organisation – all the more powerful if achieved via the analysis and endorsement of an external, youth-led agency. The successful involvement of young people in the process of participation presents opportunities to harness and deploy a range of experience, knowledge, skill, and creativity, for the social good.
There are risks and they should be acknowledged. For both policy makers and practitioners there should be an awareness of, and acceptance that, young people may participate in alternative modes. The conventionally accepted formats of School or Youth Councils, or Parliaments, may only be attractive to some young people some of the time. The activities of global organisations such as Greenpeace, or radical movements such as Occupy, illustrate that young people are far from apathetic about engagement in civic society – perhaps it is the call to action or their global reach and perspective that critically engages young people? Activism takes many forms, some of which are more attractive than others. Irrespective of type the objective is the same: social change.
It was suggested earlier in this article that participation could be, and maybe should be, disruptive; communication is a good example. The rapid development of social media forms of communication has disrupted the long-accepted format of meetings, agendas, polite debate, and policy resolutions. Instant communication creates crowd engagement, issue loyalty, and the sense of gratification at doing something not just talking. But there is a real danger that such engagement risks potential disconnection from others in one’s neighbourhood. Solidarity with causes on the other side of the world may leave no time for connection with local issues. Virtual communities may feel powerful but may be ultimately creating a culture of solitary, and lonely (?), activists participating through devices and apps alone. A disassociation from working face-to-face with others, from engaging in debate, of understanding the points of view of others, of sharing in the successes and consoling each other over failures, risks increasing individual vulnerability to exploitation and potential extremism.
Whether you are a young person, youth worker, policy maker, or politician, we all have an obligation to collaborate and make participation, citizenship, and democracy, engaging, inclusive, and representative – and fun too!
by John Grace and Pauline Grace (2017)
John Grace has been involved in youth work for forty-six years and is currently a Director of a UK-based NGO.
Pauline Grace is a youth worker and head of the MA programme youth work at Newman University in Birmingham/UK.
Protest in England © ProtectYouthServices campaign, Participation Handbook Cover © John Grace