Politics and youth participation in the digital age – interview with @PhilippaCollin, pt.1

On the blog this week, I’m joined by Dr. Philippa Collin, a Senior Research Fellow at Western Sydney University’s Institute for Culture and Society. Philippa is a social scientist who previously worked at www.reachout.com, the world’s first online suicide prevention initiative aimed at young people. She researches the role of digital technology and media in young people’s lives, including a focus on political participation, identity, and exclusion.

Portrait of Dr. Philippa Collin
Dr. Philippa Collin

I hear a lot of concern from public institutions about the notion of “making better citizens” right now. Political upsets, fear of ‘fake news’: the powers that be are concerned about the nature of citizenship in the digital age.

Institutions could adapt their structures to meet the needs of people they perceive as “disengaged”. Or, instead of the institution adapting, they might try to help people develop the skills & capacity to engage with existing structures.

What pitfalls are there for organisations seeking to engage the (apparently) disengaged?

I come from a community of scholars who have actively argued against the normative framing of ‘politics’ and ‘participation’. For example ‘politics is about what happens in parliament’ and the ‘good’ forms of participation are to vote, join a party or get involved with set activities or processes – usually all designed by adults!

There are lots of problems with these accounts, but one I find especially problematic is the use of the term ‘disengaged’ to describe people who are not involved. Because the suggestions is that this is a bad thing or an indication that people are ignorant or apathetic.

Actually, when we research how young people conceptualise and practice ‘politics’ we find they often have very specific ideas about what matters and how they prefer to take action or communicate their views on particular issues. The real issue from my point of view is that young people’s politics are usually dismissed by political elites.

I really want to do away with terms like ‘disengaged’ or ‘hard to reach’ – they are so disempowering. Also, there are fabulous academics in Australia – like Kathy Edwards, Nathan Manning, and Anita Harris – who’ve shown that some young people who are labelled ‘disengaged’ or ‘hard to reach’ are just doing politics differently.

Disengagement can be the result of alienation, as well as really significant struggles in life like getting a decent job, paying rent, dealing with racism and exclusion which are embedded in mainstream discourses about what it should mean to be a young citizen. So for the future of democracy we need to take seriously the ‘politics of disengagement’. But I’m also interested in where the counter-narratives emerge.

So I prefer to surface and learn from what young people are already doing and then advocate for responses that enable, rather than dismiss, their politics and agency. I find that terms like ‘active citizenship’ suggests anyone who is not doing the ‘right things’ lack knowledge, civic capacities, civic values – or worse! But what we find time and time again is that young people don’t usually lack for those things. But adult-led institutions rarely speak to them on their own terms.

In my research I look to identify and think through the spaces where new possibilities emerge. This can include direct contestation – like protests of the kind we’ve seen recently led by students in the USA calling for gun-law reform. But mainly I’m interested in new forms of collaboration and cooperation in government and community agenda-setting and decision-making.

My research is mainly ‘engaged’ – like participatory action research, where I work with young people, professionals, policy-makers, technologists,  parents and community members to define the questions, the methods and co-create data and do analysis to come up with new insights and responses to entrenched problems that affect the health and wellbeing of young people and their communities. In recent years I’ve moved felt frustrated by the way the discourse of ‘youth participation’ emphasises what young people do/don’t do – and I’ve started working more on what ‘intergenerational engagement’ and collaboration is because I think we need to find new ways of talking, listening, creating and analysing things together.

So for instance, in the last year I’ve been asked to collaborate on two projects aiming to improve the work and settlement journeys of recently arrived and refugee young people in Greater Western Sydney. Our emphasis has been on co-researching and co-designing services that will work for these young people – the very people whose voices are least likely to be heard by governments and bureaucrats who make policies and programs that affect them. So we’ve really pushed the need for a collaborative approach. So services have engaged with staff, parents and community leaders and young people in order that they hear from one another and not only surface the challenges, but focus on how they can be addressed. This can’t be achieved through only a participation or advocacy or policy-led progress.

