Understanding Youth Participation

Understanding Youth Participation

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.

Confused? Let’s break it down.

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 at 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 with in 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.

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