Young people in Aotearoa are vibrant and they are optimistic. The majority have positive relationships, good health and optimistic aspirations for their futures. Further, we have seen improvements in a range of areas over the past 17 years, including declines in young people’s risk taking behaviours. It is unclear what specific mechanisms have contributed to these declines, but we nevertheless hope future research will continue to disrupt the popular myth that young people today are worse than in previous generations (Farruggia & Bullen, 2010).
These improvements have occurred for young people across the four most prevalent ethnic groups in Aotearoa New Zealand: Pākehā, Māori, Pasifika and Asian, the latter three being those where we have seen and will continue to see population growth. As the research reviewed here shows, most young people are proud of their ethnic backgrounds, and this pride is an important asset for their development. Furthermore, the increasing number of young people who identify with multiple ethnicities are developing intricate and powerful identities which are grounded and enriched by drawing on their cultural backgrounds. Young people lead the way in understanding and celebrating diversity. Providing resources and programming which bolsters the cultural identities of young people is a worthwhile contribution to their positive development.
Young people also lead the way in the digital world. It is an indispensable part of their – and our – lives, and comes with complexities and misunderstandings. It appears that the oft-cited “digital divide” is still at play, although the divide is not as simple as whether young people have access or not; rather, the quality of access and usability may well be more pertinent today, particularly for rural and disadvantaged youth. Regardless, this is an area ripe for research, and young people are ideally placed to direct related initiatives.
There is a lot to celebrate but there is much work to be done. Recent research consistently demonstrates that many young people are not getting their basic needs met. Māori, Pasifika Rainbow young people and young people with disabilities continue to feature prominently in impoverished settings. Other marginalised young people also struggle to access adequate support and resources and are more frequently the targets of hostility and harm. It is no wonder they report poorer mental health. The problems compound when young people identify with more than one marginalised identity. Although this arotake includes several studies about specific multiple identities, more research in this area is needed to acknowledge their unique needs and provide a foundation for programme and policy support.
Ultimately, the story across advocacy groups, census data and representative youth self-reports is the same – further systems change is needed. Therein lie the root problems thus therein lie solutions. Not only that, it is what young people say they want: better role models, improved services and institutions for those who are marginalised, and ultimately a fairer and kinder world. Systemic change needs systemic intervention, and this implicates policy. Whilst some policies appear to have contributed to improvements for young people, there is a huge role for policy makers in creating the desired systems change. Concerning trends arising from economic inequality are stabilising in some areas but it will take much more to undo the damage that years of neoliberal policies have done to already disadvantaged young people and their whānau. Likewise, the historical effects of oppression and colonisation are still felt strongly by Māori and other marginalised young people. Critical consciousness raising regarding colonisation and other forms of oppression is needed across our institutions. In youth development, traditional Western ideology has perpetuated deficit- theorising of youth. This continues to permeate through contemporary research and hence has been used to inform practice and policy in ways that push marginalised youth further out to the periphery. Voices that speak out against this ongoing trend need to be amplified.
Meaningful youth participation is needed at the policy level across government and organisations working with young people because they are the experts in their own lives. Traditional expectations for civic engagement and participation are often not appealing because they are not relevant or accessible, and frequently tokenistic. Simply labelling youth as apathetic is unconstructive and inaccurate because many do care and want to make a difference. The March 2019 student-led climate change strike and associated marches across the country shows the interest and desire to make change is there. However, young people need to be supported to participate, they need to feel effective in doing so, and organisations require adequate resourcing to do this well. Moreover, the clichéd adage that “young people are our future” is often unhelpful as it downplays the value young people offer in the present.
Youth have agency needs that need to be fostered for effective leadership and youth development models, such as E Tipu E Rea and MĀUI are designed to do this. Experiential learning opportunities characterised by high challenge and high support are particularly growth-enhancing. The climate surrounding such experiences also facilitates positive outcomes. Places where young people feel like they belong and are affirmed in their identities provide a safe site for deeper exploration and competency building. This is true for school and community contexts and this is the bread and butter of youth development programming. Evidence indicates that when youth development programmes do this well, they are effective. High quality programme evaluations are informative and necessary in this regard but there is a need for evaluation capacity building within youth development organisations.
In any case, however, when it comes to fostering youth development, the resounding truth is he tangata, he tangata, he tangata – it is people, it is people, it is people. Research tells us – and more importantly, young people tell us – it is people who fundamentally alter young people’s journeys in life, whether it be whānau/family, teachers, peers, programme staff, youth workers or mentors. These relationships are sources of joy, inspiration and guidance for young people and when young people struggle, it is their relationships that are the fix as well as the cause of much of their strife. Investing resources in the people supporting young people is therefore a worthy investment, and one that has and continues to be sorely lacking. Therefore, drawing on the growing Aotearoa New Zealand literature on quality adult-youth relationships, research-informed training, education and intervention programmes that focus on strengths-based relational engagement with young people across their primary spheres of development are needed. Further, these need to be financially and geographically accessible and culturally responsive.
As adults walking alongside young people, it is our responsibility to enact the manaakitanga of strengths- based practice. Equally, our “strengths-based approaches” need to encompass the fuller definition of strengths-based practice we see articulated in the many Aotearoa New Zealand-based and international models of youth development and operationalised through the Code of Ethics. This involves affirming young people’s mauri, enhancing their mana, facilitating whanaungatanga, remaining mindful of their whakapapa and being informed by rich and diverse mātauranga.
We have come a long way in terms of advancing the vision of the YDSA. But there is a long way to go – in research, in policy and in practice. The YDSA principles are as relevant in research as they are in practice, and this arotake is a reflection of their enduring importance. The Māori values presented here reframe and offer additional richness to the principles. They have been embraced by the youth development sector and it is now time for the updated YDSA principles to be infused across the many worlds that young people inhabit.