Youth policies as a piece of theatre

At the First Global Forum on Youth Policies, I was asked to join the panel on the final day, entitled “Guiding principles for youth policy development.” But as the final plenary on the last day, I wanted to say something on why I believe #youthpolicymatters, not from a technical, academic level, but from my own experience and understanding of the policy arena.

In “Hotel Sorrento” at the Cock Tavern Theatre.

I originally trained as a professional actor at Central, and was lucky to spend a year working in London on stage. Not at the National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company, but decent plays, with strong messages about life and society.

However, my presence on the panel and my work at youthpolicy.org shows that my life has gone in a slightly different direction to how I would have imaged several years ago. At youthpolicy.org, I work on consultancy projects, supporting national governments and UN agencies to design, implement and evaluate national youth policies, through research, training and events. I also write and edit content for the site, use films to cover international youth events and issues, and support our research work into youth and public policies.

But creating a policy is much life putting on a theatre play.

In "Red, Black & Ignorant" at the Cock Tavern Theatre. Image copyright of Richard Hubert Smith.

In “Red, Black & Ignorant” at the Cock Tavern Theatre. Image copyright of Richard Hubert Smith.

In the world of theatre, we have a Director who is in charge of the artistic process, and who straddles both the artistic and technical worlds. Producers are the ones that control the budget, negotiate contracts and legalities, convince investors and liaise with the many stakeholders. Officials with the Ministry of Youth or relevant youth authority often play similar roles.

Plays are supported by a technical team that source props, design the lighting, create the sound, the set and costumes. Technical assistance by UN agencies, the research community, and NGOs can be invaluable in highlighting best practice, the needs of young people and international standards.

The audience is the general public, but just like at the theatre, the wider society benefit greatly from a policy that meets the challenges and aspirations of young people. Also, the audience are pretty good at telling you whether something is good for not and they are a litmus test for the success of a policy.

And, where are young people? For me, they are the text. The script. In the world of theatre, the words are the life to an actor and they carry the hopes, needs, dreams, fears, wants, longings and disappointments of the characters. Just like a youth policy should.

Then, we have the actors. The policymakers. Those that take centre stage to craft, develop and present something of worth to the audience. To actors, the words are everything and their role is to interpret those words, take them, own them and live them – albeit temporarily. The words on the script reveal what was said – and what was not said – and actors transform the space between text on paper to stories and emotions presented in real life.

But choosing the right words is the most crucial aspect, and developing the right process to select them is key. At the United Nations or at governmental level, the fight over words might seem silly, frustrating or – at worst – irrelevant to the lives of young people.

But I don’t agree.

When the words “sexual orientation” are included in international agreements, it provides the cover and protection for LGBT groups to meet in places they might not otherwise be able to.

When the word “autonomy” is chosen, it prioritises young people’s individual development and their right to make choices of their own over paternalism and state control.

When the word “funded” is present, it transforms the words on the page from an academic exercise to a real policy, capable of impacting the lives of the youth generation.

While plays aren’t make believe, the impact of policies is real – very real. Youth policies have the potential to radically change the experience of young people, both positively and detrimentally. For actors, the words on the page are just real life for a moment.

Finding the right words so that they are relevant is the hardest part. In policy terms we need to find these through meaningful dialogue, evidence-based debate, thorough research, and expert guidance. We can call it all the technical terms we know well, but unless it connects with people on an instinctive and visceral level then we’re unlikely to understand their lives, hopes, and futures.

As the UN Declaration of Human Rights was being negotiated, the Preamble almost did not contain the word “women.” It was initially thought that the word “men” would suffice and would mean “all human beings.” However, some – notably Eleanor Roosevelt – were not convinced, and successfully lobbied for the word “women” to be included. Words matter, both on stage and in policy. They have the power to embrace identities and communities and we must fight for – and defend – our choice of language.

The alternative is that the wrong words, initiate the worst of actions and justify the poorest of decisions.

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