04 SES 13 B, Empowering Young People Participation And Decision-Making
This study examined the fulfillment of at-risk youth’s participation rights in collective decision making. Specifically, the study aimed to understand the participation patterns of at-risk youth in collective decision making and the factors that may hinder or facilitate it.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) anchors children's rights to participate in decision making. Children’s participation rights apply to both individual and collective decision making (UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2009). Numerous studies have shown that children from disempowered or minority families are often excluded from collective participatory frameworks (e.g., Collins, Augsberger, & Gecker, 2016; Wyness, 2009; Yamashita & Davies, 2010). One consequence is that participating privileged children who speak for, or on behalf of, less privileged children may maneuver the participation toward their own interests (Fielding, 2004; Wyness, 2009). Another consequence is that disempowered children have fewer opportunities to enjoy the benefits of participation in collective frameworks, which include fostering self-confidence, acquiring democratic skills, and increasing a sense of belonging (Jiang, Kosher, Ben-Arieh, & Huebner, 2014; Mitra & Serriere, 2012).
Only few empirical studies explored the participation of disempowered youth in collective decision making. Most of these studies focused on foster youth advisory boards (YABs) in the US (Forenza, 2016, 2018; Havlicek, Ching-Hsuan, & Braun, 2016; Havlicek & Samuels, 2018; Havlicek, Curry, & Villalpando, 2018). YABs seek to provide current and former foster youth with opportunities to speak about issues that affect their lives and to advocate for child welfare system improvements (Havlicek et al., 2016). These studies showed that YABs were characterized by close and supportive relationships (Forenza, 2016; Havlicek et al., 2016; Havlicek & Samuels, 2018). The studies on YABs also showed that the participating youth acquired leadership skills, civic literacy, and critical consciousness (Forenza, 2016, 2018) and improved their psychological well-being (Havlicek & Samuels, 2018). In this regard, Havlicek and Samuels (2018) conceptualized the YABs as counterspaces, which enable youth to refashion and affirm their desired identities by rejecting the ascribed negative identities placed onto them by others.
Excepting studies that focused on the specific context of US foster YABs, the literature on the participation of disempowered youth in collective decision making is scant. Spicer and Evans (2006) explored the experience of Children’s Fund partnerships––a major initiative of the UK government––of engaging children and young people at risk of social exclusion in municipal strategic processes. The study contrasted two different approaches to children’s strategic engagement that have no particular relevance to the participating children’s social context. One approach was the quantitative participation of relatively large numbers of children who express their views in one-off consultation events. The second approach was the qualitative participation of children in strategic decision-making processes.
Sarti, Schalkers, Bunders, and Dedding (2017) focused on a unique technique of participation. They explored the participation of children living in contexts of poverty and deprivation in the Netherlands in a participatory action research that led to their refining their narratives through a technique termed photovoice and presenting them to policymakers. The findings showed that photovoice can be used to bring about a productive dialogue between children and policymakers, thus, enabling disadvantaged children to express themselves on issues relevant to them.
While the literature on US foster YABs is emerging, Havlicek and her colleagues (2018) noted that there is still a limited understanding of the necessary conditions to create and support participatory practices in child welfare systems. In addition, none of the reviewed studies adopted the theoretical framework of participation rights to explore the participation of at-risk youth in collective decision making.
The study was conducted in an Israeli municipality that has undertaken the task of implementing frameworks for enlisting at-risk youth’s participation in collective decision making. These frameworks comprise a component of Israel’s National Program for Children and Youth at Risk, which aims to improve the living conditions of at-risk children and youth. In a preliminary study, we found that most Israeli municipalities joining the national program had yet to adopt mechanisms for facilitating the participation of at-risk youth in collective decision making. Therefore, we chose to focus on a single large municipality, owing to its implementation of such mechanisms on an exceptionally broad scale. The primary participation framework that was explored in the current study was a youth leadership council operating in an educational youth center that serves at-risk youth. We also explored youth participation in the decision-making processes of the Connection Program––a municipal program that seeks to establish ties between schools and the municipal Youth-at-Risk Department. Youth participation in the program includes direct participation with decision makers and indirect participation through questionnaires and focus groups. The third framework explored––the municipality’s professional committees––is charged with implementing the national program in the municipality. The committees include members who hold relevant professional roles in various municipal fields that concern youth at risk. Youth representatives were invited to attend the committees’ meetings, fully or partially. The study was based on qualitative methodologies. It drew on interviews with nine adolescents, aged 16-18, who had participated in collective decision-making processes during the previous year and with 10 adults who facilitated the participation processes or held senior positions in the national program. The interview protocol included questions relating to the structure of the relevant participatory framework, the participants’ recruitment, the decision-making processes, the dialogue with the adult facilitators, the influence of the youth’s participation, examples for effective and ineffective initiatives, and the interviewees’ perceptions of the participation. The interviews were recorded and transcribed. Inasmuch as the UNCRC’s formulation of the right to participation incorporates both children’s right to express their views and adults’ obligation to accord these views due weight, data analysis included two major themes: (1) processes facilitating and hindering the youth’s rights to express their views; (2) the influence of the youth’s participation. To ensure reliability, each of the authors reviewed the transcriptions independently and recorded suggestions for subthemes for both major themes.
Conclusions The findings showed that at-risk youth’s participation in collective decision making is encumbered by barriers relating to parents’ livelihood challenges, the absence of family support, difficulties in persevering and in complying with timetables, a derogatory attitude expressed by adults not involved in the facilitation process, and youth’s apprehension regarding these attitudes. Factors surmounting these barriers included relational participation, allowing the participants a sense of belonging; adapted participation, based on flexibility and mediation; and counter participation, which stands as a positive alternative to being marginalized at school. The findings also showed that the influence of the youth’s participation encompassed various collective domains relating to their youth center, their schools, and their community, as well as personal domains relating to the ways the youth’s participation transformed their social construction. Some of our conclusions are congruent with Havlicek and Samuels’s (2018) findings that conceptualized the foster YAB as a counterspace. The foster YABs explored by Havlicek and Samuels were indeed counterspaces, disconnected from the youth’s daily environment. However, the participatory frameworks examined in the current study did not transpire in a counterspace disconnected from its disempowering settings. Rather than a counterspace, the participation that we explored can be conceptualized as a heterotopia (Foucault, 1967). The concept of heterotopia assists in understanding the dual role of the nature of participation explored in the current study. It was an other space for the youth, which provided them with hegemonic cultural capital. Yet, their participation was also intertwined with the urban space in which they lived. The duality of the heterotopian participation did not compel at-risk youth to navigate between the culture of their families and neighborhoods and the hegemonic upper- and middle-class cultural models. The fluid structure of the youth’s participation, which challenged common interpretations of participation rights, enabled its success among at-risk youth.
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