I was recently at a conference on child and adolescent violence in Calgary Alberta. The purpose of the conference was to bring young people and adults together to learn about and discuss issues regarding violence. There were about 360 people at the conference of whom approximately 110 were under the age of eighteen. It is not a new thing to have young people at conferences of this nature but in my experience their attendance is not much more than a token attempt at inclusion. You can usually tell when it is merely token by the big deal the organizers make of having young people there. In reality the young people are scuffled aside into special workshops and paraded out at the end to make a statement about the need for a youth voice. The adults then applaud, someone says how brave the kids are for this experience or that, maybe a few tears are shed and then the conference ends with grand statements about how we need to listen to what young people have say. The adults then go back to their agencies and little if anything changes. I’ve seen this numerous times over the past fifteen or twenty years. As you have probably guessed, I not a great supporter of this type of “inclusion”. I believe if you are committed to inclusion then you truly have to be inclusive.
The conference in Calgary was inclusive in a quiet sort of way. Everyone attended the workshops together. There were clearly workshops that would be of special interest to young people but none that were geared just for them. The workshop presenters were told in advance that a range of people would be in their sessions but were told not to shy away from what they would normally present because it might not be suitable for young people. The presenters were asked to treat the young people like they would treat any citizen who had an interest in their topic area. Some of the topics, as you can imagine at a conference on violence, were quite graphic. Some of the adults at the conference expressed their fears that the young people couldn’t handle the topics. For example someone told me that it was inappropriate for young people to attend a session on sexually intrusive children. Another told me that kids shouldn’t be exposed to a discussion on self-mutilation. I’m sure this was said out of genuine concern for the well being of young people. However I found it ironic that professionals could feel that while you can be a victim of these behaviours somehow you shouldn’t be allowed to be part of a discussion on how to prevent or deal with them. To me this is tokenism of the worst type. I suppose these adults who were uncomfortable with the young people attending some of the workshops would have been happier if there had been sanitized opportunities for the young people to say that violence is bad and that’s all.
I don’t know why we want to exclude people of any age from discussions on finding solutions to issues that impact or could impact all of us. Why do we need to try to protect young people from talking about issues that are part of their daily lives? It is incredibly naive to think that young people don’t know about self-mutilation or abuse. If they themselves haven’t experienced it then they know peers who have. Why do we try to pretend that only adults are mature enough to deal with difficult issues? If you are old enough to be a victim of violence or to know someone who is then you are old enough to take part in finding solutions. Violence is a societal issue and all members of our society should be part of the answer. Anything else is disrespectful to the victims. Anything else is pure tokenism.