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Youth, Politics, and Agency: How Children are Shaping the World

Young people have traditionally been faced with complicated forms of exclusion from geopolitical discourse. Separations between the spatial and societal practices between adults and youths based on imaginations of incompetency, irresponsibility and unreliability (Skelton, 2010) are reflected in the dearth of children/youth scholarship in Political Geography (Philo and Smith, 2003). Youths are considered political subjects ‘in waiting’ (Skelton, 2010), unless being subjected to explicit policing or regulation. However, such liminality can be valuable in uncovering the myriad of ways young people enact geopolitical agency, performing conceptualisations of youth and adulthood to create change and worlds for themselves. This article will explore the ways young people formally and informally occupy political spaces (Skelton, 2010), examining how their geopolitical agency can be achieved in different contexts through acting either childlike or ‘unchildlike’ (Seymour, 2012; Holloway et al., 2019), and ultimately emphasising how young people shape the worlds around them through their eveyday practices (Bosco, 2010).

Children and young adults are increasingly able to articulate geopolitical discourse through troubling the Politics/politics binary of adult and youthful politics (Massey, 2005). The combining of adult-centred formal Politics with everyday developments of political identities (Skelton, 2010) through youthful bodies demonstrates how change can be enacted through a youthful population. This is exemplified through the upheaval of political, economic, environmental and sociocultural lives of the Monserrat population in 1995, following a destructive volcanic eruption. The 2002 review of the Electoral system that concluded, amongst various unremarkable clauses, eligible voters must be permanent island residents for three years or more has been widely debated as an act of disenfranchisement for those who left the island.

Figure 1: Members of the British Youth Council attending a conference in Berlin, photographed by Maurizio Cuttin (2022).

Young Montserratians have embedded themselves within this discussion through the National Youth Council (NYC) and Youth Parliament (YP), with the former’s focus on youth empowerment and community development working alongside the latter’s aims to educate and include young people in Politics to create spaces inclusion and of politics ‘talk‘. The debate between the NYC and members of Parliament entangled Montserratian adult-centred and youth-centred politics nationally and internationally.

Through these formalised institutions, young people were able to debate through the impassioned, quickfire and status-building Montserratian manner of ‘talk’ on Political questions of birth-rights, threading through political and cultural understandings of familial attachment to land, what defines Montserratian identity and who makes a country a home (Skelton, 2010). The blending of performing and participating as Political/political actors through these youth debates demonstrates how young people’s legal-political liminality can create agency in which they can bring these poles together, producing discourses that may be different, but not unworthy, as asserted by Massey’s (2005) notion of progressive politics.

Figure 2: Montserrat Youth Parliamentarian Jaena Golden addresses the UK House of Commons (n.d.).

Geopolitical discourses are enacted through not just the melding of adult and youthful practices, but the rejection of childlike ways of acting in unspectacular, internalised manners. By embodying the ‘unchildlike child’ (Stoler, 1995), young persons are able to present themselves as adults and seemingly enact their own agency, making decisions about their lives through apparently widened capacities to act and reduced constraints. Through discourses of resilience as explored by Seymour (2012), rejecting conceptualisations of vulnerability and victimisation in the war-torn eastern DRC has allowed young people to not only cope but survive in President Mobutu’s liberalised economy since the1990s.

However, the context in which capacity and constraints are formed and shape agency is a vital consideration here, as this rejections and drive towards the unchildlike is framed within this need to be resilient, rather than a simple inconsequential desire. The enactment of agency by children and youths in eastern DRC demonstrates the contextual importance of how individual choices regarding future security and safety are made within a completely liberalised economy where citizens have to defend their own interests (MacGaffey and Bazenguissa-Ganga, 2000). Extreme conditions of adversity and violence encourages high-risk coping mechanisms such as prostitution, soldiering and street living, deemed necessary to support swathes of DRC’s youthful population. This reinforces how the concept of agency is complicated and redefinable as negotiable with adverse societal conditions (Holloway et al., 2019), where capacity, such as an individual’s financial and educational background, and constraints, such as external limitations of high unemployment and warfare, must be acknowledged in the way a young person carries out decisions about their everyday lives and futures.

Adult and youthful and childlike worlds are enmeshed here too where young persons are forced to cope in adult-like ways to remain and live out symbols of futurity, therefore within the unspectacular rejection of being a child remains embodiments of the future and youth in how these persons enact geopolitical discourse. Acting in an unchildlike way to articulate geopolitical discourse is not solely framed in notions of resilience and coping, but rather is varied across spatiotemporal settings to encompass multiple agendas (Aitken, 2001), especially when looking between the Global South and Global North. One such example is the youth movement Extinction Rebellion, where unchildlike manners of striking from school and challenging world leaders to promote environmental and social concern and urgency highlights how geopolitical discourses are articulated through accessing seemingly adult worlds. Notions of childhood and futurity are employed here alongside these adult performances however (Kraftl, 2008), such as discourses that childhoods are being stolen, and the next generation as the custodians of the future, consequently enmeshing the adult with the youthful and childlike realms of political change.

Figure 4: A school strike for the climate, under the banner 'Fridays for Future' (n.d.)

