It is often said that today’s young people are turned on to causes but turned off from politics. Except of course, the disaffected. They are neither turned on to causes nor drawn to politics. What’s worse they may have absolutely no sense of the connection between causes, politics and their own life, because except for the microcosm of their own experience, someone else ‘owns’ society: makes the rules, enforces them… and appears to leave them out.
That experience is often due to a ‘democratic deficit’: a lack of connection between government and some of the governed that creates outsiders to democracy.
For the last few years the Citizenship Foundation has been experimenting with solutions for just that issue, through Youth Act – the programme to develop campaigning skills amongst 11 – 18 year olds.
Like all good practice, Youth Act is successful because it starts where young people are at, and accompanies them on a learning journey, firstly to identify the issues that concern them and their community, secondly to prepare these to be represented into a political arena (which could be a school, local community, local council etc) and thirdly to dialogue with the decision-makers until all are engaged in a process of change.
Seen diagrammatically in Fig 1, Youth Act starts with a group of young people in an area where there is little tradition or experience of engagement with local decision-makers: essentially, with more disaffected young people. It then goes on to help them to identify what they would consider to be the biggest problems or needs in their community.
Once that is done it equips them to take their issues to decision makers such that they try to affect the local political landscape towards addressing their issues. For example: young people concerned about knife crime in their area persuaded the council to develop a more concerted campaign against knives and further recruited the police to support their cause.
The Youth Act training model
1 Recruit young people
2 In a group setting uncover their passions and concerns
3 Identify the issues behind these and prepare them to articulate them
4 Analyse the local political landscape and identify decision-makers who might affect these issues
5 Participate in a dialogue with the decision makers to re-evaluate policy
6 Through that policy initiative, create change by engagement in the local community
And by the time they’ve been around the loop once they have become equipped as citizens capable of involvement in the decision-making processes affecting their lives – in the jargon; democratically engaged and politically literate. They have also seen the value of the process and begun believing in the system.
New participation models needed?
Youth Act focuses on developing youth-led activism. Groups are politically free agents, not invited into participation but claiming their right to lobby and engage through their campaign initiatives. By starting with the lower left circle of the Venn diagram (Fig 1) they are empowered as the lead agents in social and political change.
Youth Act can’t redress a lack of democratic heritage, it needs to plant seeds of that, but it does offer two aspects of the remedy for the democratic deficit: people who believe that democracy will work for those involved, and training in the skills to make it happen.
Going round the loop and experiencing the benefits of democratic engagement (or just hearing yourself being publicly assertive!) is transformative, leaving young people with hope and social vision. This early intervention in engagement is critically important to begin to redress the democratic deficit.
We would argue that what’s needed is a new tool in the kit that accomplished youth workers bring to their daily work. The tool is the skills to support young campaigners. We have successfully worked with youth workers around England to equip them to train and support groups of young people to engage in active dialogue about issues with decision-makers in their local communities. Once trained, these youth workers then utilise group work techniques to galvanise a team around an issue and empower them towards consolidated action. They identify preferred options for the community’s benefit, recruit allies and advocate for their cause using persuasion and an optimism for change. As they develop their campaigns, youth workers and young people together can reflect on their experiences and learn together becoming more skilled and competent as they go. And as they do they address all the core competencies that traditional youth work aims to develop in emerging adults: skills, confidence, empowerment… extending them from the personal and social into the societal. And at the same time, they build democracy. It’s a win-win.
Facilitating these events could easily be part of every youth worker’s professional expertise. We’re training many to do it and they are proving to be easily assimilated skills for practitioners. The remaining question is simply this: how much do we really want everyone to be part of society?