Welcome to the Youth Governance blog!

June 18th, 2013
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Youth governance is a burgeoning field that I am excited to learning about, critically engaging with, and contributing to. My blog includes critical reflections of, question inspired by, and musings based on my interaction with it.  Through the act of blogging, I hope to leave bread crumbs on my meandering journey through this field and make forays in charting new territory.

From worried to inspired: Reflecting on the meaning and practice of participation

December 5th, 2014
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Although I have constantly advocated for the promotion of participation, especially the participation of children, I am not unaffected by criticism of trumpeting participation as the pancea of all ills in attaining human rights and democracy. Least of all because the criticisms leveled against how, as a concept, participation has become too plastic — participation has taken on far too broad of a reach in meaning. Participation has become a concept that now describes both a means as well as an end (Lund, 2007). Yet despite this encompassing meaning, where participation could describe so many things, we still find that participation has been difficult to put into practice (see writings by Dipak Nakar, Joachim Theis, Rachel Hinton among others). Participation conceived as a liberatory approach is not only a method, but an epistemology. Participation is a way of seeing, understanding, and investigating where the knowledge of problems lies, and solutions lie.  It is a critique of those who are possessive of the tools and resources needed to change social conditions, and they use it to obscure, bury and outright lie about this reality.

When participation becomes such a broad and nebulous concept so as to lose its analytical as well as practical force, it easily becomes co-opted by the same old powers, disguised as a new approach. Processes of stratification and disempowerment dressed up as in wolves clothing, then insidiously paraded as a passive aggressive band-aid: “We used a participatory approach. But our stakeholders didn’t take hold. We did our part, they didn’t. We can’t be blamed.” I worry about examples where projects have made weak and disingenuous attempts at participation, that are mostly tokenistic and failed to garner true engagement from the community because the lame attempts are transparent. When results are short due to tepid community participation, then the baby is thrown out with the bathwater and participation is seen as a costly, time-consuming, and predominately perfunctory exercise to satisfy donor trends.

The fact that participation is not universally accepted could be an indicator that there is a problem with the concept. But I believe that it is a problem with a misunderstanding of it, and the result of actions taken based on this fundamental misunderstanding. I suspect that it is because participation has been unequally implemented, that participation is not always meaningful, especially in confronting the difficult task of truly devolving power. This causes me to worry that participation becomes yet another globalizing force and discourse in development practice. I worry that no participation is better than tokenistic participation that leaves all parties disenchanted, jaded, and bitter.

Luckily for me, I have the great fortune to be working at the Children’s Environments Research Group, and over lunch I raised this concern.  Roger Hart points out that rather than limiting our vision to seeing participation as those spaces and processes that children (and other marginalized groups) are invited into, participation can also work the other way around.  Children can (and are) creating their own spaces and mechanisms for sharing their perspectives and generating their own solutions. Under their own terms, children can engage those who have the duty to address these issues, inviting them into children’s spaces, or create a shared space where power is not presumed to be imbalanced away from children.  In this way, children can through their own self-organizing critique disingenuous, tokenistic participation processes, and model for adults, participation in epistemology and practice.

Children’s rights in New York City, the next 25 years

November 21st, 2014
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On this day 25 years ago, New York City made a bold statement in affirming its commitment to children in the city. Will the city now take bold steps to act on this commitment?

On November 20th 1989, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), enacting a framework that has become the foundation of international children’s rights. The CRC asserts the rights of people under the age of 18 as holders of inalienable human rights, who by virtue of their immaturity and inexperience are accorded special protections and provisions. The CRC is an instrument through which massive global changes have been made to increase boy’s and girl’s access to education, receive life-saving immunizations, and ensure their protection from violence. Furthermore, the CRC recognizes the rights of children as active participants in society — this includes their rights to speak, be heard, and have their views taken into account on matters that affect them.

