Engaging Young People
Nigel Pimott: Involving young people: both ‘common’ and ‘good’?
The common good principle – if it is to stand any chance of being successful – needs to be both ‘common’ and ‘good’. Common in that it involves everybody and good because it necessitates personal circumstances, social conditions and prevailing ideologies that combine to improve people’s best interests, equally to the advantage of all. Whilst I acknowledge this might be simultaneously both stating the obvious and an over-simplistic interpretation of the challenges relating to the common good principle, it is, nonetheless, my starting point for this reflection. My reason for this is because these factors are at risk of being overlooked when it comes to the role, place, and space young people have in contemporary common good discourses.
I began my PhD studies in 2010. When I started them, talk of the common good was limited to niche circles. I therefore thought it highly original and creative to frame the title of my thesis around the idea of human flourishing and the common good. I did not anticipate that by the time I had completed my studies in 2013, the narrative relating to the common good would become so prevalent. At the time, I have to confess this disappointed me a little as I thought I was on to something truly unique. However, as the months have passed I have found solace that ‘my’ great idea has enjoyed a wider renaissance and increased levels of interest. Where I perhaps remain a little disappointed, however, is that the principle of the common good has not yet – in my opinion – become as common and good as I had hoped. This is particularly the case regarding how the principle of the common good involves young people; my particular interest group and the people I work with and for.
The common good principle can never be perceived as common unless it involves every generation of people, including young people. It will never be truly good unless aspiring to empower, enable participation, offer equality of opportunity and work toward justice and inclusion. These are aspirations often denied young people
If the common good is about ‘the best possible conversation’ young people need to participate in that conversation. If it is to be ‘equally to everyone’s advantage’, what might this look like with and for young people? American Christian writer and political activist, Jim Wallis says the common good is exemplified when we make ‘every decision and action in the best interest of the people and the land, but always paying special attention to the weakest and most vulnerable creatures’ (2014:10). So how might we make decisions and undertake actions with young people so that they are in everybody’s best interests?
If Jim Wallis is correct, then not only do we need to involve young people more in pursuit of the common good, but we need to pay special attention to those young people who are marginalised by current societal paradigms and political policies. In my work with Frontier Youth Trust I have become all too aware that young people often get marginalised. ‘At risk’, ‘challenging’, ‘disenfranchised’ and ‘excluded’ young people (terms in themselves that do little to promote commonality) get marginalised the most.
In Embracing the Passion: Christian youth work and politics I reflect upon how UK society involves young people in politics, decision-making, citizenship and activism. I conclude that whilst progress has and is being made regarding involving young people in these processes and activities, there is much work still to do if young people are to play a full part in realising the common good.
For example, young people under 18 can’t vote in UK elections. They often have little say in how places of worship are governed and operated. Even in family contexts which I observe, they are not part of the decision-making conversations. Whilst I acknowledge my bias regarding these matters, I find it no surprise that many young people consequently grow up disengaged from formal decision making processes: they are socialised into a ‘you don’t matter’ worldview.
The global neoliberal onslaught has often not been good news for young people. The problem is not globalisation per se, but more the power the neoliberal aristocracy have over others. Economists and sociologists have begun to describe victims of neoliberalism as a precariat: a social class of people, including many young people, who precariously exist in society without any sense of security or predictable future (Standing 2011). It is argued that living like this impacts material and psychological welfare. The International Labour Organisation has even talked of this being a ‘scarred’ generation of young people. This precariat appears to live exploited and precarious lives, vulnerable to radicalisation, political extremism and outbursts of pent-up anger. With around 1 million young people unemployed and many others working in low paid, low-skilled jobs on temporary or zero-hours contracts, it is perhaps no surprise that commentators have concluded young people have been the biggest losers in the economic crash and that any possible benefits relating to the common good have largely escaped them.
We should acknowledge and celebrate the fact that, as noted, some progress regarding the involvement of young people has grown and developed in recent times. We have a UK Youth Parliament, charities with young trustees, youth councils in schools, shadow leadership bodies in some faith settings and initiatives in Frontier Youth Trust (whom I work for) have helped give young people a voice and develop young leaders. However, if the common good is to be realised we need to not only ensure these representations become the norm rather than the exception, but we also need to mandate that these positive developments are themselves common and good. Through years of practice experience, I have noticed that, when young people are involved, the eloquent and vocal minority tend to gain prominence. If we truly aspire to the common good then marginalised, disadvantaged, disabled, ineloquent, those with special educational needs and ‘anti-social’ young people need to be involved in the conversations.
