YACVic is an organisation that is driven by its members. Members’ views are therefore central to the development of the youth engagement resources, and we invited them contribute their ideas via our online survey, or attend two small group discussions about the project, which were held at YACVic’s offices on 21 May.
I was joined in the first group by Emma Shelton, Youth Development Officer, and Simon Vella, Youth Services Coordinator, City of Whittlesea; Pip Smith, Youth Participation and Policy Worker, Knox City Council; Simone Lewis, Youth Development Team Leader, Surf Coast Shire Council; and Tibor Gede, Youth Worker, Maribyrnong Youth Services.
We began by talking through the meanings of the words ‘participation’ and ‘engagement’, and there was much debate over meaning. The term engagement was generally felt to provide an opportunity to participate. However, there was recognition that participation has different levels, or a continuum of different stages. The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) Public Participation Spectrum model was suggested as a respected framework that is relevant to council services, but there are still tensions in getting to the ‘empowerment’ stage as it means councils or organisations have to relinquish power – which can be a scary proposition for them!
The group thought it important to highlight that this project is essentially ‘re-branding’ YACVic resources from the language of ‘participation’ to ‘engagement’ and asked why this was happening, and what effects this might have. I explained the background to the project and proposed that these questions will be fully addressed in an academic paper I will write to accompany the release of the resources.
Our discussion then moved on to finding a common starting point for resources that cater for a number of audiences:
“When we do training [for council departments]… we start with engagement, as in thinking about young people in the process, as being open and up front about their level of participation they are actually looking for”
“Youth participation is like a spider’s web, where people move around depending on what their interests are, what they have happening in their life… young people move around that spider’s web, depending on interests, time commitments, family factors… in a sense, they move around that [IAP2] continuum”
What do you think of the guiding principles that were suggested by the steering committee?
“Does ‘commitment’ need to come before the other two? Sincerity and transparency… is almost a starting point… knowing what we want to say and engage to young people… when you meet with young people, say ‘this is what we want from you… this is what we can deliver, this is our expectation, this is our management of it… before you then move on to the other aspects”
“I would move it [commitment] to the middle… because that ‘respect’ stuff is the basic, if you don’t acknowledge and respect that young people are all different, and the value of young people, then you wouldn’t even bother trying to explain the value of why they’re involved”
“I think it’s about the dialogue that we have, and I don’t know if that comes under ‘exchange’ or ‘respect’… us having the dialogue and interrogating each other… ‘why do we want this?’… and young people also doing this back with us”
The group agreed there was a need to remove barriers to participation for a number of groups. Alongside this, there was a need to create resources for several different audiences:
“Two or three separate resources… one for young people… something that’s short, succinct and to the point… colourful… For adults, you’re probably going to need something that’s more detailed, particularly for youth participation workers… you might also look at doing some sort of training resources… about how you engage young people, how you communicate, all that sort of stuff. And then for your other sector… you might go back to something shorter- ” “Tip-sheets” “Or YouTube clips” “- and they feed into each other, and you can move up or down depending on where they’re at”
“There’s another bit – there’s the people who don’t work with young people who should be… these guys will not pick up something that is designed for young people”
Training around the use of the resources was identified as having strong potential:
“Training is something that we could deliver… to our colleagues, maybe once or twice a year” “Like a train-the-trainer package… then a ‘kids-teaching-kids’ package, and also a ‘kids training adults’ package”
“Train-the-trainer stuff could be incorporated into council inductions” “That would be great”
The second discussion group comprised Kerrie Loveless, Youth Services Coordinator, City of Casey; Marisa Uwarow, Youth Services Coordinator, City of Port Phillip; Paul Emerson, Acting CEO, UnitingCare Cutting Edge; Paul Turner, Youth Services Innovation Manager, YMCA Victoria.
Again, we began with a debate around the language and meanings of ‘participation’ and ‘engagement’. Again, there was agreement that these were difficult terms to define, and can mean different things to different people:
“I think in the sector… when people start talking about ‘are young people engaged for the sake of their own development?’, they get stuck with Victorian concepts like ‘are they going to school, are they attending a religious community often enough, do they spend time at home with their parents, those things… where we’ve always grouped young people together… we’ve measured engagement quantitatively by how often we see them in that group”
There were also pros and cons of using the word ‘empowerment’ within the resources, which had featured in the original Taking Young People Seriously Handbooks:
“I think it [empowerment] has been overused … everyone throws it in the mix, like ‘that’s the answer’, but… I feel like in the last 10 years that it’s lost the strength that it had as a word, as practice. Everyone goes ‘I do youth empowerment’… what does that mean?”
Whatever the terminology, the group agreed that practice of participation and engagement needs to meaningful – that is, young people’s contributions should be valued and respected:
“It’s about giving them [young people] opportunities to actually influence decisions, actually influence outcomes… and recognising and valuing that opportunity for young people”
“The danger is that we ask… young people what they think, and we don’t actually care, or act on that, or give any information to… give an answer that’s well informed … so it’s about giving them an opportunity for their contribution to be well-informed and valued equally”
“-also the sensation, the feeling that ‘I’ve made a change, I’ve contributed somewhere’”
What are the ingredients of good youth engagement, or high quality participation work?
“Respect is a key term”
“Communicate the value of their [young people] investment”
“The task itself has to be genuinely meaningful; it has to have substance” “-It has to have substance for them [young people]”
“Flexible structures… based on their [young people’s] needs”
“Understanding the complexities of what we can and can’t share with young people”
What are the barriers?
“[if] young people suspect it’s tokenistic”
“We have to communicate that the [economic] cost… is worthwhile, and acknowledged, and reimbursed”
“Time… to do it well it takes extra time… Sitting alongside that is the rest of the organisation’s willingness…”
“Unclear expectations… things can go seriously wrong if people are unclear about why they’re brought together”
We moved on to concepts for the resources:
“There’s still a need for some kind of hard copy – but these can be printed as needed”
“You have to make them youth-sector friendly… we get drawn to things that look youth-friendly, it’s just your natural instinct”
“a resource… where they [practitioners] don’t have to wade through things… it’s easier online… a folder with bits you can take out, got to the tab you need, ‘that’s what I want to do, I’m going to go there and just use that’. Having it so you can just hone in”
“There’s something to be said for things that are professionally printed – that gives it a level of professionalism for the sector… I’ve heard some disrespect being thrown around at groups who don’t get things professionally done”
Professionalism appeared especially important for workers in council settings:
“For me, in the context of engaging either a board or a council… I need both. I need to present them with a professionally printed… document, and ‘here’s the online version that’s really cool, and put it on your iPads’ – and they’ll use that but they need this [hard copy] to convince them that it’s a real thing to be taken seriously”
Would a training package be useful?
“If it was accredited… AQTF, so it would go towards someone’s Cert IV in Comm[unity] Services, or their Bachelor in Youth Work”
“It would need to be very flexible because everyone approaches this in a different way, depending on their organisation – there wouldn’t be one-size fits all”
To wrap things up, the group gave me some final thoughts about the project:
“It’s about engaging with young people, not ‘youth engagement’”
“Are you going to listen to them [young people] or are you going to hear them?”
“How do we know we’re successful?” “How do you know they’ve [young people] engaged?”
“It’s also around being successful… how you set [young people] up for success?… Involving young people to be successful, that’s the outcome we’re looking for, that’s what the resource is, it’s not about ticking boxes”
Many thanks to all of our discussion group participants for their insights, and to all of our YACVic members for their ongoing support!