In their recent book – Youth rising?: The politics of youth in the global economy – Mayssoun Sukarieh and Stuart Tannock (2014, p. 143) reflect on the problematic character of young people’s voices and participation in movements against such things as the climate crisis, war, and racism, and their encounters with the institutionalised promise of ‘youth participation’:

In many of these movements…young participants are quite likely to find themselves not embraced by the youth voice, youth participation and youth empowerment forums and frameworks that are now being promoted by global elites and their representative organizations, but rather to be standing on the outside, having to fight hard and shout loud for a hearing for the alternative futures that they are struggling collectively to win.

Almost universally – in ‘youth’ policy, in ‘youth’ education, training and employment, health, housing, gender and sexuality, CALD, rural and regional service delivery – the very idea of youth voice, participation and ‘agency’ is an uncontested ‘good’ (thing).

At the same time, what this ‘good idea’ looks like in everyday practice – as Sukarieh and Tannock are suggesting, and as many of the young people in this project (and other projects we have undertaken) are suggesting –  seems to be a more contested thing.

In this theme we are interested in taking up the challenge that comes from listening to and trying to understand the concerns that many young people have about ‘having a voice’, and having that voice ‘listened to’ and ‘acted upon’ in spaces, and by people who can impact the circumstances that shape their lives.

At the same time we are interested in taking up another challenge, one that relates to which young people have a voice.

The Politics of Young People’s Participation and Voice

Some forms of youth participation – for example, those featured in global youth conferences, youth consultation forums – have been understood as tokenistic and exclusive/exclusionary. In her study of youth forums and leadership conferences conducted by the UN, Soo Ah Kwon (2019) describes how ‘these forums were not necessarily political spaces meant to challenge existing political and economic norms’, but rather were concerned to ‘shape the conduct of youth into ideal global citizens’ (Kwon 2019, 928-930).

On this point, Lucas Walsh and Ros Black (2018, p.219) have argued that:

young people’s changing acts of citizenship are only poorly recognised through the conventional lenses or blunt measures of political participation, which still tend to emphasise traditional political institutions, channels and affiliations.

As we have suggested in an upcoming book chapter (Noonan and Goring 2022) there is a tension here between institutionalised programs aimed at amplifying youth voice, and the critical, creative, and collective forms of activism that young people across Australia and around the world have been engaging in recent years (see, for example the School Strike 4 Climate and Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Network).

The SS4C movement has seen thousands of young Australians strike from school in an effort to force their governments to take action on the intersectional problem of climate change. As we highlighted in another post – Blah, Blah, Blah: Young People, the Climate Crisis, Hope and the ‘Dithering’ of Adults – Greta Thunberg, the now 18 year old Swedish climate activist, has claimed that:

We can no longer let the people in power decide what is politically possible. We can no longer let the people in power decide what hope is. Hope is not passive. Hope is not blah, blah, blah. Hope is telling the truth. Hope is taking action. And hope always comes from the people.

In a book chapter about the SS4C form of collective action and participation by young people (Kelly, Goring & Noonan 2021) we highlighted the work of Anita Harris and her colleagues (2010: 9–13) who suggested that while young people are ‘disenchanted with political structures that are unresponsive to their needs’, they remain interested in social and political issues and seek recognition from, and participation in, political systems.

Across various place-based projects at the Young People’s Sustainable Futures Lab in the inner north of Melbourne and Geelong, young people have shared their stories and experiences in the hope that there are ‘better listeners’ around them. That their voices would be heard. Would be amplified. That ‘someone would listen’.

Young People’s Voices

Can the ‘Subaltern’ Speak? The Politics and Practice of Co-design With Young People

The concept of the ‘subaltern’ comes from research that looks at the impacts of European colonialism around the globe, the continuing legacies of colonialism in ‘postcolonial states’ (such as India and Pakistan) and ‘settler societies’ (such as Australia and Canada), and the different forms of marginalisation in and between First Nations Peoples/indigenous populations in these contexts.

