Politics and youth participation in the digital age – interview with @PhilippaCollin, pt.2

On the blog this week, I’m joined by Dr. Philippa Collin, a Senior Research Fellow at Western Sydney’s Institute for Culture and Society. Read Part One of this interview with Philippa on political, participation, youth engagement and the digital world here.

How does your role contribute to discussions around youth engagement – and activities which bring young people together with different institutions and organisations?

In the last few years I’ve been involved in large-scale, cross sector engaged research initiatives that bring together young people, industry, community, policy and academic partners to collaboratively identify, design and undertake research on a range of issues such as youth mental health, engagement, employment and online safety.

In this work I’ve been a strong advocate for participatory approaches and thinking about how to be inclusive of young people’s views – from agenda-setting about what gets researched and the terms of inquiry, through to translation and application of research findings. I hope I’ve had some influence!

My most recent project has involved collaborating with eight colleagues at WSU to run a Young and Resilient Living Lab Foundation Project. We brought together 100 participants over five workshops to co-create a community and an agenda for engaged research to inform technology-based strategies to promote the resilience of young people and their communities.

Fo us, resilience should be understood as the capacities to transform the conditions of social life – achieved through ongoing processes of individual and collective receptivity and responsiveness.

In our own work we take this seriously by aiming for engaged research that prioritises dialogue, responsiveness and action with young people and their communities. I’m not naïve to the limits and problems with this proposition – but I think it is a starting point for more critical work and experimentation and that’s what I try to achieve in my research practice.

Earlier this year we had an amazing Western Sydney University student do a rebrand for the initiative and now it’s known as the Intergener8 Living Lab !

How did you become involved with the field of youth engagement?

When I was doing my undergraduate studies in social science and international studies I spent twelve months at the Universidad de Concepcion, Chile.

At the time I was researching the role of NGOs and social movements in Chilean politics and became involved in a community initiative to support women and children escaping family violence – at the only refuge for women and kids in the whole country!

I was really impressed with the way the children and the women were actively involved in defining what programs and supports were offered – despite the meagre resources and funding available to them. It was a community development ethos and one that really saw those women and their kids as the experts on what services would help them be safe and start a new life. Not easy. The principles of inclusivity and participation really resonated with me. They made sense in an objective way, but also fit with my activist mindset.

When I came back, I was lucky to land a job with the pioneering Australian non-profit behind www.reachout.com, the world’s first online suicide prevention initiative aimed at young people.

Ironically, in my interview for the job of ‘youth participation officer’ at Reachout.com, I said I wasn’t particularly interested in the internet and I was never going to get a mobile phone. They said – PERFECT, we want someone who is more interested in the people than the technology. And I got the job! It was the start of my great love-affair with the question of young people’s politics, because questions of participation are ultimately not about services or products, they’re about citizenship. About having say in the world and being heard by those in power.  

Of course, I do now have a mobile, and I’m VERY interested in how we live in digital society. But I’m most interested in the social and cultural processes that shape digital life – not the other way around.

What made Reachout.com different and how did it shape your approach to youth engagement?

When the idea to use the internet to prevent youth suicide was first put forward by the founder, Jack Heath, most people baulked. The internet was seen as the Wild West and not many people were confident it could be used for good as well as evil – let alone on an issues like suicide!

So Jack teamed up with a ‘young person’ – the now outgoing CEO, Jonathan Nicholas – who basically said, ‘if you want to create a service online for young people then you have to ask them what they need, how it would work and make sure they can be involved.’ So they did. Way before the mantra of co-design had entered the mainstream policy and service lexicon, Reachout.com was working with young people in the development, delivery, promotion and evaluation of the service. And thousands of young people wanted to be a part of it.

What was the transition like from working in a non-profit organisation with a community mission to academia, and why did you make that change?

I had a few different roles at Reachout.com from coordinating the participation of hundreds of young people through to policy and research roles. (I was also the Director of Programs at one time, but I think my nerdy-researcher side was too dominant and they really needed someone different!)

Reachout.com had always had a commitment to growing the evidence around the role of the internet for promoting mental health and as a setting for early intervention. It was one of the reasons the organisation was so supportive when I wanted to go part-time to do my PhD.

