Barriers to Youth Engagement and Moving Beyond them

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Barriers to Youth Engagement and Moving Beyond them

Below are a few questions to begin this conversation thread:

What barriers hinder youth from engaging with issues of importance to them?

How do you engage marginalized youth in action? How do you provide all youth with opportunity for their voices to be heard and their issues addressed?

What is the relationship between youth development (addressing the cultural, social, and political impediments for youth) and youth engagement in activism?

How do youth move beyond addressing single issues to understanding how their advocacy intersects with other human rights issues?

Institutionalized Participation

The primary challenge, I find, for youth is the struggle to establish institutionalized—as opposed to informal—means of political, cultural, and social participation that can be sustained in the long term. This is because they simply do not have the support necessary to make an impact. This is a global issue, but I do think it is especially important in places like Pakistan where young people make up a significant portion of the population (nearly 64% are under 29 years of age according to the UNDP, I believe). You really can't afford to have 64% of your population be disengaged. So how do you move beyond this as a society?

I'll reiterate what I said in another thread, we need to be working towards developing systems that help build institutional capacity. Speaking from a political perspective, this means that places like Pakistan must push for the development of a civil society that is literate, networked and well supported. It's of equal importance for youth to have access to mentors and partners. Meaning, a broader portion of the population (including academics, NGOs, public sector contacts) must be mobilized to create a safety net that has the potential to push informal involvement to a place that establishes sustainable, collective and long term action.


Barriers I've Observed and Heard From Youth

As I share posts and comments, I thought it might be helpful to note that my colleague, Nicole Palasz, and I are both participating in this discussion.  On a daily basis we collaborate and share ideas in the variety of ways we engage youth in our education and public programs.  As we post and share our experiences, we’ll do our best to be mindful of any overlap.

When listening to and observing youth at our programs and other events with youth involved, more often than not the barriers that come up are a feeling of hopelessness, a lack of feeling trusted with learning about and understanding “real life” issues in their schools, why they should care when adults don’t seem to, an awareness of how they can affect change, access to opportunities for them to learn about the issues impacting their lives, and ways they can become involved in advocating on behalf of those issues.   These are just a few of the barriers youth have shared and I've noticed are evident with all youth in varying degrees.  How do we challenge these mindsets and break down barriers to purposefully create space for youth to engage and find the role they can play in human rights?

Supportive and Propelling Settings

One of the barriers to youth engagement that I've seen isn't the lack of passion or desire to make an impact but rather the lack of tools and knowledge to make it happen (especially when so many of these issues we care about are global and happening in places we cannot easily reach). I know a great number of students my age who want to participate in social change with a more "hands-on" approach, reaching beyond the realm of on-campus, discussion-based clubs and social media activism (which can definitely be productive and positive spaces but can sometimes feel limiting) however, they don't know where to start. This, paired with the often overwhelming sense of doubt placed on youth by both adults and other peers is a cause for concern. Like others have stated previously, there is too frequently an absence of trust in youth to learn and understand these "real life" issues. They begin to question the validity of their voices and will in turn, start to wonder if their effort is wasted when their attempts at impact are not taken seriously. I think that providing young people with more opportunities to take part in well structured, out-of-classroom programs/settings that provide them with necessary advice and tools to strive for the change they want as well as fostering communities that offer genuine support for their actions will be crucial to furthering youth engagement.

Tools for effective youth action

I agree this is an important barrier.  It also gets at one of the other questions under discussion… namely “how can youth develop strategies that create social change versus generating awareness?”  I think the New Tactics project is a great resource for identifying ways to be more effective.  We’ve adapted some of the strategy toolkit for our youth work.  For example, we adapted the “spectrum of allies” tool to engage youth in thinking about the individuals and groups that they might influence to try to shift an issue that they care about.  It can help open up new avenues for discussion and action whether at the local or global level. 

Working in global education, we also struggle with how to advise youth on ways to engage in a meaningful and effective way on global issues.  Through our global-to-local service-learning initiative that Dina mentioned we have been trying to experiment with various ways, and still have a lot to learn!  I do think there are many global human rights issues that can be tackled closer to home.  We’ve been doing a lot of work with youth on the issue of human trafficking in part because there are so many ways to get involved at the local, national or international level through advocacy, consumer choices/campaigns, peer-to-peer education for risk reduction, etc.

I’d be very interested in hearing how others are trying to address these barriers!

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What would best support you?

