IYD: Beyond youth engagement: Looking at leadership

Today marks one of our favourite days at Youth For Change: International Youth Day.

Yet for me, this year’s celebration of young people’s contribution carries added meaning. It also marks my first full day as a 26 year old. Or, put simply, no longer part of the UK’s loosely recognised “youth” demographic.

Having been lucky enough to campaign with Youth For Change whilst working in international development, now therefore seems like an apt time to share on one of the biggest challenges I’ve found facing youth activists: the willingness to engage with them, but not let them lead.

Youth voices at every stage

A couple of months ago, I sat in a room of politicians, professionals and peers at an event focused on youth inclusivity. Designed to build upon existing work in the area, the day was split into two halves.

The morning reflected on successes and learnings of a youth inclusivity programme which had been running, with a panel discussion including previous youth participants. Shortly after lunch, these young people left the event, having only been invited to the morning sessions. The afternoon was spent forming solutions and action plans for the programme’s future.

As I sat in a 3pm roundtable, someone asked openly how best to reach further young people through the programme.

I sat in bewilderment, wondering why the people I now sat with were so willing to hear young people’s opinions earlier in the day, but didn’t think to include them in the afternoon’s decision-making discussions.

Where was the consultation? Why weren’t young people allowed not just to engage, but to lead the discussion on future solutions?

Tokenism

Listening is too frequently done for the sake of listening, not learning. Young people are beginning to be given the platform they deserve, and they are using it to speak up.

But this platform is no longer enough.

Organisations have become so aware of their obligation towards youth engagement that they have forgotten its core purpose. Engagement is not an end in itself, but a means to achieving more sustainable and inclusive results.

We are becoming so conscious of engaging youth that if we are not careful, we risk a situation that can be just as detrimental as complete disengagement: that of tokenism.

But why the willingness to give a platform to young people, accompanied by a degree of hesitance to implement their ideas?

Experience vs Innovation

The arguments we hear are all too frequent. Young people lack the experience, or professional nous, to make informed decisions. Or in the above case, including young people in a discussion about them would discourage others from frank and open conversation.

But do the benefits of “professional experience” or a quick consensus really outweigh the risks of not letting young people take the lead in decisions that will disproportionately affect them?

By just focusing on the arguments for engagement, we risk simplifying young peoples’ potential contribution in making change.

We risk overlooking our own intrinsic ability to think critically, question existing norms, and innovate.

From engagement to leadership

As a campaigner with Youth For Change, it has become clear why I’m so determined to move beyond engagement. As a youth coalition, we establish a position based upon moral arguments and research, and then work with experienced organisations in our areas of focus. We don’t just wait for organisation to approach us to lend them a “youth voice”.

If my time campaigning has taught me anything, it is that just listening to young people might create change.

However letting young people lead the conversation is sure to do so.