Are We Really Listening and Learning from Young People?
By Carla Trippe
We often hear about youth-centered programs and, if you’re like me, you probably picture a group of Western adults sitting in a room trying to imagine what the realities are like for youth in an impoverished and violent environment. Needless to say, there is an undeniable gap in life experiences between these two worlds.
This gives you an idea of the challenge that practitioners face when designing interventions serving youth. To bridge this gap, innumerable surveys, focus groups, and other conversations occur all over the world. What if we changed all that? What if we just put the reigns in the hands of young people?
Would these youths’ ideas about intervention match those of the “experts?” As a young person myself, I am sensitive to doubts that I’m not experienced enough, that I don’t have enough wisdom accumulated through trial and error. But isn’t this how innovative breakthroughs come about? One thing is certain – it is a risk.
Saji Prelis, Director of Children & Youth Programs, and Cari McCachren, a dedicated intern, began brainstorming about what it would look like if youth were in charge of designing and implementing a study – a study on youth perceptions. Youth studying youth. An impressive team of funding organizations, advisors, and youth were mobilized to test the following theories:
- If the young people of Liberia can liaise with the government and other authorities, then the government is more likely to respond to youth needs.
- Furthermore, if the government is more responsive to youth needs, then there is an increase in the civic engagement of youth and a reduction in armed violence.
The outcome was a youth-led, adult-supported, and technically-advised comprehensive study aiming to assess youth engagement in Liberia while also examining the extent to which the priorities of international donors are aligned with those of young people.
The study became a collaborative effort between Search for Common Ground, American University, the Federation of Liberian Youth (FLY), the Ministry of Youth and Sports in Liberia, and Liberia Institute of Statistics and Geo Information Services (LISGIS).
Working outside the traditional bounds of academic and practical research, this project showcases the ability of youth to assume leadership roles and affect positive societal change when offered the appropriate platform.
The resulting report is an outlet for amplifying the voices of young people. The emphasis of this report is to provide an accurate representation of Liberian youth’s feelings, perceptions, and priorities, frequently in their own words, without disregarding the perceptions of Liberian adults and the international community. The report is able to provide a framework to more effectively address youth concerns and tools to enable youth to transform the way they interact with policy makers and donors; thus offering an immensely valuable resource for practitioners who design youth peacebuilding interventions and beyond.
A digital version of the Youth to Youth: Measuring Youth Engagement report can be found here.
The report was delivered before the Liberian Ministry of Youth and Sports on July 17, 2012 by several young Liberians from the research team. They were a little nervous, but mostly their faces were beaming with pride. Over 50 people attended from various government ministries, UN institutions, and civil society organizations.
The Youth and Sports Minister noted how the report lays the groundwork for collaboration between the government and civil society in seeking to understand the views of young people from throughout the country, especially addressing the large gaps between perspectives from Monrovia and those from rural areas. Experiences and access to social services differ between them, yet these factors have frequently gone undocumented.
The Minister also highlighted the need to work through the history of mistrust among young people and adults in Liberia and create opportunities for inter-generational engagement to strengthen peaceful processes. Most importantly, the Minister, along with several of the audience members, pointed out the need to further support more youth-led initiatives like this. The discussion established an enabling environment for policy makers and youth to engage in substantive dialogue.
The young people leading this research project certainly stepped up to the plate and demonstrated the capacity to make their voices heard. They have plans to move forward with youth-led monitoring and evaluation teams across Liberia, applying the valuable skills they learned with support from SFCG and American University. The aim of these monitoring and evaluation teams will be to reduce corruption and increase the impact of aid on intended programs.
This initiative has left the Liberian youth feeling more empowered, has elicited the respect of experts in the field, and has affirmed what a valuable resource young people can be to their country and the world. Claud, one of the 24 Liberian research partners for this project, told us afterward that, through this effort at “Listening and Learning,” he “learned to see youth differently now, as compared to weeks back before this project started.” It has been a truly remarkable experience to watch this process unfold and I look forward to where this innovative approach leads.
Carla Trippe received her M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution from American University’s School of International Service. She is currently an International Intern with Search for Common Ground in Liberia.