Creating a Relational Participatory Space: Insights from a Youth Participatory Action Research Project
Since the ratification of Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, there has been a heightened focus on youth participation as a way of upholding young people’s right to have their say on decisions that affect them. However, programmes that attempt to engage young people in decision-making processes have often been poorly enacted and have failed to adequately address the barriers that limit young people’s ability to participate meaningfully and therefore rarely result in sustained change. This study examined processes with a youth participatory action research [YPAR] project in order to identify and explore processes and practices that might serve to sustain young people’s involvement and support authentic and meaningful participation. The research used an instrumental case study approach to examine an 18-month-long YPAR project operated through an existing youthwork programme. Data were collected through autoethnography, artefact analysis and participant interviews and reflections with youth participants.
The study found that peer-to-peer and peer-to-leader relationships were foundational to youth participants’ ongoing involvement over the 18-month period. Such relationships appeared to drive much of the momentum of the action research and enable at times dynamic flows of power between youth participants and adults that encouraged an inter-generational space within the YPAR project. Young people stepped into leadership roles at different phases of the project while adult leaders managed the pace and progress of the project. The study identified five factors that helped to create this relational participatory space: reduced leader direction; valuing youth voice; openness of other participants, reworking adult-centric processes and the implementation of a variety of sharing activities. A number of factors that constrained youth voice were also identified. The study highlights how strong relationships were an integral part of the processes and practices of YPAR, rather than merely a positive outcome of participatory processes. These findings challenge traditional individualistic models of youth participation that frequently fail to acknowledge the importance of intergenerational and collective relationships within youth participatory action research projects. The study therefore calls for a heightened focus on relationship building within participatory processes both at a policy and practical level.