Webinar: Making Youth Participation Visible
Year of production: 2020
How to turn an unknown issue into a viral issue?
Deborah: The best way to make your topic pop and galvanise a movement is by showing that there is strength in numbers. When the wider online community see that a group of people care about an issue, they ask themselves ‘Can I relate to this? How does it affect me? Should I lend my voice to this matter?’ Whether you demonstrate that there’s 10 of you who care, or 1000 of you – the important is that there is some sort of a group. Whether this group is formed organically, or by initial activism, you’ll find that a united front will benefit you as well as the cause. People want to feel connected to the issues they support – don’t only use your perspective, try and empathise with different experiences and tailor the movement to be as inclusive as possible. Make people feel something!
Karl: Emphasise the issue and make it relatable. For any issue it is necessary to understand why it is a problem and to whom directly (as well as indirectly). Raising the awareness of consequences and personal impact might lead to an increase of supporters. Of course an impactful social campaign might be the easier way, but it needs additional resources and can have only a short-term impact.
Mikk: It is important to concretise the issue so that it has relatability for many interest groups and the public. For example, if you would like to talk about youth rights, you must think for what this topic could be useful. For instance, involving youth in local-level decisions early could lead to more effective social and youth services, lower crime rates, lower school dropout ages and so on. Such examples and consideration will help to spread the information more easily.
How would you convince young people to get involved in a campaign even if they think that it will not change anything?
Deborah: I think the best way to encourage young people to engage in these different campaigns is to show them specific examples of when youth voice has made a global impact. For example, the climate strikes led by Greta Thunberg have started a huge global movement. Find examples of positive impacts that youth advocacy has had – whether it is a local topic or more international. Young people will see themselves represented in advocacy and realise that they can do that, too.
Mikk: If they do not want to be exactly a part of the campaign they can help in other ways, such as contributing to the cause directly through fundraising or doing grassroots activities that could also have an impact. This way they might also see later that the campaign had a significant impact on the empowerment of grassroots activities, as well.
Karl: It might sound as a cliché, but small steps contribute to a bigger impact. Explaining the broader perspective – how even likes and shares can spread the message – is useful. For example, in 2008 Estonia had the first clean-up day where people all over the country collected trash from public places, forests and so on. Compared to the world-scale it had a relatively small impact. About ten years later it led to World Cleanup Day, however.
How do the policy makers actually perceive youth participation as a term?
Mikk: Decision makers in general welcome any kind of activity, be it entrepreneurship or participating in projects. For them, the term participation resonates mostly with youth councils or student councils, which have a say in how institutions work. Since most politicians have been involved in some kind of youth organisation or activity in the past they have a more general idea of participation and take it more specifically, if they are addressed with a concrete problem that they can solve directly. So they have some experience with youth participation, but they do not promote the ideas always as “youth issues” but more of as general issues, which involve many voter groups. Some parties have defined sections in their election programmes specifically for youth. However, most of them cover it more generally and therefore participation is less covered as a result, even though all political youth wings always contribute to their parties agendas. There have been surveys made on such issues, most of which are national. I think OECD has covered the issue in its youth stocktaking report, though.
Karl: It depends on the country and its legislation. For instance, in Estonia the Youth Work Act defines the youth council and its purpose. Also, relevant youth participation is described from the state, municipality, as well as civil society perspective. I am sure there are great surveys and relevant research. As a good starting point, the Youth Wiki gives a comprehensive overview about the approaches EU countries have on youth participation.
Is the current crisis an opportunity to make the youth voice heard or rather an excuse for politicians to focus on “other priorities” and actually limit youth participation?
Karl: This is a tricky question, because it depends on the perspective, from which you were to observe it. On the one hand, the current situation levels the playground for everyone in terms of digital tools and we see lots of good initiatives gain popularity and audiences, since people can pay more attention to this and the initiatives make themselves more visible. On the other hand, this situation also introduces barriers, such as how to make your message really heard or how to approach someone, who is geographically far from you. This pandemic has normalised communication through digital tools. I can give an example from Estonia, where our president was making direct video calls with local communities and it created an easy, informal communication channel between the local and the state level.
