Tell Future Generations: “It was good for the economy”
I’ve lifted the title for this blog from a placard featuring the same words. The placard is being held by a teenage girl who is part of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC). The photo features in an article written for The Conversation by Philippa Collin. (http://goo.gl/EfTdPM) Collin is concerned about the lack of engagement of young people with policy making. Many might lament about the apathy of this generation, but Collin argues this isn’t the case. Stating in fact young people are very active politically however the mechanisms that allowed them a voice in policy making have been drastically reduced, mainly due to government discontinuing or defunding programs.
I was going to write this week’s blog about the alarming rate of incarceration in Australia and particularly in Victoria as we run headlong down the path America has blazed for us. And I will pick up on this in the near future. However reading the article this morning, it being youth week, me being a past youth worker and the father of an almost sixteen year old, I thought the opportunity too good to let go past without comment.
It was my forty-first birthday on Sunday. I don’t tell you that to get more happy birthdays or some kind of warped sympathy, but to say this period of my life has been one of reflection. Am I the person I dreamed I would be when I was young? Living the life I thought I would? Have I made the impact I wanted to make as I was inspired towards a picture of what the world could be in my twenties? Did I have goals as I went through school? Have I achieved those? What has been the result of achieving or not achieving those goals? As a collective what did my generation hope for the world? As we come into leadership positions how have we gone at implementing those hopes and dreams or have we simply succumbed to the status quo?
Some of those questions are hard to answer. I didn’t become a doctor, although I’m hoping to start work on a PhD in the near future? I’m not sure I had burning ambitions for the world at school, although I did in my twenties and thirties. I’ve never really had any financial goals, but life has been full of various communities, connections, long and short-term friends. When I caught up with a school friend a couple of years ago, she informed me that I was doing exactly what I said I would in school, helping people. Well that was nice of her to say, and I certainly hope I have. And maybe the world is a little different because of it. Now, apart from casual connections with neighbours my helping people is more about training, teaching, writing, consulting. It’s different but its good. And there still is a desire to change the world, although it doesn’t get airplay as often as it used to.
However, what of the aspirations of my son’s generation? When I was at school I remember talk of youth parliament and various other connections to policy bodies, but I was not aware enough to know if they were taken seriously and what the outcome of such conversations between young people and policy makers was. In her article, Collin quotes Stephen Coleman a communications scholar who says that young people are often treated like apprentice citizens, with a managed citizenship approach. Essentially initiatives are designed for them which tell them how they are to engage with government and on what issues.
Typically this sort of approach does not engender genuine engagement, where young people are encouraged to think through an issue close to them and work towards a genuinely held policy position. Last year my son got the opportunity to go away for a whole term to a leadership school. Part of the school was linked back to the various local communities of the young people. In teams they had to design and implement a project that was meaningful to them and addressed a need in their community. Whilst this activity may not have been linked with policy makers it was an opportunity for them to think through an issue and come up with some kind of intervention.
Likewise a couple of years ago the organization I was then heading up partnered with some other not-for-profits to run a series of conversations on youth suicide and the social environment for young people. The biggest conversation was a world café event that brought together sixty people including school teachers, youth workers, local councilors, social service workers, police, chaplains and young people. The playing field was leveled and the young people were the stars of the day as they kept the rest of us honest about what the issues really were and what would make a difference. Again the upper levels of government may not have been present but young people contributed and there was the opportunity for the thinking of many workers to be challenged and shifted.
Collin points out in her article that Australian young people have lots to say, with two of Australia’s largest membership based organisations (AYCC and Oaktree Foundation) being youth led. Other youth organisations such as Reachout.com, Young and Well Co-operative Research Centre and Foundation for Young Australians work with young people in a whole range of capacities from innovative policy solutions to social enterprises in areas such as mental health, education and sustainable futures.
As well as these informal approaches and countless other connections on social media, Collin suggests a broader based approach is needed. She points to the British Youth Council as a co-funded model that brings young people and policy makers together. I can see many benefits of this through intergenerational connections and the sense for young people that they can make a difference.
All of this requires an investment in young people on a number of levels. In training I do with local councils and service providers I point out that it is no surprise that young people are disenfranchised with the community and associated political process. They are bombarded almost everyday with messages that they are no good, they cause trouble, that they are lazy and so on. A number of years ago when I was working in Pakenham a group of us sort to bring a different message and engaged a small number of young people in some arts projects in the community. The local paper reported on this and the community began to see a different side to the young people so many regarded with disdain.
Asset Based Community development says that everyone in the community has something to offer, a perspective to bring, a skill to use or teach, something of value. This is akin to the ancient Hebrew concept of Shalom part of which encourages the valuing of young and old and the contribution each can make to the whole.
So as we come to Youth Week 2015 and as I think about my son’s aspirations for himself and the world around him, the challenge for me is will I take this opportunity to deeply listen, not only to him, but to his friends and other young people I come in contact with. To let them know that I value them, I love their dreams for a better world and that I will do all I can to empower them to see those dreams become a reality.