Seen and Heard: children and youth as agents of community change


Youth engagement is not new. Since the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child almost thirty years ago, which radically shifted global perceptions towards the acceptance of children as subjects in their own right, “youth voice”, “youth participation” and “youth engagement” have been buzzwords. From the “listening culture” developed in the latter part of the twentieth century to the “active participation” of children and youth in community decision making processes, engaging youth has spurned numerous initiatives and frameworks for best methods and approaches. (For instance, Rogert Hart’s “Ladder of Young People’s Participation”, integrates youth engagement in an engagement framework that echoes Sheree Arnstein’s landmark model.)

Yet, twenty-first-century shifts toward child advocacy, where child-initiated participation shows improvements to children’s quality of life, highlight children and young people’s agency as key to social transformation. Opportunities to integrate a child’s and/or young person’s experience and perspective can not only challenge our understanding of participation. But they encourage intergenerational dialogue within communities, sparking innovations in visioning our neighbourhoods, cities and municipalities. Child-friendly cities, child-friendly communities and local initiatives, where platforms are provided for children to take part in municipal decision making, embrace play-based approaches, eliciting children’s views, storytelling to convey information, and, most recently, local government’s integrating technology in the form of robots. Children and young people, from the outset, are empowered as co-creators of knowledge and the future of their communities.

Here, we take a look at some global engagement research over recent years that shows that when we integrate youth perspectives and experiences into what and how we research, impacts of community engagement are more closely aligned with youth priorities and experiences. Empowered as “experts” of their own agenda, this increases the success of meaningful engagement, on the one hand, and provides an avenue for inclusion with marginalized and Indigeonous youth, on the other.

Collectively, these five research articles bring together innovative ways of thinking about youth engagement and highlight theories that underpin best practice approaches to engaging young people and children. From calls to recognize children as vital agents of democracy beyond education-focussed approaches, to identifying facilitation as crucial to supporting youth participation in online learning environments, they also identify opportunities and challenges in educating youth for digital civic engagement. We also include how Canada’s Nova Scotia’s public library system worked to renew relationships with shrinking rural youth populations, and a youth-led engagement methodology and framework for mental health care in Manchester, UK.

Children as vital agents of democracy

Researcher at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance in Canberra, Australia, Kei Nishiyama overturns the idea of children as passive citizens-in-the-making. By reframing their activities and agency in the context of deliberative democracy, he demonstrates children as capable contributors to contemporary democracy. Describing the widely prevalent viewpoints on children’s civic life in socialization and remediation, he reveals that socialization understands that children lack capacities and judgement and need to acquire skills and attitudes to political systems, while remediation seeks to correct what it sees as children’s negative attitudes to democracy with citizenship education. Nishiyama counters these views that determine children as “pre-social” and “incapable” and reconceptualizes children as vital democratic agents and proposes a theoretical framework to better appreciate their role in society.

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Children’s civic engagement

In the Scratch children and youth online community, young people around the world are provided a space to learn programming by designing, sharing and discussing interactive media projects. A project by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab, members have shared over 16.3 million projects and 87.4 million project comments. Looking into this civic phenomenon of using online tools at very early ages, researchers Ricarose Roque, Sayamindu Dasgupta, and Sasha Costanza-Chock investigate how young Scratch community members aged between 8 and 16 years are using online learning environments to develop emergent forms of civic engagement. Equally, they inquire into how they connect with issues of global and civic importance in questions around community governance – an antidote to the usual governance of online communities where young people are often denied agency.

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Educating youth for digital civic engagement

Coming out of Civic Engagement Research Group, California, Erica Hodgin takes us inside the classroom and looks at learning opportunities for creating youth civic dialogue in a digital realm. Pioneering a new framework for educators and policy makers, Hodgin identifies building blocks where students partake in an online dialogic community and meaningfully navigate diverse perspectives to develop a multi-faceted understanding of civic issues. But digital civic engagement opportunities, she finds, need to be equitable as she highlights that participation can be shaped by such dynamics as access, literacy, technological affordances.

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Youth-led mental health agenda in Oldham, Manchester

Young people in Oldham, Greater Manchester, identify top areas of focus for mental health care in the pilot project, MH:2K project. Delivered by UK think tank Involve and social enterprise Leaders Unlocked, the initiative supports 14 – 25 year olds to lead conversations on mental health issues that affect them. The MH:2K engagement model provides a direct line of insight from local youth, drawing the 14-25 demographic into dialogue with each other and key local decision-makers to point out mental health barriers and explore possible solutions. They also crystallized five key areas of focus that includes family and relationships, school culture as well as stigma and self-harm. Outlining a six-part engagement methodology, which can be applied in any locality in the UK, this youth-led pilot drew 600 local young people, and 85 experts and leaders from 27 organizations.

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Rural public libraries engage youth, renew community

In this interview-based research, Heather Reid and Vivian Howard question how engagement helps public libraries in Nova Scotia, Canada, renew relationships with shrinking rural youth populations. Looking at the broader context of demographic challenges – namely how to engage young people and combat the outmigration of young people aged 18-24 years – they focus on existing efforts to engage with youth of all ages (0-18 years). The authors suggest that these strategies may not only help libraries deliver responsive services, but also revive civic life in these communities.

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