As the saying goes, “the children are the future”, but are they actually the now? Youth voice has certainly been in the spotlight when it comes to pressing national and international issues. From the Parkland students who lead the gun control debate in the US to Greta Thunberg who captured international attention with her alarm about climate change, these young people are using their voice to invoke change. Why is this important to governance and sustainability, let’s explore.
To start, youth voice has nothing to do with volume but instead the ideas, perspectives, knowledge, and actions that young people can contribute. Listening to youth voice involves working with young people to provide a respectful space to listen and share ideas and perspectives.
In terms of governance and sustainability, youth voice is typically marginalized, which can have long-term negative effects. Without the sense of ownership of the process, young people often feel alienated and disengaged, a sentiment that can last a lifetime. Young people often cannot exercise their civic responsibilities and/or hold officials accountable. This dynamic can create a sense of futility for the process.
Instead, involving youth voice allows young people to engage with their communities, participate in decision-making, and build relationships with those in government. As a result, young people increase their agency, purpose, and engagement. Additionally, the skills they learn will benefit their communities but are also transferable to other areas throughout their lives. As for those young people interact with, they are provided with fresh perspectives, creative ideas, and innovative solutions. It seems like a win-win to create lifelong engaged citizens by incorporating youth voice, while also opening the governance and sustainability process to new ideas.
Freechild.org offers some tips to build youth voice and how adults can respond.
As noted on the site:
If you are a youth, you can build Youth Voice if you…
DO speak up!
DO invite adults to share skills, experiences, and resources.
DO commit time and energy to do the work.
DO take the responsibility seriously.
DO seek to involve other young people.
DON’T assume all adults will treat you like your parents treat you.
DON’T over-commit yourself.
DON’T forget to ask questions.
DON’T forget that you ARE a young person.
If you are an adult, you can build Youth Voice if you…
DO involve young people in the decision-making from the very beginning (before it’s too late for them to be a part of meaningful change).
DO include as many young people as possible.
DO listen… really listen to young people and be willing to learn from them.
DO provide young people with the information, training, and support they need to succeed.
DO plan meetings where everyone feels welcome.
DON’T blame all young people for the actions of one young person.
DON’T ask youth to attend your meetings and then ignore the ideas they give to you.
DON’T invite youth for image reasons.
DON’T schedule meetings at times when youth can’t participate: during school, late at night, etc.
DON’T use youth as a “stamp of approval” (showing them a completed project and asking them to tell you they like it).
There seems to be much value in incorporating this perspective, so why not try it out. With so many intractable governance and sustainability issues, adding a unique perspective may change the paradigm in framing the issues and solutions.
Much information is available about including youth voice. The following sites may be a good start?
TEDx Talk, Youth Voice. Are we listening? Rachel Peterson