One of the patterns these youth workers sometimes discuss is how young people take action in their own lives and in the lives of their communities. They refer to this action in many ways and with many terms.
In my research and practice focused on social change led by and with young people for The Freechild Project, I have discovered many of these terms. I have found they’re often used synonymously without distinguishing their meanings or purposes.
Following is my new Youth Action Spiral. In this graphic and the description below, I intend to show how each of these words fits within a concise picture of action that all young people benefit from. It also shows what youth workers, educators, and others are doing to engage young people, and what they could be doing.
The Youth Action Spiral is designed to hold many different activities that young people take action in throughout our communities. Its a spiral because these activities are not linear and do not begin and end in a sequence. Instead, they can all happen at the same time throughout communities, within organizations, among a specific group of young people, and even in the lives of individual youth. There is a particular deepening that happens as the Spiral turns; however, this isn’t a tool for determining the value of a particular approach. Instead, its met to highlight that each has value in alternating turns.
- Youth Voice is any expression of any young person anywhere, at any time. This can include expressions that are verbal, written, visual, body language, or actions; expressions that are convenient and inconvenient for adults to listen to; and intentional as well as unintentional expressions. They do not require adult approval or acceptance.
- Youth Participation is the active attendance of young people in any mode throughout their lives or communities. Youth participation can happen through active decision-making, sports, schools, or faith communities. It can also happen in homes and among friends. Youth participation can be formal or informal; when its formal, youth may not choose to attend something, but they choose whether to participate. When its informal, youth choose to join in on something.
- Youth Involvement is any deliberate effort that centers on young peoples’ ongoing attendance in personal, social, institutional, cultural, and other forms of structural action throughout society. Youth involvement is generally formal, often including specific roles, education, and outcomes.
- Youth Engagement is the sustained connection young people hold towards a particular thing, whether an idea, person, activity, place or outcome. That sustained connection can be social, emotional, educational, spiritual, sentimental, or otherwise as long as its sustained.
- Youth Empowerment is the attitudinal, structural, and cultural process whereby young people gain the ability, authority, and agency to make decisions and implement change in their own lives and the lives of other people, including youth and adults.
- Youth Leadership is the practice of young people exercising authority over themselves or others, both in informal and formal ways. There is youth leadership beyond the scope of what adults recognize, appreciate, or foster; there is also youth leadership which is guided by adults.
- Youth Equality happens when young people are fully equal with adults while they’re involved in a given activity. This is a 50/50 split of authority, obligation, and commitment. One of the realities of this is that there isn’t recognition for the specific developmental needs or representation opportunities for children and youth.
- Youth Equity is the pro-active rebalancing of relationships between youth and adults to allow for appropriately empowered roles between youth and adults. It allows for a 40/60 split of authority, while everyone involved- young people and adults- are recognized for their impact in the activity, and each has ownership of the outcomes.
A special thanks to Arthur Orsini, Kyla Lackie, Teddy Wright, Greg Williamson, Mishaela Duran, Heather Manchester, the King County Youth Engagement Practitioners Cadres of 2011-12 and 2012-13, and the many other people who contributed to the development of my understanding along the some way.