Young people are often at the forefront of social, cultural and political change - often driven by their energy and creativity, but also by their frustration at the challenges they face.
Social Engagement (PROMISE) brings together twelve collaborating centres to explore young people’s responses to these challenges, and seek ways to transform them into positive social achievement.
PROMISE is coordinated by The University of Manchester. The other organisations taking part in the project are from Estonia, Finland, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, the Russian Federation, and Croatia.
Dr Jo Deakin, Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Criminal Justice at Manchester and the PROMISE project lead, explains:
“We’re trying to identify the most pressing issues for young people in relation to social, cultural and political change. Young people face a range of problems – relating to finances and the economy, politics, or even how older generations think they should act, and these problems vary hugely between the countries we’re looking at.
“What they all have in common, though, is that young people tend to find themselves disconnected and excluded, and too frequently experience stigma as a result of these problems. They end up being in conflict with older generations, with authority and with society in general.”
Jo and the project team are keen to dispel the perception that these ‘conflicted youth’ are problematic in terms of positive social engagement, and minimise negative responses from authority which often leads to further marginalisation and stigmatisation.
It’s because of these negative effects of stigma and marginalisation, say the team, that opportunities for young people to engage positively become limited, and as a result, much of the creativity, innovation and energy within these groups is directed away from positive social change.
Young people face a range of problems – relating to finances and the economy, politics, or even how older generations think they should act, and these problems vary hugely between the countries we’re looking at.
Jo is passionate that young people present significant opportunities for change and that authorities need to learn from them, rather than punish them. She says:
“We’re trying to take a more positive approach. I think a lot of research in the past has focused on the negative – the problems young people face. This is important, but we’re going to move the debate forwards by looking at what young people are doing to make things better for themselves.”
“Even if their responses are not seen to be very positive by society, for example some of the young people engaging in street art might be seen as anti-social or even criminal, we should be recognising the fact that they’re doing something to create a space for themselves and to make their voices heard. This may not be the most productive activity, but it often reflects an energy that can be channelled.”
Harsh punishments for young people across Europe and Russia compound the problem, by framing young people in a certain way, and creating a negative and ‘problematic’ identity, says Jo:
“In the UK, for instance, the press continually perpetuates the notion that a group of young people standing around with their hoods up presents a risk. That then sends a message out to others, particularly older people – if they see a group of young people wearing hoods, it’s a problematic group and they should be fearful. When actually, they’re just having a chat!”
According to Jo, it’s these sorts of intergenerational misunderstandings, where views and assumptions don’t match up, that often exacerbate the problem, and that’s what needs to be addressed in order to minimise unnecessary ‘conflict’ between young and old.
As well as trying to understand the problems, one important strand of this research will study how the authorities are managing young people in the parts of the UK that are seen as beacons of good practice, utilising less punitive, and more effective approaches to authority.
As Jo says: “We need to look at these pockets of good practice and identify what’s happening that we can draw on and share. The context is very different in different countries, but I’m sure there are lessons we can learn from each other.”
The project findings will be presented in a variety of ways – to young people themselves, to policy makers, the general public and various agencies, including the police.
An interesting feature of this particular project is its ambition to make the research participatory throughout – with young people themselves feeding ideas into the planning stage as well as acting as peer researchers, which not only means they gain a valuable new skill, but that the data gathered is much richer, and more authentic, as Jo points out:
“We end up with fantastic insights that we wouldn’t normally get as a ‘grown up’ going in.”
“Young people tend to find themselves disconnected and excluded, and too frequently experience stigma.”
Another striking aspect of this research is its intention to involve young people themselves in the dissemination of the research findings, through creative outlets such as drawing and photography. The benefits of this are clear: the young people, who are often from disadvantaged backgrounds, have the opportunity to explore their creativity and are given a legitimate and positive outlet for their feelings; and striking dissemination methods are sure to turn heads, increasing chances of having a meaningful impact.
And it’s certainly evident that Jo believes PROMISE can and will have an impact:
“I would like to say that the project is going to change the way we think about managing young people and the way that we deal with them, and I’m confident that at the very least it’s going to make some in-roads in to that.”
Jo’s obvious passion for young people and her commitment to making sure they get a chance at life drives this project forward:
“There’s so much that young people can give. They think differently from adults, and we should think about how we can harness that difference rather than quashing it with our authoritarian viewpoint. Let’s instead think about how we can promote their views and ideas.
“I love chatting to a group of teenagers! I absolutely adore the sparks and find the different ways of thinking about things hilarious – it’s really encouraging too. The young people we’re talking to haven’t had an easy life so far, and they’ve generally struggled with various disadvantages, so it’s about giving that group of people a voice.
“Young people are absolutely vital in shaping society – they are the future of society, and they’re the ones we need to listen to.”