Mistakes I’ve Made #5

4 March 2011 — Leave a comment

Photo: 'EXECUTED BY MISTAKE' by the_moog on Flickr

Everyone makes mistakes, and when it comes to my youth work I’ve made some clangers! Hopefully by reproducing them here, it may give you a bit of a laugh and help you to avoid doing the same thing.

Mistake #5: Pathetic Participation
Everyone in youth work circles knows that participation is an important thing. It’s one of those buzz words that gets thrown about; managers are desperate to get young people to do it and funders always want to see evidence of it. Participation is all about allowing young people (and others who have a vested interest in the group/activity/organisation) to make decisions about the direction of the group. There are many ways of doing this including electing members, having steering groups, holding special events, etc. But the best way is simply to include opportunities for decision-making in every aspect of the organisation. In reality though it probably doesn’t happen as much as it should. From experience, I know how badly it can be done…

A great (or terrible) example is when we decided to change to logo for one of our church youth groups a few years back. I had the brilliant idea that the young people should design what the logo should be like and so I launched a competition. So far, so good. The problem was that as the entries started to trickle in, I didn’t really like any of them that much. Rather than working with a designer to bring some of the hand-drawn scribbles to life, or allowing the young people to vote for their favourites, I simply made up my own logo loosely based on some of their ideas.

When it came to announcing the winner a number of weeks later, I proudly stood on the stage and explained that we had a number of winners as each of them had created some element that had been incorporated into the final design. I think I had convinced myself at that point! Each of those individuals won a prize, but when I unveiled the new design, there was a great deal of murmuring and moaning while the group struggled to find any traces of their ideas in the logo. I even remember shouts of “it’s a fix!” being aimed at me!

Thankfully, the group were very good natured and very forgiving (although they did tease me for a while). We kept the logo and moved on. Looking back now, I am extremely embarrassed about how tokenistic and shallow that participation was. I have since seen some amazing projects that allow young people real opportunities of changing and leading the organisation including places that have 18 year olds as the chairperson!

So what about you? Have YOU ever included young people in decision-making successfully or have you simply done your own thing like I did? Share with us in the comments!


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I am a qualified youth worker, writer and consultant based in Littlehampton, UK. I've worked in the voluntary youth sector for over 12 years, am married to Kirsty and we have two daughters named Hope and Eloise. Check out 'Journeying Together: Growing Youth Work and Youth Workers in Local Communities' and read my opening chapter.

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