Rethinking youth agency in Central America
Younger children run past me laughing and playing games. Older kids are setting up a science fair, proudly displaying their projects. Latin music booms from the kitchen, as does the smell of fresh tortillas, where volunteer parents are cooking lunch. Bright, colorful murals of animals and nature cover the walls. From the moment I walked through the front gate of this Honduran public school, I felt an instant sense of joy, inclusion, and safety; feelings that do not match how this area sometimes features in the news, an area known for high levels of poverty, crime and violence.
I arrived at the school with thanks to generous support from a SLAS doctoral research grant that funded some of my research activities in ‘harder to reach’ communities in Guatemala and Honduras. I define ‘harder to reach’ as communities that require additional transportation, staffing and security measures to access and visit. With the help of young local researchers, we conducted youth focus group discussions and interviews with school staff, volunteers, and local community organizations. We asked specific questions about youth interests, roles and responsibilities within the school and community, and more general questions about how youth are commonly perceived by adults and political leaders. In the focus group discussions, we directly asked youth about how they make decisions and how they voice or act on issues that are important to them.
These research activities are part of my doctoral study investigating relationships between youth agency, education and gender, and how meanings and measures of youth agency used by global organizations are understood, interpreted or contested by local gender and education stakeholders in crisis-affected contexts in the Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras). Through this research, I also seek to reflect on measures of youth agency, and what may be gained and lost by using globally standardized measurement tools. In a study exploring pluralities of meaning, an opportunity to discuss these topics and hear from people with diverse perspectives is a central theme.
Globally, how youth can and should contribute to social change has become a major area of policy concern among global organizations working to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. International development dialogues are increasingly calling on youth to act as leaders, partners, and agents of change and the announcement of the first-ever UN Youth Office has placed youth issues at the top of the global agenda. While this creates new opportunities and responsibilities for global and local gender and education stakeholders to directly engage with youth voices, it also raises questions around expectations, and how local education stakeholders and youth may interpret and balance global strategies to enhance agency in one domain that may reduce well-being or increase vulnerability in another. In other words, what agency looks like to a Honduran boy living in the capital city may look very different to a Guatemala girl living in a rural area. Both versions are important and valid making it difficult to find clear definitions and measures linked to how youth agency contributes to social change.
Sitting in the public school in Honduras, it was increasingly apparent that highly visible forms of youth activism, in the forms of youth protests or demonstrations, are restricted in contexts where youth face public safety concerns. However, in no way should that be read as if these young people lack agency. In focus group discussions, young people demonstrated their abilities to articulate issues that are important to them, which includes security concerns, excess garbage and pollution and access to clean water, among many others. They also shared how they navigate important issues today, such as getting home from school by a certain hour or working with their family to conserve water usage, and voiced their visions for how to address these issues in the future.
While their contributions do not evoke the image of a youth activist marching with a megaphone, they do indicate some of the more subtle ways in which youth are raising their voices and acting for social change. My study is reflective, looking at these more subtle contributions and asking: what can we see in the nuances? What do we hear in the silences? How do youth contribute to social change when a megaphone and a public platform are not available to them? It turns out these items are sufficient but not necessary when it comes to youth standing for what they think and believe.
This project is supervised by Professor Elaine Unterhalter and Dr. Rosie Peppin Vaughan at the Institute of Education (IOE), University College London’s Faculty of Education and Society. The local project partner is Glasswing International.
The photos included in this blog were taken by young people from Guatemala and Honduras during research activities.