Collective impact: Children and young people as partners in social change projects

Children and youth participation is central to achieving sustainable development. However, there are several factors to consider for engaging young people in social change projects, especially in countries vulnerable to violence. We spoke to Saji Prelis, Director, Children and Youth Programmes at Search for Common Ground (SFCG) on what some of these factors for youth participation should entail.

Saji grew up during the war in Sri Lanka, and quickly realised that change happens when a silent majority of people understand their power and choose to use it constructively. Working with private organisations, the military and other humanitarian agencies, he was able to co-create the largest coalition of humanitarian security organisations working to coordinate operations around the Tsunami in Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

These efforts led him to become the co-chair of the Global Coalition on Youth, Peace and Security. Saji believes that young people, multilateral organisations and civil society speak different languages when it comes to policies and implementation for youth, and that there is a need to address these differences to promote collective impact where young people are seen as agents and partners capable of driving true change. Below, he shares four key factors to achieve collective impact with children and young people.

Build trust

Building trust while engaging with children and youth may sound obvious, but Saji believes that many organisations overlook this step. Often, gangs appeal to young people by providing mentorship, training and skills. Civil society may have quite different aims, but Saji suggests that we might learn something from these gangs in their approach to working with young people.

For too long, adults have defined youth’s issues for them, without effectively consulting on what they need and how they require support. Saji suggests that both adults and young people ultimately want the same thing; however, there is a communication gap. A ‘Listening and Learning’ approach adopted by SFCG is helping to bridge this communication gap between young people and adults in organisations. By allowing young people and children to engage in regular daily activities, we can create a ‘participatory inquiry’ that allows us to listen to their conversations with peers and learn about their problems.

“We have to be humble enough to learn, even from our troublemakers.”

Develop realistic expectations

Saji argues that expecting miracles within short project cycles will only cause more harm for both the young people and the project implementers. There already exist trust issues between young people and adults, and repairing that broken trust will take time.

Cultural norms that have compelled young people to feign respect for adults often shift in violent contexts, particularly if young people are armed. In these contexts, the nature of programming and the tone of our conversations with children and young people need to adjust to fit local realities.

Exclusion is violence

Saji argues that we enable a form of violence when we exclude children and young people from participation and decision-making about their lives. Addressing this exclusion should therefore form an integral part of project design processes.

Returning again to violent groups and gangs, these actors are often much better at treating young people as key partners and giving them  confidence. Perhaps civil society can genuinely seek to include young people in conversations moving forward.

‘If we are trying to transform violence, we need to address the violence of exclusion”

Support local organisations

Saji emphasised the importance of supporting local organisations. He shared evidence from SFCG’s work with local organisations in Colombia, Sri Lanka and Nigeria. According to him, when organisations working to prevent violence-related issues take on the roles of ‘enabler’ and ‘facilitator’ by being deliberate about being people and groups across dividing lines together to identify a shared issue to address collectively, they slowly change the mindsets of all stakeholders involved, and then feelings of exclusion slowly fade out.

However, unwieldy requirements for funding and evaluation prevent this process from occuring in large organisations. Saji drew on another important point relating to working with local groups who make a difference within the fringes of the society: for him, these groups challenge the status quo and seek innovative ways to make change with children and young people. They believe in collaboration and transformation and should be supported.

A final point which Saji mentioned is the often-ignored mental health of young people and the people who work with them. Mental health problems contribute to suicide rates among children and young people in both rich and poor countries; intervening civil society actors should recognize and react to deep challenges of mental health. When we work to repair broken trust with young people by speaking their language, we avert the violence of exclusion, instead adopting realistic expectations of what impact should look like and how long it will take. Taking this approach will help promote collective impact where children and young people are regarded as visible agents capable of partnering with organisations to drive social change.