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Reimagining Power Dynamics From Within: How Foundations Can Support Child and Youth Participation

January 16, 2020

Youth_climate_activists_350orgInvolving children and young people in our work — as grantees, consultants, researchers, and/or key informants — helps support their right to shape how the issues that affect their lives are addressed and makes our work as funders more impactful. Philanthropies should consider the right to participation — a key right in democracies — an important aspect of their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts.

The climate movement, for instance, has been very successful in drawing critical attention to the power of children and young people to organize and pressure governments to take action on an issue of urgent concern to them. Other examples include mobilizing support for the Sustainable Development Goals, gun violence prevention, and the rights of working children.

If, as funders, we are committed to supporting young climate activists at the local, national, and international levels, we also need to create spaces within our organizations for them to influence our thinking and ways of working. At the Open Society Foundations, the Youth Exchange team strategy refers to this as "modeling behavior," a form of "prefigurative politics": creating, here and now, in our organizational practices, the change we want to see more generally in society. While many in the philanthropic space already support young activists and guidelines already exist as to how to provide financial and non-financial support to child and youth organizers and child- and youth-led organizations, there are many others who wonder how they can do that.

The Open Society Youth Exchange team thought the start of a new year would be a good time to share some best practices — drawn from our own experiences as well as literature in the field — with respect to engaging children and young people in donor spaces and conversations and giving them the space to tell us how best to support their movements generally and the climate movement more specifically.

While recognizing that young leaders can benefit from specific types of support, we would emphasize that it is important to help create a broad base of support that transcends constituencies, movements, and generations. In addition, some of the recommendations shared below to support child and youth participation can also be made for or adapted to other groups, who may also experience similar barriers.

Nine Basic Requirements for Child and Youth Participation

To create effective and sustained participation, funders need to move away from one-off consultations and engage children and young people in ongoing processes and governance structures. Those who are in charge of organizing opportunities for children and young people as part of a strategic planning process, convening, or less formal conversation can use the "nine basic requirements for effective and ethical participation" outlined by the Committee on the Rights of the Child (General Comment no. 12) on "the right of the child to be heard." These basic requirements are the gold standard for youth and child participation and can help funders plan and monitor participation processes. According to the principles, participation should be transparent and informative, voluntary, respectful, relevant, child-friendly, inclusive, supported by training, safe and sensitive to risk, and accountable.

The power of personality is evident in the youth climate movement, in which inspiring young problem-solvers have emerged as highly visible and effective leaders. But when inviting children and young people to join conversations, it is important to look beyond charisma to make sure they legitimately represent their constituencies and are already situated within strong networks. The best approach, we have found, is to ask network leaders to nominate the individuals who will represent them. It's also important to support platforms that help child and youth representatives from different groups connect with one another and build trust. The latter can take time, so it's important to build some extra time into your planning.

To identify representatives who are most likely to be effective, network leaders must have a clear understanding of the aims, nature, and scope of the engagement: Are children and young people being invited to share their views on an issue area in which the foundation as a whole would like to engage? Are they being asked to help shape something more specific, like a portfolio of work? Are they being asked to comment on the best tools for supporting the movement (e.g., grantmaking, fellowships, or advocacy)? Funders need to be clear and share details about the role that children and young participants are likely to play.

Participation must be transparent, informative, and relevant. It is acceptable, for example, to tell participants that what they have to say will be considered, but that it will be considered in the context of other conversations. It is not acceptable to invite children and young people to the table without having any intention to act upon their ideas and suggestions.

Participation must be inclusive. Funders must include young activists from diverse backgrounds, with an additional focus on groups that have experienced various forms of discrimination. "Youth" is a large and heterogeneous demographic. Funders need to recognize that layered and intersecting identities are at play in everyone's life and that "young" is only one identity, age only one indicator. For many young people, age does not even register among the aspects of identity they consider most important (e.g., race/ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation). We therefore feel that the "youth lens" needs to be combined with additional lenses to create the necessary conditions for meaningful engagement. For example, children and youth from Indigenous communities and from the Global South should be front and center, since they are the cohorts most likely to be affected by the climate crisis. When engaging young people in the United States, funders need to remember the importance of engaging young activists of color, including those with a disability. Disability inclusion reinforces the message that spaces in which conversations take place are accessible for all participants. We also make a point of using the phrase "child and youth participation" to highlight the importance of including those who are younger — not least because the climate movement is full of very young organizers, organizers who may feel they are being ignored when only the word "youth" is used.