We took that commitment to research-based innovation in services even further, successfully securing research-based consultancies and competitive grants. So I guess for quite a while I was a scholar, working from within the NGO sector and partnering with University-based academics. But at one point, for better or worse, I decided I really wanted to focus on the research-side of things. A fellowship at Western Sydney University came up and so I took it.

To be honest, it was a massive shock transitioning into academia. I’d been in a small, nimble and rather unorthodox NGO and then landed in what felt like the Singapore of organisations:  massive, complex and totally foreign to me. My academic trajectory was untraditional and more interdisciplinary than most (I have three degrees in different fields and my PhD crossed three more!) so I felt very out of my depth. I still do.

That said, whether by luck or by design, almost all of my research has been cross-sector, interdisciplinary, collaborative and largely working with adventurous academics. Plus, I’ve always had a wicked plan to democratise the incredible resources of the university, so maybe I have actually ‘found my tribe’!?

In 2014 and 2015 the Australian federal government significantly scaled back support for youth participation – what happened and why? What were the consequences and how are they being addressed?

Basically? The Liberal/National Party coalition in Australia have always had a strong rights-based approach to citizenship which means they believe those who want to have a say will find a way to make their voices heard. In reality, young people are marginalised and at a real structural disadvantage compared to other parts of the population (although many young people will have much in common with poorer or discriminated older Australians because of the way that economic disadvantage reproduces and deepens across generations).

The other aspect that is a bit unique to Australia is the different responsibilities held by the federal and state governments. In my view, the Federal Government at that time wanted to devolve the responsibility for youth policy – and therefore outcomes – to the States.

In some states, there are fantastic mechanisms for developing policy that serve children and young people – such as the NSW Advocate for Children and Young People who is mandated by the NSW Parliament to develop a Plan for children and young people that is then considered, adopted and applied (theoretically) to policy across government. The Advocate consulted with 4000 young people to produce the current Strategic Plan for Children and Young People and although we don’t yet know how effective this has been, I think it has been a very proactive and highly empowering process.

However, the fundamental flaw, in my view, is the assumption that the policy issues dealt with at a federal level somehow don’t affect or are of concern to young people – such as infrastructure, energy and climate policy or health. Which is why we ended up with a MyHealth record that rolls-back decades of advocacy by adolescent health experts to give ‘mature minors’ control over their health. In fact, by creating an ‘opt out’ digital health record over which parents control their children’s record to age 18, the MyHealth record undermines the practical benefits of young people being able to access health services without the consent (or even knowledge) of a guardian.

We’ve been talking on the blog about the “dark side” of various sectors – meaning the places that go unexplored, unobserved, or unspoken of – like the dark side of the moon? Where are those unwatched places in your field right now? 

At the moment there is a huge amount of enthusiasm from university administrators for industry and community ‘engagement’ and interdisciplinary collaborations in research. But at the same time, the metrics by which researchers are measured as ‘successful’ remain highly individualised and traditional: government grants; journal articles; individual acknowledgement and awards. So these two contradictory demands put enormous pressure on academics with real implications for mental health as well as career advancement – especially for women.

As well, the cleavage between ‘teaching focused’ and ‘research focused’ positions and the ongoing march towards casualization of academia is, I think one of the biggest threats to the sector. Not because I believe in ‘business as usual’ or have some kind of parochial commitment to the ivory tower. But actually, I think casualization and increasingly constraining the opportunities for those with teaching loads to develop research and leadership capacity and for research-focused academics to really creatively contribute to new learning models is like saying we need more coal-fired electricity to meet the challenges of climate change. Or maybe it’s more like osteoporosis in that you can’t treat increasingly brittle bones with a weight-training regime. You need to treat those bones with love and care – like a calcium-rich diet of broccoli and nuts!

Really I think if we can convert the ‘individualised’ and casualised model of academia into a collective enterprise and rethink what represents ‘value’ in teaching and research we could really unlock the talent and creativity within universities to research and teach at the frontiers of social change – rather than playing catch-up to the corporate sector.

Read more about Philippa’s work at the Western Sydney University website.

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