Creating Spaces for Creativity in Youth Activism

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Creating Spaces for Creativity in Youth Activism

Below are a few questions to begin this conversation thread:

How can constructive spaces for experimentation in activism and social change be created?

What structures and practices foster creativity and critical thinking?

How can youth develop strategies that create social change versus generating awareness?

the digital space

The notion of space is a very interesting one and one that my team and I have had so much opportunity to explore. Obviously, it is important to note that I hold a bias At, we have built a digital space. But I think it's important that we not forget the value and necessity of physical spaces. In my experiences, I've found that many youth, especially those that are active in social good, often feel alientated from mainstream youth culture. And while it is the job of (thought) leaders to increase the mainstreamification of social change, by providing physical spaces for young people to come, to ideate, to engage, we are encouraging a spark of creavity that cannot be replaced.

However, we cannot forget to build online spaces for young people. First, we (and I say we, as a young person), are so socialed in using the internet to communication; but second, digital spaces enable us to engage from anywhere in the world, at times that are convenient for each of us. This discussion is a perfect example. We are all able to engage and there is inherent value to that.

These are just my early musings... we can get into substantive conversation soon... looking forward to it!

Online/offline balance

The digital space might be very tricky: extremely attractive to youth as means of communication and taking action and extremely useful for us (as social workers, or youth workers) to provide visibility to youth’s work. Yet, we have faced the issue of loosing youth’s interest and involvement in the projects if those were thought to be implemented preponderantly online. A good balance online/offline is the best possible way to keep alive their interest. Or maybe didn’t we manage to find the perfect online tool?  

ily 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.  


Online/offline balance

Thanks for these thoughts, Elena-Alis and Nejeed. As you've articulated, using digital space to cater to the preferred communication methods of today's youth can be helpful but does have its limits. So much of the world, including many action steps that are going to have a positive impact on human rights and other challenges, exist outside of digital platforms. We must be fluent in both.

It's at this intersection of the digital and face-to-face that I believe training opportunities for youth can serve a valuable role. Today we are more comfortable meeting and interacting with people online without first meeting them in person. This conversation is a perfect example. Training should help young people transition seamlessly between the two engagement platforms, using technology as a tool to support their face-to-face work. Technology isn't necessarily depersonalizing, but its current capabilities do not allow the extent of interaction or personal support that face-to-face engagement might. Used in the realm of human rights and youth training, the digital, in my opinion, should always help us to be better at the personal work we do.

To your point, then, Elena-Alis, I'm not sure that there will ever be a "perfect" online tool. I think online tools are just that--tools for supporting our work. Their continued development and enhancement should be encouraged, but, ultimately, it is our responsibility to help youth become fluent in both the digital and the personal, with the personal being the end goal of our work.

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Matthew, thank you for your

Matthew, thank you for your reply! Totally agree that there is no “perfect” online tool, since its only a toolJ As I went through the other comments, I have noticed that there is a consensus on combining online and offline tools for providing youth all the opportunities to implement their actions at the maximum. He developed a very interesting pilot project (Your Solution, Your Democracy) a couple of years ago, and I would say that one of greatest achievement consisted with the action undertook by a group of students from a high school placed in a marginalized Roma neighborhood. The issue they identified was that there was not a fence around the school, and the students could have suffered all kind of severe car accident, due to the fact that the school is placed nearby a national road. What we provided for the young students to solve this issue was (as you also pointed out) an online combined with offline approach: strengthening the communication with authorities via social media and face-to-face, as well as connecting them with international young activists in an attempt of experience and expertise sharing practices. I would add that these types of initiatives need to be acknowledged by all the stakeholders and further encouraged, not treated as isolated exercises.     

Productive Spaces

We all know that spaces for critical discussion do exist both on and off the internet in one form or another. The primary hurdle, at least for me, is as much about finding a place to talk, debate and challenge opinions, as it is about being in a space that also enables me to act. I'm sure we've all been part of projects, especially during college, where a group of high potential, highly motivated young people have come together to do something. To really make an impact. And by extension, how many times have groups like this disbanded after a time resulting in a massive loss of potential? For me, and I'm sure Nejeed will agree, we simply did not have the tools, OR the productive space, necessary to take us from idea to action.

If you look at the value chain for a social good project (attached below), you'll note that it doesn't simply stop at 'find collaborators'. It cannot stop there. A successful initiative has to go beyond that. So, if we want to create truly constructive spaces for activists who are young, energetic and idealistic, then we've got to arm them the tools to make a real impact, and, in my opinion, real impact comes from sustained action. The bottom-line is that we have to go beyond simply offering a space for discussion, we have to create productive spaces. And this is key. If we can create tools that mimic the stages of the value chain, then we can provide the foundation on which action can be based. We should work to make it easy to go from 'issue discovery' to finding likeminded folks to project management to generating awareness.