Mikk: I generally agree with what Karl mentioned, but I can add to it. In the beginning of the pandemic, we saw some bad media coverage about youth not wanting to comply with the distancing rules and restrictions, but we tried to tackle this problem by getting youth to substitute for their normal physical activities with online and social media gatherings instead, even though it can be less inclusive.
Could you share some resources about campaigning and policy change?
SALTO PI: At the Participation Resource Pool, we will be gathering more and more resources as we make it officially public in the middle of June 2020. You can check out what we have so far here: https://participationpool.eu
Deborah: I can’t exactly share project plans as I wasn’t actively involved in the writing of them, especially as a lot of the projects I’ve taken part in were written and submitted for consideration to different funding bodies, Erasmus Plus and the Youth Services Grant for example. Around last year attended a study session organised by the European Confederation of Youth Clubs and the Council of Europe. The topic of the study session was largely based on creating action plans to make change. I’ve attached a link to the report on the study session, it has lots of useful tips.
Karl: ENL has some Vote@16 related materials translated into English which describe the framework and the concept of policy change. If you contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, they can share these materials.
How can “adults” support youth participation?
Deborah: There’s a number of ways in which adults can support youth participation, all which are specific to the role they play. For example, as an educator you are used to arranging and explaining information in a way that is easily understandable to your audience. You can support youth participation by guiding young people on how best to organise the information of their cause in a way that you would as an educator, to reach the most amount of people in the most accessible way. As a policy maker, you have a platform where you can impact tangible change. Not only this, but you are familiar with the sector of public policy, and you know the ins and outs of what works and what doesn’t. Providing advice and guiding young people in having realistic goals is a way in which you can support youth participation. As a youth worker, paid or voluntary, you may have niche skills that the young people you work with do not have. Do you work in admin? Are you a treasurer? A social media strategist? Using these niche skills to the benefit of the needs and wants identified by the young people you work with.
Mikk: They can be the mainstreamers of youth issues, by reflecting their past experiences if they have them or by empowering youth and offering them possibilities to participate. Such opportunities could be offered by decision makers and officials, who are open to the idea of creating youth governing bodies for institutions or other activities, which enhance the co-creation with youth in various areas. Youth workers are the ones who can offer a platform for development and share information with other adults about what youth could do.
Karl: Support the youth voice and encourage their ideas. It is easy to become “tokenistic”, i.e. include young people in your roundtable just to get a tick in the inclusion box, so to speak. It might be more challenging, however, to include young people in every policy-making phase, discuss their perspective and be adaptable to new directions that might arise as a result. Expecting that at one point young people become “ready for inclusion” is not sustainable – providing early access and making that a norm (to have young people as part of discussions, strategic planning etc.) also strengthens the youth’s willingness to contribute and take more responsibility. It is important to make decisions not only for youth, but together with youth, especially those decisions, which directly impact them and have consequences for their lives.
How to reach marginalised, less active and unrepresented youth to take part of decision making through youth forum/festival?
Mikk: Of you course it is important to make sure the event is accessible for everyone. The event should be free, have translation possibilities, be accessible by wheelchair, etc. Also, communication through different organisations and youth centres that come into contact with marginalised youth groups is important, in order for you to reach the right youth workers, who could also help share this information to different groups of youth.
Karl: Such youth events might be tricky from at least two perspectives. Firstly, how to reach youth without labeling them into a certain category (e.g. by social or economic obstacles, by disability etc.). Secondly, how to ensure broader representation of a particular interest group. As Mikk pointed out, creating preconditions for ensuring their participation and targeting the communication is highly important. Communication with municipal social workers or on regional/state level and, if applicable, with relevant representative bodies might be a good start.
How to reach those, who have limited access to the internet and smartphones?
Deborah: The issue of accessibility, as well as rural youth work is very topical across Europe at the moment, especially with the rise of digital youth work. But of course we must remember that reliable internet is not available to everyone. Rural Youth Europe (RYE) is an organisation doing really good work in this area. Their member base is all across rural areas.
