Politically, Socially Engaged Youth: The Kids Are Alright

Samantha Allemann is a Melbourne based writer, educational content developer and sometime radio announcer.

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Approx 6 minute reading time

“I don’t have an interest in politics particularly,” admits Caitlin Meyer. This is surprising given she’s the Youth Governor for YMCA Victoria’s Youth Parliament. “I’m really interested in youth empowerment and development,” she clarifies.

Don’t underestimate the power of the millennials youth. They do want change, and they do care about the big issues, including politics.  

YMCA Victoria’s Youth Parliament

For 30 years now YMCA Victoria’s Youth Parliament has been helping young people aged 16 to 25 get their voices heard by state government on the issues that matter most to them. Over 3000 young Victorians have participated in the program since its inception in the late 80s. “We have people who come into the program having never had any interest in politics before, and also people who are running for council the very next year,” Caitlin explains. “We’ve had quite a few past members who have gone on to follow careers in politics.”

But even the program’s most politically aspirational members need to leave their party lines at the door. “Youth Parliament is a really good platform for young people to become motivated and engaged without feeling the need to align with a particular political party,” says Caitlin. “The entire program is actually apolitical; we don’t follow any party lines. We run all votes as conscience votes to allow young people to be able to express their opinions without voicing someone else’s.”

Youth Parliament Governor Caitlin Meyer. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Caitlin Meyer

The participants learn about the Victorian Parliamentary process, hone their public speaking and leadership skills, and thoroughly research the issues they’re passionate about. They then work to craft a Bill which they’ll debate over a three day period in Victorian Parliament. “There’s always a bit of playful banter,” Caitlin says of this process. “We do advocate for the interjections to happen because they’re a really fun and theatrical part of the debate itself, but once we actually get into the chambers, it’s respectful. We’ve received feedback from Parliament House staff that we act a lot more mature than the politicians!”

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Caitlin says that last year they managed to unanimously pass all of their Bills onto the relevant ministers. Twenty-five Bills which originated in YMCA Victoria’s Youth Parliament have gone on to become legislation. In the 80s, they focused on things like gun law restrictions and Aboriginal land rights and compensation. In the 90s the Bills were around issues such as gay rights, protecting The Otways forest and reforming the VCE. More recently there have been Bills advocating the counter availability of the morning after pill, and making the act of chroming (inhalation of prohibited substances) in public places illegal. For the Bills that don’t go further, Caitlin says that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t see the light of day. “All of the Bills we send on get filed, so if it’s not for the current minister to pursue, it might be returned to when they’re replaced by a new candidate,” she explains. “One law was created about a year after it was debated in Youth Parliament, whereas another was about five years after.”

Oaktree

Like YMCA Victoria’s Youth Parliament, Oaktree is another youth-led movement also aiming to effect government change. Australia’s largest youth-run organisation, Oaktree’s focus is on the grand task of ending poverty. Staffed entirely by people under the age of 27, with CEO Chris Wallace’s 27th birthday approaching, it’s his last year in the role.

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“Most people get involved with Oaktree because they’re dissatisfied and often angry with the status quo on issues of justice, such as poverty, and have discovered that they have the capacity to turn these feelings into action and impact,” Chris says of Oaktree’s 150,000 members.

“We engage young people as powerful, grassroots campaigners. We have national campaigns tackling global poverty that are executed at a community level through local young leaders.” Chris explains that this could be as simple as encouraging local supermarkets to stock more fairtrade products.

Forget social media: Talking directly to voters is far more powerful

Another way they achieve this is by chatting directly to the public, encouraging voters to consider the Australian Aid policy of the different parties at the Federal election.

Turns out that most of us guess that Australia allocates approximately 13% of our national budget towards foreign aid, but it’s shockingly only 0.9% (a mere sliver of cake), after numerous cuts. This issue was the focus of the weekend’s The Stakeout, an event which brought together hundreds of young Aussies to door knock and talk to voters throughout the country’s marginal seats. Chris says this direct approach is crucial.

“We strongly believe in the power of conversations to transform perspectives,” he says. “When a young person has a conversation with a voter about their concern that the cuts to the Australian Aid program have impacted the world’s poorest people, it matters. It matters because it transforms the stereotypes of young people in the media, it paints a picture of what is possible, and it calls out the self-centred nature of some of our political decision making. It puts a face to the cause and allows a personal, real and emotive experience to be communicated.”

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The Stakeout

18 year old Rachael Dhawale took part in The Stakeout. “Direct contact is important because it engages people’s attention rather than mindless scrolling on Facebook,” Rachael says. “Having young people door knocking also catches people’s attention since there is that perception that young people don’t care about anything.” Rachael admits that she didn’t always care about the big issues, but a trip to India changed that, and she credits Oaktree with helping her feel like she could make a difference. “They didn’t look at my lack of work experience or take into account my qualifications—they saw me for the passion I had.”

Giving young people a voice

“Young people bring tremendous value to tackling the issue of poverty through a mixture of enthusiasm, idealism, innovation, a high risk appetite, and a willingness to try new approaches and ways of solving existing and complex problems,” Chris says. But he admits that it can be hard for a youth-led organisation to be taken seriously. “Our voice may not be substantially weighted if people think we have limited experience or lack of understanding of the complexities of a particular issue. For us it’s important to approach these conversations with deep humility and conviction.”

For Oaktree employee Natalie, it was helping pioneer their campaign to encourage young people to enroll to vote that’s been her proudest moment. “Having the voice of passionate young people unite and communicate a single message that politics and democracy is important was amazing,” Natalie says.

Meanwhile, although she has no interest in a political career, Caitlin says that Youth Parliament has shown her the importance of engaging with politics, something she says needs to be emphasised at a younger age. “We should look into starting the education process a little bit sooner,” says Caitlin, noting that it’s important that young people understand the relevance of their voice. “The stereotype that young people aren’t engaged in politics is quite damaging and alienating—for young people to hear that they aren’t really engaged in politics; maybe they’ve just been disillusioned by the process.”

“We have a vote and we have a voice; I think it’s time that young people don’t shy away from standing up,” Rachael says. “There are definitely young passionate people who want these injustices in the world changed,” says Natalie. “They are acting and want to be heard.”