Power Sharing

Kristyn Wise worked for many years in the UK promoting
children’s rights and participation.  She is the author of numerous
articles on rights issues and has co-authored several publications
about young people’s participation.  She is currently living and
working with children and young people in Brazil.

I went for a job interview recently for a high-profile post in a
well regarded national organisation. I was impressed that alongside
the trustees on the interviewing panel sat several young people. At
the end of the interview, I asked the young people some questions.
Were they being paid for spending the day interviewing? No, they
were there as unpaid volunteers and had been asked to come along
for the interviews.

When I asked whether they had an equal vote in the interviewing
process one of the trustees stepped in and said they were running
short of time and thanked me for attending the interview. I didn’t
get the job.

I suspect this limited contribution is commonplace. But it
should be possible for young people’s participation to move beyond
this kind of tokenism.

Earlier this year children’s rights officers and advocates won
the Pavilion and Community Care Innovation in Training Award for
training young people who have experience of the care system. The
winning package – Training the Trainers for Total Respect – grew
out of a three-year project to radicalise the participation

The project employed a team of young people whose experience of
the care system marked them out as the most disadvantaged and
hard-to-reach young people. The aim of the project was to develop
co-working relationships where young people and adults trained
together and shared power as equals. The team developed these
working relationships in intensive three-day periods. The
Carnegie-funded evaluation of the team’s work has lessons for
organisations that might venture into participation work.

One of the tensions that the project highlights is the
difficulty in balancing the impact of damaging childhood
experiences, frequent placement moves and fractured education with
a belief that young people are not defined or limited by these
disadvantages. The adult workers had confidence that these young
people could achieve much, and against the odds. At the same time,
they found that it was easy to underestimate the support young
people might need in their work.

“Sometimes they were absolutely fine and they were settled,” one
of the adult workers said, “and others were in complete chaos,
going through various kinds of ups and downs. And you can’t ignore
that if you work with young people as partners. But I think it
makes things complicated for them and for us as adults.”

All of the young people who worked with the project experienced
personal difficulties during their three years as trainers. More
than one spent time in psychiatric hospitals, one was homeless,
another spoke about having a pregnancy terminated in between
training courses. Many of the young people felt that a positive
aspect of working as a trainer was that it served as an escape from
some of the difficulties they were experiencing in the rest of
their lives.

One of the biggest challenges for adults and young people was to
turn the “hallelujah vision” of equality into practical reality.
One of the young trainers said: “At the beginning, because it was
kind of a new concept, people weren’t sure what it meant to be
actually co-training. Could the adults give up that much power for
the young people, and could the young people take that much power,
and take the responsibility that went with it? So we were unsure
about it for six months perhaps.”

The adults acknowledged that they had to work hard to hand over
power to the younger trainers, and trust them. One of them felt
that over the three years she went some way towards achieving it:
“I don’t know if trusting is a skill. It’s sort of taking a risk to
trust that the young people might know what they are doing.”

At the end of the three years, however, the tensions around
power remained and the adults continued to have questions and
worries about their work. Was the respect with which the young
people were regarded as trainers likely to be reflected in other
areas of their lives? How likely was it that people would continue
to approach them with offers of work? Was the accredited learning
and accumulated experience as trainers likely to result in better
job opportunities?

One of the adult trainers expressed the dilemma well: “Sometimes
I fear that we’re setting the young people up a bit, because they
get paid very well, and they get a sense of a kind of fame,
prestige and status that actually is not what they are likely to
receive from the rest of the world.”

So was it worth it? The evidence is that it was. All the young
participants felt the personal gains were tremendous. “My
confidence has shot up,” one said. “I’m not shy meeting people any
more and if I am, I can put a brave face on it.”

Another said: “It gives you that self-confidence to think ‘well,
I have got some worth’. It’s the kind of pride which gives you that
kick when you’re feeling down.”

And one felt she had learned more about how the care system
worked. “When I first started the training I used to blame social
services for everything,” she said. “But now I realise it is not
them that fail us – it is the system and procedures.”

Many of the participants are now employed in participation
posts, mostly alongside children’s rights and advocacy services. It
is evidence of how far these young people have come, and the adults
along with them, that they no longer accept the term young trainer.
Nor do they so easily swallow the fact that the adults should be
paid more than they are. One of the young trainers said: “As far as
I’m concerned – whether I’m a young trainer, a young adult trainer,
whatever – I am a trainer – and I know I am good at what I do. And
if we’re talking about equal opportunities, why don’t we have it
equal in our own project?”

It’s a good question. And I wished I’d thought of it during my


  • Young people must be paid for their work. Payments must
    recognise differing skills and experience.
  • Many young people have turbulent lives and will require
    emotional support.
  • Some young people will be unable to be involved at particular
    times because of their circumstances. They will need encouragement
    and support to return.
  • Honesty about the differing power relations has to be
    acknowledged by everyone involved, and at the outset.
  • Co-working is a complicated experience that requires adults and
    young people to have emotional strength, time and energy.
  • Young people will only have the skill, the professionalism and
    the confidence to work successfully alongside adults if the
    development of these things is supported.
  • Adults will need to have the personal qualities that enable
    them to work with the issues that arise.
  • Some young people will prefer to be supported by other young
    people in some circumstances and so young people should not work by
    themselves alongside adults.


This article looks at a project where adults and young people,
who have experience of the care system, train together as equals. 
It looks at the effects of the care system on the young people and
the impact of adults’ perceptions of power.  The experience of the
project suggests that genuine participation of young people in
services holds groundbreaking potential, although joint working has

Further Reading

  • Bob Franklin (ed), The New Handbook of Children’s Rights:
    Comparative Policy and Practice, Routledge, 2001.
  • Michael Freeman (ed), Children’s Rights: A Comparative
    Perspective (Issues in Law and Society), Dartmouth, 1996.
  • Mary John, Children’s Rights and Power: Charging Up for a New
    Century (Children in Charge), Jessica Kingsley, 2003.
  • Carolyne Willow, Participation in Practice, The Children’s
    Society, 2002.
  • K Wise et al, Up the Ladder of Young People’s Participation,
    Children’s Rights Officers and Advocates, 2002.

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