Mikk: It is a matter of infrastructure how accessible it is in the rural areas. In Estonia for example there has been focus to cover rural areas with stable internet even in smaller farms and really remote areas etc. Or at least to rural centres: libraries, schools, public institutions. Also have free or good public transport could help this. All of these can help but still it’s possible to create these kind of platforms through the local government where people can contribute: (Zoom or open discussions online participatory budget voting, participatory online portals) All of these can also be initiated by NGOs.
Karl: As Mikk pointed out – through educational institutions, youth work facilities and institutions, youth organisations. Cooperation with local municipalities might be a starting platform – to identify how many youth face the barriers and which solution might be most relevant to particular conditions.
We all use social media to try to reach young people. How to use this tool effective?
SALTO PI: You can find a webinar about this topic here.
Deborah: Reaching specific groups on social media can be difficult and more importantly, expensive. Running targeted ad campaigns isn’t always possible. Consistency on social media is always key. People like to see varied content regularly. It keeps them coming back!
Mikk: Make it engaging, one good idea for example is to include some prices if you promote something. Also be consistent.
Karl: Repeated many times but make that not for young people, but with themselves. In Estonia the Estonian Youth Work Centre have had successful example of portal Teeviit (English: Signpost) which have youth resource groups working on topics they and their peers find relevant. ENL has also used similar method – to provide resources for young people to share the message by way they feel is right.
Do young people need someone to direct them?
Deborah: I think the answer to this question is yes and no. Young people do not necessarily *need* someone to direct them, but there is many benefits in having visible leaders who possess certain qualities. It can make organisation and management more streamlined when people have a figure, or figures that they can rely on for direction ship and leadership. And this is not to say that the leadership must be an older person or a youth worker – strong leadership can and has come from many dynamic young people before.
Karl: I think encouraging and supporting youth initiatives is more important than directing them. To acknowledge that they might have the support, if needed and give perhaps advice, not directions what to do.
How do you see e-participation and how would you define the idea of it?
Deborah: I would define digital youth work as the same as any youth work that can take place face fo face, but rather is conducted virtually through internet platforms and social media. I think during the Covid19 pandemic, we all have become much more familiar with reimagining the traditional way of doing things. Luckily, this advent of digital youth work has been taking place for some time, so the transition has been interesting to see. Digital youth work can also address specific risks associated with the internet in order to promote online safety and responsibility. Events such as online youth forums, webinars, virtual training sessions are all great examples of e-participation that allow young people to have their voices heard and share their input. I feel very positively about e-participation, because I believe it makes youth work more accessible. It also draws in the issue of climate change – reducing our carbon footprint by travelling less can also be viewed as a positive. I believe traditional youth work and digital youth work both have an important role to play, hand in hand.
Mikk: E-participation is a good additional way of participating which helps to reach more groups than you could maybe physically. In the future we will probably use more social media or platforms, e-voting etc. which will make it more easier but I think the “traditional” way of participating will continue for some time.
Karl: I think the Like-Dislike perspective is very relevant although generally not considered as a form of participation. It might feel that social media is a non-official environment (compared to opinions expressed in public places or polling booths). Although it has already transitioned to public space where expressions might lead to juridical consequences. Social media influencers as role-models for young people might also have an impact on their behaviour in real life (including empowering young people to use their right to vote). E-participation has a huge potential which could be realized by further defining the methods and mainstreaming them to the public.
Q&A with Deborah (Youth Work Ireland)
How to help youth extract themselves from activities and organisations with a hidden political agenda, such as Black Lives Matter?
