Real power. The power to make decisions.
For 15 years, I’ve described the work I do as youth community organizing, or youth participatory democracy. The idea at first was to get young people more involved in the public sphere, some ideal of more democratic governance and activist young people.
Increasingly, it has become crystal clear that their are two sides to this effort. Young people need to be invited to contribute and sometimes supported to develop new skills (just like anyone else entering a new role). Equally as important, but much more neglected, adults and others with power need to learn to step aside and relinquish this power.
This is the harder lesson. An article I read yesterday, from the excellent Tech Workers Coalition quantified just how much people with power don’t care at all about the opinions of those without.
My experience shows that managers in non-profits, almost all of whom were once front line workers themselves, care a little more than tech companies or other corporations. In fact, in theory, I’d suggest they care a whole lot. It’s become popular these days to talk about “participatory youth work” or “youth led programs”, and the extent of youth involvement is increasingly a metric for evaluating grant applications.
The problem is, most of it actually means very little in practice. We call it “symbolic” participation, and Sherry Arnstein calls it “window dressing participation”, and whatever you call it, it looks an awful lot like student council. Young people are handed trivial questions, asked their opinions, and then mostly ignored anyway.
Real participation involves asking questions and genuinely using the answers at least. Significant participation looks a lot more like framing the questions in collaboration and deciding on power sharing decision making strategies together. Real participation is hard because it requires actually relinquishing power – actually believing that you might not be the one who will make the wisest and most sensible decision.
With other adults, professionals in our field, leadership teams, and so on, this is still a hard task. We like to have control. But with young people or the clients of social service programs, it is 10x as hard for most of us. We’ve been programmed to believe, even when this was our own circumstances, that young people are immature and that our clients need our help because of some failing of theirs. How could we put power – real power – in their hands?
Katie Richards-Schuster and Barry Checkoway offer one model for understanding the quality of participation with young people. I’m going to extrapolate on it slightly, because I believe it can apply equally as well to clients of human service agencies.
- Participant as subject: young people / clients are objects of adult / professional manipulation.
- Participant as consultant: young people / clients are asked for their ideas about adult / professional determined topics.
- Participant as partner: young people / clients are invited as partners in decision-making with adults/professionals. They help determine the agenda and make the decisions.
- Participant as director: young people / clients become the directors, choosing the agenda and making the decisions. Adults/professionals step into the background as much as possible to serve as supports.
Following Daigneault and Jacob, I find myself invested more in the extent of participation than achieving the highest levels. In other words, I’ve seen places where participants serve as partners, but only in one small facet of an organization. That’s a great start, but what about everywhere else? Deep participation can still remain an isolated part of an organization, with little power and insignificant decision-making authority.
Instead, I believe in supporting the motto “nothing about us, without us.” The people most impacted by social issues should be partners and directors in the work being done to address those issues. You might reasonably protest that that’s difficult, time-consuming work.
And while we have some models for how to achieve it, we don’t have nearly enough. It isn’t a matter of finding good shared governance models (actually there are many of these), but also of doing the adaptive work of changing the loyalties, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that kept participants out of decision-making in the first place. Participation is about governance, but we’ve also gotta change individual heads, hearts, and hands (thinking, feeling, acting). And that’s the kind of work that takes careful work and practice.
Years ago I suggested we might rethink the process by which social workers document notes on their work with clients. I’ve also highlighted organizations, like the Highlander Research and Education Center, that mastered this kind of transition to participation. Most recently as I take on Algorithmic helping, I’ve begun looking for models that build participatory practices into the systems we use in human services to track and improve client outcomes. Rather than helping driven by algorithms, I’d love to see helping driven by the ideas and planning of the people who’ve needed or need the “help”.