Participation of young people is a main topic in youth work and youth policy. For youth work it is both, a method and an aim, for policy making it aims to include young people in decision making. Many opportunities for young people to voice their opinions exist. But who gets involved in reality? Why do so many young people not take the chance offered, to get involved in participation projects? The answer to this question, often asked by policy makers, lies frequently in the organization and structure of participation offers.
I believe participation projects for young people have often two main problems: either there is the invitation to get involved in existing (policy making) structures or to get engaged in certain youth relevant issues. In the first approach it can be seen as an invitation to a game where the hosts – generally the adults – have already set the rules. Or they often did not even set them, but just accept them as they (always) have been – starting from given places, given processes, given time frames, to given ways of outcome presentation and implementation methods.
Generally the adults – have already set the rules.
But: please don´t throw the sand out
But these rules are in many cases very difficult to understand and a high level of cultural capital is a prerequisite to play after these rules. Thus, the threshold for these participation offers is too high for many young people. These offers appeal regularly to middle class young people, well-educated and with a supportive family background. Others need support and an intensive preparation to have enough self-esteem to even enter these processes together with their well-educated peers.
The second invitation is often more open for real input and innovation of young people, also from less privileged background. Here they can regularly set the frame and the working methods – as long as the topic is something for young people: Like a skater park, a playground, the class room, or a youth centre – so, anything that is “not really important” for adults. But these are not the only issues important for young people. It is like inviting a child to build a sand castle in a sand box – just like they want to have it – but: please don’t throw the sand out or try to change the park surrounding the sand box.
Would you call this participation? I would call it playing by adults’ rules.
Marginalized young people have other interests than skating and graffiti, too. If the co-creation intervenes too much with adult life young people are asked – rightly – to respect also the interests of the adults. But if they want to make the input as they would be able to, following their own rules, we are back in the sand box.
In the end the question is if any form of participation offer can be open to all, marginalized and privileged youth? I fear that most opportunities established by policy makers are not fitting for all young people, they are discriminating marginalized young people, not intentionally but through the structures: too strict, too narrow, too much focused on cultural capital. I am sure that co-creation between all young people is possible – but it has to be moderated to enable and empower the young people to work together with mutual respect, and then, to work together with adults at the same level. And we – the policy makers on all levels, the pedagogues, the youth workers – will need to integrate the less privileged youth, we will have to adapt “our” rules to not be marked as elitists ignoring the needs of the real people.
by Manfred Zentner (2017)
Manfred Zentner is a youth researcher currently working at the Danube University Krems. He is member of the Pool of European Youth researchers of the CoE-EU Youth partnership and mainly focussing on youth participation and on (European) Youth Policies.
Portrait Photo: © Laura Kidd