As a teenager, and largely by chance, I became involved in various local youth projects that opened my eyes to a world of organisations, projects and advisory boards that engaged with many issues and ideas that interested me. This involved giving more than a few tokenistic speeches and meetings with ‘decision makers’. Overall this experience left me rather optimistic, having encountered so many adults that were interested in what young people had to say. I might have still been living in a rough council estate but I now felt a little less powerless in my life and like a young citizen in a rapidly changing society.
There’s nothing more empowering than showing a young person that their views and actions are recognised and acted on by those in positions of power.
We are currently doing young people a disservice. While 4 in 5 young people want to do more to help others, it’s only around fifty percent that actually believe they are capable of making a positive difference in their community. We know many want to make a positive difference in the world – and despite being shackled by stagnating social mobility, rising costs of living, and the jobs crisis – they aren’t primarily motivated by money and other traditional ideas of success. Rather they tend to be driven by altruistic motives towards making the world more compassionate, innovative, and sustainable. Today’s young people are far more likely to be vegetarian or vegan than older generations, more likely to seek out a job for a purpose driven organisation or company and are more likely to give their time to a cause they are passionate about.
With the recent declaration of a national environmental and climate emergency, never has there been more momentum behind the need for drastic action to address climate change and the collapsing biodiversity in our countryside. To create a food system that is healthy and fair for people, animals and the planet, everyone is required to take meaningful decisions about where their food comes from, what products they eat and the causes that they support. This includes young people.
“Humanity is at a crossroads, we must now decide the path we want to take.” – Greta Thunberg
Research published last year by the RSA found that only five percent of adults think teenagers are very likely to participate in volunteering and other forms of social action. As a Trustee for Step Up To Serve, the organisation behind the #iwill campaign, I had the pleasure of working alongside inspiring young people, organisations and businesses that had pledged to help increase levels of participation in youth social action. So what did I learn? And what can you do to give more young people belief in their ability to challenge and change the status quo? You can start by talking to young people in your life about issues you think might be important in the future – maybe there’s something you both care about that you can get involved in together?
If you work with young people or want to create effective and empowering youth engagement opportunities, these are common areas for improvement:
- Help identify the problem to be addressed
Responding to the needs, passions, motivations, ideas and goals of young people drives the best projects. You can provide inspiration but you should resist the urge to spoon feed them ideas as it’s important that young people recognise the motivations and intended impact of their actions. If you’re stuck for ideas you could start by talking about the Sustainable Development Goals or by exploring issues in your local community. If you have a budget, it’s worth consulting with a professional youth worker for ideas, if not I have been known to take inspiration from the Active Citizens facilitator toolkit, developed by the British Council.
- Come up with their own solutions
The next step is to imagine and envision what might be possible, which can help resist the allure of a spiral into existential nihilism. I enjoy an approach often used in business development called the ‘appreciative inquiry model’, which tries to build images of the future by recognising what already works. If you are going to carry forward parts of the past then they might as well be the best bits.
- Lead the response to the problem
Next, it can be helpful to identify steps to achieve the vision by focusing on what is achievable. Tangible steps are key to helping the project take form and creating and nurturing a collective sense of purpose. Involving a diverse network of stakeholders while ensuring some ownership remains with young people strengthens projects. Get everyone to make a pledge or action commitment that can become the basis for ongoing activities.
- Reflect on the impact they achieved
This is arguably the most important stage of all. Even if a project does not meet the intended goal, helping young people recognise the impacts and benefits to the cause, both to themselves and their intended beneficiaries, is key to solidifying the experience as a step on their journey to making a habit of taking part in social action. Even if it’s just a basic SWOT analysis.
- Engage early and often
Children that start taking part in social action under the age of ten are two and a half times more likely to continue taking part than those who first get involved at 16 – 18. It is through sustained engagement and progression of activities from the age of 5 that young people create a ‘habit’ of social action, citizenship and change-making that lasts through to adulthood.
“If we were not making progress with young people, we are done.” – Sir David Attenborough
If you’re interested in providing young people with access to high quality social action opportunities, do check out the partners and research involved with the #iwill campaign, Generation Change and the Rural Youth Project.