Secret Kids’ Business, Eagleby, Gold Coast, 1999 Photograph by Kelvin Walsh, 1999
A few weeks ago the communications officer of a local council responded to my plea to include children and young people in their community engagement strategy.
Chidren and young people are not our customers
“Children and young people are not our customers”, she retorted.
I said that where I come from, we don’t appreciate that sort of language.
(“Wash your mouth out with soap” was what I had in mind, but with Karl nearby, I didn’t say it. No need to antagonize people, he says.)
But it’s an important issue that needs more discussion.
If I had a dollar for every time someone has told me they don’t engage with children and young people because they have nothing to say or there are no available methods, I’d have long since retired to the Gold Coast.
There’s no end of brilliant advisory material. The issue is political, not practical.
The question, I feel is, “Are children and young people citizens or citizens-in-the making?”
If we truly believe in intergenerational equity, we need to think twice about excluding children and young people from community engagement processes.
Young people require opportunities to participate and contribute to a sustainable future. If anyone has a stake in the future and a concern about long-term consequences and the sustainability of communities, it is young people. Working directly with young people can be practical evidence of our commitment to intergenerational equity.
Nobody knows better than today’s children and young people what it is like to be young today
Young people themselves are most knowledgeable about their own lives.
I believe that outside `experts’ should facilitate, not dominate, democracy. Importantly, considering children and young people, our position must be that that they are citizens and not citizens-in-the-making.
Young people are not always easy to reach, as they are a complex, individualistic, busy and media-savvy group.
I have found them to be open to a variety of engagement methods and most likely to respond to small group face-to-face situations. They are looking for a sense of trust in the process, as well as a serious commitment from organisers to listen to their views and to respect and value their views.
Anything we can do to avoid wasting young people’s valuable time will send a strong message that we care about them and understand their needs.
Good ways of working are not very different from good ways of working with adults. Respect and autonomy are key factors.
In future posts, I’ll offer some of the processes I have used over the years to engage with children and young people. You’ll be delighted at how much there is.
Two Great Books
In the meantime, I’d recommend two great books, both from our publisher, Earthscan/Routledge:
Driskell, D. with the Growing up in Cities Project (2002) Creating Better Cities with Children and Youth: A Manual for Participation, Earthscan, UNESCO Publishing and MOST, London
Hart, R. A. (1997) Children’s Participation: The Theory and Practice of Involving Young Citizens in Community Development and Environmental Care, Earthscan, London