Rodin Hands
Hands from a Rodin Sculpture, Musée Rodin, Paris, Photo P.Smyth (c)

I’ve just returned from a week in Paris – partly to initiative a new international project, but also to participate in a special UNESCO event (organised by the International Institute for Educational Planning)  to encourage governments around the world to engage young people in designing education systems.

More on the international project later – but I wanted to reflect on the Plan With Youth event – and in particular the participation of two of our WIMPS Crew members, Robert Murtagh and Shauneen Lavery – both 17 years old and from Belfast.   We were invited to participate by Ireland’s two UNESCO Professors – Alan Smith (UUC) and Pat Dolan (NUIG) – and joined Irish youth organisation Foróige as part of the delegation.

I think there are three reasons why it was great for us to participate in the event.  Firstly – it was a great opportunity to showcase the work of Public Achievement, and particularly our WIMPS (Where Is My Public Servant?) project; secondly it was an opportunity to influence the agenda of a significant international organisation – and potentially the work of international agencies and governments around the world.  Thirdly – it was a tremendous opportunity for Robert and Shauneen to present, and to meet people from all over the world, including Government Ministers, major donors and leading academics.

Showcasing WIMPS
In terms of the exposure of WIMPS and our “Civic Youth Work” model – we were able to offer an alternative to some of the other models around the world.  There were 40 or so young people at the event from around the world.  Most were participants in structures such as national ‘Youth Councils’ or the global ‘World Assembly of Youth’ (WAY).  They were generally older than Robert and Shauneen – mostly in their early 20’s.  My impression is that many of these young people are interested in building a career with some of the international organisations and institutions that were present at the event.  They are comfortable with the large-scale events, and used to dealing with international policy and the language of the United Nations and its institutions.

Shauneen and Robert
Shauneen and Robert participating in the “Plan With Youth” seminar at UNESCO

I have no doubt that such groups offer the young adults involved great opportunities – which will undoubtedly help shape the future of those involved, and hopefully inject the perspectives of young people into international decision making.  However, what is less clear to me is how these organisations represent the views of young people from tough social realities – or how these bodies consult and engage with wider groups of young people.  I also worry that the career aspirations of these articulate young people may inhibit them from rocking the boat at such events.  This can create the impression of young people being involved in decision making – but without young people being able – or willing – to fundamentally change the direction of the ‘adult’ institutions.  At its worst, this could boil down to the young people being compliant and the international agencies ticking a box to say that they have consulted young people.

These models depend on the ability of young people to participate in adult agendas – without demanding very much from the adults or their institutions – or giving young people the chance to shape and change those institutions.  WIMPS (and the wider work of Public Achievement) is based on a different premise.  Our model encourages a co-creative approach – where young people learn to work with and influence adults and their institutions – but where adults also learn how to listen to and engage young people – and invite young people to challenge their assumptions and ideas.

Influencing the Agenda
As part of their participation in the event, Robert and Shauneen gave a short presentation on the work of WIMPS – and the impact the project has had on their lives.  They did a great job and made a strong impression on those at the event.  I received dozens of compliments on their input, their courage and their spirit.  Their input gave an immediate insight for those present (and watching on line) of the potency of the WIMPS model and its impact on their lives.

Large – and particularly global organisations – are difficult to influence and change.  Like huge sea-going oil tankers, their direction changes slowly over long periods of time.  It is too early to say whether our input will in any way shape the future of UNESCO, the IIEP or any of the other huge organisations and governments present.  However we sowed a seed into the consciousness of many of the individuals present – and at the very least demonstrated that there other models of engaging youth in planning the systems that shape their lives.

Of course one of the reasons why don’t have better participation models is the issue of resources.  Creating and sustaining the kind of infrastructure we are building through the WIMPS project takes resources.  It requires expert staff, good training and a network of good volunteer coaches who have to be well supported and mentored.  For me the issue of resources is inextricably linked to political will.  Indeed the amount of money available for participative structures and the power that young people have over how those resources are applied are key indicators of the seriousness of the intent of those supporting such practice.

Robert and Shauneen

Interviewing Pat
Shauneen and Robert interview UNESCO Professor, Pat Dolan, NUIG

My personal highlight of the visit was watching Robert and Shauneen give their presentation to the assembled audience.  We had spent much of the evening before preparing their input with them.  Robert has great confidence and is a natural communicator.  However he also knew that this presentation was a big deal – and he rehearsed and rehearsed to get his presentation right.  For Shauneen – this was her first ever public presentation – and what an audience to deliver it too!  She had made a conscious decision in applying to go on the trip – to push herself beyond a slightly introverted background role in WIMPS to taking a more public stance.  In her presentation she talked about her nervousness – and this really helped the audience to realise what a significant step she was taking.  She also talked with real passion about her personal project to understand why there are so few women in politics.  I am immensely proud of both of them – but also of our team and our model which enables us to make a contribution at this level.  I am very much looking forward to further developing and sharing this model over the months and years ahead.

New Era of Youth?
I am convinced that we are now living in a new era of youth.  In due course I believe that this decade will be as significant as the 1960’s in terms of the capacity of young people to shape the future.  The Arab Spring and huge youth populations in the Middle East and Africa – alongside the significant discontent amongst young Europeans at they bear the brunt of the collapse of the global economy – mean that there is huge frustration and anger amongst young people.  Negative language around young people pervades – even the Guardian is referring to the ‘Lost Generation’.  However – another lens can be used which sees this population in terms of opportunity – to build and rethink our economies, to innovate and to evolve our democracies to new levels of citizen engagement.  How this decade is remembered will depend largely on how we react now, and how we seek to engage young people in the task of shaping our collective future.  In this sense, the UNESCO event could prove to be hugely important.  Only time will tell.

For two great young citizens of Belfast – it was the experience of a lifetime – though I am quite sure that both of them will achieve many other great things in the years ahead.

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