The Flower of Participation (developed by CHOICE for Youth and Sexuality and YouAct) is a tool that uses the metaphor of a blooming flower to describe the different forms of Meaningful Youth Participation (MYP) and how it can grow and flourish. In this chapter we will explain the different elements that are integrated in this tool to better understand when youth participation is meaningful, and when not. Click here to open the Flower of Participation.

Meaningful Youth Participation (MYP)

Meaningful Youth Participation (MYP) means that young people can participate on equal terms with adults, or work independently, in organizations and in all stages of programming and policy-making: design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. But for this to happen, mechanisms must be in place that allow young people to have an active role, in which their voice is heard and respected. If participation of young people is truly meaningful, it benefits the young people, the program, policy or organization, and society as a whole.

The Flower of Participation

The Flower of Participation is a tool that uses the metaphor of a blooming flower to describe how MYP can grow and flourish. It can be used to distinguish between different forms of youth participation and explore whether they are meaningful or not. The tool describes the core elements of MYP (the roots), the different forms of MYP (the leaves and the petals of the flower), non-meaningful forms of youth participation (the insects) and the preconditions of MYP (the water and the sun). All these different aspects of MYP are discussed below.

The roots: the core elements of MYP

The roots of a flower are essential to allow a flower to survive and flourish. They enable the flower to retrieve water and nutrients from the soil and to keep itself upright. When a flower has more and stronger roots, the stronger its foundation will be. This metaphor also applies to MYP. There are 5 core elements of MYP, and the stronger and more present the core elements are, the more MYP can flourish. The core elements of MYP are:

  • Freedom of choice: represents the extent to which a young person can decide to participate, or not.
  • Information: refers to the extent to which young people have access to comprehensive information that is crucial for their participation (the goals of the program/organization/activity they will be participating in, the opportunities they have and what their role will be).
  • Decision-making power: to what extent can a young person make decisions (decisions relating to the program, activity or the organization)?
  • Voice: to what extent can a young person voice their views and opinions and to what extent are these being heard and respected?
  • Responsibility: represents the extent to which a young person has the opportunity to act independently (for example within a program or organization that they participate in).

Meaningful Youth Participation versus Non-Meaningful Youth Participation

There are different forms of youth participation. Some are meaningful, some are not. In general, participation is more meaningful when the core elements are in place. The Flower of Participation describes two forms of Non-Meaningful Youth Participation (the insects) and six forms of Meaningful Youth Participation (the leaves and the petals).

Forms of non-MYP: Insects

Young people may be involved in programs, activities or organizations, however, their participation may not be considered meaningful, because (some of the) core elements are missing. It is important to distinguish between MYP and non-MYP, because it is often the case that young people participate in a program, activity or organization, but in ways that are dismissing their voice and freedom of choice, and does not give them any decision-making power, responsibility or information. Many people think that simply involving young people means that they are meaningfully participating. This isn’t the case.

In the Flower of Participation, the insects represent forms of non-MYP. These forms of non-MYP can make it seem like young people are participating meaningfully, when in fact they are only superficially included. There are two forms of non-MYP.

We speak of manipulation when young people are used to support a cause. At the same time, the initiators pretend that this cause was inspired by these young people and/or that these young people are supporting it. Young people are used as decoration, to make the cause seem more attractive. This means that young people may be involved in a program, activity or organization, but cannot give their opinion, or don’t enjoy any control or responsibility.

Example: an orphan living with HIV shakes the hand of a major donor in order to make him invest in a program targeting orphans with HIV+.

Tokenism is the other form of youth participation that is not meaningful. In this case, young people are invited to participate, but only in a superficial manner because in reality, these young people do not have a voice and their opinions are not listened to or respected. There is no space for them to participate on an equal footing, and they don’t hold any decision-making power or responsibility. However, in contrast to manipulation, young people do enjoy some freedom of choice. This form of non-MYP occurs often, since by inviting young people, it may give the impression that young people are meaningfully engaged. However, in reality, the core elements of MYP are hardly present.

Example: A young person is invited to join a meeting to represent ‘the youth voice’, but is not allowed to say anything.

Forms of MYP: Leaves and Petals

There are 6 forms of MYP, and all of the different forms include more or less all five core elements (the roots) that have been discussed above. Note that the form of MYP to best fit a program, activity or organization depends on several factors.

We aim of course for the inclusion of as many core elements of MYP as possible. Therefore, although all forms of MYP that are presented below are actually meaningful, we distinguish between two levels of MYP: the leaves and the petals of the Flower of Participation.

The leaves of the flower

Although the leaves do not represent the beauty of the blooming flower, they represent the preliminary steps towards it and therefore serve an important function. Young people are meaningfully included, and enjoy some of the core elements, however, there is still room to grow and to establish ‘higher’ levels of MYP.

Young people are appointed a role and informed
In this form of youth participation, someone asks young people to do a task, and the young people can decide if they want to participate or not. Also, young people are informed about the goal of the program or activity, about their role and why they have been invited to participate. However, young people don’t hold any decision-making power, and only limited voice and responsibility .

Example: A secondary school student is asked to do an interview about love and relationships with other young people because she is able to relate better to her peers, but the questions are developed by an adult researcher. The student is informed about the goals of her research and why her role is important.