The very next day, on November 21st 1989, the City Council of New York City unanimously passed Resolution 1891 in support of the CRC. In particular, it called upon city agencies to address issues concerning housing, nutrition, education, protection, medical care, recreation, and economic opportunities for children in New York City. Twenty-five years on, has the city fulfilled its duty to “ensure that all children receive the level of support necessary for the realization of these rights?”

By passing Resolution 1891, New York recognized children’s civil and political rights. Recognizing children’s political rights asserts that children have a role to play in shaping their conditions, that they have a role to play as part of a system that responds to the needs of its citizens, that they have a role to play in how their cities are run. This summer, the city passed Resolution 115 which worked its way through the State legislative channels to amend the Public Officer’s Law permitting 16 and 17-year-olds to be members of community boards. This has been an impressive shift to recognize and expand democracy, directly engaging those who have yet to have a vote to participate in decision-making regarding their communities. This amendment recognizes children as resources and agents of change in their communities. This amendment is what respecting children’s rights to participation looks like in the sphere of city governance.

Young people have long been active contributors to the city: young people tend community gardens, run LGBTQ centers, and respond to disasters as they did after hurricane Sandy. Politically, youth in New York City agitate for educational reform, demand changes to unjust policing practices, and contribute to participatory budgeting processes. Young people already participate in a variety of decision-making bodies as part of the after school programs, department agencies, and in their own child managed organizations.

As with many others, I hold hope that with the change in city administration this year, New York is in a progressive moment. I am inspired by the prospect that this city will once again take bold steps in respecting human rights. This time, I hope that the city moves beyond rhetoric to transform how it engages young people, moves beyond putting young people’s recommendations out on parade, only to leave them on a shelf to collect dust. The Mayor’s Office is investigating how to create a youth governance body that will work together with adults in making decisions regarding policies that affect young people. This is an opportunity to create a youth governing body with the power to set forth policies that respond to the 1.8 million children in the city. Moreover, this is an opportunity to create a youth governing body that is deeply democratic, connected to youth on community boards, and young people already active in our communities. This city can build a system that harnesses young people’s knowledge of the city, and invites them to propose creative, pragmatic solutions that respond to the issues they face.

It has been 25 years since the city resolved to support the rights of children in New York, including their rights to political participation. It is time we engage children in the governance our communities. I call on the city to create meaningful, deeply democratic ways of working with young people to make New York City better for all its inhabitants.

Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the UNCRC

November 20th, 2014
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Thank you to the UN Department of Public Information Non-Governmental Organizations for inviting me to speak at the event “Have You Heard Us? Children’s Voices in Creating a World Fit for All” Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.UNDPI CRC25 poster The event was filmed and can be viewed here.

Additionally, check out #DPINGO for tweets on this event, and #CRC25 for all the chatter celebrating this historic day!

UNDPI NGO celebration of CRC25

UNDPI NGO celebration of CRC25

Orienting my research

September 25th, 2014
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As Jessica Kulynych posits, society’s failure to recognize youth political identity is evidence of an incomplete democracy (2001). Yet, our status quo incomplete democracy continues not only because adult gatekeepers state that youth political stances are wrong, but because, they claim, such stances do not even exist. In other words, adults often deny young people’s rights to political participation at least partly because they fail to recognize youth political identity in the first place. De facto gatekeepers, including adult allies, often erroneously judge young people as politically incompetent or only recognize young people’s political actions when they behave in ways palatable to authorities. I seek to examine components to and reflections of youth political identity that such gatekeepers fail to take into account when they deny young people’s political rights, including a) young people’s attempts to speak, be heard, and have their views taken into account in political space, b) young people’s attempts to shape political spaces, and c) young people’s tactics to expand formal political spaces or create alternative political spaces. Gatekeepers justify denying young people’s political rights, thereby curtailing democracy, because they fail to recognize this more comprehensive understanding of youth political identity.

