Who gets to make the decisions about young people?

This afternoon I was listening to Radio 5 live in which they had an interview with Lenny Henry. He was talking about the reflecting he was doing for a lengthy Phd which had developed over a period of time. During the time he researched at the colour of skin of sports people (black) in films over and against their coaches ( white/ usually the lead role in the film), of the number of Black actors in the film industry and their roles, as well as the numbers of women and their pay in the same industry. He also talked about Prince, the musician and his fight to regain power of his music rights in the late 80’s.

One of the paradoxes in my current role as a manager in a youth work organisation, and the extra work that I do in a variety of places, for FYT for example. Is that I am often asked about activities, approaches, initiatives on the basis of whether they would be suitable for young people, or more to the point young people in the context of the Durham, Hartlepool or the north east.; “you have young people- will they like this?, or if we had this resource would it be what they want?”

As a fledging youth worker in a local church, a long while ago, there was a bright spark (im keeping all names out of this) who thought it would be great to hold a weekend event for young people, based in churches, advertised locally, a band would come up all the way from southern England no less .  (and no not delirious) . Many meetings went into the planning of this event, meant to be ‘town wide’ (ie it was held in the town), fresh (never before has a youth event been held with a band) and exactly what a few youth leaders aspired for their young people to be part of.

Lenny Henry in his interview said that the main thing that all of the situations he described had in common was the following question :

“Who gets to make all the decisions?”

So, is it the film producers and director to decide who plays which parts – and what do they take into account – a movies saleability, advertising or the powerful hegemonys of society, what of women in films and their pay. What of artists such as Prince (RIP) who took on having control of their finances, artistic rights and writing but had to change his name to symbol to assume those rights- yet for him taking control to make decisions meant being cast as weird, as rebellious, the norm didn’t like it, and fought back.

“Who gets to make the decisions regarding young people? ”

Its clearly not even teachers than make decisions about the education policy, nor doctors about the health policies, but should youth leaders follow the same model and make decisions about young people? And what about the occasions when access to decision making is closed off, restricted or inaccessible? its another sign that young peoples decision making, not just consultation is not valued or encouraged.

If they have to be done at all, Whose events are youth events for? and where are young people throughout their process? if theyre only attendees and congregants then all we’ve done is remodelled a bad, but current, model of church. Participation only granted for the attendees.

I wonder if the question is “who gets to make the decisions about young people?” – it should also read “who doesn’t get to make decisions about young people?”


Its as much an inclusion question, a participation question, a power question and a value question. Its also an approach question that distinguishes a ministry model for working with young people and an educational youth work approach. the latter will find tensions in the former.

If young people aren’t given the space, like anyone else, to make a decision, and be encouraged to have their voice heard, opinion sought or question explored then they’ll probably go somewhere else where this happens.  There is no working with young people if the method doesn’t involve them.  Surely if young people, though some schools dont let them, make decisions about school subjects at 13 for GCSEs (important), then, especially in church groups, giving young people opportunities to be part of decision making processes is key to the group flourishing but also their own. It might be a brave thing, but if young people aren’t making the decisions for themselves about the group that affects them then they’ll vote with their feet eventually. And no great big event will bring them back – young people want, deserve and have more to contribute, and more for adults to learn.

There are more than one way of asking- if young peoples decision making skills is what is encouraged then its going to take a change in processes, to create environments where this can happen.


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