Rebekka Dober, following the motto “if it is about them, don’t do it without them,” is bringing Austrian youth’s voices into the spaces where decisions are made about their future. Besides following a very methodological process of youth participation, she is shifting mindsets amongst decision makers on what real participation means, whilst empowering youth to better understand democratic processes and their own political opinion and needs, with the goal of providing youth the opportunity to experience self-efficacy in society.
The New Idea
Young people aged between 14-20 are often at the forefront of global movements and campaigns advocating for social change. Nevertheless, they are also the generation most likely to be underrepresented in decision making process leading to policies or services that do not reflect the realities of young people. As a pedagogic designer and active member of different youth organisations, Rebekka Dober realised that youth need to experience a moment of self- efficacy in society to realise that their voice counts. Borrowing from developmental psychology concepts, like small children, who realise that when they drop things, their parents react, Rebekka saw that youth needed to realise that when they voice needs, these are heard by and acted upon by decision makers. She calls this moment of experiencing self-efficacy in society “YEP moments,” which she aims at creating for all youth in Austria.
For this to happen, Rebekka has built a holistic, representative approach to ensure real participation of youth in decision-making processes. Through her organisation YEP – “Youth, Empowerment, Participation,” Rebekka facilitates processes in which youth crowd-source opinions and needs amongst themselves, transform them into concrete proposals, and then advocate for them in the institutional set-ups where decisions are taken e.g., on youth policies in ministries or funding decisions in foundations. As a final step, Rebekka plays back the results of the processes to the youth, which gives youngsters the opportunity to understand what “impact” their voice had. This is a key step in her work, as youth experience their self- efficacy in society.
On the individual level, she aims to turn disengaged youth into engaged actors who can articulate how they feel about the issues they see in their environment, who are aware of the channels through which to make their voices heard, and who experience self-efficacy in society as they are informed about the impact of their participation. On the societal level, Rebekka installs the notion that youngsters are experts of their lived reality and that decisions concerning youth cannot be made without their active participation. Through this, Rebekka aims to establish a general practice of youth representation and active engagement in board rooms and policy making processes as a default mode so that participation becomes a right, not a privilege.
Since its inception YEP has involved more than 10,000 young people in participatory processes and has built a network of 500 schools and social organisations that are acting as multipliers. YEP has engaged youth to participate in five youth councils, one in Austria’s biggest bank and another in the Ministry of Education and has provided the space for 300 participatory processes involving youth. Additionally, to bring her vision to a broader audience, she is continuously featured in the biggest newspapers in Austria, who have changed their narrative from being surprised about youth being a participant in decision making bodies to highlighting the utility thereof.
This year, YEP launched its most ambitious process: Together with the Ministry of Education, YEP will rework the curriculum for all trade schools in Austria (impacting around 100,000 students). In this process, more than 10,000 students will be engaged to provide their feedback on the current curriculum and build an ideal curriculum adapted to the needs of youth that will then be included in the legislative process.
Supply and demand of political participation in Austria suffer big systemic issues when it comes to involving youth in political processes. Even though Austria is one of only two European countries where voting is already legal with the age of 16, it suffers from a highly disengaged youth, who do not trust the political system. This can be traced back to several factors.
In the current Austrian political set-up, a more patriarchal system of decision making still pervades. Decisions are made by and therefore for those who take decisions today – not for those who live the consequences tomorrow. Many decisions do not take the perspective of young people, who make up 20% of Austria’s population. There is a predominant mindset that young people are not experienced enough and not mature enough to make informed statements. This is even more the case, for young women’s voices and other marginalised communities. This is reflected in the fact that 50% of 16- to 18-year-olds, first-time voters, say they do not feel represented by political parties in Austria.
Additionally, spurred by many political scandals in Austria in the recent past (e.g. politicians faking surveys to remain in power, or being taped whilst discussing ways to corrupt media outlets) youth, but also the general public, have lost a lot of trust into political institutions and politicians. This can be seen in recent surveys where 33% of 14–20-year-olds believe that Austria’s democracy is weak, 50% of youth aged below 18 do not trust the parliament, and 70% of youth think that corruption is a problem in the political mechanism that is corroding Austria’s democracy even further. At the same time, it is difficult for youth to become politically active without being associated with mainstream political parties as they have been splitting up Austria’s public sphere. There are socialist and conservative kindergartens, schools, sports clubs, youth centres, etc. This means that youth experience party political values from the start of their lives. This is hard to avoid.