Hi Angela,

I enjoyed reading through your points and do share your frustration! I'd love for you to elaborate on what you mean by needing access to the 'tools and knowledge' that can set you and your peers up to make an impact. I'm glad you mentioned needing tools AND a community safety net. That's something I agree with 100%. Having a support system in a safe space is key to providing the kind of environment that leads to deep, meaningful youth participation.

So, in an ideal world, if you could have the tools you need to make an impact, what would they look like? What would this community look like?

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Tools for Success

I think the biggest asset to youth would be providing the knowledge they'll need in order to take initiative with causes they want to lead. However, this has to be done in a way where direction is given but young people are not forced to take the back seat. It ties back to the idea of trust and having faith that they will take the information taught to them and put it to good use. 

When I say knowledge, I am mostly refering to skills that many young people haven't been exposed to yet. We know what we're passionate about and have big ideas about the appraoch we want to take in order to tackle these issues but get stuck along the way because acheiving our goals requires more "adult" abilities. How do you build business relationships or properly reach out to community organizations? What is the best way to market our idea and rally support (whether the idea be a campaign, singular event, long-term project)? .etc I believe building foundational skill sets that allow youth to confidently engage and implement their idea in the "real world" will be crucial in fostering strong youth-led initiatives.


Anything that works?

I agree, and as an undergraduate student I still see these problems to some extent at the college level. Have you as a student experienced any specific programs or other settings that you feel have really addressed these issues successfully?

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Experiences with Successful Youth Programs

 In my time working with Breakthrough Twin Cities and Youthprise where I was one of the younger interns (though a majority of the older faculty were only college age), I felt like they adressed these issues quite well. In terms of ensuring the success of youth my own age (who are in highschool) in environments where we may not be the majority, I think a key strategy is treating us like anyone else partaking in the program. The time I spent at these organizations reminds me of a quote from Arundhati Roy where he says "There's really no such thing as the 'voiceless'. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard." I find that this is often how we feel when working in unsupportive atmospheres where our opinions seem easily disregarded. However, that is most definetely not the case with the programs I mentioned earlier, I would say that the opposite was true and we found ourselves encouraged to share our  opinons because there was a culture and dymamic built that made it feel safe to do so.

Play and learn

Love your input and totally agree with! I've noticed how these frequent issues of lack of knowledge and experience, correlated with a lack of self-confidence, can affect the future involvement of youth in advocacy efforts. It is very important, as you also pointed out, that we to start adapting our actions to their interests and (why not?) hobbies. For instance, when we discovered how passionate our volunteers were about the Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, we tried to combine their hobby with some critical issues that needed to be addressed in their community. In present, they are happily working on a photo-voice project they developed in order to raise awareness on the environment issues in their town. I believe that their efforts, regardless how they choose to focus and implement them in the larger picture, are slowly, but seriously, begin to be understood and appreciated by the public authorities and the adults.  

Use of Social Media

I love hearing that your organization is trying to combine networks like Twitter and Facebookwith critical community issues! This topic comes up often when my peers and I discuss how we can be more proactive in raising awareness for certain causes that we're working towards. In a day and age where everybody's online presence is growing and social media becomes more and more popular (especially that of young people), I think it's crucial to incorperate these interests with the advocacy work that you do. This example also falls under another, larger catagory of how to support young people. I believe one of the keys to supporting and ensuring to the success of these kind of programs is to try and adapt to the change that occurs amoung youth culture (like what you've done with the integration of technology and social networking websites). Without the willingness to take chances and adapt, achievement can be very limited.


All important points, everyone!

An aspect of youth engagement that always surprises me is the nature of personal connections young people are able to make with enormous or nebulous or intricate topics that, at first, may seem like they would be outside their realm of experience or perception. In group settings, when students are engaged, it is incredible to see the wildfire of ideas that can begin with a single spark. As one student makes a connection, another may be able to share something related, and so on, until the whole group is buzzing with new, outside-the-box ideas because of the nature of making connectiosn in a group. While a moderator is helpful to guide students in their thinking and bring them back to the central topic, the creative energy produced in such a setting is one of the joys of working with motivated young people and can lead to innovative ideas and solutions.

When I was teaching, we would work with students on literary connections--among them text-to-self, text-to-text, and text-to-world--to help them understand and relate to a text or a lesson at a deeper level. There is not always a text involved in the work we do with young people (though research is an excellent opportunity for exploration), I believe the idea behind these types of connections still has value, just by replacing the "text" with the topic under consideration. In the area of human rights, the group might be asked to explore connections between human rights and their own experiences, one type of human rights with which they are familiar and another with which they are unfamiliar, and the human rights under consideration with the experiences of other people and places with which they are familiar. Making connections like these can move a discussion along and help students to find the topic relevant in their own lives, leading them to deeper engagement and greater involvement.

