Walking the Talk: Findings and Practices to Embrace in Fostering Youth Ownership of Research & Knowledge Production
How can we disrupt existing power differentials so that policymakers can learn from and with youth? In the USAID-funded Youth Excel, we work with youth-led and youth-serving organizations around the globe. We support youth to conduct research, create learning spaces and opportunities for dialogue with influential community members and policymakers, and help influence policy and advocate for better youth outcomes. This is not easy!
We wanted to understand the knowledge production landscape that our team works in every day, so we conducted a listening series and desk research. We identified several structural and contextual barriers to youth-led research and learning. Many of these barriers were related to adult-youth power differentials, and how they play such an important role in youth-led knowledge production and youth’s ability to influence decision-making. Here are our key findings on the barriers to youth leadership in research and knowledge production.
1. Researchers and development practitioners are often disconnected, especially in youth programming
The desk review found that youth are becoming increasingly relevant actors in research and knowledge production across sectors. However, the listening series suggests a different reality. The information we gathered from different youth-led and youth-serving organizations shows that many research and data-driven organizations that see value in putting youth in the lead of research and knowledge production still struggle to connect research to practice. In most cases, this is due to a lack of time and resources, but also because many organizations don’t feel they have the necessary knowledge and skills to do it in a meaningful way.
In Youth Excel, we aim to bridge some of these gaps with our customized implementation research, or “Research-to-Change" approach, working with youth-led and youth-serving organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, and the Middle East and North Africa region. Research-to-Change is designed so that research is embedded into all stages of programming and co-led by young people to start bridging the gaps between research and practice. We’ve seen that bringing research and practice closer together can have positive effects, such as enabling organizations to make real-time decisions and adaptations to their activities as they produce data and learn from conducting research with and for their participants. We aim to keep learning from this as we grow into working in new countries and regions.
2. Knowledge is a powerful resource for youth, and youth-led knowledge production can be even more powerful. But youth are generally recipients and not creators
We found that adults are often introduced as mentors and as the main knowledge providers, even in youth-focused programs such as fellowships, boot camps, and different forms of training and technical assistance projects. This results in a power imbalance that prioritizes the views, experiences, and knowledge of adults over the lived experiences and knowledge that can be offered by youth themselves. Youth are often viewed as receivers, rather than providers of knowledge, and this creates further challenges. There is less appreciation and recognition for research and knowledge produced by youth, creating a struggle for credibility and reducing their ability to influence decision making. In most cases, youth are mainly perceived as consultative actors and as targets of information, they are not perceived as credible sources of knowledge.
Youth Excel enables youth to learn together with adults, and not only from adults. Bringing adult decision-makers and youth together is critical to the exchange of knowledge and experience. As youth become more engaged in tackling the world's rising challenges, it is vital that they have a seat at the table as well as a space for them to collaborate and share knowledge.
Want to Learn more about the importance of co-creation and collaboration?Read this blog
3. Traditional structures make knowledge inaccessible to youth
We found that in most contexts there are rigid adult-led structures and systems in place that dictate how knowledge is produced, which topics are prioritized, and what kinds of knowledge is considered more relevant. Youth seeking to produce knowledge about topics of import to them are often limited by adult-focused structures and systems.
Likewise in many countries, young people who want to research and gather evidence to advocate for change have difficulties accessing the information they need. It’s also difficult for the learnings they produce to be considered valid, valuable, and credible. Many of these challenges are associated with adult-centered models and exclusionary standards and criteria set by academic institutions around research. Very often, youth are kept in the sidelines of research knowledge production spaces unless they have a set of special credentials that “validate” them as credible voices on a particular topic.
To address this, we need to better understand and address the barriers that prevent youth from engaging in research and knowledge production meaningfully and keep this in mind while designing and implementing youth-focused activities. This will increase the chances for youth to be in the lead, but it can also result in more meaningful and sustainable solutions based on the newly produced knowledge. In Youth Excel, we support many kinds of research products and not just traditional academic papers. We also work with our partners to realize how young people (and everyone) can conduct quality research to transform their communities when equipped with the right tools and approaches.
4. Inequalities exist within youth-led knowledge production
Youth experience many challenges in leading research and producing knowledge. However, we found that different identity groups within the youth demographic experience even more significant challenges. Marginalized and minority groups such as ethnic and religious minorities, women, members of the LGBTQI+ community, and others face increasingly higher difficulties to access spaces and opportunities to conduct research and produce new knowledge.
This exclusion is reflected in research agendas globally, as these groups are not given access to the spaces where research is conducted and knowledge is created. Oftentimes, the topics that are relevant for these groups are not research priorities, which ultimately means that they will lack the evidence they need to promote the changes they want to see for themselves and for their communities and could ultimately benefit the global community.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also impacted equity in research and knowledge production spaces. We found that while many actors traditionally associated with research and knowledge production have received more resources to conduct research and generate new learnings, marginalized actors, many of them youth, are being left out of such opportunities. In front of a series of pressing issues, research and the generation of new knowledge is not always a priority for many young people. At the same time, the attention of many researchers has been drawn to the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects, leaving less attention and resources dedicated to priority topics for marginalized groups.
While a single program or set of activities can’t fully address the root causes of these inequalities reflected in research and knowledge production, intentional actions can significantly reduce these inequalities. In Youth Excel, we apply a Gender Equality and Social Inclusion (GESI) approach to everything we do. For example, we conduct an Intersectional Rapid Gender and Protection Analysis in every locality where we work to ensure that the inequalities and their root causes are being taken into consideration during the design and implementation of our activities. By doing so, we are not only more inclusive, but we also strive to ensure that our work causes no harm and that it's adapted to the local context.
5. Power differentials can be hard to talk about
We found, and we have experienced ourselves, that talking about power can be uncomfortable, but it's very much needed. Through our work, we have realized the important role that power gaps among actors have in youth-led research and knowledge production. It's not always easy to address this. It means looking into what we are doing and acknowledging that better approaches may be needed. In our experience, actors perceived as the most powerful are often those who have more access to the means and resources to conduct research and produce knowledge on topics that are relevant to them.
Sometimes, powerful actors may feel attacked and may perceive their power will be taken away. However, in our experience, this is not the case. Rather, engaging diverse actors in research and the subsequent learnings strengthens solutions. It can also help to establish platforms in which actors with different interests, resources, and degrees of power can learn from each other and collaborate in more equitable ways, generating new knowledge that is mutually beneficial.
In Youth Excel, we are witnessing the potential of youth-led research and knowledge production for social transformation, and we intend to work together with our partners to encourage wider participation. Youth Excel offers an opportunity to learn with youth and from youth. It is our belief that shifting the power dynamics to provide equitable conditions in research and knowledge production spaces is both possible and necessary. We will do this by supporting youth-led and youth-serving organizations in developing spaces for youth-led research, youth-led knowledge production, and the mobilization of that knowledge for social impact and social change. We believe that this will support youth in driving the changes they desire as they produce knowledge that can be shaped into resources to influence decision-making and local and international agendas.
Learn More about Youth Perspectives on Effective Youth-Driven Programming here.