Lastly, contributing to a lack of agency and the opportunity to build and represent one’s own opinion, young people do not experience nor learn about democratic participation. In a study recently that is monitoring the Austrian population’s opinion towards democracy, alarming results have been published on how insecure youth feel towards engaging in Austria’s public debate: 53% of youngsters feel they don’t know enough about their rights as citizens, whilst 48% say they did not learn how to participate in political debates. This is due to a lack of coverage in schools as 45% of the survey participants stated that schools do not make efforts to transmit political participation skills/competences. As a result, 38% feel they did not learn how the political system in Austria works.
Lastly, the study showed that young people from low-income backgrounds feel especially disengaged from the political space as they scored consistently lower in levels of political participation, volunteering activities, and interest in Austrian politics, than their peers from more privileged backgrounds.
To ensure that youth participation is a right, not a privilege, and that young people know how their voices count, Rebekka is acting on different levels to achieve this systemic change in Austria. She works with youth so that they experience democratic processes first hand and experience self-efficacy. She collaborates with schools and youth organisations to build representative studies of youth’s opinions to bring into decision making processes of public actors. Ultimately, she is placing youth in the spaces where decisions are made about them, so that they have a direct representation of their voices in the negotiation room. Rebekka follows an approach that she calls “radical participation” – to bring youth to all the spaces where discussions are made about them, following the motto: “if it is about them, don’t do it without them.” Over the years she has developed several processes and approaches to ensure this.
The first key element of Rebekka’s approach is the “participatory youth reports,” knowledge generation based on youth’s needs and opinions. In the creation of the participatory processes, YEP acts as the connector between youth and partner organisations. A collaboration can start in two ways: either partner organisations approach YEP with a request to learn more about a certain topic, or YEP sources amongst its youth community topics that they feel need to find broader representation. If the latter is the case, YEP looks for potential partners to create a participatory process. For external topics, the youth council of YEP needs to agree on a topic so that a collaboration between organisations/institutions and YEP can be started. The youth council is a group of eight YEP community members (youth between 14-20) that act as an advisory board to the YEP team around Rebekka.
Once a topic has been agreed upon between YEP, the youth council, and the partner organisation, YEP designs collaborative processes to source data. In the first steps based on workshops, interviews, and focus groups, YEP builds key questions that need to be answered in qualitative and quantitative ways. Then, YEP shares the surveys through their network of youngsters, partner schools, youth organisations, and smart usage of digital tools to youth across Austria to gather as many voices of youngsters as possible. A high focus is put on representation and inclusion of urban and rural voices of youth. To get there, Rebekka uses low-threshold processes via WhatsApp groups, social media posts, and non-text-based content to reach as many youngsters as possible. Use of technology and widespread apps is a key in this; in Vorarlberg state, for example, YEP’s surveys are included in the public transport application that many students use, since they mostly live in the countryside and are dependent on school buses.
Rebekka also designs specific school lessons for teachers in which they were able to use democratic participatory methods, gathering data, whilst at the same time teaching about subjects that are required for the curriculum. Through this, she incentivizes the participation of teachers and wins them as allies for future projects. As part of the outreach strategy, YEP has built a collective impact network of schools, civic, and public youth organisations, who spread her survey to their members and participants.
Once the results are in, Rebekka, her team, and the youth council analyse the data and co-create the report that is then validated by independent researchers. The finalised products are being presented by youngsters who have been involved in the process and handed over to the partnering organisations. This is a key moment, as it creates publicity for the findings of the youth and puts a certain accountability of the partnering organisations. YEP then make sure that all the youth that have been involved in the process, receive the finalised report and also the reactions of the partnering organisations. Through this, YEP closes the participation cycle as the participants become aware of the first outcomes of their contribution, which is key to the process of realising that their voice has been heard.
Rebekka demands, when building the reports, that youth will be involved in the implementation of the report’s results to safeguard that the reports are being used accordingly. She therefore creates so called youth councils (groups of YEP community members) and trains these to be equipped to represent their opinion “at the negotiation table.” Another safeguarding mechanism, to reduce the potential that partner organisations use youth only to get good publicity, are the “Impact Contracts” that Rebekka and her team have started to sign with the collaborating organisations. In those contracts, similar to a Theory of Change, the partners define together with YEP the short-term, medium-term, and long-term involvement of youth in the roll-out of the project. Without a signed impact contract, YEP is not collaborating with partners. By signing this charter, the signing partners (mostly leaders of organisations) enter into the process already aware of the different levels of participation and the depth of engagement with YEP.
Another key objective of YEP’s work is to make youth have, what Rebekka calls “YEP” moments – moments where they become aware of their self-efficacy in society, that their voice counts. In the participatory processes explained above, they experience democratic processes in which their voice is brought to the forefront. But Rebekka also provides more spaces, where youth can start building the capacities to articulate their needs and show that they are the experts of their lived reality.
