True Dialogue is the Key to Youth Engagement

Good (old) news
Youth are interested in politics! You know it and the YouthUP and European-wide Sharing Perspectives Foundation research prove it. But if young people are interested in politics, why do they often refrain from political action? Being young myself and writing this blog about ‘the lack’ of youth engagement made me reflect on the question: at which moments in my young life did I personally felt (politically) engaged?

Speak WITH us, not TO us
I participated in several encounters between youth and politicians and professionals. These meetings were organized to offer young people a voice to engage in politics. But does engagement work like this? Did I and my fellow ‘youngsters’ who participated in the meetings feel engaged? In reality, most of these meetings did not really offer us the opportunity to speak out and let our views be heard. Generally these well intended encounters were characterized by unidirectional communication; the politician spoke to us instead of with us. A style of communication that –not surprisingly– does not leave us, as young people, with the feeling that our voice is of any political difference, which in turn does not prompt further action. In my opinion, it is of utter importance that politicians engage in a true two-way dialogue with young people to stimulate their involvement in politics.

The importance of a two-way dialogue was emphasized during this January’s Sharing Perspectives summit in Brussels. During this summit 15 students from the EUROPE ON THE EDGE virtual exchange programme discussed with each other, researchers, policymakers and politicians what is needed for young people to actively engage. A frequently cited explanation for youth to refrain from politics is that they don’t have the feeling that their engagement makes a real difference. The political arena somehow creates the impression of being unchangeable and inaccessible. But why is this the impression felt by young people?

The importance of interaction
We visited a variety of European politicians and professionals. During these meetings we listened to presentations and had discussions with the speakers about their work and their vision for engaging youth. During the summit we experienced that every speaker has his or her own way of interacting with youth. Some of the meetings were quite formal: students were seated in a room that looked like a classroom and were lectured by the speaker about his or her field of knowledge. In contrast, other meetings were more dynamic, and together we sat around a table and had a lively discussion.

The effects on us that the different type of meetings created were striking! We started off enthusiastic at the ‘lecture kind of meetings’, but during the session their engagement slowly tempered as they were pushed into the role of passive listeners. Meanwhile the more ‘dynamic’ meetings created an atmosphere where we were even more passionate at the end of the meeting than at the beginning!

Engaging youth
When evaluating the different kinds of meetings we attended, it became clear that ‘engaging’ youth actually comes down to a very basic aspect of communication: inviting a two-way dialogue. This is done not by speaking to us but by speaking with us offering us the opportunity to ask questions and by truly listening to what we have to say. In such meetings we eagerly partook in the discussions and the speaker did not just teach us something about politics but also learnt from what we had to say.

The feeling of having an equal share in the dialogue contributed significantly to young people’s confidence in being able to contribute in a meaningful manner. And in the end, this feeling of being able to make a difference is essential for youth engagement!

One of the students explained the importance of being listened to by stating:

“Lots of the politicians and professionals say that youth engagement is very important, but when it comes down to it they often think it’s enough to meet young people and talk to them… Personally I get an engaged feeling when someone is also interested in my opinion. Therefore the meetings with speakers who also asked questions to us, were most engaging and inspiring to me. Those moments I felt really listened to.”

So to politicians and professionals who think that youth engagement is important, when you are offered the chance to have an encounter with a group of young people, keep in mind that engagement is a two-way street and listening to youth is equally important as to speaking to them.