Youth engagement on a global and national scale – where do you start?

Katrina Lambert calls for youth engagement on an unprecedented scale, with a message for decision makers: give young people a seat at the table. If that’s not possible, it's time for a new table.
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Youth engagement can sometimes seem like a daunting concept. How do you reach young people? How do you support them? Is it even worth it? And when talking about it on a global and national scale, the task seems even more momentous.

Luckily, as someone who has engaged with processes at a national and international level from the age of fifteen, let me tell you this – if you commit to doing it properly, global and national youth engagement is absolutely possible.

Last year, I, alongside fellow human rights defender EJ Carroll, broke records as the youngest person ever to present evidence to the UN Committee Against Torture in Geneva, highlighting Scotland and the UK’s breaches of children’s human rights. Following on from this experience, as well as working with the Scottish and UK government on issues relating to gender based violence, period poverty, and most recently the youth sector and Covid-19, I have been able to witness first-hand the impact of having young people’s voices at the centre of global and national decision-making.

The value of youth engagement cannot be underestimated. As well as the fact that our generation are ‘future’ leaders who will be massively affected by decisions being made today, it is important to recognise the unique contributions of young people, as young people. We experience the world in a different way, for example with heightened links to technology, which means that we bring innovative solutions and ideas. We are being affected by issues here and now, with a youth mental health crisis across the globe and inequalities often hitting young people the hardest. On top of all this, young people are often shut out of conventional lines of participation; voting being the most obvious example. With the age of 18 generally accepted as the global standard this leaves swathes of the population unable to have their voices heard by those in power.

So, if you’ve recognised the benefits of youth engagement (those mentioned above are just the beginning!), where do you go next? Here are a few key ideas to think about when it comes to global and national youth engagement:

1. Opportunities must be meaningful - Young people must be brought into spaces where their voices will be truly valued and their opinions will be respected and taken on board in decisions. Youth engagement becomes meaningless the minute young people are in a room but have no real influence.

2. Don’t be afraid to shift the balance of power - When engaging with young people, don’t be afraid to let them be the ones in control. In fact, you should strive for this. Let young people steer the discussions around a particular piece of policy, rather than come to them with a set of specific questions and an idea of what answers you want.

3. Engagement is not a single event - Keeping lines of communication open is absolutely essential. Young people must know why their views have been taken on board and how action is being implemented, or if not, an explanation of the reasons for that.

4. Be accessible and provide support - Interacting with global and national structures and organisations can be pretty intimidating, so young people need appropriate support to ensure that they are able to be free to voice their ideas. This doesn’t mean putting words in our mouths, but simply acting as a support to ensure that we are fully informed, prepared and able to express our concerns. For example, when I spoke at the UN I knew that I had the support and advice of the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland every step of the way.

5. Be brave – for many global and national entities, youth engagement is often a very radical and new concept; whether that’s the UN, EU, national governments or charities and health bodies. Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is absolutely key – you might not get youth engagement absolutely right the first time round – in fact I’d debate as to whether there even is one single ‘right’ way - but only once you take that first step will you be able to reflect, improve and benefit from the voices and experiences of young people.

I do sincerely believe that youth engagement is something moving into the forefront of global thinking, but we absolutely need to keep pushing. To young people: we need to keep being loud. We are the leaders of global movements combatting racism, climate change and more. And we’re not stopping any time soon. We need to continue to demand our seat at the table that we have every right to. To decision makers: give us that seat at the table. If for some reason that’s not possible, time for a new table. One where young people are included, listened to, and at the heart of global and national discourse.

Over 40% of the world is under 25. We’re a force to be reckoned with. If we want to make the world the best place it can be, both globally and nationally, youth engagement is absolutely necessary. 

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