Is there a ‘voice of youth’?

The idea that there is one 'voice of youth' is clearly nonsense. Yet this idea underlies many invitations to a small group of young people to participate in comittees and to 'represent the voice of youth' in those settings. Nevertheless, whilst there is no one 'voice of youth', that doesn't make it illegitimate for groups of young people to speak with one voice – and to make calls on behalf of their fellow young people.

Roger Schmidt has just added this this comment to my post reviewing the Civicus World Assembly 2007. The Civicus World Assembly included, for the first time this year, a youth assembly – which, as this post explains led to a 'Call for Intergenerational Collaboration' drafted collaboratively by the young people present. In effect, a youth declaration from the assembly.

Civicus World Assembly 2007 - Whole Group

Delegates at the 2007 Civicus Youth Assembly

Roger comments:

“…it is right to prepare young people for the participation in larger “adult” assemblies. But it is wrong to have a seperate youth contribution (declaration) or whatever because there can't be a unified youth opinion. Youth in itself is so diverse. I think that is another issue to discuss because it helps to clarify the sometimes conflicting goals of preparation and meaningful contribution.”

I agree with the claim that youth is diverse. Though the same claim can be made of any age grouping. It may be particularly interesting as a claim about young people, given a significant aspect of 'youth' (as a life-stage) is about experimentation with identity and identity formation which, it could be argued, increases the diversity of youth (as a generation). But the argument that diversity precludes collective declarations doesn't neccessarily follow.

Whilst inviting a few individuals to speak as themselves 'with the voice of youth' is flawed, young people often have shared interests: as a group collectively impacted by specific oppressions; as a group affected by age-related laws; and as those who will see the impact of decisions far beyond the time-horizons of most adult decision makers. And those shared interests can ground a specific youth contribution to a debate.

It's important that, on these issues of shared interest, young people are allowed to represent their claims as 'a voice of youth' (note, not 'the voice of youth', and not 'a voice of a young person'). Declarations that call for action from a collective young peoples perspective are a core part of forming political movements of young people to create change.

In conclusion

Individual young people claiming to speak with the voice of youth does not make sense.

Inviting a few young people to give their opinion on some issue which clearly affects different young people differently cannot be called listening to the voice of youth (it is listening to the specific views of some young people).

But where shared interests exist, and where a suitably large and diverse group of young people come together to discuss those shared interest and to articulate them, a declaration can be made as a voice of youth, and significant weight should be given to that declaration or call.

Quick reader question:

On topic: I've tried to untangle what I think are common confusions with respect to the idea of 'a voice of youth'. Does this work? Do you agree?

Meta-question: Are these 'philosophical' posts of interest? Should I just try and write up the conclusions… or is the reasoning of interest (this is already a heavily edited down version of what I first wrote…)?

5 thoughts on “Is there a ‘voice of youth’?”

  1. Thanks, Tim,

    for taking up my comment about youth declarations. What you are writing is certainly right and I am very much in favor of youth declarations/messages in that sense. If you look at my original comment, I was simply quoting the negative views of others.
    However, the real interesting question remains: How do ensure effective youth participation in an assembly with a majority of older delegates?
    If we are talking about this we already share two basic assumptions that are not always agreed:

    1. Young people should be included in the decision making of the organization
    2. Because of structural disadvantages young people need their own space at an assembly

    Here are some examples:

    • Youth declaration
    • Youth stage time with theater, speeches
    • Demonstration (like distributing condoms on the delegates’ desks in order to make a point about HIV and Aids)
    • Youth coalition to push a specific topic (like introducing a resolution to be voted on by the assembly)
    • Preparing young delegates that they can effectively work on their interests without an over all youth agenda

    Therefore, the philosophical question is not whether youth declarations are “possible”, the question is: Are they the best way to ensure youth participation?

