Youth Participation: Tokenized or Shared? Including Young People in Decision-Making Processes

It’s pretty evident that “young people” (or youth) like you and me would like to get involved in the decision-making process in our communities. Thanks to social media, our “communities” don’t necessarily have a specific boundary. We voice our opinions about things that are going on around the world irrespective of geography. However, although those interactions that happen online may practically be far away and have little to no influence on the decision itself, I think we can make a big impact on decisions taken locally.

This wave of “young people” voicing their opinions have, to a certain extent, threatened a lot of career politicians in a considerable amount of countries. Young people don’t want to sit back and listen to Baby-Boomers talk about how it was “done in their day and age.” They want to be involved and most importantly, be a part of the decision making process. Because of this, since recently, we’ve seen a development of decision makers involving young people in the discussions that are going on. But with these developments, understanding we have a long way to go, young people still seem to be in unrest. In Strasbourg, France I got a chance to have a discussion to see if young people are actually involved and how sometimes decision-makers involve you as a type of decoration or token but technically not provide you with any decision making power.

The “theory” is sociologist Roger Hart’s “Ladder of Youth Participation.” According to him, youth participation happens in these “rungs.” It really provides you a sense of understanding about how you (your youth group) would want to advocate to be involved. Here’s the ladder:

Roger Hart’s Ladder of Youth Participation

According to him, the first three rungs are actually “not involved.” When you read through the theory in depth you get a sense of understanding about how decision makers, irrespective of their profession (politicians, college administrators, organizational leaders, community leaders) tend to keep young people involved without any decision making power. The ideal scenario would be rung 6 or rung 8 where it’s adult or youth initiated but the decision making power is shared equally between the two parties.

A common phrase I tend to hear all the time is that “young people are leaders of tomorrow.” I think it’s time to start challenging this mindset. Young people aren’t leaders of tomorrow – we are leaders of today. This statement gives the idea that youth can’t really be leaders and have to wait and therefore, until then is given the “privilege” of input and recommendations to adult led initiatives. Recommendations usually don’t go a long way and therefore youth need to advocate for shared decision making in local communities. Our democracies don’t technically “share” such decision-making power but I think changing “democracies” is a long-term goal. We can start with our colleges, local communities and local leaders to advocate to engage youth not just to sit and wait or provide “recommendations” but to be equal partners in the decision-making process. It’s time they realize that we come to the table with a relatively unique expertise.