Token presence or true participation
  • The following post was written by Caroline Howe, who we were very fortunate to have met during our recent travels through India. Our workshop in Delhi would not have happened without her enthusiasm and behind-the scenes organizing. This is her first contribution to Organization Unbound.


    During the Organization Unbound workshop in Delhi, I was honestly struggling to distinguish between form and experience, until Warren gave what was a really helpful example I have felt and seen many times. When we talk about participation and equality in an organization or a meeting, many go to the easiest form of making it happen, such as going around the room and each person responding to a question. But while each person can speak, it doesn’t guarantee they are heard. The experience – feeling heard, truly participating – can’t be created with a form alone. Suddenly, I saw so clearly why the past few years of working on youth participation had often felt so uncomfortable. Organizations were creating forms of participation, without creating that experience.

    Organizations and individuals all over the world recognize – or at least say – that young people are the ones who will be inheriting the world’s environmental problems. For this reason, many claim that young people should have a seat at the discussion table when it comes to major world decisions on climate change.

    This was certainly true in the lead up to the Copenhagen negotiations, where organizations all wanted to have a young person represented at events, panels, conferences, and the UN negotiations themselves. At the Secretary General’s high level summit on climate change held 3 months before Copenhagen, the SG’s office presented “youth” as the “light motif” of the event, inviting a group of students to present their statements to the assembly, and then, to just listen. At all of the Copenhagen events, a youth voice was presented or a youth declaration signed. Even many young people present in Copenhagen, even those part of the official UN process, couldn’t describe why it is important for youth to participate and couldn’t clarify how they should participate, though they knew they wanted youth to be present.

    This kind of participation feels so deeply hollow, not only for the young people participating, but for the adults listening. It is so much easier to say that young people have a right to be present, or even have a right to be heard, than to actually think about what young people can bring to a discussion as real agents of change. If youth have a right to participate, they have a right to truly participate, not just to be brought up onstage to say a few inspiring words and then leave.

    The event had a lot of similar attempts at racial and gender participation or representation. Of course, I hate to see the traditional all male, all white panels of “experts” at so many events, but I also dislike to see that they’ve identified a token non-white person or a token woman to participate. Even at many of the youth events at Copenhagen, organizations openly said that they would select a group that “looked” diverse (for photo ops?) even if those multiracial groups were multicolored groups of American citizens coming from schools in New York City, or from a global mix of folks coming from the same socio-economic class.

    Sadly, though, while I know what tokenism feels like, I don’t have the answers to truly participatory representation for race or gender in fields where the entire system is skewed against diverse participation (for many reasons, the academic system around science or engineering really does keep many people out). But I have seen what real youth participation looks like around climate change. I have seen organizations bringing in intelligent, experienced young people who are treated as the experts in their field that they are, who are given the chance to sit at the same table and participate in the same way as their older colleagues. I’ve participated in events where young people are actually given the chance to say what they think really participating in the event would feel like or look like, before the event is planned and organized! It feels different for everyone who is present.

    Fundamentally, I think the mindset around youth participation is part of what needs to change. Even many of the youth participation advocates believe it’s important just because it is a child’s right to participate in decisions that shape its future, rather than believing that young people can make good — maybe even better — decisions around long-term issues, that young people have innovative solutions to problems, or that young people often can see collaborations where adults see only institutional and personal boundaries. Once you see a true value in having someone’s voice heard, meaningful participation seems to be a lot easier to facilitate.

    August 19th, 2011 | Caroline Howe | 3 Comments

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3 Responses and Counting...

  • chaitanyakumar 08.19.2011

    Dear Caroline, nice to read your article. Keep up the great work 🙂 Like most things, meaningful youth participation takes time but I feel we are walking in the right direction.

  • So true. This has been something I struggled with throughout my life – going from form to experience, from supposed engagement to actual engagement. I’ve experienced it at the UN and at small organizations, and there is always that same feeling – “this doesn’t feel true.” That hollowness. The question then is how to we pierce that moment, move into something real, persuade people to drop their shields and move beyond form into true engagement. Any ideas?

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