Yesterday I introduced “youth mainstreaming” as the deliberate movement to increase the awareness and participation of young people throughout society. While UNESCO and European government literature increasingly focuses on this phenomenon, it is not a popular term in North America.
However, after reading about it and having conversations with colleagues I have come to understand that while it is true that the concept of youth mainstreaming could provide an important model for considering all the places and people throughout society who could benefit from active youth engagement, it is also important to recognize the inherent limits to “mainstreaming.” I want to suggest that youth mainstreaming is equivalent to racial desegregation; Youth mainstreaming is simply ending the routine separation of young people from society, including integrating youth voice and action throughout the structures and institutions that affect them most; Racial desegregation is simply ending legalized segregation. However, neither of those approaches addresses the challenges of the entrenched fear that drives racial or age discrimination.
Youth integration calls for more. It demands that systematic efforts be made to create equitable opportunities for all people with respect to their age, including the development of a culture that draws on diverse perspectives, rather than merely representing age minority in adult culture.
Part of the assumption of youth mainstreaming is revealed in the goals of UNESCO, which, while important and laudable, fall short of ensuring the social change necessary to engage young people as full members of society. Calling for the presence of young women and men in UNESCO bodies, workshops, meetings and conferences fosters the illusion of inclusion; however, it does nothing to ensure the lives of everyday young people are affected by the world’s largest social change engine (the United Nations).
All of this gets at the heart of an issue I have been uncovering recently. Without calling it youth mainstreaming, many organizations in the United States and Canada have been making strides in the last decade towards moving young people into the structures of their operations. I have been engaged in this work, assisting schools, government agencies, and nonprofits in developing these approaches. However, recently I’ve begun recognizing the inherent limitations of focusing on structural changes, not the least of which being that policies change when leadership changes, and when leadership changes children and youth are susceptible to being neglected or otherwise left behind.
Instead of continuing to rely on broken machinations focused on changing the places where we seek to engage children and youth, I want to start working to change the hearts and minds of the adults who serve young people, including parents and teachers and youth workers and detention officers and counselors… That seems to be the heart of youth integration and why it is important to move beyond youth mainstreaming – we need more than token youth engagement; it needs to wholly re-envision the roles of young people throughout society. That is what youth integration can lead us towards; anything less is selling out.