It's also worth noting that progress shouldn't exist in a vacuum. Social good actors ought to be able to share progress, roadblocks and, if necessary, find guidance. Creating social change and generating awareness go hand-in-hand. It's vital that these spaces enlist allies from the broader population, including journalists, lawyers, academics, labor unions, NGOs, and even public sector officers if we want to enable sustainable and collective action in the long term. It's really about creating a network and making a community.

By providing the tools that make it easy to go from one stage of the value chain to the next, we can create spaces that truly maximize impact by sustaining momentum and increasing institutional capacity.

Would love some thoughts on what the general consensus is on a need for a productive space like this! We're working at Keela to build these very tools, so it would be fantastic to get some views from the groundfloor.

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5 Steps to Action-- tools and processes for sustained change

I could not agree more, Saman. Creating constructive spaces that allow for sustained action requires tools and support from allies. I think that the value chain you have provided fits well with this 5 step process to youth action, which was developed for the Mosharka youth human rights project guide-- a human rights education tool designed for civil society organizations (CSOs), youth leaders and organizations working with youth on issues of human rights and democratic participation in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan.

After an extensive needs validation phase and pilot, the guide was developed with 5 steps that frame a series of workshops and activities where youth build their knowledge and skills to effect change in their communicates. The guide uses a participatory approach and helps leaders or youth themselves create a "space", while providing tools to support the process. This includes knowledge, skills and attitudes to 

  • Better promote human rights,Democratic participation, and mobilitization of youth
  • Use international human rights standards and norms and the Universal Periodoic Review (UPR) mechanism to engage in effective action at the community, national and regional levels aimed at promoting youth participation, as well as the protection and defence of their rights
  • Network effectively with youth leaders and CSOs working with youth across the region

Attached is an image of the 5 step process, participatory approach. In Step 1, youth explore how and why they want to get involved.  In Step 2, youth explore the human rights context of their community and critically reflect. Step 3 youth determine what they perceive to be "the ideal" with respect to the specific human rights issues they will address, and the necessary changes to achieve this ideal. The group will also decide on the action(s) they will undertake to promote the desired changes. In Step 4 youth carry out the action(s) in their communities. Keeping accountability and sustainability in mind, in Step 5, youth monitors their plan, measures changes, documents results and identifies the next steps.

Here are two examples of youth initiatives created in the first phase of the project, using the 5 step process:

Three human rights initiatives were implemented in Upper Egypt.  In Sohag, it was entitled “My rights” and it aimed to raise awareness about the rights of young people and to promote the participation of young women in community life. The Aswan’ initiative was called “My Rights as a Human- Respecting Diversity and Accepting Others” and was developed to address the issue of intolerance that exists between the different ethnic groups in the area. In Asyut, the project was called “My Awareness will Ensure my Development” and it aimed to promote and increase youth participation in political processes. The targeted young men and women are between 18 and 28 years old.

Two youth initiatives are being implemented in two different regions in Jordan. In the East Amman area “Astour”, youth leaders conduct literacy classes for children 6 to 8 years old in 6 different schools. The second initiative is taking place in the Madaba area and is entitled “Madaba Through the Eyes of its Young People.” It aims to promote and increase youth participation in public life.



These are fascinating projects in Egypt, and I really like how the specificity of the 5 step process allows youth to be involved at every level, not just in implementing a plan created by adults. Just out of curiousity, what were some challenges that your group faced implementing these projects? Were they more youth-related, or more cultural, or something else entirely?

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Challenges @Clara

Thanks for your question Clara,

There were many challenges, but one of the biggest challenges for many groups involved in the project was sustaining momentum and membership. The projects were long term, and one of the important components was the relationships that groups built with decision-makers.  In order to maintain not only the momentum, but the relationships and networks, it became important for the groups to seek out new members to  help sustain the projects. Where this worked best was when a core group of youth took responsibility for not just motivating and following up with current members, but recruiting new members who would help carry the project on and continue to build positive relationships with decision-makers. Social media also played a role. Facebook, was crucial for the recruitment of new members and for the communication between the group member. It is also worth mentioning that constant contact with a number of local community organizations helps to maintain youth engagement.


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Creating a Safe Space

Over the past few years, we’ve been incorporating design thinking into the learning spaces where we are engaging youth.  Our focus is to create a space that feels inviting, inclusive, and safe for deeper learning and discussion of complex and challenging issues, especially those that may illicit strong feelings and emotional reactions to content and/or memories.  Depending on the room/space available to us, we work to transform the room.  One way we do this is by rearranging the chairs from lecture style into either small circles or one large circle. We utilize the circle process in a manner similar to restorative justice circles as our introduction for building trust, knowledge, and community amongst the group where no one person comes into the circle with more power than the other including the facilitator or speaker/presenter. 

In addition to rearranging the furniture, we look at the images and/or sounds the individual will experience when they enter the space and throughout the time we’ll work together.  A great example of both the rearranging of chairs into a circle and utilizing images and sound to create an inviting safe space is our opening session for our summer residential program, Global Action Through Engagement (GATE), last summer.  We were focusing on human rights as our central theme and created a gallery of photographs, posters, paintings, poems, books, etc. that students were exposed to as they first entered the room.  They were asked to take their time in viewing the gallery in silence while listening to softly playing meditative music.  At the end of the gallery was an opening to enter into a circle of chairs where each person sat quietly writing down their first observations, thoughts, and feelings about what they saw and heard until the last person to enter the circle closed the circle with their chair and sat down. Once everyone was in the circle the facilitator welcomed the group and began the introductions and discussion.  In the center of the circle was a tapestry and center piece that could be used as a focal point during the discussion and continued the theme of creating a welcoming, inclusive, and safe space.  We had a mixed group of high school students attending GATE and international university students studying English as a second language participate in this opening session and we found the vulnerability and depth of sharing that came from the discussing to be both inspiring and powerful for all of us.  The experience set the tone for the next four days of our program with the high school students.

4 Corners

I like this idea of focusing on the environment of the room where you want to create a safe space. I am curious, when you are designing the space, do you consult with youth to find out what a safe place looks, sounds and feels like to them in terms of the physical environment? Are there any best or good practices you can suggest for consulting youth creating a safe and welcoming physical environment? 

4 Corners

Creating welcoming, inclusive and safe spaces is also about setting the tone from the begriming in terms of group interactions and participation.  Working to create a safe and respectful environment is so critical to having those open conversations. One ways we've done this in the past, is to start with a values based activity.

In this activity, participants are asked reflect on four posted values (respect, acceptance, equality, inclusion) and to stand beside the one that is most important for their work/life. Once the groups have formed, participants share with one another why the value is important to their life and/or work, and how can the value be practiced or respected. Each group gives a short presentation to the whole group. The facilitator can lead a discussion afterwards and link these values to human rights, but the activity can also lead to the formulation of group guidelines for the activity/workshop. Understanding not just which values are important to one another, but discussing ways in which the values can be enacted and respected, helps everyone to create and contribute to a safe and welcoming space.

Creating Safe Spaces Cont'd

As mentioned above, during in-person interaction nothing is as important as creating a safe and inclusive environment for active participation. In addition to rearranging the furniture in a similar way to the post above, we also start the session with informal introductory ice breakers. These ice breakers have many purposes. They introduce the participants, begin the community building process, and through specific framing of the exercises allow peers a glimpse into who each person is.

My favorite introductory activity is one we call “My People.” Each participant goes around the informal circle and has 60 seconds to describe his/her “people.” The “people” represent the type of person each participant is drawn to and with whom they tend enjoy spending time. Each person starts his/her turn with “My people are…”

Here is an example: “My people are jokers; they love to laugh. My people are dedicated to creating change in their communities. My people prioritize traveling to new places and maintain a sense of curiosity. My people read. My people enjoy friendly competition. My people value friendship as much as family. My people are BIG dog people.”    

This is one introductory exercise we use to create a safe, intimate space where people feel they are free to be themselves and voice their opinion.

Thinking Outside the Box

Dina, Heather, and Aubrey, I sincerely appreciate the intentionality that's evident in the example you describe. It's clear that you meant for the experience to be impactful for the young people, and it sounds like it was. Thorough planning is so important when we want to leave students with a lasting message and the motivation to go out and live or work or experience differently. I particularly appreciate your focus on making the space safe for students to share their own experiences, venture outside conventional approaches, and come together as a team. Establishing expectations, norms, and shared values has considerable worth in these settings.

In our work at People to People International, we've also discovered that spaces that challenge students' thinking and compel them to think outside the box can have a positive impact. These spaces can be emotional and even uncomfortable at first for some students, but adequate debriefing and an existing understanding of trust and respect help students to grapple with cogntive dissonance or unexpected approaches.

