Understanding hard-to-reach youths’ barriers to civic participation: The CIVACT needs analysis

Since October of last year, I have been working on a new project entitled CIVACT, which aims at developing a range of innovative tools to get hard-to-reach youths involved in urban development in order to bolster their overall levels of civic engagement. In order to get a baseline, we completed a needs analysis in the five partner cities, Hamburg, Gothenburg, London, Porto, and Palermo. In addition to the “usual” barriers to youth participation, we discovered that our target group has a range of additional issues, as the following excerpt from the report details:

The main target group of CIVACT, hard-to-reach youths, varies across the five partners. However, in all five local contexts, the youths in question face multiple challenges in their social environment including issues with family, drugs, criminal activity, school, training, employment and housing. The target group generally demonstrates low levels of education & literacy, high levels of unemployment and a general disconnection from civil society, all of which should be taken into account in the development of the CIVACT methods. In addition, in all five contexts, the target group is characterized by a high percentage of migrants. This characteristic has two effects on the work in CIVACT: first, a large portion of the target group in each context has low competency levels of language skills in the respective local languages. Secondly, as mentioned my multiple partners, the socialization in a different national and/or cultural context may mean that some individuals are not familiar with European democratic processes.


Age-specific and group-specific offerings in many of the partner contexts exclude many youths who need assistance. In addition, several partners report that there is a low offering of official involvement with the youth. Both of these circumstances place a higher focus on the role of the youth worker. Furthermore, youths from the target group lack positive role models and positive experiences with authorities in all of the contexts examined. Again, youth workers can provide such experiences, but they must be trained to be able to do so.


Youths in the partner cities are generally motivated when engaged. Unfortunately, youths in the target group feel ignored and excluded from official channels and are generally characterized by a lack of empowerment for a variety of reasons. Social media engagement can work for some groups, but can face hurdles addressing target groups with literacy or language barriers.


Finally, while general tools exist to work with youths, most partners report that there is a lack of tools to work with hard-to-reach youths in specific. In light of the shared challenges and needs above, the CIVACT methods must bear the following points in mind:


1. Youths from the target group are highly motivated when engaged directly, but need to see results to feel empowered and taken seriously. (Accountability)


2. The target group has low levels of experience with formal learning and training structures and traditional work culture. (Low thresholds, Accessible formats)


3. The youths may have significant language barriers, including non-local first languages and literacy problems. (Engagement through other means)


4. The youths have a lack of positive role models and positive experiences with authority figures. (Affirmative approaches)


5. The target group experiences multiple challenges; formats should therefore integrate engagement, leisure and empowerment with traditional youth work to get as much benefit out of the method as possible. (Synergistic effects)

You can learn more about the project and download the full report on the project website.

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