Trust and connections the key to youth involvement

Eddy Davis–Rae had worked at the Wellington Boys’ and Girls’ Institute (BGI) for several years, when he became aware of two common trends in youth engagement.

Eddy and the YPAR team
Eddy and the YPAR team
First, that the youth he worked with deeply wanted to contribute to decision making around issues that affected them, and second, that there were several significant barriers in place preventing these youth from successfully getting involved. To undertake this research, Mr Davis-Rae joined the University to complete a Master of Education.

“During my work I saw the hunger these young people had to contribute to decision-making,” Mr Davis–Rae says. “I wanted to do further research to discover how to reduce the barriers they faced and allow them to successfully contribute to decision making around issues that impact them.”

“I want to see new processes designed that are child- and youth-centric and that move organisations closer to youth spaces, rather than expecting young people to engage with decision makers solely on the decisions-makers' terms.”

During his Master’s degree, Mr Davis–Rae conducted a research project with a group of young people aged 14 to 20 from the BGI. He met with the group once a week over the course of 18 months to help them plan, design, and implement a research project around youth mental wellbeing.

Mr Davis-Rae explains the group came up with the focus on mental wellbeing by conducting a process of community mapping, analysing the issues that impact youth in the Wellington community. The group then conducted a survey of Wellington youth and identified several specific issues affecting mental wellbeing for youth, including poor access to health services, lack of events and programmes, lack of social spaces, insufficient support in schools and education institutions, and lack of youth and Māori voice in coming up with solutions for these issues.

Alongside Mr Davis–Rae and other BGI youth workers, the group wrote a report about their findings and launched it at Parliament on14October 2020 to over 200 people, including youth development professionals and fellow young people, as well as the Mayor and City Councillors, the Children’s Commissioner, and several Members of Parliament.

The project used a framework called Youth-led Participatory Action Research (YPAR), an approach to youth and community development based in social–justice principles where young people are trained to conduct their own research to improve their lives, communities, and the institutions designed to serve them.

“YPAR seemed to be a perfect way to involve young people in the process and ensure that their voices were heard,” Mr Davis–Rae says. “I wanted this to be a youth development project as well as a research project because of my mahi at BGI.

“I also wanted to utilise a research framework that gave the young people credit for their contribution to the research. It was their deep knowledge of what it means to be young in Wellington that I was drawing on, and YPAR enables that contribution to be recognised and valued.”

Since completing their research, the group have been involved in several civic projects, including contributing directly to Wellington City Council’s child and youth strategy, and presenting their findings to youth workers at the National Youth Development Conference.

While assisting the group in designing their project, Mr Davis–Rae also conducted a case study from his Master’s in Education analysing how exactly youth voices could be amplified through a YPAR project.

His major discovery was that trust and connections were one of the most successful ways to foster youth engagement.

“Trusting relationships between youth research participants helped to sustain their involvement in the research, and helped them express their perspectives successfully,” Mr Davis–Rae says. "The young people involved in the project spoke specifically about how they felt more comfortable sharing their authentic views because of the trusting relationships they were able to build.”

There were several ways the adults involved in the project were able to successfully foster these relationships, Mr Davis–Rae says. Those included providing strong and clear feedback on how the contributions of young people had shaped change, working to equalise the power dynamics between adults and youth, and clearly showing how they valued youth voices.

Mr Davis–Rae believes this approach would increase the authenticity of youth participation and would like to see it used more widely.

He also wants to see the role of the adult or the youth worker in these processes valued.

“Their ability to build relationships facilitates authentic engagement and perspective sharing.

“Ultimately I hope this moves us towards young people having greater opportunities to share their voice and have it heard by people making decisions about them.”