However, context is also highlighted here as salient to how geopolitical agency is carried out. The high-risk coping strategies based on reasons of survival made by young people in the DRC are incomparable to the decisions made by youthful climate-change activists in terms of immediate and personal affect on the body, mind, family and future, as capacity and constraints on DRC youths through issues of safety impact their personal agency in a much more active way (Holloway et al., 2019). Thence, although performances of the unchildlike and childlike child are a common thread here as a way to enact geopolitical agency, the reality of a more adverse local context for children and youths in the DRC (Seymour, 2012) mean these individuals likely articulate geopolitical discourses in a more constrained manner than as seen in the Global North.

A final way addressing how young people shape the worlds and experiences around them is through everyday work, socialising and play, as explored through the lived experiences of immigrant parents and their children in the US (Bosco, 2010). Framed within Deleuze and Guattari’s (1980) notion of becoming, the political impact of children of immigrant parents through their everyday activities highlights the active role they play in creating spaces for political participation for adults within the community (Bosco, 2010), and not just as forms of social reproduction and understanding (Katz, 2004). Along the US-Mexico border in locations such as Los Angeles and San Diego, subtle processes of politics are enacted by the bilingual children of Spanish-speaking immigrants. Activities like helping their parents by translating at formal institutions such as banks and interacting with other children in the area and at school from a range of backgrounds all nod to the salient role these children play in successfully making negotiable spaces for their parents, where play, work and socialising entangle to create conditions for community, social and political change.

Figure 5: Illustration of a young girl and her perspectives when managing different languages, by Chelsea Beck (n.d.)

Children’s activities outside of formal political arenas are rarely recognised as activism, but the way these young children are embedded within geopolitical discourses of strong immigrant communities and so are representative of their communities serves to trouble existing imaginations of what activism is, and how it should be conceptualised using political as well as Political framings (Skelton, 2010). Therefore, in this context, young children and people are able to articulate geopolitical discourses through their own work and play, enmeshing the adult, youthful and child worlds into a fluid political arena with multiple and diverse actors.

Geopolitical discourses are enacted in heterogeneous and complex ways by young people across the world and throughout time. As this article has explored, there is no singular way to define the ways children and youths articulate political agency and the ends they may achieve, but the enmeshment of adult, youthful and childlike forms of worlding are integral to these processes and understanding the making of geopolitical space and change. The entangling of P/politics between formalised and more community-based stages is key in reinforcing the importance of young people in local, national and global processes of decision making and change (Skelton, 2010; Philo and Smith, 2003); the enactment of agency through negotiations of the childlike and unchildlike embodiments; and the creation of spaces of political change through children for wider immigrant communities on the US-Mexico border (Bosco, 2010), all constitute pressing examples of where an attention to and nurturing of young peoples' geopolitical agency can lead to real and significant change at a range of scales.

Bibliographical References

Aitken, S.C. (2001). Global crises of childhood: rights, justice and the unchildlike child. Area, 33(2), 119-127. Bosco, F. J. (2010). Play, work or activism? Broadening the connections between political and children’s geographies. Children’s Geographies, 8(4), 381–390. Crawley, H. (2010). ‘No one gives you a chance to say what you are thinking’: finding space for children’s agency in the UK asylum system, Area, 42(2), 162-169. Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1980). Mille plateaux. Editions de Minuit. Holloway, S.L., Holt, L., Mills, S., (2019). Questions of agency: Capacity, subjectivity, spatiality and temporality. Progress in Human Geography, 43(3), 458–477. MacGaffey, J., Bazenguissa-Ganga, R. and Bazenguissa, R. (2000). Congo-Paris: transnational traders on the margins of the law. Indiana University Press, 50(1), 132–135. Massey, D. and Massey, D.B. (2005). For space. Sage. Katz, C. (2004). Growing up global: Economic restructuring and children's everyday lives. University of Minnesota Press. Kraftl, P. (2008). Young people, hope, and childhood-hope. Space and Culture, 11(2), 81-92. Philo, C. and Smith, F. M. (2003). Guest editorial: Political geographies of children and young people. Space and Polity, 7(2), 99-115. Seymour, C. (2012) Ambiguous agencies: coping and survival in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Children’s Geographies, 10(4), pp. 373–384. Skelton, T. (2010). Taking young people as political actors seriously: opening the borders of political geography. Area, 42(2), 145-151.

Visual Sources

Cover Image: Spiske, M. (2021). [Protest sign at a climate change rally. Photograph]. Unsplash.

Figure 1: Cuttin, M. (2022). [Members of the British Youth Council attending a conference in Berlin. Photograph]. British Youth Council.

Figure 2: [Montserrat Youth Parliamentarian Jaena Golden addresses the UK House of Commons. Photograph]. (n.d.) UK Youth Parliament.

Figure 3: International Criminal Court. (2021). Situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: The Prosecutor v. Thomas Lubanga Dyilo. [Document]. ICC.

Figure 4: [A school strike for the climate, under the banner 'Fridays for Future'. Photograph.] (n.d.) Pixabay.

Figure 5: Beck, C. (n.d.) [A young girl and her perspectives when managing different languages. Illustration]. Wix.


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Emily Duchenne

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