I take an issue with this question, because the person asking this question might have a misguided view of what Black Lives Matter is. In any case, I myself as a black person do not see any hidden political agenda here — My body is not a political playground, the colour of my skin is not a controversial topic, asking for the same human rights as a white person has been afforded from birth. So there is no hidden agenda, it is the same as advocating for human rights for any marginalised group, whether it is LGBTQ people, migrant people, disabled people and so on. Whether a politician is supportive or not of the Black Lives Matter movement does not really have any bearing on its political application, because, at the end of the day, it is not a conservative issue, it is not a liberal issue, it is not a capitalist or communist issue. It is an issue of human rights, equality and fairness. So to answer the question, there is no way for people to extract themselves from any agenda, because I do not believe such movements have any hidden political agendas. I suppose people will always try and attach a political agenda to everything activists talk about. We see it happening with climate crisis, where people frame it as a liberal issue. My viewpoint is that such issues are often more clear-cut than that, it is more about what is right and wrong rather than political games.
Could you say more about how you got journalists to run with your story, and what events you would recommend?
For my organisation and I, we realised that our main strength was in numbers. We made it clear that our issue was of shared importance. There’s over 300,000 secondary school students in Ireland, a country with a population of less than 5 million. Already, that is a huge reach. We also demonstrated how topical our campaign was – with the advent of the #MeToo movement, it became impossible to ignore the idea of positive sexual relationships, consent, sexual agency etc. Demonstrating that our campaign was answering an important, national question made the media sit up and take notice.
Which modifications (if any) do you think/plan to do in your advocacy after the Black Lives Matter?
That is an interesting question, because I do not think I actually have to do anything differently or make any modifications. When I became an activist, I always tried to keep some key things very important, such as my colour. So whether I am taking part in activism on a European level or national level, the fact that I am black is something that is always present as a key part of my identity. The topic of race will always be on my mind, whether I am talking about sexual education or climate change. My activism has a multi-departmental approach, so the topic of race is related to this as my day-to-day reality. So I would say that I do not need to add anything new to my activism in connection with “Black lives matter” specifically, since this topic is already an essential part of my activism anyway. In general, though, “Black lives matter” and everything going on in America just shows how much work still needs to be done, how much education is still needed and how much political activism still needs to be done. We need to support initiatives for creating adequate legislation about hate crimes against African American people by using our privileges to amplify the voices of those, who most need it, by spreading information and having these very uncomfortable conversations about racial discrimination in our societies. I suppose I will also focus a bit more on this issue myself, as a result of “Black lives matter”.
Did you do any media friendly events? Did you manage to get governement to agree to share outcomes of your conversations with them to the media?
Probably the entirety of students in secondary education in Ireland did not form a united front and there was some diversity of opinions about the way the curriculum should be updated. How did you deal with those differences so that people would not feel excluded? Hi Aivar! The basis of our campaign was very much youth led and took place through a process of consultation. There was certainly a diversity of opinion, and making space for everyone was very important. Creating a safe space during our consultations was key. Young people were encouraged to discuss their views as honestly as possible, while also respecting expert advice on ‘best practice’ on introducing a holistic, inclusive sex education curriculum.
What were the breaking points to make you visible, which critical decisions you made against to people who do not want to support your action and who is hard to impress?
Karl just mentioned a ‘rights based approach’. This was something we also employed in our activism to influence the ideas of people who were not always with us. Making them understand that young people have a right to accurate information, education and access to healthcare and sex ed. By showing them that we are trying to secure a human right, they then understand that we are not fulfilling a personal agenda. Employing a rights based approach was critical for us!
Are you involved with migrant youth? How would you bring visibility to migrant youth?
I’m not directly involved with migrant youth work, but I believe with any marginalised groups, the most important thing you can do is create space and amplify the voices of those who do not have the same platform as more privileged people. Migrants are largely left behind and ignored by the state – for someone like me who has a platform, consistently including the unique experience of a migrant is vital. During the sex education campaign, we highlighted that many young migrants come from countries that are less secular than Ireland and they may have received even less sex education than the average young person. These are gaps that need to be filled!
When you were running your campaign did the other departments get involved or support or was it just DCYA?
Our sex education campaign was lucky that it was supported by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs as well as the Department of Education. A lot of the consultation groups were under umbrella organisations led by the DYCA (Such as Comhairle na nÓg, but ultimately we were lobbying for a new school curriculum, which is under the Department of Education.
