Academic journal article Canadian Review of Social Policy

Affirmative Governmentality and the Politics of Youth Inclusion: A Critical Analysis of Youth Voice and Engagement in Dominant Political Discourse in Ontario

Academic journal article Canadian Review of Social Policy

Affirmative Governmentality and the Politics of Youth Inclusion: A Critical Analysis of Youth Voice and Engagement in Dominant Political Discourse in Ontario

Article excerpt


While a robust literature tracks the ways in which racialized and marginalized youth are excluded from dominant spaces, little attention has been paid to the effects of policies and programs that invite them. This article addresses this issue by examining the discourses on youth voice and civic engagement that have proliferated in recent years in various parts of the world. The saliency of children and youth participation discourse can be attributed to key global influences, such as Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) that focuses on a child's right to be heard on issues related to them (UN, 1999), as well as "the sociology of childhood's emphasis on children as agentic beings" (Raby, 2014, p.77). Youth participation discourses, such as Positive Youth Development (PYD), involve a move away from deficit-based youth development models to an asset- and outcome-based model. The increase of youth participation discourse and the often well-intended youth policies and programs that have ensued, have ushered in a growing trend to include youth in varying degrees in public and non-profit institutional and decision-making spaces. The people most targeted for these programs are youth between the ages of 15 and 24, and it is this age group that is the focus of this paper. O'Toole (2003) states that there is only a rudimentary understanding of how young people perceive participation and civic engagement and that an adult-centered understanding dominates these spaces. This often results in disrespectful and tokenistic methods of youth inclusion that alienate and deter adult civic engagement. This article asserts that meaningful youth inclusion and participation requires the questioning of normative constructs of youth, acknowledging the structural oppressions experienced by young people, and working with youth to understand their own notions of participation.

Many of the studies on youth voice and participation focus on the UK, Australia and the US, although a recent few focus on the Canadian context (Kennelly, 2011, Janes, 2014). The critical literature tends to argue that the dominant discourse within institutionalized youth participation spaces is an illusion constructed by the powerful adult actors within these spaces institutionalized forms of youth participation (Bartos, 2012; Bessant, 2003; Sutton, 2007). According to this literature, these spaces function in highly tokenistic terms but are celebrated through neoliberal narratives on youth voice, empowerment, and participation that tend to eclipse deeper examinations of youth social exclusions and inclusions (Bessant, 2003; Kwon, 2013). Words such as, "youth voice" and "decision making" are problematized and other taken-forgranted concepts are deconstructed to unearth their underlying discourses and their role in governing particular conducts (Bragg, 2007; Kennelly, 2011; Raby, 2014; Tait, 1995). This article adds to the emerging critical scholarship on youth voice and participation in Canada by providing a distinctive focus on the participation of racialized youth. While the paper focuses on one particular government document, the analysis presented here is applicable to various public institutional settings that endeavour to include youth and other marginalized communities.

The next section of the paper presents a brief background to help situate the participation discourses within Ontario's youth strategic framework. The paper then turns to a discussion of the theoretical framework utilized for this research. This is followed by a brief examination of Ontario's current youth strategic framework, Stepping Up: A Strategic Framework to Help Ontario's Youth Succeed (2013). Anecdotal evidence of youth experiences of institutional spaces of participation is also shared using my over seven years of experience working in Toronto with racialized youth from marginalized communities.

Situating participation discourses within Ontario's youth strategic framework

In keeping with the principles of the UNCRC, there has been a slow shift in youth development philosophies from a deficit-based approach that focuses on youth needs, to an assetbased one that focuses on building the positive attributes of youth to help them reach adulthood. …

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