Communication and Empowerment

I think that one of the most difficult challenge youth face in their activist efforts/actions consists in the difficulty of making their voices heard. During the years, we have noticed that, maybe, the best possible way to get youth involved in civic actions always starts with our willingness of listening to them, instead of pointing out to them what they should do in order to change their communities (and later on, the world). Whenever the interaction with youth starts with a moment dedicated to listening to their issues and the solutions they propose, it is almost certain that the initiative will be a successful one. It is surprising to see how empowerment is the “strategy” of giving youth a voice and encourage them to implement their own ideas, in their own ways. When a couple of years ago we started a project focused on engaging youth in grassroots advocacy, we were surprised to discover how easily do the local public authorities (local councilors and teachers) support youth initiatives; what it was more difficult was to get youth speak out, because they were not used express themselves. Nonetheless, building communication bridges between the youth and the adults, and encourages them to work together, is a worthwhile challenge.

And since we are focusing on the importance of communication, I think that an important challenge youth might face in their advocacy efforts relates to the ideological implication of their work and how they choose to present their work to others. In highly politicizes and ideologized societies, there is the risk that excellent indented actions to be blamed of political partisanship. The way in which the message for the general public is constructed might value (unfortunately or fortunately, depending on the final outcome) more than the action itself.    

Make youth feel like they actually do something

I sat with Devex a couple of weeks ago talking about youth participation:

We need to make young people feel engage, not marginalized. Innovation in making change is going to come from the older generations daring to listen to radical ideas that young people come up with, and then mixing them with the wisdom of experience. 

Intergenerational approaches?

Thanks for sharing this Nejeed!  You've made some great points about the need for focusing on meaningful rather than symbolic engagement of youth.  I also think this raises a really important question about ways youth and older generations can come together to move human rights issues forward.  Have you or others seen really great examples of intergenerational initiatives that bring together the energies and strengths of different generations to create meaningful change?

Developing leadership and empowerment among youth

Could not agree more--youth need to feel that they are "doing".

Last year Equitas hosted a two-week online conversation that explored what is needed for youth to be able to participate effectively in decisions that affect their lives. Equitas allumni who are human rights educators from around were invited to share good practices, opinions and ideas, as well as resources or tools to help others better understand and support youth participation.

In part one of the conversation, we explored elements that are essential to allow youth to partipate. One element that stood out was empowerment.  Youth can be empowered with education, training, by building their self-esteem, by asking them their opinions, by giving them space to get involved in issues that are important to them and their communities, and by making sure that whatever decisions they are involved in are important and their ideas are taken seriously. As Michael Reuben, a human rights educator in Tanzania, explained, "youth need to be at the center of the decisions that affect their lives.”   

In the second part of the conversation we asked the particpants to share concrete examples of how youth can be actively invovled in decsioin-making processes. 

There were many examples of youth participation in local politics. In Albania, youth were involved in drafting Youth Priorities and preparing a Social Contract for local government, allowing youth to influence in local politics.  In Maroua, university students and other youth participated in citizen consultations, human rights clubs, planned local budgets and participated in conferences, all working towards influencing local politics.  Online platforms were another way to influence local politics, as was done at the Centre Afrika Obota.In the village of Aga, an example was shared about young women who had to leave school early due to marriage.  Through education and reflection, young people were able to influence their parents, grandparents and traditional leaders about the importance of young women staying in school.  Through all the support the young women gained throughout the process they were able to change local laws and gain space within local politics.

Youth also participate in decision-making in local organizations and projects.  For example in the Association for the Development of the Koumantou Commune youth were given the same responsibilities as adults, so that their voice could hold weight. In the Young Reporters Network in Moshi-Tanzania youth were involved in decision making in all levels of the process, beginning by identifying issues, researching, planning, delivering and evaluating radio programs. Similarly in Senegal in the clubs radios citoyennes (CRC), youth got the opportunity, through radio programs, to discuss issues important to them with local leaders, ensuring that their voices are heard.  A further example is the Sela foundation where youth are involved in deciding the strategic directions of the organization; allowing the youth to take ownership and acted responsibly and with commitment.