I am a new white activist and I want to know some tips on how to campaign alongside with black people. From where can I start?
First of all, try not to feel like you need to be confined to one single type of activism. If your activism ends up being more present in an online space, it is fine. There is enough space for every activist and not everyone needs to be on the ground, protesting in the streets. If you want to support black people in their struggle, my advice would be to do your research first. Not every resource needs to be created from scratch and there are already a lot of resources available, from which you can learn and get more ideas. Try find good sources online and read books about how to understand and dismantle structural racism, how to use your privilege to benefit others, how to amplify black voices. One thing I find important about white activists advocating for black people, is that other white people might be more open and ready to listen to a white activist speaking out about race issues. This gives you lots of power to make a difference for black people and have these difficult conversations about racism with other white people, instead of waiting for black people to speak up for themselves. On the one hand, the thing to remember would be to amplify black voices that already exist and if you have your own platform, add your voice to theirs to make their voice louder. On the other hand, however, it is also important to remember that your voice should not be the loudest one, if you do not share the experience of black people’s reality. Just try to find a good balance between amplifying voices, supporting the work that is already being done, using your privilege to benefit others and keeping in mind that you are not at the center of the fight. Try to be mindful of the fact that even though it is everyone’s fight, you are not the one in the center of the aggression, whose rights are being threatened.
Q&A with Mikk and Karl (Estonian National Youth Council)
How did local politicians welcome your initiative?
They have been quite open about the idea of young people participating and understanding the idea of local democracy, still some don’t see the extra added value in this. In time it has changed, since almost every local municipality has a youth council. What comes to the political debates before the elections then they are mostly open since for them this could be one of the places they could discuss ideas with their voters, so they are quite open to participate in different panels.
For joining in debates, seminars and roundtables they tend to be supportive and open. Although the overall vote@16 topic might not be welcomed by all. As it was expected that local politicians are interested about self-promotion and campaign materials in school environment, the Ministry of Education and Research, Bureau of Chancellor of Justice and ENL formed list of recommendations for schools how to address political topics in active campaigning period. E.g. it was not allowed to arrange individual visits by politicians or share their campaign materials – only balanced and moderated panel discussion involving all political parties after the end of school day was expected. It raised a question how politicians can communicate with young people. Although we received about 100 inqueries from youth related to potential violations of those rules which we solved by direct communication with the candidates. Also, when we presented our survey results about young voters turnout we faced scepticism related to validity of results – the politicians, based on their presumptions, lowered the youth interest percent and explained it by strict restrictions which did not allow them to interact with youth. In conclusion, it is bit controversial, but fortunately there are also local politicians who have understood the value of youth engagement in local level and seek opportunities to keep in touch outside the active campaign period.
Don't you think 16 is too early to vote?
For us, the experience has been that voting at 16 years old is important, both as a participatory experience but also as a way to influence decisions. There is scientific proof that when given citizen education and other relevant information, there is no significant differences between people’s voting choices, whether they are doing it at 16 years of age or at 18 years of age. However, it is important to bear in mind that ages 18-24 are the most problematic in relation to low voters turnout. Perhaps this can be explained by youth moving out from their homes and starting their independent lives, which can make political topics rather unappealing, secondary or irrelevant. By allowing 16-year olds to vote, there might be a higher possibility of consistency and increase of overall citizen activity, as youth develops a habit for voting and participating politically. As was mentioned during the webinar – every country might not be ready for that kind of a shift yet. In Estonia we have an overall enabling system in place and highly supportive youth field, which was in favour of this change. Increasing youth participation on a local or regional level might be a great starting point for legitimising this necessity.
What are your resources/inspiration for lobby?
Actually change the course of policy which influences young people’s lives.
European Youth Forum has quite nice set of resources for beginners. For me personally I have relied on my university studies and gained knowledge. Also Salto Participation Pool is really good base!
