Empowerment with young people. Critical look on power relations between adults and youngsters
Children and youngsters have a lot of power in terms of energy: they move a lot, they are active, they talk a lot and ask many questions, they have strong feelings and emotions, they are curious, they want to learn and do things. Children and youngsters are brimming with energy, that is their very nature. No one would deny that.
So, why do we have to talk about EmPOWERment of young people when they have such a powerful nature? Being young and having no power or energy to participate is actually a symptom of something that is not right. You can search for the reasons in youngsters themselves, but sooner or later you will recognize that in most of the cases it is not something about them that makes them unmotivated, bored, passive, frustrated or uninterested. The reasons for young people to lose their power mainly lie in the world that surrounds them, the world they live in, as well as in the relations they have with adults. In this world of adults, it is very often that they are not taken seriously or even taken into account.
Most of the times they have to adapt to rhythms, structures, values and norms of adults, which are often contrary to their needs or desires. In addition to this, there is a lack of space for children and youngsters where they can move freely. And last but not least, they are structurally excluded from decision-making processes from the very beginning. So, they learn very soon that adults have power OVER them and that in order to be recognized, they have to adapt to the rules of adults and fulfill their expectations (obey, be good, learn a lot, have good grades, eat well, be strong, be happy, etc.). In this kind of power relations youngsters have to subordinate their feelings, ideas, dreams and needs quite often, and that – as Janus Korczak observes – is “just boring”. The apathy of our youth, their lack of interest and also some violent attitudes are very likely the outcome of this kind of relations.
We think it is important to have these socio-cultural circumstances in mind when we talk about Empowerment of young people in Europe, because it makes the understanding of the position of youth in our society easier. A lot has already been done in order to give young people the voice and opportunities for action. But there is still a lot more to do, especially with youngsters that are affected by social exclusion because of their gender, origin, color, sexual orientation, social status or physical/psychological/mental constitution.
For us, the necessary step to make Youth Empowerment possible is to question and change the power relations between adults and young people. Youngsters should be able to communicate and liberate their needs, desires or ideas within a vivid relationship with adults. This is the fundamental point of Youth Empowerment work and it encloses a big potential for Empowerment of young people, and as we all grow, of adults.
Therefore, we propose that you create spaces where you can experience these vivid relationships that may change your world and where young people can recover their power and energy, where they can live and blossom, and where they are taken seriously. If these circumstances are granted, Empowerment is able to sprout in youngsters. The regained power will also be perceptible by the adults who accompany youngsters on their way.
By defining Empowerment in this broad and comprehensive way we would like to underline that we understand Empowerment as a process that occurs in people’s lives and at the same time, we see it as an outcome of professional interventions that encourage such measurable processes.
Empowerment is a very broad term that has no exact definition and is applied in different fields, such as psychology, education, international development or management. In the beginning of the project we realized very soon that every partner organisation had its own understanding of the meaning of Empowerment. So the first step was to share our approaches and find a short and concrete definition of Empowerment. After some negotiation and exchanging views we all agreed on the following definition of Empowerment that guided us during the project: Empowerment is the process of raising a person’s sense or belief in his/her ability to make decisions and to solve his/her own problems as well as the development of critical consciousness, either directly by those people, or through the help of empowered others. It also includes actively blocking attempts due to systemic obstacles to deny this process. In this transformation, people learn to give their experience a name and to speak in their own language; they understand their situation of powerlessness and systematic forces that oppress them. Their power expresses itself in a translation of this consciousness into action with others. The process of Empowerment focuses on effecting a stronger and active participation, which needs a voluntary commitment of the individual.
In our definition you can also find three dimensions of Empowerment: personal, relational and collective Empowerment. Every Empowerment method we tried out and tested under EYERP focuses on at least one of these three dimensions.
Some of the presented methods (e.g. Discussion rounds) in this book foster personal or individual Empowerment of youngsters by supporting the process of raising the person’s sense or belief in the ability to make decisions and to solve his or her own problems, as well as the development of critical consciousness. This individual dimension raises the sustainability of any Empowerment process, as it is an internal process that alters the perception of people and helps them take control of their life. As a result, young people are able to understand their situation of powerlessness and forces that systematically oppress them, as well as to learn to give their experience a name and to express it in their own language.
This is a very powerful transformation within youngsters that may influence their attitudes towards life and society in a very profound and long lasting way. The result is that young people start perceiving themselves as able and entitled to make decisions.
Other Empowerment Methods that we investigated during the research project and presented in this book (e.g. Human Library) especially work on the ability to negotiate and influence the nature of relations of young people. These skills are fundamental for interaction and the translation of the individual consciousness into action with others.
Collective Empowerment with the focus on “social entrepreneurship”
Empowerment on a collective level means to work together in order to achieve a greater impact and a stronger and active participation, which needs a voluntary commitment of the individual (e.g. Microproject financing). At this point it is “important to recognize, as well, that conscientization of individuals to act for change does not necessarily lead to progressive politics… Groups become empowered through collective action, but that action is enabled or constrained by the structures of power that they encounter. Thus, much closer attention must be paid to the broad political and economic structures, cultural assumptions and discourses, notions of human rights as well as laws and practices…”.
Trying to actively block these attempts to deny a process of Empowerment by working together is one way to confront the structural exclusion of youngsters from decision-making process.
But we can only talk of real participation or involvement of young people when children and young people are not only “heard”, but “take over a part of control from the adults and shape their own lives”. The approach of social entrepreneurship may be a concrete way to open up such new spaces of participation and collective empowerment for young people.