Adults often only recognize youth as risk or at risk, characterizing young people as either too dangerous or too innocent to participate in decision-making arenas. On this basis, authorities exclude young people from political spaces, effectively denying young people’s rights as members of the public sphere. There are occasional references to the importance of allowing young people to speak, but these usually remain tokenistic. Tracy Skelton has illuminated how young people’s political actions outside of formally sanctioned political spaces are often ignored (2010). Rebecca Raby has criticized how agencies such as the World Bank promote a narrow interpretation of youth agency, one that favors a young person’s ability act autonomously, to be self-reliant and demand less from the State, and be resilient to unjust economic and social situations (2012). Yet, scholars have shown us how young people can conquer or expand formal political spaces to expand them, as well as creating their own alternative political spaces (O’Toole & Gale, 2008; Su, 2010). I will examine young people as political rights holders in the process of establishing new youth governance mechanisms. I will expand my perspective to look for young people’s collective actions that draw upon tools and resources in their networks to interrogate root causes of political exclusion and social injustice so as to contribute to a more critical conception of agency.

Reflections on rupture and scale after #Ferguson

August 20th, 2014
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In these moments after the world turned its eyes towards Ferguson, and reading essays that have come forth analyzing and urging that such testimonies of violence (at individual, community, state, and social levels) be catalyzed into political action, I think about how my work can become a part of that. I wrestle with the tension between the local and the global in fomenting social and political impact. I have thought deeply about and discussed scales of inquiry, generally situating my work closer to the local. I recognize the hegemonic power of global and intertwining forces of force, capitalism, and discourse to create circuits of oppression. Keeping this in mind, I work towards troubling the power imbalance between the local and the global by strengthening and networking local sites of inclusive and responsive self-governance.

What I see in what has been going on over the last ten days in Ferguson, is a rupture in the social reproduction of the racist, rapidly militarizing, and inequity fuelling state that is revealing its hypocrisy around issues of democracy and the equal respect for human life. Jumping off of Butigan’s questions regarding how to leverage this moment for political organizing, I ask: How can these events disrupt local, national, and international discourse (especially when people in Turkey are offering tips to residents in Ferguson on how to handle tear gas)? How can these events be leveraged for political organizing in action? How can this political organizing and action jump scales from local to the global? It is heartening to see that since Michael Brown was murdered, people from across the US have been connecting it to the many sites of violence against black and brown bodies (and other marginalized people), and the national policy to militarize of local law enforcement. How can we then network these localized sites of indignation, alter discourse, change the course of social reproduction, and reconstitute our governance structures so that they actually respond to the demands of its citizenry for a more just and dignity-affirming society?

Undoubtedly, any work I do will be a humble contribution as no one idea, text or act can be offered as a comprehensive panacea. Still, I hope that my work to better understand and build local mechanisms for young people’s participation in the governance of their communities is but one way to contribution to this. Just by simply talking about and writing about young people’s participation in governance, I hope to disrupt or at least insert into the discourse that young people and governance are not mutually exclusive subjects. I hope to better understand the different tactics through which young people are already engaging in community governance so as to support them in altering systems and structures to become more inclusive and democratic. By changing local level discourse and structures, and connecting with different scales of discourse in action, I hope to counter the tokenism that is constantly offered to young people in monocultural, global forums so as to so as to produce processes and systems that are truly democratic.

Further Recommended Readings list in the People, Place, and Space Reader

June 13th, 2014
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Jen Jack Gieseking and William Mangold, with Cindi Katz, Setha Low, and Susan Saegert have put together an incredible resource that brings together writing from various fields that examines how people inhabit and enliven space.  They graciously invited me to contribute a Further Recommended Readings List on Children and Young People’s Participation in Political Spaces.  Take a look at my list, and take a tour around the site for the PPS Reader.  Introductions to each of the sections are open source and a discount flyer for the Reader will only be up for a limited time!

Creating spaces for children’s everyday political development

April 27th, 2014
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Hart, R. (2014). Children, self-governance and citizenship. In C. Burke & K. Jones (Eds.), Education, Childhood and Anarchism: Talking Colin Ward. Routledge.