If this doesn’t happen and if we don’t develop more horizontal models of participative and inclusive leadership, then we will simply replicate existing hierarchical and narrow leadership pedagogies that will perpetuate the current systems of injustice that lack diverse representations. I find little (if any) evidence that these existing models support realisation of the common good. I believe we could pursue alternative models and undertake some very simple steps to enable young people to be more a part of the common good – both the process of developing this and the outcome of realising it. There are many things we could do, but – by way of illustration – I set out five things we could do that have emerged from my research:
- We could embrace the idea that young people have important and meaningful things to say that are reciprocally beneficial. One of the people involved in my research talked about, ‘young people … having their voice heard, expressing themselves, seeing that things are possible, being part of something bigger.’ If we are to pursue the principle of the common good, young people’s voices need to be heard and they need to be part of that something bigger – whatever that turns out to be.
- We should celebrate our young people and see them as full members of humanity and society, viewing them through a lens of unconditional positive regard. We could curtail undermining outcomes-based approaches in work with young people: these too readily see teenagers as problems to be solved, people who are in some way lacking and in deviance and deficit. Instead we could explore asset and capabilities-based approaches, perceiving young people more as trusted co-creators of society and equal partners on a journey of collective fulfilment and potential realising. Denmark is consistently considered one of the happiest places in the world in which to live. One of the main reasons that Denmark does so well in international happiness surveys is the high level of trust evident in society. The Danes trust each other. If we aspire to be a happier country, maybe we need to trust our young people more.
- Adults could give up some of the maelstrom of power they have assumed and acquired. The common good, I argue, will never be realised if we persist with an ‘adults knows best’ set of assumptions. As another of my research participants commented, ‘some young people live with a thought process that adults make decisions and they do “it”.’ We need to re-align and intentionally shape our actions so they fully reflect our common good vision and aspirations. As I say in my book, work with young people should embrace a desire to empower them. For example, ‘if meetings are needed with stakeholders, let young people take a lead; if a community activity on the local park is envisaged, let the young people plan, organise and set it up; if your street, village, suburb or town is celebrating something, work hard to empower young people in the event design and delivery.’ (Pimlott 2015:180).
- Working with young people to realise the common good might be messy. Young people might: resist calls to order; not want to work in ways adults do; take more risks; resist current decision-making mechanisms; participate in the conversation on an inconsistent and ad hoc basis; and/or be disruptive, counter-cultural and have a different set of priorities. These factors do not preclude them from helping shape the common good; indeed they are part of the very process of realising it and the outcome determining what it might be. My invitation is not to invite young people into ‘what is’ and ask them to join current conversations, but rather to reach beyond the here and now in search of alternative forms of dialogue which are more conducive to multigenerational interaction.
- Finally, I would suggest that making the type of cultural shift needed to achieve what I have set out here takes time, new skills and new ways of having ‘the best possible conversation’. These factors can put some adults off trying to engage in such conversations. They conclude it is just too difficult to do and give up before really getting going. Thus, perseverance is needed. Like any relationship, we need to give it time. As mentioned, we need to see the process as part of any product (Pimlott and Pimlott 2008:128-132). We also need to have a sense of realism and accept that ‘our best will do’ for today. We can have a new ‘best’ tomorrow and the day after and so forth: a radically imagined, developmental and progressive approach.
So, if the common good is to come close to being realised, I believe it needs to more fully involve young people. I also consider that these five ideas can begin or help develop ways of achieving this. If you have not already done so, I invite you to try them.
As a closing thought, I add that if we can involve young people in shaping the common good today, then it might be less of a struggle in trying to realise the common good tomorrow. If the common good can become the ‘new normal’ amongst young people then when they grow up to be adults they will have already seen, shaped and got into the habit of living out the principle in ways that are both common and good.
Pimlott, J. and Pimlott, N. (2008). Youth Work After Christendom. Carlisle: Paternoster Press.
Pimlott, N. (2015). Embracing the Passion: Christian Youth Work and Politics. London: SCM Press.
Standing, G. (2011). The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. London: Bloomsbury.
Wallis, J. (2014). The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.
© Nigel Pimlott
Embracing the Passion: Christian youth work and politics is published by SCM Press and available at a discounted price from www.fyt.org.uk
Dr Nigel Pimlott is Deputy Chief Executive Officer for Frontier Youth Trust – a national, Christian-motivated youth work charity serving at risk young people.