The Participation Eco-system for Youth & Community Work

Over the last couple of years I have been working in a deprived estate in Brighton, UK, where I  am required to work in partnership to help co-ordinate youth work provision across the neighbourhood.  When I started I spent some time scoping the existing provision and quickly recognised a few things:

  • All that was on offer was centre-based youth work
  • Attendance at existing projects was dwindling
  • The same young people had been engaged in the same projects for years
  • The young people had little interest in/influence over their projects’ direction

These were symptoms of a ‘participation eco-system’ that was out of whack.

The participation eco-system is a model that illustrates the functions of a symbiotic and harmonious youth work system in a community setting, in the context of youth participation.

participation ecosystem 2

The participation eco-system proposes that it is not enough to have just one or two levels alone.

The model categorises different types of youth work in three different levels depending on the levels of ‘participation’ required by the young people involved: ‘High participation’, ‘Mid-range participation’ and ‘low-level participation’. For example, youth forums usually need a lot of input, focus and dedication by the youth members, therefore would be categorised as ‘High participation’, in contrast to simply rocking up to an open community event – ‘Low-level participation’.

It’s this model’s assertion that all three different levels of participation work need to be in place in a community in order for the work to thrive.  In the case of the neighbourhood in Brighton, the existing services were only offering mid-range participation projects, i.e. centre-based clubs.  Far from damning the great work that can happen in buildings, I’m saying that without the other complimenting parts you miss the opportunity to inspire great things from happening through the mélange.

FNSHLow-level Participation

Back in Brighton, two years on we have redistributed resources and have mobile, detached and outreach work happening, meeting good numbers on street and feeding young people into other projects.

Mid-range Participation

The choice of youth club or nothing is no more; through the week we now have sports clubs, arts groups, a young journalistic group, dance and a bike-maintenance social enterprise.

High Participation

wild park youth festival 2014At the high end we have formed a youth group that raises it’s own money for holiday activities for the rest of the community.  Last year they raised £5k through their own bank account for a summer programme and ‘youth festival’.


The point is that the vibrancy, vitality and variety of the projects now on offer is being fuelled by a healthy interdependence between projects.  They feed into each other, cross-fertilising and each reaping the rewards of others’ success.  By offering projects pitched at differing participation levels we are working with greater numbers of young people who join in at whatever level they are comfortable with at that time.  Of course, it helps too when all the moving parts are communicating with each other well, but that’d be the subject of another blog post!

Projects like Participation Works do a fantastic job in building youth workers’ skills to advocate for participative rights of young people and tell us how important that high-end work is.  But who is out there campaigning for the importance of low-level participation work? Are we, as workers, sometimes missing a trick by keeping our offer too narrow?

If you’d like more information about my organisation and it’s community development approaches in its work with young people you can find our website here.


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