For this YEP is regularly touring through schools to hold participation workshops in which students learn that they are the experts of their lived reality and that their issues have legitimacy. Additionally, Rebekka and her team offer monthly check-ins and online sessions for students that become engaged through these lessons, where they can get together, meet, and discuss. They also make use of relevant social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and Telegram to communicate directly with youth. What is more, Rebekka puts a big focus on playing back the impact that the youth had to the youngsters themselves. Besides the regular meetings and engagement opportunities, YEP celebrates an annual “Impact Show” in which the team presents all the different activities and actions young people did throughout the year, highlighting what impact they had and how the youth contributed to this.
Going forward, with the “democracy designs school” project that YEP will lead together with the Ministry of Education, Rebekka will set the precedent for Europe’s first participatory process to co-design with youth a school curriculum. The project will impact the curriculum of 100,000 students in Austria’s trade schools aged 12-16 and involved 10.000 students in the data collection process. A youth council will represent the youths’ positions in the negotiation phase and inform the students about the process, leading to an immediate feedback loop that makes the democratic process more transparent and reasonable for youth. The first draft of the new curriculum will then be played back again to the students who participated in the survey to validate if it is according to their vision. Once finalised it will be implemented in all trade schools across Austria. This will give precedent to scale this co-creative approach to all other school types in Austria, which is an explicit aim of the Ministry of Education. In the long-run Rebekka aims to spread her approach to other German speaking regions (e.g. the German education system), who have already shown interest in her methods.
Rebekka’s focus is also on helping other organisations set up youth councils themselves, handing over her process knowledge to achieve a higher scale. At the moment, she is advising a conglomerate of 14 leading Austrian Education Foundations (“Sinnbildungsstiftung) to establish and manage their own youth councils. The goal is to make youth co-leaders within all the major programs of the conglomerate, from how funding is allocated to how the board takes strategic decisions.
Later this year, she will start a project with Vienna’s school of pedagogy to bring her methodology to more schools. For this she will be working with pedagogy students who can get trained in her participatory democracy training for youngsters which they can then apply at schools instead of paying a participation fee in her training. Through this, Rebekka hopes to source more engaged students as well as teachers who are ambassadors of her project but who can also integrate participatory processes in their teaching so that it becomes a regular practice in the school environment. This is also based on Rebekka’s pedagogic design methodology that she created as a student herself: Youth are experts of their environment, so they are also the best people to engage when changing this environment.
One concrete result of a participatory process is that currently, in 35 schools across Austria, a new subject is taught focused on equipping youth to know more about household economics and “lifeskills” necessary to be an adult without being dependent on the family’s support on subjects like taxation, etc. This was the result of a report that YEP designed with 1100 youngsters to identify how equipped they felt to live independently.
Rebekka grew up in a small village in the conservative Austrian countryside. Her father being Austrian and her mother being a migrant from what was then called Yugoslavia, she faced racist discrimination early in her youth, which made her confront prejudice and social exclusion from an early age. Her parents, having modest economic resources, put a big focus on education and cultural capital. So, Rebekka and her sister always had a lot of books to read and became increasingly interested in the world that surrounded them, questioning why so many things that adults did contradicted what they were reading in their books.
Rebekka was already engaged and restless as a child about the injustices around the world. In primary school, she collected signatures to send a letter to President George W. Bush to stop the war in Iraq, as she could not understand why people would kill each other for oil. Later on, Rebekka had her first conscious changemaker moment, when she was given the responsibility to lead the class lesson on climate change education, after having criticised the teacher for only teaching about the problem rather than acting to build solutions. She recalled saying, “We can’t talk about climate change, whilst at school no one is doing recycling.” In the end, the teacher left her to lead the school lessons and she decided to engage the class in a hands-on project that the teacher supported in the end, and which lasted over several months.
After graduating from school, Rebekka decided to study journalism. Whilst travelling around the world to understand different communities’ social issues, she realised that often a lack of access to education and representation were key factors in the persistence of social issues. She decided to change her subject of studies and pursue a degree in pedagogy. Here she mixed her passion for theatre with pedagogic methods to design her own methodology that would build the basis of YEP later on. She created a methodology in which students could apply theatre practices to work on issues in their immediate surroundings and to turn into experts of their own reality.
Rebekka, through the support of her university and the city of Vienna, applied this method in many schools and with youth organisations in multiple projects with the objective to let emerge the youth’s own experience of reality. She worked as a pedagogic designer together with many different organisations only to realise that a lot of the youngsters that she had engaged with were eager to continue their own journey but had nowhere to go after they had participated in a project with Rebekka. At the same time she had realised, by becoming increasingly consulted by organisations complaining that they could not find youngsters to engage and discuss with, that there was a demand for youth and their voice. Out of this realisation and her methodological skillset Rebekka realised that she could build a project. This was the birth of YEP.