One of the key arguments on your side in the Vote16 campaign that really resonated with the policymakers was scientific research providing you with the proof that by facilitating this early first vote it is possible to increase the likelihood of showing up at the polls later in one's life. And of course high turnout equals to healthy democracy. Would you like to share your experience of collaborating with researchers and could there be a lesson to learn for youth activists in general?
Of course. Especially when lobbying for specific, controversial and/or unknown topic it would be great to have evidence-based arguments and support from researchers. ENL has cooperated with multiple politologists who have researched civic education impact and have considered in their multiple papers Vote@16 topic. They have been open to present their expertise in ENL seminars and ENL has provided input for their other research projects. Similar cooperation model has been with youth researchers in Tartu and Tallinn universities. I think the keyword is finding common ground and interest object. If the topic is new and no relevant researcher is focussing on or interested about, then the process might be more tricky. For ENL the Ministry of Education and Research as well Estonian Youth Work Centre and Government Office of Estonia have supported ordering relevant surveys and analyses which have enforced cooperation with researchers, provided input for lobby process and overview for policy-makers about current situation in the field.
Can 16 year-olds vote age On local level or national?
Local level, we are currently working on expanding the right also to national and EU elections.
In Estonia 16 year olds can vote only local level. For European Parliament elections and our national parliament elections the voting age is still 18. The argument in favour ‘local only’ is increasing the connection between youth and their community. By having a say in developing home municipality you can be part of creating suitable environment e.g. for returning to after your studies.
How was your work together with schools? Was it possible to understand the perceptions of teachers, staff and headmasters on this? Where they involved in promoting vote at 16 in their classes and other learning spaces?
Vote@16 process was mostly towards general public but mostly it was a cooperation with social sciences teachers about democracy and participation in general. How the government and local municipalities work etc. And through that also promote vote@16. We organised several projects which included schools such as shadow elections to 16-17 olds which indirectly addressed the issue. This was usually welcomed by schools, since schools also hold elections to student councils etc as well. Also later we created guidelines with the Ministry of Education on how to hold a balanced debate in school so that all parties and candidates would be able to present their ideas equally and that the participating wouldn’t be mandatory if students didn’t want to join. Also guidelines how teachers wouldn’t go against the “good electoral practice” of promoting themselves in schools.
Tricky question. Public schools are mainly autonomus which means allowing to organise events or lectures is highly dependent on headmasters support. It is also allowed to be local politician and headmaster at the same time so it created additional dimension for gaining support. We witnessed cases where the schools banned debates or other events in order to be politically neutral. Although most of the schools were open and interested to host ENL lectures about youth participation and introduction to democracy.
How did you start your campaigns about youths right to vote, did you try convincing local authority first, or reach out to the youth community for support?
First it was the youth organisations and then the main institutional partners who helped to enhance the change. Of course it wasn’t that linear always, some partners were in favour right from the start others needed more work. Idea was mostly promoted to the parliament members who were responsible of the change but local politicians were informed also.
The advocacy process started already in 2007 and it lasted until 2016 when the change of constitution was passed. Lobby process started from relevant public authorities (e.g. Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Education and Research) as well one-by-one consultations with political parties (in order to raise the topic in government coalition agenda). One of the success factors was strong cooperation with political parties youth groups who are part of ENL network. They supported the idea in their party programmes and towards relevant politicians.
What is your experience from advocating for youth vote when even "responsible" adults steer towards xenophobia and populism?
Depends how xenophobia and populism voters are perceived in the society, that usually does not exclude the possibility of advocating the vote. When we managed to evoke vote@16 I would say that the society was not so polarized maybe compared to now. Still the idea of participation is rather neutral.
Considering the future is important aspect. Today’s young people are the most active part of society in about 10-15 years. It should be essential that they can engage into designing an environment where they would like to live, create family and contribute. About populism, young people tend to be more critical voters than e.g. elderly people. We have seen case where politicians promise increase of pensions or other social benefits and gain high support from elderly voters. Although young people rather prefer not to go voting than making decision based on some ‘shiny promise’.