    My answer would be a very convinced “perhaps” but I am very sure that they have to be part of a larger strategy. As a stand-alone-measure youth declarations are quite often meaningless and soon forgotten (which is probably the case for the CIVICUS declaration, as well). I would be interested in a conversation of what are the criteria on what measures to use.

    Sorry for the long comment!

  2. I think the issue of “youth voice” is always interesting and very often claims to be “the voice of youth” are misleading – I haven’t yet seen an example of a project that can reasonably make the claim to be such a voice – even the UK Youth Parliament with good resources has so far failed to effectively find a way for young people to ensure they are represented by people they want in the way they want. Too often “representation” is interpreted as having the correct quota of ethnic groups etc. etc. rather than ensuring the young people involved are actually able to represent others (able to do so by qualification of their appointment to the role and skill to actually do so).

    The issue you raise is therefore really important – to make a distinction between ‘the voice’ and ‘a voice’ and I agree that ‘a voice’ is valid and potentially very useful too. Much of society is run in this way – are Government focus groups really representative? Are MORI polls really representative? But they are still valuable.

    With regard to this question “the real interesting question remains: How to ensure effective youth participation in an assembly with a majority of older delegates?” I think the key issue here lies not with young people but with the “older delegates” – motivating young people to contribute is rarely difficult in my experience – ensuring adults support young people and see ideas/projects through on the otherhand is rarely easy and my observations of mixed adult/young people events this year has been horribly patronising – young people being openly applauded for nothing other than being young!

    I think a greater effort to involve young people in activities for the genuine skills they can contribute will eventually lead to a more equal relationship – this needs to happen on a much wider basis and there has to be a move away from projects (in the UK) that ‘throw’ a group of young people together and call them a ‘youth forum’ – if this can happen at the ‘ground level’ maybe eventually there could be ‘a voice’ for young people – until then I agree there’s no harm in providing space for the many other voices.

  3. Thanks both for such weighty and interesting contributions that give much food for thought (no apology needed for long comments). And apologies Roger for any misquoting… happy to amend the post to represent your comment more fully if wanted.

    Thanks to a somewhat incidental set of circumstances involving an iron and a blown fuse I’ve just lost the first response I wrote here, and have walked into work to find working net access. Luckily that’s given me more time to think about Roger’s challenge of a conversation on the criteria of effective youth participation in ‘adult’ events and processes.

    I was initially thinking that some of this can be captured in criteria like:

    >Young people need to be effectively informed about the context of their involvement

    >The process should not predetermine the outcomes (although it may justifiably narrow the range of possible outcomes to those that are broadly plausible given the particular constraints of the decision making young people are inputting into)

    But I realised that:

    a) It’s tricky to find simple principles or criteria that do not end up with qualifications and caveats to the Nth degree.

    b) The design of participation processes is, above all, a creative process – where there is no neccessarily right answer for the best method or input in any particular case (although of course, some are suitable in some situations and not others).

    So – I wonder if what we can better take forward a start to the discussion on ‘What is the best way to ensure young people’s effective participation in a mainstream event, forum or process?’ (please feel free to suggest a rephrased question if I’ve missed the essence) by looking at the critical questions that need to be asked of the creative participation planning process.

    For example (at a quick first attempt that would need a lot more development before I could defend it):

    • Does the process being used limit the range of views young people could reasonably express? If so, can this be justified?

    We could get some preliminary suggestions going in the comments here, then I’d be happy to either move this into a wider forum, or summarise the initial discussions in a blog post and invite a wider group of contributors to come and throw in their thoughts…

  4. – make sure the event is relevant to young people
    – make sure the young people involved are relevant to the event
    – aim for all participants (young and old) to share the same agenda and aims, and where they don’t, to be clear if this is accepted by other parties (one of the biggest causes of adults failing to support young people I think)

  5. Great points Mike.

    Point 2 is particularly interesting – and one I think many organisations find the trickiest. For example, problems arise when you are mixing adults as employees/staff/in official capacities, with young people as stakeholders (when there could be adult stakeholders as well… but these are not present).

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