Young people are consulted and informed
When young people are consulted and informed, they are asked for their input and their opinion is considered. They are also informed about the goals of the program or activity, why they are involved and what will be done with their input. Suggestions made by the young people are given thorough considerations. However, the consulted young people do not make the final decision, therefore they hold limited decision-making power and responsibility.

Example: A girl, who is active as a youth advocate for the rights of LGBTI people, is approached by an NGO worker who invites her to be part of a focus group of young LGBTI people. The NGO worker wants to use her experience to enhance the effectiveness of a LGBTI support program they are currently implementing. The girl is however not involved with the implementation of the program.

The petals of the flower

The petals of the flower represent ‘higher’ forms of MYP (MYP is stronger and more present). In these 4 forms of MYP, young people enjoy most of the core elements of MYP. What the best form of MYP is, depends on the goal (s), design and resources of the program or activity.

Adult-led, shared decisions with youth
In this form of MYP, adults are primarily in charge of the program, activity or organization. However, they include young people who do have some control in decision-making processes. It’s the adults though, who have the final say.

Example: An adult group of human rights activists has a strong group of youth volunteers. During general group meetings, important decisions are made by voting. All activists and volunteers of the group have a vote.

Youth-led, shared decisions with adults
This form of MYP means that young people oversee the program or activity, but they include adults who also have a say. This is often the case when young people lack expertise or experience and ask adults to participate for learning purposes and to enhance the quality of the program, activity or organization.

Example: When young people want to advocate for more youth-participation in the national government and ask an adult-led NGO working on these issues to join them and jointly set out a strategy to realize an effective lobby campaign.

Youth-led, adults have no decision-making power
When a program, activity or organization is youth-led without the involvement of adults, young people are fully in charge. Young people enjoy the maximum level of decision-making power, information, voice and responsibility. It can happen that adults are invited and consulted, but in this case it is the young people who reach out for the adults themselves.

Example: A student association organizes a fundraising music festival, to raise funds for medical treatment for one of their members who is ill. Some adults are asked for advice on the logistics of organizing a music festival. However, the students make all the decisions on what will be done.

Youth-adult partnership
In a youth-adult partnership (YAP) both young people and adults are equally involved and share power. They have equal voice and they define the aims of the program or activity together.

Example: CHOICE for Youth and Sexuality is involved in different programs that are youth-adult partnerships. In these programs, young people are involved in every stage at all levels and enjoy equal decision-making power. Considerable knowledge-sharing takes place, which benefits both the young people and the adults.

Preconditions for MYP: Sun and Water

A flower can only grow and flourish if certain preconditions are met. For instance, flowers need water and sun to grow and bloom. Likewise, MYP cannot be established without certain preconditions. The Flower of Participation distinguishes between two types of preconditions: capacity strengthening (water) and an enabling environment (sun).

Water, in the first place, represents the capacity strengthening. This means that to be able to play an informed and effective role, young people should have the opportunity to develop and empower themselves (and grow, like the flower). Capacity building can be done in various ways, for example through getting training, coaching or following (online) courses, like YOU(TH) Do IT!. Another essential element of young people’s capacity strengthening is providing mentorship for young people. An effective learning environment should also be a safe space, where making mistakes is acceptable and considered to be part of the learning process.

In the second place, there is the sun which represents an ‘enabling environment’ for young people to grow. The enabling environment needed to allow MYP to flourish comprises a number of factors.

  • Commitment from adults to MYP: Adults should be committed to work with young people on equal terms, as well as young people need to be committed to work with adults.
  • Financial means: When young people do equal work to adults, with equal responsibilities, they should also get equal compensation. But financial means also mean that young people will get travel compensation or reimbursement of costs (such as meals) which enables them to participate.
  • Youth-friendliness: In order to meaningfully participate, young people should be able to fully understand what is being discussed and feel comfortable. Using youth-friendly language is very important.
  • Safe space: A safe learning environment equals a space where mistakes are being accepted and (young) people are being judged on their efforts rather than on their results.
  • Flexibility: Adults need to have an open attitude towards the views and needs of young people. This can be very practical, such as flexibility in planning meetings outside office hours because young people are often in school or at work during day-time. Of course, young people also need to be flexible when working with adults.
  • Policies: To integrate MYP successfully into a program, activity or organization, the right policies, allowing young people to participate, should be in place.

Finally, there are two more elements that contribute to the growing and flourishing of the Flower of Participation: inclusivity (the air) and commitment from young people (the soil).

The air: Inclusivity

Inclusivity is like the air we breathe: we can’t live without it! Talking about young people, it is very important to be inclusive. Because young people are not all the same: they are in fact all very different (think about age, gender, different socio-economic backgrounds; but also specific groups such as young people with disabilities, young people living with HIV, LGBTI+ young people). Therefore, when representing the voice of young people, it is very important to be inclusive!

The soil: Commitment from young people

MYP is all about young people. For this reason, the young people involved have a crucial role. Without the commitment from young people to a program, activity or organization, MYP is simply not possible. This is why the commitment of young people is represented by the soil. Young people should be committed to actively participate, and willing to grasp the opportunities that are offered to them.

YOU(TH) practice!

Now that you know more about the different forms of participation, try to think about situations in your own life. For example, think about one example in which you participated in a program, activity or organization with other people (adults, teachers, friends, family,...) and write down what form of participation best described the situation. Think about the core elements (the roots of the flower) and the preconditions (sun and water) of MYP.