These examples demonstrate that when youth have opportunities and support they have the ability to influence local decision makers, improve local services and provide youth with opportunities to identify and learn more about local issues. Furthermore, providing youth with the opporunities builds skills, self-esteem and confidence. 

There were many lessons and good practices shared in this conversation, which I have included below

  • In order to get youth involved in the decision-making process it is important to have a bottom up approach, where in youth identify issues that are important to them and have opportunities to actively participate in addressing them. This is a critical step to building ownership.
  • It is necessary to start from where the youth are at, and build on their abilities. Progressively building skills and competence allows for youth to actively engage with the public about issues that matter to them.
  • When given the tools and the time to develop their own abilities, youth can create social change.
  • For successful youth involvement, it is important to involve families and traditional and religious leaders in the process.

Overall there was a clear understanding and appreciation amongst the particpants for the strength, value and innovative ideas youth’s voices bring to the table. However, it is only through giving youth meaningful opportunities to "do" and actively particpate that we can help to foster youth capacity and motivation to lead and effect change.  


Please note that there were many contributors to this post includuing: Cristina Galofre and Sarah Lusthaus, as well as the many Equitas allumni who participated in our online coversation.


Young women's participation--barriers and actions for change

Young women, Young Leaders (YWYL) is an Equitas program that aimed to strengthen the participation of young women in civic, political and community life in Montreal. It aimed towards the meaningful inclusion and effective contribution of young women in decision-making processes that impact on their own lives as well as life in their community. To do this YWYL supported Action for Change projects led by young women that address issues that most affect them in their daily lives. These were carried out in collaboration with strong network of community organization, mentors, municipal leaders and national partners. 

The Action Guide which was developed for the program identified societal and individual barriers young  women face and possible actions to address them(see attached diagram). These included the following:

Societal barriers

  • Stereotyping and discrimination
  • Lack of opprotunities

Individual barriers

  • Attitude/ability
  • Lack of knowledge, skills, access to information
  • Competing priorties
  • Cultural or family constraints

Actions for change

  • build community awareness and support
  • create supportive spaces and partipcate in leadership opportunities
  • link with role models 
  • build knoweldge, skills, access to information
  • ensure inclusive particpation
  • provide and access supprotive services

The link below will lead you to a fact sheet which presents in more detail the barriers and some ideas for actions for change.

Barriers and Actions:

Around the world and back again--barriers to youth participation

Each year Equitas hosts the International Human Rights Training Program (IHRTP)— an annual three week education event that brings together approximately 90 participants from about 50 countries. The program provides an opportunity for human rights workers and educators to deepen their understanding of human rights and of the essential role of human rights education in effecting social change.

During this training last year, we had a session titled Barriers to Youth Participation. Participants from 50 different countries were grouped according to region and met to discuss the barriers youth face in with regards to participation in decision-making and strategies to address them.

Attached is a diagram that summarizes the common barriers identified by each region and strategies to address them. 

How do you engage marginalized youth in action?

I'm interested in engaging marginalized youth in action and have some examples of good practice to share as well as a request for information.

 I have worked with child domestic workers in Africa, Asia and Latin America where, in collaboration with local NGOs, youth advisory committees of beneficiaries (child domestic workers) were developed.  Committee members acted as support for their peers (older members mentoring newer members), they advised the 'parent' NGO on their services for child domestic workers and, because they were considered 'experts on their own lives' they developed their own advocacy campaigns based on their local knowledge of their needs.  In Tanzania this resulted in local By-Laws being introduced and the advisory committee becoming a youth-led organisation - called WoteSawa that continues to advocate for the rights of child domestic workers. Has anyone else worked with 'youth advisory councils or committees' as I would be interested in sharing learning on this model? Advisory committees worked particularly well for children who are very marginalised (child domestic workers are hidden from society because they work behind the closed doors of their employers who are 'normal families') as the group environment reduced their isolation and gave the children an instant peer network.  See a video produced by child domestic workers from advisory committees in India, Togo and Peru - this was broadcast by 5 of the children in the film at the International Labour Organization's discussions on a new convention on domestic work in Geneva, 2010.

I'm interested in finding out about participatory initiatives that work with children andyoung people affected by sexual violence in Eastern Africa and Easter Europe and have been scouring these discussions to find out about relevant national or global initiatives. So this is a request for info on any initiatives that involve young people in projects that tackle sexual violence of children and young people.  I'm particularly interested in young people's involvement in prevention campaigns as I hope to be developing two projects on this in the near future - in E. Africa and E. Europe!  

Helen Veitch