Sometimes efforts to ‘engage’ are driven by an organisation and sometimes they’re driven by people and communities – Lyn Carson describes these as ‘invited’ and ‘insisted’ spaces. I think an engaged approach is forged through the interaction between those who invite and those who insist. They can all be productive, but we also need to assess them, critically and always with the intention of assessing how power operates and what it produces.

Do libraries have a part to play in all this?

I think the role of libraries as ‘public spaces’ is very interesting. Libraries are generally committed to principles of inclusivity and diversity – if we start to see libraries as the site of the production of knowledge, as well as access to knowledge, we could see a total transformation. The whole makerspace movement in public libraries is one example. But it can go so much further than that!

My colleague Teresa Swist is currently looking at how libraries might become hubs for open, intergenerational digital platforms for the creation, curation and use of data – specifically health data. The part that I’m really excited about it the fact that this requires that we, collectively, as communities, recast the terms on which we can ‘think’ (for example) children, data and engagement.

Teresa and I have been thinking about the way participatory or co-design can promote the production of ‘publics’ – a collection of people united by common interests and concerns – as opposed to ‘products’ which I think is what the current hype about co-design is all about.

Attendees at Western Sydney's Young and Resilient Living Lab
Western Sydney’s Young and Resilient Living Lab

How could online and networked technologies shift the boundaries between our everyday lives and formal participation in existing political processes?

The new citizenship norms we see in late-modern democracies are more participatory than ever before. People want to be involved – but their forms of involvement are incredibly diverse. They range from ranting in the comments sections of online publishers to starting up a hashtag campaign or a Facebook group.

This is partly because of the way digital technologies have recalibrated time and space. They amplify and multiple the ‘routines’ of the everyday and so we also experience a multiplication of both the strategies that order our everyday as well as the opportunities to ‘tactically’ subvert these. We might feel that the only way to direct our elected representatives is at the ballot box – on the other hand, we can direct message a celebrity on a social issue or start a campaign of our own.

The implications for formal political processes are huge and to my mind it’s like an epic tug-of-war. So many of our political cultures, processes, and institutions remain in denial about the ways in which digital technologies open up – and reinforce – specific ways of acting and relating as democratic citizens. On the one hand new technologies enable ‘networked’ communication of ‘many-to-many’ conversations. But we still see most politicians using social media to broadcast their views at citizens.

There are plenty of sensational examples of how ‘networked citizens’ and other material ‘things’ (such as code!) challenge formal political processes. But on a more mundane level, there are plenty of small, tactical shifts which I think are the ‘sink holes’ of democratic disruption.

If you look at new political organisations, they have a different approach to ‘politics’, participation, membership, social change. Australian youth-led activist organisations like Australian Youth Climate Coalition and Oaktree are really interesting examples of this.

Having interviewed some of their leaders, I know they are issues-based, highly strategic and recognise that formal institutions of government matter. Their commitment to one key issue (like climate change) is connected to a broader world view or grand philosophical narrative. But the political parties haven’t caught up with that – they sway in the wind of opinion polls without realising the participants are actually calling for a new brand of politics and a more participatory form of democracy. It’s not enough to have a twitter account or host online Q&A sessions. Political parties and politicians need to have conversations with people – not simply ‘manage’ online communications.

And the reason this actually matters is that young people are creating and joining new activist organisations and seeing these as the pathways to political careers – not political parties. This is what I mean by the ‘sink hole’. We think all the action is happening in the street where it has always been – but actually, it’s the rhizome and convergences of these flows in underground rivers that at some point, perhaps unexpectedly, will really change the (political) landscape.

At a ‘grass roots’ level – whether that’s through communities, local government, NGOs, social enterprises or even (dare I say it!) research initiatives, there are many branches to this rhizome. There is a lot of change afoot.