One of my favorite approaches to encouraging students to think outside the box is using simulations, which force students to make choices in real time. Students learn a considerable amount from going through an experience themselves--more than they might by just talking about a desirable set of personal qualities or possible solutions to a challenge, for example. Simulations and role plays do not need to be overly involved. Often, the simplest setup (with well-facilitated debriefing) can have the strongest impact.

A great simulation for encouraging students to examine team dynamics and global thinking comes from Professor Joyce Osland at San Jose State University. A brief description is available here: If you're interested, I can share more about how we've used this simulation.

Some caveats:

  • An activity like this one would find its way into our programming after a day or two of students already knowing and working with one another. We know how important it is to build up trust before placing students in stressful situations.
  • Debriefing time is a must. The ratio we use is 1/3 activity to 2/3 debriefing.
  • As with any approach, balance is key. Relying too heavily on simulations or any other approach can dilute their value for youth.

To be clear: creating a safe space is essential. Providing occasional challenges in the safe space can also have an important impact on students.

Thanks for sharing!

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Uncomfortable cont'

Hi Matthew, Aubrey, and Heather,

What incredible tools and mindful practices everyone is sharing.  Thank you so much!!  I'm so glad you brought up the aspect that these spaces can be emotional and uncomfortable.  When we begin our programs this is something we often address at the very beginning when outlining expectations and goals for the progam.  We value and encourage that it is ok to feel uncomfortable and uncertain and to have emotional reactions that are unfamiliar as part of the process of deeper learning and engagement especially with complex global content that pushes against beliefs, values, knowledge, familiarity, etc.  We also openly discuss the value of not having the "right" answer and permission to say I need more information before I can make a decision about how I view an issue or what action, if any, I want to take in addressing the issue.  

Excellent icebreakers, simulations and activities from everyone!!  I look forward to additional thoughts, questions, and input. 

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Simulation challenges

Thanks so much for sharing your experiences using simulations.  We have experimented with simulations to build empathy and, as you mentioned, give youth an experience making difficult choices in real time.  For example, one simulation we have adapted is a refugee role play developed by The Advocates for Human Rights, section 6 in their Energy of a Nation Curriculum -  We've changed the case study to represent a real refugee crisis in the world so we are also educating students about current world issues. 

One challenge we've encountered is that some of the participating youth respond to their discomfort by making light of the experience or turning it into more of a game.  Do you have any suggestions or strategies for setting the tone and creating an atmosphere that allows young people to make the most of a human rights simulation experience and reflect on a deeper level?  It would be great to hear more about how you plan and facilitate your simulations!

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Find their self interest for engaging youth in simulations

Over the years, we organized different types of simulations involving youths (on human trafficking awarning campaigns or domestic violence, celebrating International days on Human Rights topic). They were very open and accepted the challenges (probably one of the reasons were that the press was at the events and the got on newspapers or on social media chanells, besides the feeling that they were doing something for their peers/community).

As a possible suggestion: reach youths in simulation activities by finding their self interest and involve them taking into consideration their best skills. We believe that, in this way, you build trust and engage for future events. 

Hope I understood well your question and this reply will help :)

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Making Light of Simulations

Nicole, thanks for your example. It's good to know that others are finding simulations valuable as well!

I definitely understand the challenge you cite with youth turning the simulation into a game. A few thoughts come to mind:

  • I don't know the context in which you're using a simulation, but we use ours in the middle of a multi-day program, the Global Youth Forum. It's not something that we would include as a one-off lesson in a classroom setting since students would likely not be in the right frame of mind to participate. We find that, by the time we do the simulation, students are situated squarely in the topic at hand and ready to dive deeper.
  • We don't contextualize the simulation much, if at all, beforehand. As long as students have not participated in the simulation before, the elements of surprise and mystery work to our advantage. They become so absorbed in achieving the stated goal that they become less concerned with acting out or taking it lightly. The Acid Ocean example I shared above makes the simulation seem like a game at first--and that might work to our advantage. Debriefing is really the time when we dive into what the simulation is about, how it connects to the other work we've done, and what students might take away from it. This is when many of the "Aha!"s happen, so we're happy to allow students to be absorbed in the simulation (and not the take-away meaning) while they participate.
  • We trust that some students will act out. Parameters and ground rules are definitely important, and youth who cannot follow them should not be allowed to continue in the simulation, especially in one like the Acid Ocean that requires physical movement. Especially in debriefing, students can become argumentative, opinionated, or emotional: these elements, I think, add a helpful layer to the debriefing. We still have students who talk about the Acid Ocean exercise. They had a visceral reaction to it, and they learned a lot from it. If students disrupt the simulation or debriefing, I think that in itself is a great debriefing point about participation, team norms, and goals.

