Today's young people are coming of age in a complex world marked by changing societies, the rapid growth and importance of new technologies, and the growing trend of global stratification. Although young people have a central role to play in understanding, negotiating and realizing the changing nature of the global community, youth are generally disenfranchised from formal political processes. Marginalized from social systems, youth may turn to social action in order to speak out and effect change in relation to the issues touching their lives. Although youth social action is most often associated with the civil rights movement of the 1950s, or the radical activism of the 1960s, today's young people are organizing collectively against a multitude of issues, with notable movements related to globalization and the environment. One current example is the largely student-led protest that will take place this weekend in Quebec City at the Summit of the Americas.
B. Youth Action and the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion
As a health promoting activity, youth action directly honors the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion's directives to strengthen community action, develop personal skills, build healthy public policy and create supportive environments (World Health Organization, 1986). A conceptual relationship between these various health promotion strategies can be understood within the context of youth action. Initiatives that focus on youth action allow young people to develop personal skills and provide supportive environments for youth involvement. By creating opportunities for youth to put their skills into action, youth-driven initiatives position young people as valued and effective community members, thereby strengthening overall community capacity. A main goal of the resulting community action is the generation of social change in the form of healthy public policy, with a cascade of positive effects and outcomes, which loop back to strengthen community action and empowerment.
ii. Develop Personal Skills
Youth social action initiatives provide opportunities for young people to gain personal skills related to healthy development. In theorizing healthy youth development, Robert Blum (1998) identifies four key factors. Competence in areas such as literacy and interpersonal skills; Connection to others through caring relationships; Character-building through the promotion of values that provide meaning and direction, such as individual responsibility and community service; and Confidence-building that fosters hope and a sense of success in setting and meeting goals. Youth action is coming to the forefront as a strategy that honors the "4Cs" of healthy youth development, recognizing the "synergy that exists between changing one's self and changing one's environment" (Pittman, Ferber & Irby, 2000). By becoming involved in projects that focus on creating social and political change, young people develop leadership skills, bolster their self-esteem, and learn how to become capable, participating members of society. "People often say that you develop skills and then get involved. But it can be very much the other way around - you get involved and that helps you to develop the skills" (Pittman, Ferber & Irby, 2000).
ii. Create Supportive Environments
Youth action initiatives position young people as effective and integral community members. In this way, youth action builds community capacity, improving the community's resources and responsiveness as a supportive environment for youth. This dialectic process strengthens young people's ties to a community, whether it is their family, neighborhood, school or friends, providing youth with much needed supports, and buffering the alienation and disconnection that young people may experience (Putman, 1995). Such connection and support are important tenets of youth development discourse, positioned within the conceptual understanding of resiliency, that is the ability to effectively overcome the risks one encounters in one's daily life (Blum, 1998). Youth resiliency is strongly linked to the resources and relationships young people can draw upon. As Blum (1998) describes, "stress is a universal experience, success in life is less determined by the stress experienced and more related to the resources available to address the stress". By fostering connection and supportive relationships, youth action stands as a powerful pathway for healthy youth development.
iii. Strengthen Community Action
Youth action promotes a sense of ability and control in participants, and creates a growing awareness that youth can make a difference. By disseminating the results and stories of their efforts, young people create a movement and a dialogue that helps to empower and inspire both youth and non-youth community members. The International Youth Foundation envisions a mutual relationship in which "young people and adults work together to create the necessary conditions for the successful development of themselves, their peers, families and communities" (Pittman, Ferby & Irby, 2000). Youth can bring many strengths to community action, particularly in relation to social action, a spectrum of community organizing that focuses on conflict-oriented action challenging the structures oppressing community members (Fisher, 1997). Politically motivated social action may be more freely embraced by young people, who have less invested in the current status quo, and may be "most willing to speak their truth, and least able to be co-opted through accommodation" (Casey, 1995). Young people may also identify with ideas like human rights and civil liberties given their own personal struggles to understand and negotiate their independence. "In voicing support for human rights, adolescents may well be lobbying for their own emancipation" (Gallatin, 1985). In addition, by becoming involved in movements to address causes like racism, homophobia or the environment, youth often deepen their own level of social analysis, and learn to become lifelong actors for social and political change.
iv. Build Healthy Public Policy
Youth movements harness the capacity of social action as an "informal part of the political process to which all those without access to power can turn" (Fisher, 1997). Marginalized from most formal processes that create public policy, youth-driven social action is a way for young people to effect change and get their voices heard. Social action is particularly positioned to have an impact on the health promoting goal of creating "healthy public policy", given the focus on challenging institutionalized power structures. The creation of healthy public policy involves seeing the links between powerlessness and health in a multi-sectoral way, a perspective that has long been a central understanding of social and political activism.
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Youth action seeks to create community change by drawing on youth strengths to challenge oppressive structures and social policy, and therefore can be understood to be empowering at both individual and community levels. Although the notion of empowerment has been notoriously difficult to define, one account describes it as a process "linking individual strengths, competencies, natural helping systems, and proactive behaviours to social policy and social change" (Rapapport, 1985). Youth action has the potential to honour this definition of empowerment, as well as the goals of youth participation and youth health promotion, in highly promising and relevant ways.
It's clear that youth action is a powerful health promoting strategy. This understanding forms the basis of a recent TeenNet initiative, in which we are using a participatory research technique known as Photovoice++ to engage youth in social action, by giving young people disposable cameras and asking them to photograph the strengths and weaknesses of their communities. Through discussion of the resulting photographs, youth identify common themes, and select a particular issue to take action on. Innovative techniques allow young people to explore their interests, realize their strengths, and contribute to community change.
Blum, Robert (1998) "Healthy youth development as a model for youth health promotion" Journal of Adolescent Health, 22: 368-375
Casey, Jeanne (1997) Youth activism and youth empowerment: Case studies of one individual youth development agency and one empowerment/activist agency. Master's Thesis. Integral Health Education Program. San Francisco, CA: California Institute of Integral Studies.
Cloonan, Martin and Street, John (1998) Rock the vote: Popular culture and politics. Politics, 18(1): 33-38.
Fisher, Robert (1997) "Social action community organization: Proliferation, persistence, roots, and prospects." In Community organizing and community building for health, pp. 53-67. Meredith Minkler (Ed). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Gallatin, Judith (1985) Democracy's children: The development of political thinking in adolescents. Ann Arbor, MI: Quod Publishing Company.
Hart, Roger (1992) Children's participation: from tokenism to citizenship Florence: UNICEF-ICDC
Pittman, Karen, Ferber, Thaddeus, Irby, Merita (2000) Youth as Effective Citizens. Takoma Park, MD: IYS-US, The International Youth Foundation.
Putnam, Robert. (1995) "Bowling alone: America's declining social capital." Journal of Democracy, 6(1): 65-78.
Nutbeam, Don (1997) "Promotion health and preventing disease: An international perspective on youth health promotion" Journal of Adolescent Health, 20: 396-402
Males, Mike (1996) The scapegoat generation: America's war on adolescents. Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press.
Rappaport, Julian (1985) "The power of empowerment language" Social Policy, 15-21.
World Health Organization (1986) Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion Geneva: WHO http://www.who.dk/policy/ottawa.htm
++In an upcoming OHPE Bulletin, there will be a feature on the use of Photovoice with youth in New Zealand.