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Understanding Youth Participation

Youth participation is the active engagement of young people throughout their own communities. It is often used as a shorthand for youth participation in any many forms, including decision-making, sports, schools, and any activity where young people are not historically engaged.

Think of youth participation as a giant umbrella that covers many ways and means of being involved. All forms of advocacy done by young people could be defined as youth participation, but not all forms of youth participation could be defined as advocacy.

Youth participation, also called youth involvement, has been used by government agencies, researchers, educators, and others to define and examine the active engagement of young people in schools, sports, government, community development, and economic activity.

In 1975, the National Commission on Resources for Youth in the United States defined youth participation as:

…Youth participation is the involvement of youth in responsible, challenging action that meets genuine needs, with opportunities for planning and/or decision-making affecting others in an activity whose impact or consequence is extended to others— i.e., outside or beyond the youth participants themselves. Other desirable features of youth participation are provision for critical reflection on the participatory activity and the opportunity for group effort toward a common goal.

In 1995, the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) established a definition of meaningful youth participation as:

Meaningful youth participation involves recognizing and nurturing the strengths, interests, and abilities of young people through the provision of real opportunities for youth to become involved in decisions that affect them at individual and systemic levels.

In 2006 the Commonwealth Youth Programme and UNICEF remarked: “As there are many types of developmental processes, cultures and unique individuals in the world, participation is not anyone phenomenon. There are various definitions of participation. A basic concept of participation however, is that people are free to involve themselves in social and developmental processes and that self-involvement is active, voluntary, and informed.”

The platform for youth to get involved has continued to increase in contemporary society, however, these opportunities cannot be seen to be amplifying the voice of youth in society.

Youth participation refers to how young people can be involved in processes, institutions, and decisions that affect their lives – and this can be active or passive.

Active youth participation means you are engaging or are ready to engage. Passive youth participation means you are willing to allow whatever happens to happen, and you are not changing or controlling the situation.

For example, you could participate passively by listening to someone speak at an event, but you have no intention of getting involved in the issue or making any changes in your life. By contrast, you could participate actively by researching a topic, finding actions you could take, and raising awareness with the goal of changing the behavior of others. Both have a time and place.

Learn to distinguish between the two types and how they fit into your unique situation, in terms of your own advocacy, how you want others to be involved, and how decision-makers offer to engage with you.

Different levels of youth advocacy also exist, ranging from non-participation to full participation.

Almost 30 years ago, Roger Hart developed a model to describe the different forms of youth participation. He argued that participation was the process of sharing decisions that affect people’s lives and the communities they live in. He believed that participation is the fundamental right of citizenship and an integral part of democracy.

At the center of Hart’s definition is decision-making. He describes participation as a ladder, with levels of youth involvement ranging from non-participation to full participation. This ladder is a useful way of looking at participation – it can help you to reflect on what your engagement is with an issue and what you want your participation to be like. 

The ladder has eight steps.

The first three steps represent non-participation, where young people have no real understanding of the issues but are engaged within a very basic way to show they were involved. The next five steps represent genuine participation, where young people participate meaningfully by thoroughly understanding the issue and being directly involved in the decision-making process. The final step represents the highest level of participation, where young people design and manage their own initiatives and share these decisions with adults. This represents a level of empowerment where young people are using their full capacity to engage meaningfully in decision-making about important issues.

In these forms, youth participation activities may include:

  • Youth councils
  • Participatory action research
  • Youth-led media
  • Youth-targeted political organizations

Youth participation often requires some measure of student voice or youth voice, as well as youth/adult partnerships. Results are often measured by youth development goals, academic outcomes, or returns on social capital. They may take the form of civic engagement, youth rights, or intergenerational equity.Now that you understand what youth participation is, try finding an issue you are passionate about.

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