Ausyouth Conference 2001: Our Future Now - Empowering young people through youth development

Speach given by Susan Halliday, Sex Discrimination Commissioner for the Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commission, 23 March 2001

There is no doubt in my mind that the concept underpinning the creation of Ausyouth is sophisticated and strategically focused.

The creation of Ausyouth is an initiative that clearly picks up on the real-life needs of today's youth, an initiative that has the potential to foster the building blocks of a progressive caring society, and from a human rights perspective, it's an initiative that addresses some of Australia's obligations with respect to international instruments, to which we as a nation are committed.

For example - Article 10 of the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights states - special measures of protection and assistance should be taken on behalf of all children and young persons without any discrimination for reasons of parentage or other conditions.

And Article 3 on the convention on the rights of the child notes states parties undertake to ensure the child such protection and care as is necessary for his or her well being.

I've been asked to progress a discussion about equity and access in the area of youth development, and as I'm sure many of you are aware equity and access play a major role in my everyday work as a Commissioner with the nation's Human Rights Commission.

We have the research; we have the personal experiences; we all know youth development programs can make an enormous difference to young people. And the sharing of experience and expertise facilitated by Ausyouth can only prove to be advantageous in the long term for young people, youth program managers and developers, as well as the community at large.

This conference has confirmed the importance of a shared vision about youth development, whilst simultaneously highlighting the importance of valuing program difference. And while I acknowledge the diversity of program in the youth development field can be a significant issue to grapple with - for me as an independent human rights commissioner, acknowledging the diversity of individual youth who participate in, or don't participate in (for whatever reason ) available programs, is of even greater significance.

As an organization Ausyouth has enormous potential and indeed progress to date from all reports has been most encouraging.

To achieve its full potential over the long term however, it is essential that Ausyouth, like all new evolving organizations, faces unknown, and at times difficult terrain. Hard questions need to be asked: A number of challenges that stem from underlying biases that to this day are fostered by the broader community, have to be addressed and new ground and opportunities have to be explored. This is all positive.

The over arching theme required if we are to move forward and make progress in the area of youth development, is to ensure that whatever is done addresses the legitimate "realities" that face today's youth.

The "realities" we faced over past years have to be put to one side despite the fact that they remain relevant to us, and have contributed greatly to our own wisdom and development. The point being that they belong to us - a different generation (or two). And granted while we know there may be some similarities, even overlap, with the "realities" of past generations, it is not for us to determine what is relevant for today's youth.

The most important role for us is to facilitate the process whereby youth can determine their own significant issues of relevance.

What's relevant to today's youth, is what today's youth deem relevant! While this is a hard lesson for some adults to learn - we are most effective when we do not impose our own views. Imposing our views on those participating will simply prompt participants to disengage.

It will also result in potential participants removing themselves from the pool of future recruits. When working with youth, which I have continued to do in my roles as Sex Discrimination and Disability Discrimination Commissioner/s young people have made it very clear that they are particularly aware and concerned about access and equity issues.

While they may articulate if differently access and equity is relevant to today's youth. So the questions we need to pose as facilitators of youth development programs are -

  • How do we make youth development a truly cross community, cross-cultural, cross gender inclusive experience?
  • How do we ensure equity (ie. Equal outcomes)?
  • How do we best manage fair access?
  • How do we ensure youth development programs for young people with a range of disabilities?
  • How do we tackle racial stereotypes and negative attitudes that make participation for some young people less comfortable than for others?
  • How do we focus parents on the importance of youth development, particularly parents with no experience or understanding of the benefits?
  • How do we break down the stereotypical beliefs held by young people themselves, and manage the 'it's not cool' image issues?
  • And how do we combat the element in the media who work on the premise of not letting the facts (i.e. the positive things) get in the way of a good story (i.e. the sensationalist, simplistic horror headline).

Before I go on, based on my last point, I'd like to explore the issue of language, and how its used to the detriment of our youth, in both the media and society at large.

Language has an incredible impact both consciously and subconsciously - yet language so often identifies children and young people as problems to be endured, rather than our future to be nurtured.

Language to this day fosters the stereotypes so many of us have fought so hard to remove.

