June 4, 2013 by John Buckley
It’s the 50th anniversary of JFK’s homecoming visit to Ireland, where he visited New Ross. Last Saturday, I was invited by Boston College to speak at the event. Here’s what I said.
When we trust young people, when we invest in them and give them the opportunities, that they, as citizens and individual rights bearers deserve, often young people don’t know what to say. And I quote:
“Dude thanks for having me, like I don’t think any of you understand how much I’ve loved coming, learned so much journo wise and personally” – A sixteen year old, on us trusting her to write, investigate and to express herself.
“Its gotta be said it all started with one piece on a website called SpunOut – that wont be easily forgotten!! Yeah – u reli don’t get how enormous an opportunity u provide to ppl like me though and u shud all b very proud of ure work” – An eighteen year old, reflecting on our investment in him as a young person.
Please don’t groan at what may be perceived to be a shameless self-plug. I’m reading these out because look at the reaction when we trust, invest in and really value what young people are doing. Grand thanks and appreciation mixed with not expecting to be valued shouldn’t be the case. It should be expected and should just happen.
My name is John Buckley; I am the Youth Engagement Officer for SpunOut.ie. Interesting title isn’t it? It kind of sounds a bit makey-upey! My role though, I feel is something that I’m looking forward to one day not having to exist. At the moment my job involves making sure young people in Ireland know where to go if they need information, support, where to go if they want to create personal or social change or where to go if they want to create media. All in one spot, SpunOut.ie. I’m also responsible for youth participation in decision-making. That sounds wrong to me, but unfortunately at the moment we have to work in that way. We have to actively fight for young people to be included in the decisions that affect them. So that’s me in a nutshell.
In SpunOut.ie, we come across 6 different types of young people (yes I’m going to generalize, sure it wouldn’t be fair to talk about young people and not stereotype as those who go up to phoenix park and get mouldy drunk). We work with consumers, sharers, help seekers, personal change makers and social change makers. Yes, you’re right, that’s 5, who’s the sixth? The sixth are the invisible group, the one’s who don’t engage, who don’t have access to support, who haven’t become informed, who don’t care or sometimes aren’t cared for, they’re not voiceless, but they may not have found their voices. Categories sometimes help us to work with young people in different ways, but the key for us in SpunOut.ie is that we respect and value every young person equally. Today, I’m going to break down my words into a few parts. Firstly building leadership, secondly challenges young people face and thirdly, where to from here?
Building of leadership and good leadership starts with equality and trust.
The great leaders of the world are not always the ones best known and the best known will tell you that. Today and through the decades we have seen a distinct lack of real valuing of young people in general, which impacts on valuing of young leaders. The leaders we see respected today by society at large and who are young are the ones who find out how to make money. The money, power, leadership equation still has a hold.
But it’s in the social spaces that we need to move to a real valuing of young people as leaders. I certainly don’t feel that the political and social leaders reflect a young population. There are over 1 million Irish people are under the age of 25, that’s ¼ of our population. And they’re experts. You may initially say, how? Well they’re experts because they know better what it is to be a young person than the homogeneous, white male makeup of our political landscape.
Leadership is a formula, for me it’s person + environment + knowledge + role models = leaderships! It’s like baking a cake. The raw materials are there but you need to build resilience, foster belief and ensure that learning is supported. In Ireland we don’t particularly foster social leadership in our formal education processes. Look at the curricular options available to young people, comparatively, we don’t have choice that fosters social leadership. SPHE? Sure that isn’t even delivered in some schools. It shows us where the current focus is (money!). And for us to foster more young leaders and show them that we trust them we need to introduce real curricular reform but compliment it with existing non formal education where young people learn to lead civically. Maybe a JFK will emerge, but leadership isn’t always about being the front face.
And what about the examples that we offer young people back, the ones that they look up to. Role models are no longer confined to those in your immediate physical environment, or those who we read about through broadsheets, as it was during JFK’s time. There has been a proliferation of roles models, and this is both a positive and negative development. Role models are global, they’re online with YouTube channels, they’re the activist in Uganda fighting for LGBT rights to the activist in Gaza fighting for access to basic supplies. But worryingly, they are those who are created by the media for us to digest. Amongst recent examples include Jordan topping a poll of role models to young women in the UK. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this, but what type of leadership does that build?
