All children and young people have the right for their views to be listened to and taken seriously, but adults in Scotland aren’t always good at hearing what they have to say. Katrina Lambert of our Human Rights Defenders Action Group outlines key things adults can do to help young citizens bring about real change.
I’ve been an activist and human rights defender from the age of 15, working with various organisations and government figures on issues relating to gender equality, gender-based violence and youth voice.
What has become clear in that time is two things. Firstly, the idea of youth participation and consultation is definitely beginning to move into the minds of decision makers, especially with the success of the Year of Young People. Secondly, despite this enthusiasm, many people still feel out of their depths when it comes to elevating young people’s voices and we are still some way off from meaningful youth participation.
So whether you’re a minister, youth worker or just here for some light reading on your morning commute, here’s some advice on how to take young people seriously.
It sounds simple, but it’s one of the most essential things to do.
In so many areas of life – from politics to school – young people are not listened to because they don’t have any power and aren’t in a position of authority. So when you want to engage young people, you need to give them the space to talk, and to actually listen to what is being said.
This doesn’t mean that every word that a young person breathes deserves an automatic standing ovation. What it does mean is that when young people speak up and contribute to a discussion their ideas should be of no less value simply because they came from the youngest person in the room.
TWO: ‘Experience’ isn’t defined by age
Young people are ‘not mature enough’. We don’t have enough ‘life experience’ to have valid opinions.
All common phrases banded round about young people, but they’re just not true.
Many young people have a wealth of experience from leaving school, to having families, to working – all of which contributes to their ‘life experience’. Just because someone is younger, that doesn’t mean that they’re any less capable — some of the most insightful people I have met have been younger than 12!
Young people actually have unique experiences because we are younger: we see the world through a different lens because it treats us differently, meaning we have something unique to bring to the table.
THREE: Young people aren’t all the same
If you took most articles about young people in the media at face value, you would assume that the ‘youth’ are one homogenous group with identical opinions, who spend all day on their phones.
This could not be further from the truth.
Young people are diverse and all so different, something that is often forgotten as part of wider youth participation.
This means that you can’t just speak to a couple of young people and tick the ‘youth opinion’ box, consultation with young people must be treated like consultation with any other group— it should be as representative and diverse as possible.
FOUR: Be flexible
This is a more ‘technical’ point, but just as important as some of the others.
Engaging with young people does not always fit nicely into a 9-5 working day. Due to things like school, college, university and work, many opportunities are restricted for young people. Moving meeting times to weekends or evenings, although it may be a bit of a hassle, means that you are much more likely to get young people involved.
A question I’ve been asked a couple of times is ‘how come we can’t get any young people to commit to things in May?’. It’s not because all young people suddenly become disengaged at that time of year: it’s because a huge chunk of us are all sitting exams!
Simply having more of an awareness of things like this and young people’s lives outside of activism is guaranteed to create much more effective participation.
FIVE: Offer your resources and expertise
Navigating the world of advocacy as a young person can sometimes be daunting, so don’t underestimate the power that your support can have.
Whether that is providing contacts in your own networks, physical resources and toolkits, or even an encouraging message over Twitter— all are ways that you can genuinely support young people in their activities and help amplify their voices further.
SIX: Hand over power
This one sounds slightly scary, but trust me on it.
Some of the most innovative projects that I am part of – such as youth-led network Youth For Change which campaigns to end gender-based violence – are ones where power has been completely handed over to young people themselves.
When young people are trusted to make decisions and have a real input into events, meetings and funding bids is when you get the most exciting and inspiring ideas.
Don’t be afraid to let young people take control – you’ll be amazed at the results.
SEVEN: There’s no magic formula
This may seem slightly ironic given the last six points, but it might be the most important thing in this article.
In so many meetings, with people ranging from councillors to leaders in the voluntary sector, by far the most popular question I’m asked is: ‘you’re a young person, how do we engage young people?’
I’ve never been able to give a simple answer because I am just one person. Yes, there are certainly things you can do to engage young people effectively, but there just isn’t a one-size-fits all solution. Meaningful youth participation isn’t a piece of cake, otherwise this article wouldn’t need to exist. It requires time, patience and slightly different approaches for different groups of young people.
But don’t let me scare you! Across Scotland there are brilliant examples of young activists making real change, and many organisations are taking great steps to introduce youth participation into their decision making.
All it requires is some small changes in mind-set, to ensure that young people can speak out and that our voices are taken just as seriously as anybody else’s.
We’re not just the future, we’re changing the world now. We just need people to listen to us.