Language 101: Participation, engagement, involvement, empowerment

Who’s job is it to ensure that young people are engaged in this work of changing society? In a lot of the training I’ve facilitated, I have heard adults admonish their peers for not getting youth involved. Teachers, youth workers, activists- we all do it. Somehow, in our mightiest righteousness, we assume responsibility for bringing children and youth “into the fold” of social justice.

While that is true to an extent, I oftentimes challenge my workshop participants to think beyond this dated paradigm. Yve Susskind, a former collegue who conducted her doctoral research on youth activism, once explained to me a subtlty in the language we use in this work. She explained that the words engage, involve, and empower are all things that we do to others:

  • I will engage 100 youth.
  • Can we involve those teens?
  • I will empower you.

In each of those statements I will do something to you.

Yve then taught me about the word participate. Participation isn’t something you can do, give, or make for someone else. An individual must choose to participate on their own. Since then, I’ve read dozens of articles, reports, and stories about youth participation. That phrase seems pretty popular in global initiatives sponsored by the various agencies in the United Nations and among community-based organizations doing international work.

While I find the differences in usage important, I think that it’s equally important to consider the differences in meaning. I am no lexicographer – but I am interested in words (I compiled/authored Freechild’s glossary). In Language 102 I will explore some of the differences in these words, and a few others, particularly in reference to the work highlighted by The Freechild Project.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *