Engaging youth and the vulnerable and marginalised as experts and co-creators of solutions

“Participation is not enough. It has to be meaningful.”

Jaimee Stuart

Jaimee Stuart is on a mission: “To disrupt systems that perpetuate the advantage of a few.” As a researcher, she cares deeply about “the little guy”, “the person that has not been heard”. And is determined to advocate for them: “If I have a platform that I can create that helps other people who normally wouldn’t have a chance, I’m going to do it.”

Her passion for addressing “systemic inequality” has been driving her research career as a cultural and developmental psychologist. She has worked mostly with vulnerable and marginalised individuals and communities. “Because I think that many people who achieve, achieve despite vulnerability, despite marginalisation, despite being a minority. And that shouldn’t be the case. It should be achievement for achievement’s sake.”

Part of her work with vulnerable and marginalised populations has been done in the field of participation. And she notes “it has been hard to bring to the table people who don’t feel heard, or don’t often get the opportunity to be heard in decision making”. There are “inherent difficulties, ethical difficulties, issues of tokenism”, she warns.

“Participation is not enough”, she says: it has to be “meaningful”.  And this applies to online spaces as well.

Jaimee Stuart’s research extends to digital contexts, examining cyberaggression and victimisation, online disinhibition, social media use, self-presentation, and social connection for young people online, as well as digital youth participation.


Youth participation in online spaces


In many ways, Jaimee Stuart, says, when the Internet came along, it was “democratising”, as it allowed us to start “recognising there were different points of view than the ones that were being privileged in scholarship, research, by the news media”, and so on. And in the early days of the Internet, “people could just get on there and be anonymous, be whoever they wanted to be and say whatever they wanted to say”, although this also had its risks – people thought Internet was not real life, but “it is real life, it is just a different manifestation”. So, the Internet had “all these possibilities and potentials of connecting ourselves to different ways of thinking about things, different cultural world views, also gendered world views, different religious backgrounds, different ways of thinking”, and this is one of its “critical benefits”.

But although the digital environment “enables a broader diversity of voices and more people to participate when they have the opportunity and the literacies to do so”, potentially acting as an “equaliser”, it is also true that “there are many digital inequities for participation and for voice in the online space”, she points out. The digital environment is “a broad space”, she says, but “it is not as open of a space as people like to think it is”.

Probably, “as a group of people who have less spaces for civic engagement, young people benefit the most from the openness of online spaces”, because “they take on the new technologies much faster”, “they are more likely to take them on”. “But to the most marginalised youth to speak in those spaces, do people actually attend to youth voices in a meaningful way? Or are they just using those youth voices to say that they’ve engaged with young people?”

She also notes this participation may become more of “an obligation, a burden, on those people”, “which has always been the issue of inclusion of marginalised voices”. In addition, she says, it is important to recognise that those online spaces “are not necessarily safe spaces”, as they are often dominated by people “who are privileged, often times Western voices or people who are older, or people who enforce the status quo some way, and then you have to fit their narrative to be part of it”.

And she warns: “If you have a negative experience in an online space, where you’re being yourself, especially as a young person, where you try to engage with other people, where you talk about things that are important to you, and then you get shut down, or people use your information and your data in ways that are unethical, unreasonable, irrelevant or tokenistic, are you going to want to put yourself on the line in the same way over and over again?”

Jaimee Stuart feels that “policymakers and researchers are trying to suggest that this is the new frontier of participation, and citizen science is the best and newest thing, but actually”, she says, “we need to be thinking about really appropriate ethical ways of doing that”. “What does it mean to say that we are engaging or participating, that youth are able to participate, without supporting it in its entirety?”

“The online environment is a replication of the offline environments. And it replicates inequities, and therefore we need to work harder and think about how to detangle these things without just saying ‘just because you can access something it means it suddenly is accessible’. It is not the case.”

Citizen science, she says, should be “topic oriented”, so that “we can really work on co-creating solutions together, using youth voice as an expert voice”.

As a Senior Researcher at UNU Macau, she hopes the team can “engage with research projects that connect to the voice of youth, that make youth participation at the centre”, “that support this idea that the future for young people is now, that we shouldn’t be waiting, that we should be equipping young people with the skills that they need”. “Because research for youth is not just research for the future, it’s for right now, for sustainability.”

She suggests: “We need to build research projects that are more dynamic, more open to engagement, that allow young people to decide what the research topics are, that allow them to tell us what they would like us to focus on, that involve young people in the research, as researchers, as peers, as experts in their own right, and that also support those young people to grow and to develop.”

“This is not only research, it is capacity building, it is creation, it is the only way we can work with that other side of our [UNU Macau] strategy, which is complexity.”

And while many institutions are slow moving and hard to change, others, like the UN, “already have this idea embedded in its core about diversity”. “So, we are well placed to provide a platform on the basis of being UNU Macau”, she says.


Digital literacies


As for the digital transformation, in general, one of the “critical problems”, Jaimee Stuart says, is that “there is the fear of what’s coming and the fear of change, coupled with all of the economic, social, individual benefits that come from there”, and “it is hard to take a balanced view”. “The tendency is often focusing only on the positive side or the negative side, without understanding the risks and opportunities as they work together.”

“My focus is on humans as they use technology; not just on technology as it relates to humans.” And as “the influences are complex”, “the biggest challenge”, for her, “is to unpack that complexity and to figure out how we can really encourage the good things”.

That is why the researcher is also particularly interested in education in the field of digital literacies or digital competencies. “Because the more you know, the better you are navigating it.”

She challenges the concept of “digital nativity”, often attributed to youth born after or growing up in the 2000s. “Just because you know how to access the Internet, or because you can access it”, or “because you used the tablet at age three, that doesn’t mean that you have a clear understanding of the changing nature of digital life or how to protect yourself in those environments”, she argues.

She has done some research in this field, particularly around social media literacies, looking at “how teachers and students can become more literate in understanding the types of technologies where we self-present and where we are connected with other people constantly”. “There are mass interpersonal uses of the Internet and young people are not often taught the skills in formal schooling to understand what is real or accurate or inaccurate, to understand the ways people use the Internet in a myriad of authentic and inauthentic ways”, she notes.

“With greater digital literacy”, she says, “young people can become better digital citizens in the way they construct and create information about themselves and about others online, and teachers can become better in supporting young people to do that”.

Jaimee Stuart was born in New Zealand and, before coming to Macao, she has moved around a lot, from Australia to Uruguay and Mexico, and back to Australia. She also spends a lot of time in Sri Lanka, with her family.
No matter where she is based in the world, she always takes two things with her: her family, physically, and her Tūrangawaewae, the place where she is connected to land, ancestors and history, as it is said in the Māori language – “it’s the place where I stand, where my mountain is, my river, my people”. “I just have this wide-open space inside of me that I bring with me everywhere.”