It’s not all about ‘digital platforms’ for social good. But where there are technology-based strategies for improving what we can know and more collaboration in making sense of experience and data combined with decision making, we see positive changes on problems that we really have to deal with.

But the main problem as I see it, is that in a country like Australia, those local-level or issue based strategies haven’t translated into democratic innovations at the federal level – and certainly not ones that connect with the most disadvantaged and marginalised in our communities.

Is it difficult for institutions to recognise their own need to transform? How can institutions which choose or are directed to pursue youth engagement best approach this, and take seriously their own need to change? 

In my experience, organisations are full of people who see the limits of current practice and want new, more effective ways of doing things. The problem is that we don’t always have leadership that will create spaces – or perhaps mandate a course for alternative approaches.

In a recent book chapter with Girish Lala and Leo Fieldgrass, we look at two case studies of real shifts in approaches to engaging with young people in policy processes.

In one there was a commitment from within government to be open to a different way of working, to resource young people to lead the process and set the terms of discussion. Moreover, this department committed to taking on board the views and recommendations young people put forward.

In the other case study, young people were resourced to co-design alternative models for engagement with young people for government to consider –  but with no sponsorship from within government itself. This project has had practically no traction whatsoever at a federal level. And this I think is the real challenge.

There are loads of organisations, frameworks, process tools to guide participatory processes. Most importantly young people want to be involved. But we need spaces and commitments to the practical application – the influence – of young people’s views in decision-making and tangible outputs. Which is why, at Western Sydney University, we’ve established the Intergener8 Living Lab . It’s a work in progress and we’re right at the beginning of the journey – but our work is about doing co-reserach and co-design with young people at scale.

I’m also really inspired by the codesign labs that are being created within local governments – like the Alberta Colab and the Auckland Codesign Lab – not because they are the ‘silver bullet’ but because they offer the possibility of a different way of doing things. They’re experimental, they are interdisciplinary and usually work on problems across government and community – rather than in one siloed area of policy. Importantly they emphasise diversity and participation and the testing and trialling of new responses to old problems. A kind of ‘let’s all fail-forward together approach’.

These are the tenets on which I think more productive ways of engaging with young people for research, policy, service and product design become possible.

What’s your hope for the future of how Australia and other nations treat their young people? And what dangers do you think we need to be mindful of?

Most young people are more connected, more educated and have more expectations and capabilities to participate and shape the kind of society they want to live in than previous generations. But at the same time, they face real pressures and challenges – that are largely produced by structural forces outside of their control! As a result, young people in Australia are more anxious and depressed, more indebted and a larger proportion than ever before have really serious health issues like obesity and struggle with more insecure work, housing and social isolation than ever before. And these challenges can’t be met by asking ‘individuals’ to make ‘better decisions’. We simply cannot charge young people with sole responsibility for addressing the structural issues over which they have relatively little control.

I think our really big challenge as a society is not to focus on bandaid solutions – like more apps to help individual young people manage their sleep, or be mindful or reduce their time online. Rather, we need a coordinated, decisive pivot towards what Sir Michael Marmot has called the ‘causes of the causes’. And we need to see young people as are our allies in this. They know what the issues are and have lots of ideas about how we might respond – as communities and as a society.

Young people didn’t create and flock in droves to be a part of organisations like the Australian Youth Climate Coalition or Oaktree Foundation or the online youth mental health promotion service Reachout.com because they wanted to solve the problems of climate change, poverty or youth suicide as individuals. Rather, they came because they wanted to be part of broader efforts to address problems where they see governments failing to do so.

And that’s what we’ve got to engage with! The interest, energy and creativity young people are already demonstrating. We need better ways of working together to reframe the issues and come up with creative and coordinated ways of doing things. And we need to do this at the beginning. Not when we think we’ve come up with the ‘solution’ and want them to tell us we got it right.

Join us next time for more with Philippa, including discussions of career moves between community non-profits and academia, plus a deeper dive into youth engagement in Australia.

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