The concept emerged from the work of Gayatri Spivak – an Indian scholar – in an essay titled Can the Subaltern Speak?

The ‘subaltern’ classes or groups are the doubly, triply disadvantaged, disconnected, marginalised and/or disengaged in postcolonial settings – for example, peasant women or women from the lower classes in colonial and postcolonial India who are denied any access to participating in the processes that shape their oppression. They have no ‘voice’. Hence the question: Can the Subaltern Speak?

While there are problems in applying the idea to young people in general, there is some merit in thinking about those populations of young people who are disengaged, marginalised and from areas of historical disadvantage, and how and why they appear not to have the capability or the opportunity on an ongoing basis to have a say on the circumstances that shape their lives.

In another post, we indicated that Arjun Appadurai’s  (2004, pp.69-70) work on the capacity to aspire is also useful here because he suggests that:

This capacity to aspire—conceived as a navigational capacity which is nurtured by the possibility of real-world conjectures and refutations—compounds the ambivalent compliance of many subaltern populations with the cultural regimes that surround them.

In this context Appadurai suggests that the:

objective is to increase the capacity for the third posture, the posture of “voice,” the capacity to debate, contest, inquire, and participate critically.

This is what ‘youth participation’ should ‘aspire’ to, and we think that the principles and practices of ‘co-design’ offer a productive mechanism for thinking about how to do that.


Principles of Co-design. (Source: Ingrid Burkett An Introduction to Co-design, p.5)

Co-design is an approach to the development of programs, projects or services that actively involves all stakeholders in the design process. There are five key principles of co-design:

Inclusive – Co-design works in partnership with the users or consumers of the program, product or service.

Respectful – Efforts are made to engage all design partners on equal terms and to seek their input as part of a democratic process.

Participative – Consultation is one part of co-design, and rather than simply ‘ticking the box’ of consultation at the beginning of the design process, continued engagement with stakeholders occurs throughout the co-design process.

Iterative – Ideas and solutions are continually tested and evaluated with the participants.

Outcomes focused – The process can be used to create, redesign or evaluate services, systems or products. (NCOSS 2017)

In thinking about these concerns we are left with a number of questions:

Why do some young people appear not to have the capability or the opportunity on an ongoing basis to have a say on the circumstances that shape their lives?

Why do many young people appear not to be ‘active stakeholders’ in their own futures?

What practices and interventions might be possible to change these dynamics?

What might the idea, principles and practice of ‘co-design’ offer to these practices and interventions?

Do the principles of co-design offer stakeholders a way to engage with the most disadvantaged and marginalised young people in our communities?

What core capabilities are necessary for young people to be able to engage meaningfully in co-design processes, and how might these be developed and accredited?


Sukarieh, M. and Tannock, S. 2014. Youth rising?: The politics of youth in the global economy. New York, NY: Routledge.

Kelly, P. , Goring, J. and Noonan, M. 2022. “School Strikes for Climate: Young People, Dissent and Collective Identities in/for the Anthropocene.” In Youth Collectivities: Cultures and Objects. First, edited by B. Schiermer, B. Gook, and V. Cuzzocrea, 177–197. New York: Routledge.

Kwon, Soo Ah. 2019. “The politics of global youth participation.” Journal of Youth Studies 22, no.7: 926-940

Noonan, M., and Goring, J. 2022. “Confident, Creative and Enterprising Young People? The School Strike for Climate and Lessons for Australian Education.” In Young People and Stories for the Anthropocene. First, edited by P. Kraftl, P. Kelly; D. Carbajo Padilla; M. Noonan, A.S Ribeiro, D. Macdonald and R. Black. (In Press)

Walsh, L., and Black, R. 2018. “Off the Radar Democracy: Young People’s Alternative Acts of Citizenship in Australia.” In Young People Re-Generating Politics in Times of Crises, edited by Sarah Pickard and Judith Bessant, 217-232. Switzerland: Springer.

Feature Image