Roger Hart argues that although “weak forms of representative political participation, like school councils and municipal councils” are valuable as one form of political participation, what is needed is to engage them in the everyday forms of socio-political activities.  This includes involving children in the development of their communities, including having a greater role in governance, as well as to create and enliven cooperative public play spaces as a means of developing children’s citizenship skills in a more collaborative, democratic society. It is alongside the building of more participatory forms of citizenship activities in pubic spaces through community development and governance that more formal systems and structures for children’s political participation becomes networked into a more complex and multifaceted approach to incorporating children within community democracy. When we only have “weak” or more structured, formal forms of political participation without the more informal forms of participation, we draw on a narrow definition of citizenship and reproduces a narrow form of democracy that privileges formal mechanisms of political participation.

Shifting the conceptions of childhood to include children’s political identities

March 14th, 2014
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While much of the public media still frames childhood within the debates of children at risk or children as risk, our theoretical understanding based on empirical research tells us that the place of children and childhood in society is much more complex. Unfortunately, one facet of childhood that continues to be underestimated or outright dismissed is the political identity and agency of children (Kulynych, 2001). Now we are beginning to see and conceptualize children and as agents in the construction of their social lives, in navigating their geographies, and even in difficult situations, we still have difficulty seeing children as political actors.

While it is tempting and others have argued that we need to see evidence that children are capable of acting as political agents before we give them such an important responsibility. People would argue that the political landscape is so complex and governance such a daunting task that we need to be sure that children are ready for it. While there are writers who would not necessarily agree, there are researchers who have followed down that line of thinking, setting aside their misgivings on these assumptions to prove that children are knowledgeable. And so empirical studies have been conducted on children’s knowledge and understanding of Politics (here I draw on the distinction between Politics and politics).

I have two fundamental disagreements with this. First of all, I disagree with the notion that children need to demonstrate their understanding of political workings before they actually get to engage. I disagree with the idea that you have to demonstrate a certain level of competency before you are accorded the rights of democracy. Jessica Kulynych lays out the democratic theorists’ arguments as to why children are not citizens with a full complement of civil, political and social rights. These are some of the same arguments that have prevented blacks and women from engaging in democracy. The whole notion of inclusive democratic participation is that every single person has the right to participate in decisions that affect them. It is not the onus of individual to meet a certain threshold before they are accorded the rights. Rather it is the responsibility of a dedicated and inclusive democracy to ensure that the system is understandable by all its citizenry.

The second disagreement I have is that much of this research then looks at children’s participation in Politics, the general assumption that politics is Politics. The research often couched under the umbrella of citizenship often examines children’s understanding of citizenship as the knowledge of organs and systems of the government, and how laws are passed, with the various bigwigs do. In fact, children’s capacities are frequently underrated and overrated (Kulynych, 2001). And then there are the studies that look at children’s political participation through community and social organizing. Unfortunately those who are arguing from the perspective that children must demonstrate their competencies of what it means to be political often only draw from the literature around children’s knowledge of citizenship. Rarely do we then specifically cite children’s knowledge of the political system through organizing and movement building. A more comprehensive view of children as political agents would incorporate children’s knowledge of multiple tactics of influencing political culture so as to demonstrate their competency and to be ultimately afforded their opportunities as political agents.

The assumption that children have to demonstrate their political knowledge before they are accorded the rights of participation is undemocratic. Children have the right to participate in decisions that affect them regardless of whether they are able to name their senators. What is more, if we are to follow this line of logic, it is through active engagement that children really learn about the various mechanisms of governance, the complexities of politics. Not the Politics, but the politics of how to affect how decisions are made about the communities in which they live. It is through participation and active engagement in the forums and the tactics of influencing decision-making that changes their own lived realities that children simultaneously learn about politics and embody politics as agents. Furthermore, it is through their active engagement that we start to see children and childhood differently. That we start to truly shift our understanding of children as having political identities. Rather than demanding that children display their political competencies before we are willing to accord them as agents, we acknowledge and respect children’s rights to participate politically. In coming to terms with the fact that children are already capable political agents, we change our understanding of children and childhood so as to encourage further reform of our political systems to be more inclusive of children.


