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5 tips to better collaborate with young people

September 30, 2021
By Geneviève Grégoire-Labrecque

Hand holding a placard saying “Climate justice now!” during a global climate change strike demonstration. Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

September 27 marks the 2-year anniversary of the “Fridays for Future” march that brought together 500 000 people –mostly children and youth– in Montreal.

Beyond the environmental requests, this international youth-led movement is asking to be heard, to be taken seriously and for adults to be held accountable for the promises and decisions they make.

After 19 months of a global pandemic where a lot of decisions have been made by adults for children and youth, I want to share some tips to help adults work with young people in shaping the world –and there are never small initiatives here.

Tip 1: Avoid tokenism

Develop meaningful relationships with young people instead of just organizing a one-time consultation event.

Indeed, it is important to not instrumentalize and I dare say not colonize youth's voices. By this I mean: coming in as adults, taking what we need and leaving without being accountable. Rather, reflect on the impact of the initiative on them, humanize the encounter, invest in developing a relationship to build resilient communities, and explain/justify your actions to them.

Tip 2: Embrace transparency

Person explaining something to another person. Photo by LinkedIn Sales Solutions on Unsplash.

Be clear and transparent about your goals and methods, even if it is only exploratory conversations.

Transparency is key in order to shift the established power dynamics between adults and young people. Transparency is even more important if children are in a “captive” environment such as school. It is the foundation of building trusting relationships where both parties, children AND adults, can learn and grow. In that sense, consent should be free, informed –i.e. information should be given in a language young people are comfortable with– and revocable at any moment.

Tip 3: Include creative methods

Hand holding a paintbrush over many different paint pots. Photo by russn_fckr on Unsplash.

Be open to different ways of expression when engaging with young people.

Direct questions don’t always elicit information in the way we think they should. It can be stressful and confrontational when adults ask questions. There are many other ways of expressing oneself, such as through writing, drawing, mapping, movement, role playing, and so on!

In addition to being more inclusive to a diversity of children, implementing varied methods can open new spaces for meaningful discussions. This can help children and adults connect, learn together and move forward towards more collaborative, quality and egalitarian relationships, while adding some fun into the mix.

Tip 4: Be flexible

Red, green and yellow chameleon holding a stick. Photo by Egor Kamelev from Pexels.

Remember that young people have agency, and they can (and definitely will!) influence the collaborative process.

Be ready to get destabilized, and to adapt to the changing circumstances...for better or worse. Checking-in with youth about how they feel about the initiative and inviting them to make suggestions (and being receptive to their contributions) is a good idea in order to include them and to make their participation more meaningful and effective.

Tip 5: Just... listen

Person putting their finger on their lips to indicate silence. Photo by medium photoclub from Pexels.

Shhh! Be quiet 😊 and learn from young people in all their complexity and diversity.  

Listening to young people means respecting their silences and their refusal to talk to us, but also their willingness to engage at their own pace and in their own ways. Patience and humility are key. Being aware of who we are, our position, and who we are listening to, is also always a good starting place to truly actualize children’s rights to participation and to non-discrimination.

Now what?

With that in mind, I hope that we can all take baby steps – including me – to be more aware of how we engage with young people in our everyday lives to ensure that their rights are respected: that they are listened to and taken seriously.

For those of you who are wondering, these tips come from a diversity of young people and from my own experience working with youth. But, for even more transparency and accountability, and if you’re curious, here's an example of a tool developed by youth leaders to reflect on how to engage youth (and with youth) meaningfully.

About the author

Photo of Geneviève Grégoire-Labrecque

Geneviève Grégoire-Labrecque is a PhD candidate in the Individualized Program (INDI). Her research examines the ways youth participation is understood, practiced, and experienced by youth and school staff in a youth-led and an adult-led school initiative on environment and climate change in two high schools in Montreal.

Recipient of a Nelson Mandela Award, her research is also supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and Concordia University. Prior to her PhD, she has worked on diversity, inclusion and on knowledge mobilization in education and in health care and social services and holds both a BSc (2010) and a MSc (2013) in Anthropology from Université de Montréal.

Geneviève is a member of the Child Rights Academic Network, the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children, a student member of the Centre de recherche en éducation et formation relatives à l’environnement et à l’écocitoyenneté, and an academic member for the North American Regional Children’s Environmental Rights Consultations for the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment

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