Role models represent a reality to us that we take and internalize; body image, respect, energy, integrity and a variety of other aspects. With the proliferation and globalisation of media representations, there is now such a variety. But the role models presented back to us in mainstream media are questionable. In so far as, what values they encourage us to hold.
CHALLENGES YOUNG PEOPLE FACE
For me, the challenges that young people are presented with are a product of society. Naturally young people go through changes in their lives, evolve and grow. What has changed through time is how we respond and value these changes. Legislation, media, recognition of rights, makeup of support services and so on, all impact.
I could stand here and speak about emigration, mental health, alcohol, lack of information….all of which are issues that right now young people are facing down. But for me the underlying challenge is how we really value young people in society, as beings and not becomes. It permeates through every one of the issues I mentioned.
I think that we (I use the royal we reference) often don’t see the value of young people until they are not young anymore. If we actually realised that investment in young people yields returns to society (that’s the capitalist version of it), we’d be winning.
So what would valuing young people, a real valuing, placing their experience, needs and opinions at the fore of decision making (with young people included in that decision making) look like for the issues I’ve mentioned:
- Emigration: ensuring that formal and informal education is youth and market focused, of the best quality and relevant, where real skills are learnt. A Youth Guarantee that reflects needs, provides work, not just payments and focuses on young people’s wellbeing. We should want our young people to be able to remain her
- Mental Health: by following how young people best communicate, design interventions and resources that are user focused, using the Headstrong model in developing centers that have young peoples direct input. And improving the support we offer young people in the online and digital space.
- Alcohol: Working with young people to gain a greater understanding of their take on alcohol. Working to combat alcohol’s input into childhood through sponsorship and branding. But focusing on how we represent young people in the media in relation to alcohol
- Information: A colleague of mine coined a phrase recently, “arm young people with facts, not fear”. We can value young people here by ensuring they have access to the best quality information about life, that we’re not shying away from issues we may be uncomfortable with, like sex. Valuing that young people can make autonomous decisions.
Valuing young people, trusting them, can help to overcome the challenges that society sets.
WHERE TO FROM HERE
When asked to attend this event, we were all presented with a question: “Is there more that can be done to make young people leaders in their own right?” Simple answer, yes.
But there’s the question before that, are young people leaders? Yes they are. I’m working with a group of young journalists at the moment. Covering the most interesting of topics, the EU presidency in Ireland. Over the last number of weeks we’ve done some work in relation to reflection. What they’re finding is that the support they’re receiving from each other and the leadership young people around them are showing is most valued.
Young people are already leaders amongst themselves, their peer groups. What’s missing is the greater societal value of that leadership. The opportunities, the access, the respect.
All too often I hear from young people “3+ experience needed”, “I have no say on what is affecting me or what placement I’m sent on”, “I really don’t feel what I say is taken on board”. We don’t value what young people bring to the table, that’s 1 million young people by the way. They bring energy, experience, knowledge, passion and vibrancy. But when we look at society over all, those qualities are lacking from social leadership positions because young people aren’t being given the opportunities to be there.
There is some potential on the horizon with a referendum due on the reduction of the voting age, which could be a catalyst to sparking this conversation further. But with worrying voter turnout and political apathy and the ridiculousness of those of who the referendum would affect not being able to vote, will it change anything?
The change needs to come in a number of ways:
- Political and social reform opening up opportunities to grow the natural leadership present amongst young people.
- Improved access to information from an early age on all things young person related in a medium that fits with them
- Supportive services and interventions, being at an early age that include young people in their development.
- The mainstream media taking on responsibility to report on positive youth related issues and value positive role models
- The biggest change is societal, that we no longer see young people as becoming but beings in their own right
Young leaders are there, we need to trust them. They are not passive, so to the young people in the audience, I may have spoken about what us in the older generation need to do but as Michael D says: “Be the arrow in everything, not the target”.