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Talking about youth voice - is it all just semantics? | Our Thoughts – Jo


The process of hearing and listening to young people’s points of view, and valuing and taking action based on these views, is high priority for many organisations working with and for young people. But do we, as a sector, need to articulate what this process is more clearly, and what it should entail?  Or is it all just semantics, as long as we think we know what we mean? And why does linguistic clarity matter? 

Over the last month, I have had many internal and external conversations on the matter of youth voice, participation, engagement, co-production, co-design, and any other phrase you could possibly throw at this area of practice. For me, the clearest example of the challenge around language and interpretation has come from my work developing questions for the Centre’s latest survey of organisations working with young people. The team conversation went something like this: 


“We should be asking about youth voice practice, because that’s what we talk about internally and that is what this project is focused on.” 

“But previous surveys have asked about ‘participation in decision-making’. Shouldn’t we stick with that?” 

“That might feel too closed. After all, organisations can listen without being able to act, but listening is still powerful.” 

“So, when we say youth voice practice, can that just be listening, or does there always have to be action too? Will respondents know what we mean?” 


And so, the conversation went round in circles.  Truthfully, there is a wealth of terminology that sits under this particular umbrella, as well as a spectrum of practice in terms of degrees of power sharing with young people. Every organisation uses a different term that works for them – for some this is embedded in developing phrases and definitions with young people themselves, for others it is based on existing frameworks of practice that resonate with their work. For others again, their terminology reflects the context they are working in and the young people they are working with.  

Personally, I am coming to the conclusion that diversity of language and approach is acceptable, and even necessary. Whilst it perhaps makes our job a little more challenging— after all, how can we advocate for something when half the sector isn’t entirely sure what that ‘thing’ is because they work from a different phrase book — organisations need to be able to flex key ideas to ensure they are appropriate for their work and the young people they are working with. The same holds true for young people’s evaluation forms, for example, where organisations may take a standard measure, but add their own questions and change the title. 

I have found some feedback - gathered as part of our efforts to develop a ‘typology of youth voice’ - particularly helpful: 

Youth voice, participation, engagement, co-production, involvement, influence, campaigning, youth leadership. There's a lot of confusion about what these terms mean, and a label is used to define the work we do but actually the whole sector is using different terms. For me, I would probably say that youth voice feels like an umbrella term for lots of the activity that happens. I would also say that the work is more important than the label we give it, but that across the board there needs to be some universal language and understanding. Youth voice - young people are listened to, their views, experience and ideas are valued and they are able to influence the decisions which affect them.” (Youth sector practitioner – typology feedback survey respondent)

Whilst we will all use and advocate for different terminology, we can find value in common understanding. What is needed is not one catch-all term to describe this practice, but a common set of characteristics that are inherent within it. This might then enable us to clearly identify youth voice practice in all its diversity. I recognise that many iterations of tools and resources that aim to provide unifying definitions already exist, but these are variable in depth and breadth. A useful next step could be bringing together and simplifying existing resources, as well as an acknowledgement of the spectrum of practice that falls under this umbrella, so organisations can recognise their work in published information and guidance and take steps towards evaluating and reflecting upon it. 

In terms of the Centre’s role, I believe we have an opportunity to support these next steps. While we cannot, and should not, dictate the language that others favour, we can help organisations understand the characteristics of the practice of listening to young people on the ground, wherever they are on the spectrum, and support them to think about how we might evaluate the impact and quality of their practice.