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Live Q&A took place on 9 April, 2020 over Facebook live. This event was aimed at people who are new to youth participation and wanted to get an understanding of some of the basic concepts, and those who are currently working on the topic and want to improve their participatory practices.
Traditionally, we think of youth participation as something we can do together in person (gathering in groups, attending meetings, organising protests, etc.). The lockdown related to the COVID-19 emergency situation largely limits the options for youth to participate, as public spaces become inaccessible and people are required to physically isolate themselves. Instead of public strikes, youth is now organising digital strikes and activities online. But these take place in the spaces of private companies (skype, zoom, etc.), which is symbolically quite different from a strike in the public spaces of a city, for example. Also, digital means are not accessible to some youth, so digital forms of participation are exclusive and youth without access to the internet are fundamentally excluded during crises that limit physical activities. However, it is important to continue youth participation activities, instead of ceasing these when the societal priorities have shifted. In times of emergency, it is important to see young people as part of the actors, who can help solve the crisis and rebuild our society in many ways. On an individual level, young people choosing to stay home, following guidelines and suggesting that their friends and family do the same is an act of participation and solidarity in itself. In addition to that, some young people have started to engage in spontaneous mutual aid actions in the COVID-19 lockdown. These are done outside of formal frameworks, charities and structured youth organisations, so youth participation has become more informal during this emergency.
The radical solution would be to change the structures, so as to avoid the problems in the first place and not arrive at barriers for youth participation. Participation is about shifting power. It is not about teaching youth to behave or act in a certain way, so that they fit into our society, but rather about reshaping and reforming our institutions and policies, so that they work for young people and so that young people want to engage with them, feel connected with them and establish a relationship with them. This is much more difficult than educating and motivating youth or running a small youth participation project locally. First and foremost, it is important to be clear about the values behind your participation project, as well as honesty and authenticity around change. Youth needs to understand which societal changes they could realistically hope to make or induce through the youth participation project they are involved in. As a participation worker or youth worker your best chance is to promise your commitment to the project and to trying to make change happen in the direction the youth want, instead of promising them the change itself, which is not in your control. A good tool here would be to refer to other similar projects and the changes they managed to make previously, in order to show youth that they are capable of shifting things in their societies and that it is their fundamental right to do so.
Online platforms play a significant role in debating both in times of crisis, as well as in normal times. It is important to bear in mind that online platforms restrict our ability to fully express ourselves, as we are often constrained to using only written or spoken language, without additional body language and so on. In addition to that, people often perceive that their anonymity is higher when using online platforms and so become more irresponsible with their messages, which may create a hostile environment for debating. Another threat to safety online involves issues around our privacy, which may be violated in different ways. However, since online platforms are and most likely will continue to be used as tools for public debate, ensuring that these spaces are safe for everyone, while encouraging free debate and expression of thought is a constant challenge we must consider.
Even though there might be some merit to thinking that it is pointless to push agendas, which are set aside on a wider scale, and use resources to push them locally instead, the youth civil society must highlight its agendas in times of crisis, so as to not become overshadowed by other competing agendas that do keep voicing their importance and need for resources. The essential thing is to come together as a sector, in order to represent the importance of investing in young people and youth issues generally, to present youth as actors, who can play a part in resolving issues related to the crisis, and to highlight the risks that are particularly relevant to youth in times of crisis, in order to make sure that we keep up support for young people.
Since young people are forced to be online more than ever before, it would be interesting to observe the trends of online participation. This includes studying different platforms that youth organisations and institutions choose for trying to reach young people and the efficacy of such platforms and strategies to engage youth. Another key area for research is to examine how closure of public spaces for civil society will affect youth participation in times of emergency, especially since youth will be the main demographic bearing the long-term socioeconomic consequences of the crisis. In addition to that, research about the values connected with youth participation may be necessary, as well, since the values may shift or change due to the current situation. However, perhaps the most pressing need in terms of youth participation research would be to map the extent of young people, who are being excluded from the rapid digitalisation of youth participation the situation has brought about. This way research can be more impactful in terms of more urgent policy changes and problem solving.
Participation is not about providing someone with a list of values and expecting them to accept these, but rather about keeping them engaged in discussing, debating and shaping what the shared values could and should be. The society as a whole, including young people, needs to have a continual conversation about what Europe, as well as European citizenship and values mean. We can never arrive at a complete view of European values, since we are a union of communities and nations, which are constantly changing and evolving. The key to true participation is to keep youth engaged in this conversation and allow for different personal relationships with Europe, rather than demanding their compliance with a questionable predefined set of values. The best starting point for discussing European citizenship are the basic pillars of democracy and human rights.
It is very important to ensure regular contact between the local youth and local decision makers, which can lead to a more deliberative form of youth participation, where the two parties generate ideas, as to how they might change things for the better together in their community. We must build up a relationship of trust between the youth and the decision makers, in order for the young people to feel more engaged with the process. A good way to build trust is to move communication from a formal level (e.g. ministry representative talking to a youth representative) to a more human level (e.g. Patricia talking to Daphne), through which both parties can begin to make deeper connections and value each other’s input. However, another important thing to consider, especially when working on a city scale, is how many local young people are engaged in the change you are trying to achieve. Not every local young person is going to want to be heavily involved in co-managing the project, but if you want to make a population-level change, which requires that an entire city interacts with an institution, it is essential to include a very significant proportion of young people from that city in the decision-making process. Sometimes the key to having larger groups of youth engaged is simply running very good communication campaigns about the project.
When trying to approach political participation through youth work, it helps to think about the locus of change. Rather than trying to change the youth by teaching them new skills and competencies, youth workers can focus on trying to change the sociocultural and political environment around them, which brings youth work projects directly into political space. A good goal to set for youth work in terms of political participation is that the young people would be able to create social and political change as a result of youth work projects. Youth workers should not get intimidated by political space, because it is not about party politics and politicians, but rather about power, change and designing interventions for youth to be able to make changes.
While an unprecedented situation like the current one is forcing us to put off normal activities and plans, it is also the prime time to prepare for the long-term effects of this lockdown. The fact that a vast majority of youth is now out of school for a significant period will require imagination from the educators, who are trying to support them. In addition to socioeconomic fallouts that will affect youth, the ramifications on young people’s mental health due to lack of regular support systems and persons should not be understated either. With this in mind, the youth sector’s best chance would be to look at these hazards that are not here yet, so as to campaign and position itself for protecting human rights of young people and children by advocating for protective policies. Additionally, the youth sector can come up with ways to support young people with returning smoothly to regular schooling once the situation normalises.