I hope that helps!

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Simulation feedback and ideas

Thanks Alis and Matthew!  Your thoughts and suggestions are very helpful.  It would be interesting to experiment with other ways to connect the simulation more directly to the interests and motivations of the students.  I also see a lot of potential in shifting and expanding the debrief process.  It could be powerful to engage the students in a more open and honest discussion of the behaviors and attitudes that can emerge during the simulation to get at a deeper level of understanding and self-reflection.

Alis - it would be great to learn more about the simulations you have developed or adapted.  Are there any that you might be able to share?  We’ve been doing programming on similar issues around human trafficking, women’s rights and violence.  

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4 Corners Cont.

Thank you so much for your 4 Corners activity.  What a great suggestion and excellent questions about engaging youth in designing the spaces. I haven't had formal input from youth in regards to the design of the spaces we are using.  It has mostly been informal either through one on one conversations with youth participants after a workshop or simulation or as touch points during the activities as well as through brief evaluation and reflection activities.  Although I haven't engaged in a formal process for engaging youth in designing a safe space, I think a great best practice to consider is a reflective writing prompt that youth could complete.  The writing prompt may be "I feel safe when..." or "I like when my classroom has ______ displayed on the walls." or "The type of music that makes me feel comfortable is ______." or "I feel included in a discussion when ______ happens."  Each person completes the statement.  This can be done in small groups and shared with the group or it can be done individually and anonymously and put in a basket depending on the trust and comfort level of the group.  These are just a few examples of reflective writing prompts that can be adapted easily to best suit the needs of the information and goals you are hoping to accomplish. 

One idea I have been considering for a more formal process is the possibility of developing a youth advisory group that could inform, co-design, create, suggest, etc. for our youth programs and global/local service learning initiatives. I've been looking at what would be the best practices and configuration of a youth advisory group for my organization.  Has anyone engaged youth in an advisory group or similar fashion that could inform and guide the focus of programs and activities that you offer in your organizations? 

Fostering Creativity Through Reflection Activities

I appreciate the question about practices that foster creativity and critical thinking. We often struggle in getting past the first layer of ideas around advocacy and actions youth think of when getting involved in an issue they care about. Sometimes you can almost guess what the top three ideas may be. I'm sure we aren't alone in this challenge. One way we work to dig deeper in this regard is to expose students to various forms of media on an issue. For example, we may have them watch a video, read a summary of a report on the issue, look at pictures and artwork, read a poem, etc. all on the same issue we are exploring. The issue may be human trafficking, conflict and violence, access to education, etc. but the point is that they are being exposed to many different mediums all on the same issue. As they engage with these materials, we have markers, pens, and paper available for them to write first words, feelings, thoughts and/or to circle and highlight words and phrases that stand out to them. These words, feelings, and thoughts can then be used as the starting point for creating a found poem on the issue/topic we are addressing. It's a great reflection activity that helps our students begin to personally engage in content and think more critically and deeply on what they are reading, seeing, and feeling. Students can share their found poems and then have a discussion about what they know, what they want to know, and what they have learned so far.

We use a few other reflection activities for the purpose of fostering creativity and making a sensory and personal connection to the issue/topic we are exploring. A few examples are below:

  1. The first reflection activity is to have a basket of various small inanimate objects. Each person takes out one of the items and is asked to describe how that object symbolizes the issue. They could also describe how it is similar or different from the issue. The important component is that you are taking a random and most likely familiar item and engaging the thought process in a creative fashion different from how they would normally look at the issue.
  2. The second reflection activity is done with a facilitator and large group.  The facilitator asks the group to share the first words that come to mind for specific questions on the issue.  For instance if we are discussing exploitation, I would ask some of the following questions: What color does exploitation look like?  What sound does it make?  How does exploitation move?  What man-made object represents exploitation or what animal represents exploitation?  What feelings come to mind when you think of exploitation?  You can insert any issue into the question.  This activity is excellent for building personal connection and for brainstorming creative ways to look at the issue.  
  3. A third reflection activity we use is a shared drawing. This is great for an icebreaker and for sparking creativity on an issue.  We have a few markers on tables and large pieces of paper. We ask individuals to pair up and using a marker to draw how they would depict a phrase, topic, or issue. The pair is giving a couple minutes to discuss and then draw in silence.  The key is that both individuals must be holding the marker at the same time while they are drawing and that they are drawing in silence. 

These are just a few ideas for fostering creativity.  They easily can be modified. What types of activities have others used that help inspire creativity and critical thinking?