March 3rd, 2014
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I am thrilled that the website for The People, Place and Space Reader has just gone live!

The Editors Jen Jack Gieseking and William Mangold along with Cindi Katz, Setha Low, and Susan Saegert are committed to Open Access, and have made the introductions to the book as well as each of the twelve sections publicly available via the website.

More about the volume:

The People, Place, and Space Reader includes both classic writings and contemporary research, connecting scholarship across disciplines, periods, and locations to make sense of the ways we shape and inhabit our world. Essays from the editors introduce the texts and outline key issues surrounding each topic. A companion website, PeoplePlaceSpace.org, provides additional reading lists covering a broad range of issues. An essential resource for students of urban studies, geography, design, sociology, and anyone with an interest in the environment, this volume presents the most dynamic and critical understanding of space and place available.

 Click on the links and go check it out!

The tensions between theory and practice in engaging youth in participatory governance

January 31st, 2014
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The tension between theory and practice plays out differently in children’s participation than in the field of participatory democracy and governance. Practice that was explicitly participatory rooted in international liberationalist, feminist, activist social movements began to gain prominence in the development field and was extended to include children’s participation. In the decade during the drafting of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, advocates articulated children’s right to participate, while those who worked from a rights perspective to implement projects with the participation of children.  Theory however lagged behind, as writers such as Marta Santos Pais (1999) made the connection between human rights and participation, Roger Hart (1992) elaborated children participation in relationship with adults in building democratic societies, and Gerison Lansdown (2005) explained how children’s right to participate can be implemented with respect to the children’s evolving capacities. As children’s rights and community development work progressed, children’s participation demanded analytical tools to connect theory and practice (Naker, Mann & Rajani, 2007; Taylor & Percy-Smith, 2008). This need spurred many including Louise Chawla (2001), with Harry Heft (2002), Harry Shier (2001), along with those cited above to generate a rich discussion around theories and methodologies for analyzing children’s participation, informed by and directed towards practice.

The theoretical work on citizen participation, participatory democracy, and participatory governance has been informative for critically examining children’s participation in democracy and governance. While contemporary economists such as Amartya Sen (2011) advocate for participatory democracy as a means of promoting development and human rights, the challenges of creating a truly participatory democracy are myriad, leading theorists such as Robert Dahl (1989) to contend that they are utopian. This parallels with criticisms of an ‘ideal’ public sphere that Jürgen Habermas described, an inclusive forum where citizens are equally able to participate in discourses regarding issues concerning the community, a vision that he immediately demonstrated to be corruptible. Nancy Fraser (1990) not only find’s Habermas’ description of the public sphere as stunted, she finds that it insufficiently articulates the ways structural and systemic inequalities perpetuate the reproduction of a public sphere that continues to disempower, marginalize, and render segments of the population invisible.

Many writers have worked to connect theory and practice, acknowledging the challenges of creating spaces for deeply participatory democracies as they critically analyzed cases of participatory governance and developed tools to facilitate others to do so (Fung, 2006). The writings of Archon Fung and Erik Olin Wright (2003) have demonstrated how examinations of projects in participatory governance can inform theory, and John Gaventa’s (2004, 2006) Democracy Cube has been useful in bringing the analysis of power, inclusion, and spaces to the fore. In contrast, the tools developed by international development agencies such as the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) to evaluate the implementation of strategies and programs for the promotion of participatory democracy and governance have given off the impression of a prescriptive checklist for participatory governance. While these tools examine important factors such as the efficiency, responsiveness, accountability of existing governance structures, they do not speak to how the counterpublic and subaltern public access them, let alone transforms them. Will international human rights, democracy, and development agencies and organizations be able to take on the role and responsibility of developing tools that actively wrestle with the tensions between theory and practice, institutional reform and social transformation, and the inclusiveness of the public sphere without seeking to normalize or exclude those at the margins?

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