“Nothing about us without us.”
-G.J. Strangler and M. Shirk (2004). On Their Own: What Happens to Kids When They Age Out of the Foster Care System. Westview Press. p 260.
Youth engagement is a process that offers meaningful participation and opportunities for youth to take responsibility and take leadership while working in partnership with others who value, respect, and share power with them.
The Inter-Council Network’s national context analysis of public engagement in Canada identified youth engagement as an integral component of public engagement. Primary, secondary, and postsecondary students, as well as youth more broadly, were among the top five target audiences of organizations’ public engagement efforts in Canada. This identification of youth engagement as a priority focus of the international development sector has helped to open space for critical reflection and discussion around the effectiveness of youth engagement in Canada.
Youth have increased knowledge of the most pressing global issues of our time, including the compounded global economic, ecological, and socio-political crises. As a result, youth are experiencing anomie, the breakdown of the bonds between an individual and their community, through an uncertain financial future, lack of access to affordable education, lack of employment opportunities, inherited fiscal and ecological debt, and widespread passive citizenship and cynicism toward the democratic process.
The content of this toolkit that is specific to youth engagement aims to highlight the successes and challenges of youth engagement, as well as to showcase good practices, strategies, tools, and resources to support sustained youth-based public engagement efforts. The knowledge hub process allowed participants to disseminate the goals of youth-based public engagement.
Knowledge hub participants identified the following principles of good practice for sustained, cross-generational youth engagement:
- Operate from an anti-oppressive perspective and provide youth with opportunities to develop an anti-oppressive lens;
- Engage post-high-school and post-secondary-aged youth (18-30) in social change;
- Support youth as they take care of themselves and each other;
- Use arts-based programming as a method to engage a broader spectrum of youth;
- Effectively use social media to engage youth;
- Plan programs and projects that are accessible to all youth, especially to rural, at-promise, on-reserve, and under-engaged youth.
- Sustain youth engagement by developing meaningful connections and relationships.
The youth-based knowledge hub participants operated from the following assumptions about good practices in engaging youth:
- Privilege is an invisible backpack that we carry around. We do not always recognize the effects of oppression or do much to defend against them;
- Opportunities for engagement often exist in structured environments like elementary and high schools, but structured programming for youth (aged 18-30) outside of these structures is difficult to find;
- Generally, people have difficulty prioritizing taking care of themselves and finding balance in their work, volunteering, home, health (mental, physical, emotional, psychological), and social lives;
- Using arts-based programming to express ideas, issues, feelings, and topics has proven to be a transformative method to engage youth;
- To use social media to engage youth means being responsive to new opportunities and platforms;
- Finding alternative ways to engage diverse groups of youth makes programming more accessible.
- Internship programs are effective in sustaining youth engagement because they offer context and exposure to global issues that can be addressed at home and abroad. As a result, these types of youth engagement opportunities are often transformative.
The group also determined that the goals of fostering cross-generational understanding and provoking meaningful and sustained engagement were threads that seamlessly run through all the good practices of youth engagement. The most significant factor in engaging youth, which translates into sustained youth engagement, is that the actions must be youth-led and youth-focussed.
Improved cross-generational engagement involves finding ways that allow people from different generations to come together to share knowledge, questions, experiences, hopes and fears with the goal of becoming allies. Cross-generational understanding promotes a recognition that there are insights that can be learned from past social change work and that we can use that knowledge to deepen the work being done today. There is considerable and largely untapped potential inherent in having veterans of change and young people working together on social change efforts – young and old serving as society’s bookends, as it were.
“Because of the complexity and interconnected nature of the issues we face today, we need as many people involved in the collective work of social change as possible.”
-Kevin Millsip, Next Up