The role of young people as independent actors in their own right, able to define and become architects of their own future has changed over the years. In our previous blog ( we looked at how institutions shape children, and whether education might evolve to be more empowering through taking a problem solving approach such as participatory budgeting.

In less formal settings we have seen a matching evolution in ‘youth work’. One that often started in faith based positive activities for young people, but which has evolved a rights based approach in recent years. We owe a significant debt in this transition to the Ladder of Participation, first identified by Sherry Arnstein.

In Roger Harts 1992 youth ‘ladder of participation’:

The bottom three rungs, which are labelled as manipulation, decoration and tokenism, are identified as ‘non-participation’.

The top five rungs… represent the higher and presumably more desirable levels of participation (from Cahill and Dadvand 2018)

Whilst not meant to offer a route-map, but rather stimulate dialogue on the possibility of youth led action it spurred others to propose new models. Less hierarchical models considered domains or ‘degrees of participation’. Linking together participation with empowerment led others to talk of ‘pathways to participation’.

The conceptualisation continues, with an increasing focus on the mutual benefits to both adults and young people through shared control, (rather than conceiving power as being handed from one to the other.)

Leading finally towards a ‘pedagogical political participation’ model, where decision making power is progressively handed over to young people’s independent control. Cahill’s paper on reconceptualising youth participation goes into all these in greater depth.

Questions remain, some already identified by Paulo Freire; does participation, as a planned process, always lead to better outcomes? Will social justice be the inevitable result of participation? Might ‘empowering’ young people through their participation simply replicate existing cultural, economic or social inequality?

These questions are relevant to the Youth PB accelerator project. We believe that PB is a useful approach to talking about young people’s agency, voice and empowerment. But that any PB process needs to be based in values, youth rights and in good practice.

Nevertheless, whether adults like it or not, young people are taking the initiative. In formal ways, supported by adults, or sometimes on their own initiative.

In our next two blogs on the evolution of youth empowerment we look at a range of practices, which range from direct democracy to structured forms of deliberation, and finish this series with our last blog by linking back into participatory budgeting.