Lets use gender as an example - if you visit your local sandpit it will become clear in a short space of time that if you want to harass, humiliate, intimidate or belittle a small boy you simply call him a girl; you ask him is he wearing a dress, you call him gay, or accuse him of playing like a "chic" - yes the strategy is to align him to the "lesser gender".

Now if you want to harass, humiliate, intimidate or belittle a small girl, children in the sandpit know that if you're a girl there is no "lesser gender" so you align your female victim with an animal; usually a dog, pig or a cow and more often than not utilising adjectives such as dumb, stupid, ugly or fat.

A second example - a high profile independent school recently introduced a Parents' Sporting Policy which addressed, among other things, the fact that from the school's perspective it was not acceptable at school sporting events to utilise derogatory language, including language that belittled on the basis of gender. "Move it - you're playing like a girl" was listed as a specific example.

The language used in the media more often than not invokes pessimism and despair. It creates and feeds harmful stereotypes and at times creates the necessary mindset to create even a victim mentality.

How often have we read over recent months - "boys bad at literacy" - this is a simplistic, inaccurate yet all encompassing gender stereotypes. Actually some boys are really good at literacy, and there are others who need specialist help - and most importantly there are a diverse range of reasons that underpin both scenarios. I have taken the time to speak with boys about this type of labelling or categorisation. Many found it 'unfair', others were confused 'is every boy worse than every girl', and some asked why aren't we treated as individuals? Indeed some were disturbed that it became a boys versus girls thing.

To follow in an equally inaccurate offensive naive manner were the public cries that boys were bad at literacy because of gender equity programs (in my experience that would be code for "blame the girls" - be they the boys peers or their female teachers).

The real issues for the limited performance of some boys, and in reality some girls, (once we remove the sexist, emotive, sensationalist language), are quite complex. Imposed gender roles and stereotypes, and denying boys a diverse range of opportunities and experiences due to out-dated thinking and redundant cultural norms is a good place to start, if we are interested in unpacking the real issues.

Simplistic, pessimistic use of language must be addressed if we are to make a difference; I'm pleased to note Ausyouth's focus on using positive language to achieve attitudinal change.

One key objective of Ausyouth is to conduct research into the current profiles and the status of youth development programs. This is important because currently there is a lack of demographic data to evidence inclusivity.

I spend a lot of time in my job challenging people to reflect on their personal biases, which they sometimes unwittingly impose on others.

I constantly push people to move beyond their personal comfort zones, and their own experiences, even if they chose not to personally experience the lifestyles and pathways others have chosen or are forced to endure.

While this doesn't always make me a popular person - I didn't take this job to be popular - I took it to help secure the rights of the most vulnerable and progress issues like access and equity for those least likely to be able to do it for themselves.

Let me give you an example of how I do my job whilst simultaneously making myself unpopular! Recently when discussing a vocational education and training program I was told with great enthusiasm that the intake had increased by 50% each year, for the past few years - and it was an area identified by industry as an area of skill shortage.

For me statistics such as these do not automatically indicate progress, cloning possibly - but not progress. The questions I'd ask to make an assessment of progress would include -

  • What was the gender breakdown in year 1 and did it improve in the next year and the next? (from the way I see things I'd be pushed to agree there had been progress if there was no difference)
  • How many indigenous students are involved?
  • And students with disabilities?
  • And students from different socio-economic backgrounds?
  • What proactive initiatives are now in hand to collect the data, so as to build the intake so that it reflects the diversity in the community amidst the relevant age group?

For me progress would be demonstrated by a 15% up take that allowed for a better reflection of the make-up of our diverse society, if young people who have experienced new things and benefited from them can take the information back to encourage others to participate.

Put simply there are 3 stages to note if one wishes to genuinely deal with access and equity

Stage 1 is all about collecting the necessary statistics. From this perspective I'm particularly pleased to see Ausyouth has a clear objective to conduct research into the profile of youth development.

Stage 2 is about understanding why certain groups of young people aren't involved (and often they'll be vulnerable youth who could benefit greatly from such programs). Is it about inability to access the opportunities as well as self-selection out of the process.

Stage 3 is about sophisticated affirmative action strategies to engage non-participants.

