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How do we encourage the youth to be the architects of the future?

Who is making decisions about the future? These days adults often dictate the decisions that the youth are going to live with: most likely much longer than you or I. Still it is said that raising young people who respect human rights and believe that they can make a difference is the best way to ensure peaceful retirement years for all of us.
I had the utmost pleasure to dive into the subject with brilliant professionals from six different countries while hosting a workshop in Dare to Learn. The event is the largest learning event in Northern Europe and definitely worth checking out, if you haven’t already! 
During our workshop we tried to find new perspectives on the rather complex question in the headline of this blog post. To scale the topic down a bit, we had a knowledge café (or a learning café as we call this method in Finlan) where each of the participants had a change to discuss each of the following question for 15 minutes in small groups:
  • In what ways can we show appreciation and respect to the young that act on their idea?
  • How to tackle the fear of letting go of the power given to (us) adults?
  • What can we do next week to create authentic dialogue between youngsters and decision makers?
  • What will youth participation look like in 2030?
After working in small groups, we shared and discussed the findings together with all the participants. In this post I’ll summarize the main findings and ideas, so that these can be taken further also by those who could join us this year.  Before doing so, I would like to wholeheartedly thank Dare to Learn volunteers and my especially amazing facilitators Pilvikki, Anna, Riika and Mayling. I couldn’t have done this without you!

In what ways can we show appreciation and respect to the young that act on their idea?

We often think of youth participation as asking the young people for their answers to our questions in the platforms created by us. What kind results would we get if instead of or in addition to this we would ask the youth what bothers them and then ask if we could co-create the answers? By defining what should get solved we (adults) have already narrowed down the possibilities of participation. For authentic youth participation it is crucial that youth are seen as equals during the whole process. Listening to what the youth has to say too often leads to adults eventually closing the door of a cabinet or a meeting room and actually making the decision without the young people.
Trying to get rid of the controversy adults vs. youth is a slow cultural change, but an extremely important one. A tool for crafting this kind of new discussion culture is open and honest dialogue, where emotions are also allowed and dealt with. 
Genuine listening is a crucial part of offering support and showing another person that you value them and their opinions. So while we listen to the ideas young people share with us, we should truly focus on listening and understanding. This means that we can’t at the same time silently go through the arguments of how this hasn’t worked before or how this has been tried already. Times change and this time the idea has a unique ingredient that it didn’t have before: these specific individuals who are passionate about it!
Another important part of supporting youth participation is equality of ideas. Even though we all have our own impressions of the persons around us, we should be able to separate our opinion about the young person presenting the idea and the potential of the idea itself. No matter the age, gender, social background or school grades, we should focus on what young people do, not on (who we think) they are. Anonymous internet platforms for idea sharing and co-creation, such as in Finland, offer a good way to create a playing field free from prejudice.
A very concrete way of showing support is offering financial support to young people’s projects and their self-organized actions. In Finland for example Youth Academy offers grants up to 1000 € for executing young people’s own ideas. 
We also discussed that by collecting their funding themselves, the youth have more power in shaping the impact they want to make. For example, we identified that a difference between student bodies (that most Finnish schools have) that actually have power to make an impact and the others that don’t is that the first ones collect their own funds, have their own budgets and power to use that as they please. Who governs the funds governs to a certain extent the ways of participating into society or, in this case, the development of school environments.

How to tackle the fear of letting go of the power given to (us) adults?

The balance between trust and control ignited a lot of conversation. We discussed among other things lowering the legal age for voting: in Finland there has been conversations whether or not 16-years old should be eligible to vote in national elections. One of the participants shared her discussion with vocational school students about this subject: these youngsters were opposed to the idea, even though it would bring them more rights!
The reason behind this was that they don’t trust their peers to make educated decisions. And this isn’t a matter of age. The amount of information and misinformation is so overwhelming that people of all ages struggle to see the bigger picture and causality.
In order to have well-working democratic societies in the future we must make sure that all citizens have access to information, enough help in making sense of it and that they are literate (in many senses of the word) enough to critically review  the information given. Well-organized and high quality youth information and counselling services are in a key role in this work. For example ERYICA’s Youth information charter is a valuable tool to defining professional principles, minimum standards and quality measurements for such service.
We also lack examples and success stories about what could happen if we venture to the unmapped area and let go of some of the power given to us. Who will become the forerunner in this and become known as the first person in power, who dared to share the power given to them?

What will youth participation look like in 2030?

In the future that we dreamed of during the workshop we have managed to raise youngsters that take initiative and swarm into global teams around a shared objective. This exponential spreading of ideas and possibilities to be an active player in global developments is made possible by high connectivity. The youth acquire growth mindset early on and are inspired by ubiquitous learning. Their presence in public spaces breaks the barriers that we are used to today. 
Youngsters will have more presence in business life and they are most likely a part of a team entrepreneurship group, so that they can further their own business ideas. They will also work side by side with scientists to offer fresh perspectives in solving the wicked problems of our time. This way they will for example take us closer to reaching UN’s sustainable development goals. Young people will also have other means and tools to make their ideas reality without adults working as gatekeepers.
In the future young people will also have more platforms (both virtual and physical) to participate: on regional, national and global level. Youth participation has truly become a national value. The young people from 16 years olds to 18 years olds can vote for national youth parliament, that will have representatives in national parliament. They will have the right to vote about the decisions affecting their future right alongside with adults.

What can we do next week to create authentic dialogue between youngsters and decision makers?

So what can we do to make this dream reality? I have to confess that I thought this question would be a tricky one, because the goal seems so big that it might be hard to come up with the concrete steps toward it. And yet we collected astonishing amount of practical things that we can do today and every day after that.
Firstly we would like to see an idea wall in all the spaces where we work with young people. On this wall they could write down their ideas on a post-it. The adults review these regularly and put those in action as soon as possible or give feedback to refine the idea further.  It is important to give constructive criticism in the spirit of yet. There isn’t bad ideas, there’s only ideas that don’t have it all figured out yet
When giving feedback it is also very important to be mindful and give youngsters your undivided attention. The ideas, aspirations and worries of the youth have to be taken seriously. When giving positive feedback and compliments, make those as specific and authentic as possible. Well defined praise is easier to receive and more likely to help them to improve their idea. In our everyday life, in every encounter we can encourage the youth and build up their feeling of self-worth and capability.
In addition to supporting internal strength, we can also shape structures to facilitate active participation. From early childhood education forward we can include children and youngsters as active co-creators of learning events. One of the many good questions in the workshop was: why don’t the youth have a more active role in creating the curricula? Instead of being an object they could become a part of defining the goal.
Peer-support is also a tool for empowerment. That’s why adults could take a more active role in bringing together young people with shared interest. We also have the power to organize opportunities for them to share their ideas publicly and gain support. And after organizing these opportunities and platforms we have to know when to hand out those to the youth themselves. A couple of great Finnish examples of this are Young Voice Editorial Boards (Nuorten Ääni -toimitukset) and Gutsy Go movement.
It is also important to remember that it is not only the professionals working with young people that have the power to encourage them. Parents too have a very important role in fostering young people’s faith in the future and in their own possibilities to shape it. Unfortunately in some families the adults themselves have lost this hope. The good news is that our small, mundane efforts can make a difference in breaking this inherited circle of indifference, mistrust and passivity. We all have different roles as parents, friends and relatives.
What is the small, yet concrete step that you are going to take next week within your own roles to encourage the youth around you to be the architects of the future?
You're welcomed to take a look of all of the flipcharts that we made during the workshop in Google Drive. Thank you all, who were a part of co-creating these!