Enabling rural young people to have a seat at the table
4 February 2021 at 8:21 am
The best way to understand why rural young people are facing adversity is to ask the young people living this reality, writes Janelle Graham, highlighting ways organisations can better enable rural young people to engage with policy and decision making.
Far too often conversations about young people exclude the experiences of young people from rural and regional areas.
I see this every day in my work as a lived experience consultant at Berry Street with the Y-Change Initiative. We work to influence, inform and change service systems through using the expertise of lived experience. We inform organisations about how they can imagine and deliver better services; help identify barriers for people who are using their services, and any unseen gaps young people might be falling through.
Invite rural people into the conversation
Time after time there are no young rural people present, because we are not invited.
I have been in consulting workshops by large organisations where the organisation’s idea of rural representation was to have their city peers talk about their regional friends. This is treating consultation like a game of whispers, and in my experience that game never ends the way it starts. The best and only way to understand why rural young people are facing adversity is to ask the experts. Us. Young people living this reality.
Recognise the unique challenges and expenses rural young people have
The second challenge comes after we have fought our way to the table. The financial stress.
It is expensive to travel to the city. Not only do we have to pay for travel and food but also accommodation. In some cases, it is possible to travel home on the same day but not only is it physically draining to do the three-plus hour trip, it is mentally draining too. Having access to accommodation eases the stress and tension and helps us to be able to participate fully.
Be flexible to allow for meaningful engagement
Another challenge we often face to engaging in this work is having to juggle all our commitments. Choosing between two days in Melbourne or staying home for one day of work is a constant decision I have to make. To ease this, we would schedule all of my Melbourne work on the same day so I could travel down and work on projects on the same day or over two days and go home the following. This meant I wasn’t constantly taking trips down to Melbourne and it allowed me to continue studying and get to my other jobs without consistently leaving town for a few days.
Where being flexible with time isn’t an option, can you be flexible with format? COVID-19 has shown us that online consultations can work. While it is better for everyone if the consulting is done in person, as we return back to in-person offices, organisations should continue to make consultations accessible both online and in-person.
Pay young people with real money
Getting paid not only legitimises the importance of lived experience, it also helps young people access participation opportunities and have our voices heard. When being paid in vouchers, it undermines the importance of the work and discourages participants of their worth. Gift cards are what you give to children for their birthdays – money into our bank accounts treats us as equal employees/workers and shows us that we are respected. Not only is money a confidence boost that is validating, it also relieves the barriers we face to being able to show up and take part.
Gift cards expire if unused, which limits our purchasing choices and often we need to pay the excess if they have limits. Being given gift cards isn’t only insulting, they’re also inaccessible.
Recognise our expertise
I am tired of being asked to constantly retell my story. I will tell my story on my own terms.
We are not here to be retraumatised again and again so we can be analysed. The system has already run over us. Repeating our stories so others can hear about how we were saved will not fix problems. There are still countless gaps, barriers and disadvantages in the current system. Invite us to inform and influence the current system, and how organisations can improve.
Recently for my advocacy I was recognised in Youth Affairs Council Victoria’s Rural Youth Awards as the “Young Person Leading Change”, not only did it make me feel great about the work I’ve been doing, it also recognised and acknowledged the importance of lived experience as a legitimate form of expertise.
I will continue to advocate and fight for rural and regional young people and communities to be included in policy and decision-making. Because if our voices and knowledge aren’t there, then the decisions being made are not going to represent or benefit the wider community.
This article is part of a monthly series, Youth Matters, a collaboration between Youth Affairs Council Victoria and Pro Bono Australia to inject the voices of young people into the social change sector.