I used the word vulnerable to describe youth - and clearly some young people are more vulnerable than others.

Our work at the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission through national inquiries and complaint mechanisms brings us into contact with many vulnerable youth.

We deal with young people who experience restricted education, employment, social and economic advancement. Others who suffer social alienation and victimisation due to personal characteristics or circumstance. A number who attempt to manage the on-going effects of physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Far too many who due to disability, mental illness and substance misuse have to grapple with differential treatment. Others who remove themselves from the daily operation of society to avoid harassment on the basis of gender, teenage pregnancy, racial background, religious belief and sexual preference.

We need to ask ourselves how many of these young people are involved in youth development programs presently - I'm sure its probably more than five years ago - the goal of course is to continue to increase the number.

Vulnerability is about susceptibility; it has subjective and objective components.

Subjective = fragility, insecurity, limited ability to adapt, diminished self-esteem, impediments to social interaction.

Objective = (or external factors) - systemic discrimination; distance, isolation, financial status and cultural and social categorisation by more powerful forces.

Using gender as an example - how do we get young women into areas and programs traditionally focused or dominated by young men?

We do it in groups, having already developed an internal support structure for them, because they'll need it. Of course that's the step you take after you've discovered the real reason why they're not involved. Have you ever had someone use the analogy about co-education - "it's a co-ed school" versus "it's a boys school that now has an intake of girls" - think about it and apply it to your program.

Establish a mentor system on the outside of the program (using female mentors), as well as a buddy system on the inside (using male buddies). And make sure you have established a support system for the male buddies, because they'll need it, always be prepared for a backlash!

Run 360-degree feedback sessions.

Exit interviews with "appropriate people" for all participants, whether they complete the program or not.

Parent and sibling feedback sessions can be helpful.

Arrange a cross program exercise where the young women can interact / share issues and "survival" strategies. This also allows for networking and an opportunity to bounce issues off others, who are removed from an immediate situation of concern.

Have the young women involved in your program, actively recruiting your next set of participants. Let them draw up the criteria that they feel got them through. Give them the opportunity to talk up the benefits and influence others.

In drawing to a close I'd like to take this opportunity to focus on two groups of young people who are clearly in need of support. Young people who could benefit greatly from equitable youth development.

Recently when the Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commission undertook Bush Talks. Deep concern was expressed about the lack of opportunities for young people in rural communities. The issues raised dovetailed into to the areas of access and equity. For example the Commission was told - the rationalisation of services, lack of employment, no after hours transport, no safe amusement places, young people being seen as a social threat when they gathered in public places, restricted lifestyle and boredom, were all issues of concern.

The second group of young people I'd like to draw your attention to is the group who for a variety of reasons, contemplate suicide. Alarming youth suicide figures mask the increasing trends in unsuccessful suicide attempts. The following data is taken from the Commission's Bush Talks publication.

  • In 1986 there were 24 suicides per 100,000 males aged 15-24 in rural areas. By 1995 the figure had risen to 35.
  • The indigenous youth suicide rate is 1.4 times the non-indigenous rate.
  • At least 30% of young people who attempt suicide are lesbian, gay or bisexual. Several studies have linked the high level of male youth suicide in rural communities with high levels of intolerance of gay people in rural communities.
  • Depression is now one of the most common mental health problems young people experience. It is a major risk factor for youth suicide. Between one half and three quarters of all suicides are linked to depression.

How many of these vulnerable young people in need of support and development are benefiting from your programs? Involvement, without judgement may well allow for a future, by saving a life.

In conclusion - Youth development in the 21st century has to be about respect for the individual. It must incorporate legitimate acknowledgment of diversity of experience and background, as well as sound means by which to develop unique potential. Youth development programs need to have appropriate mechanisms in place that can support, in a non-threatening way, those young people susceptible to the subjective and objective components of vulnerability. No young person is immune, all are deserving!

We will progress when all involved understand that equity is about equal outcomes and that the processes and delivery mechanisms needed to achieve equal outcomes are not about equal or identical treatment. A new level of sensitivity needs to be injected into the management of youth development programs. Respect for the individual whilst simultaneously embracing and valuing difference will allow us to move forward.

I challenge you to consider the alternative.