Participatory research with young people: why, how and what might happen

By Leo Fieldgrass, National Director of the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition (AYAC) and Manager of Participation and Development at the Youth Affairs Council of Victoria (YACVic)

Community organisations – and the communities they serve – need new ideas to innovate. New perspectives and ways of thinking that are unhindered by history or cynicism. Young people have these ideas. And their energy and attitude can help you break apart, not simply think outside of, the box.

One way to do this is by meaningfully involving young people through participatory research. This allows them to study a community issue, project or service and advocate for change based on their findings. As well as equipping young people with research, literacy, numeracy and critical thinking skills, participatory research empowers them to gain a full understanding of a problem and come up with their own solutions, building self-confidence, resilience and social connections along the way. Research of this kind can then become an incredibly powerful advocacy tool.

And this doesn’t necessarily have to be around what’s perceived as a ‘youth’ issue. Young people, like us all, have diverse backgrounds and interests. They care about the different pressures upon their families and wider communities, not only those things impacting directly on them or their peers. That said, the issues that young people see as most relevant to their own lives will be the ones they’ll be most keen to research.

There are a few different ways to run participatory research with young people; the level of their involvement can vary based on what you’re all trying to achieve:

  • Young people just as participants.
  • Young people contributing to the design and direction of the research, then others carrying out the research.
  • Young people designing and carrying out the research in partnership with others.
  • Young people designing and carry out the research themselves (e.g. peer research or participatory action research)

As with any piece of research, ethics, privacy and confidentiality must all be taken into account. Power-dynamics must also be carefully monitored, not simply between adults and young people but also between young peers, or the researchers and their venue (e.g. a school).

My own experience of youth participatory action research (PAR) was to facilitate a group of Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL) students to investigate the vulnerability of young mobile telecommunications consumers. Working with the project partners the Brotherhood of St Laurence and the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN), the young people documented the challenges and presented their findings directly to telcos and regulators, recommending changes to better support their peers. This presentation and the report of the project, contributed to subsequent regulatory change to the telecommunications industry. More importantly, the young people developed strong reflective and advocacy skills, increasing their self-belief and their understanding that they had a voice in their community.

Colleagues at the Youth Affairs Council of Victoria (YACVic) and Youthlaw have also had great success with PAR, finding it “an effective tool for campaigning for the rights of young people and providing an avenue through which their voices can be heard on issues that are important to them”. After the YACVic Youth Reference Group (YRG) identified that Victoria Police’s new Protective Services Offers (PSOs) were likely to have increased contact with young people, they were supported to investigate the relationship between law enforcement officers and young Victorians. The group subsequently presented their report to the Australasian Youth Justice Conference and it’s become a training tool for some sections of Victoria Police.

Before embarking on any piece of youth participatory research, it’s good to have clear expectations, aims and goals. Research opportunities that allow young people to develop passions will be most attractive, e.g. training in advocacy skills or creative media or arts. Help young people understand how their research relates to their lives and their communities, and use this knowledge to maintain interest and energy. Involving young people directly in the initial planning and design of any piece of research will make it far more ‘youth-friendly’ than any subsequent consultation. You can still guide research decisions by offering structure and expertise (young researchers don’t have to do everything themselves!).

For more information on research with children and young people, I recommend consulting Mary Kellet’s writing, and YACVic’s online toolkit to involve young changemakers, Yerp.