If we want to include young people in meaningful and respectful ways, we need to make adjustments to our own processes. Ideally, that should begin with the involvement of young people as early in the process as possible. It's not enough to give them a seat at the table; we need to make sure they are involved in setting up the table and are taking part in the journey from the very start. At the same time, it also means being clear that young participants have the choice to limit or step away from their responsibilities, as participation always needs to be voluntary.

Participation should be respectful, relevant, and take into consideration children's and young people's own priorities and interests as well as their existing commitments to study, work, and free time. This may require funders to be ready to organize meetings during "after-school" evening or weekend hours. It may also necessitate efforts to inform and get permission and support from parents and caregivers.

Participation should be youth- and child-friendly and respectful of the skills, experiences, and competencies of young people. Respect also needs to be shown in the scheduling of the convening itself and any preparation work. By involving children and young people in the early stages of planning, tasks and planning sessions can be made more participatory, allowing everyone to engage to their maximum potential. During the planning process, funders should also ask young people to identify in advance which sessions they feel most equipped or excited to contribute to, rather than assuming they will be interested in and available to attend every session. While some young activists are experienced public speakers, all participants should always be given the support and tools they need to feel comfortable when faced with new situations and public responsibilities. For instance, the young people who do choose to speak at convenings almost always appreciate being shown around the venue beforehand so they can familiarize themselves with the space — a very simple yet important recommendation. And, of course, when inviting children and young people to be part of our processes or conversations, we always need to be mindful of the inherent power dynamics at play, due not only to differences in age but also to our status as donors.

For full-day meetings, agendas can be designed to highlight sessions that are more "participatory." Depending on the intended outputs of the convening (e.g., a summary or action document prepared by participant groups), it can be helpful to connect with young people in advance to ask them how they might best contribute. In some situations, young people may prefer to present their ideas or stories in creative visual ways. We need to schedule time for those visuals to be shared and commented on by all participants, rather than limiting the discussion to a few minutes during a break.

Because their role is crucial, adult collaborators need to be confident, supportive, and skilled at facilitating intergenerational dialogues. For example, if a young person is part of a panel presentation, the facilitator can make sure that any questions addressed to that individual can be answered by any of the young invitees who are present. Also, questions from young people to other panelists can be prioritized to ensure that their voices are heard. Young people can also be skilled facilitators and conveners, especially if provided with training, mentoring, and experiential opportunities. In sum, participation should be supported by training in facilitation, effective communication, and children's rights for both adults and young people.

Whenever young people are involved in an activity, it is of utmost importance to conduct a risk assessment and develop a safety plan that includes clear safeguarding procedures: participation always needs to be safe and sensitive to risk for participants. This is particularly important when engaging young people under the age of 18, who are, from a legal point of view, minors. In such cases, the organization should make child protection a priority, and young participants and their accompanying adults should know how to report their concerns if anything problematic occurs. Similarly, if there is a videographer, or if video or photos are taken, it is imperative to obtain informed consent from the young participants and their legal guardians in advance.

Lastly, funders and conveners should be accountable to participants, which means children and young people should be given feedback about the degree to which their views were taken into account and have the opportunity to share feedback about their experience. While this can be done in a post-event debriefing session, anonymous feedback opportunities sometimes elicit more detail. In addition, longer-term planning with and by young people and adults is encouraged as a way to support more sustainable opportunities for young activists to be engaged in governance processes that affect them.

Rachele_tardi_zachary_turkAll of us in philanthropy should remind ourselves that including children and young people in conversations about issues of importance to them is a key aspect of DEI and should keep in mind the principles behind and best practices for engaging young activists in our work. It is up to us to mirror and model the processes of inclusion and the participation of children and young activists whom we seek to support through our grantmaking and advocacy efforts. In many areas, they are already leading the way. It's important we initiate and sustain, within our own organizations, an ongoing dialogue with them about the systemic change we all want to see.

Rachele Tardi is senior program manager and Zachary Turk is a program officer in the Youth Exchange program at the Open Society Foundations.

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