Meaningful Youth Participation: An Interview with Tahere Siisiialafia
Tahere Siisiialafia, a participant in the “Evidence-based Policies on Youth Development in the Pacific” workshop (organized by the United Nations Programme on Youth, in partnership with other entities and organizations) in Nadi, Fiji in June 2016, possesses an impressive amount of experience in youth participation and its importance to youth development. In light of her knowledge and her experience as an Executive Board Member of the Pacific Youth Council (PYC) and as a lecturer in Sociology at the National University of Samoa, Tahere answered a few questions about her involvement as a young person, at local, regional and international levels.
Question: What made you want to get involved in this subject? How did you get started?
Tahere Siisiialafia: I grew up in a faith-based community (Bahá’í) that actively involved and engaged children and youth in community development activities. In this environment, children and young people were literally at the forefront of the planning, decision-making and implementation processes of these community activities.
It was only when I became involved in youth development outside of this faith-based community and began participating in national youth forums and seminars, that I realized how youth participation in mainstream development efforts was different and more exclusive. Through this type of participation, I experienced the many obstacles that hinder youth participation at national, regional and international levels. For instance, approaches to youth participation are often highly tokenistic in the Pacific community where I grew up because of cultural norms. In particular, young people are so accustomed to listening to others, being told what should be done and also precisely how it should be done.
My involvement in youth development, particularly at regional and international levels, increased through my work with the Pacific Youth Council. I have also been participating in various regional and international forums and events through the United Nations and Commonwealth as a youth representative of the Pacific. My role in these regional and international spaces exposed me to issues of youth participation in different levels and in different spaces.
Question: What do you feel you have accomplished in this field?
Tahere Siisiialafia: First and foremost, I believe that I have accomplished so much as a young individual both in terms of personal and professional development. I have become more confident in my ability and capacity to contribute to social change as a young woman from a country and region with limited opportunities and with numerous cultural and social restraints. On the other hand, through the diverse experiences that I have gained from country to country and from forum to forum (whether through my work with Pacific Youth Council or through my studies), I have broadened my perspective towards the many issues and possibilities in youth development.
Among the many things I would consider as accomplishments, my Masters of Social Work would be my main one. However, it is not only about having a qualification in the subject but rather about fulfilling my passion in this particular area. I chose the field of social work because it “[…] is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work” (IFSW, 2014). This explanation of social work as career includes all the principles that I make an effort to work towards achieving.
During my studies, I researched youth participation, particularly in terms of “informal youth participation” and the “intrinsic benefits” gained through informal participation. My next step would be to have my research published since I believe that youth participation must not only be recognized in the formal and mainstream arena but that informal participation must also be viewed as an important contribution to development.
Moreover, all the experiences gained through the opportunities that I have had contributed significantly to my professional capacity and skills development, especially for my current job as a young lecturer, which I believe is an important platform to work with young people. After all, it is in these academic spaces that we can help shape the minds and perspectives of young people.
Question: What challenges or barriers do you feel you have faced?
Tahere Siisiialafia: One of the major challenges that I would say I faced relates mainly to underestimation. Our potential as young people, especially young women, is often underestimated, and can involve being shunned during and excluded from planning, implementation and decision-making processes. The negative expressions and reactions when young people were bold and outspoken, like being ignored or mistreated, made me think and feel like I was often doing the wrong thing. However, overtime, I realized that I was not doing anything incorrect but merely expressing my perspectives on matters of interest. On that note, with a few experiences gained from various spaces (especially in political spaces), I have come to understand the importance of being able to raise my voice as a young person and as a young woman on issues that concern our own well-being as young people. We must not be underestimated because— as young people ourselves— we are experts about our own needs; We just need to be provided with mutual support and with an enabling environment where our voices can not only be heard, but be recognized as crucial to youth development as a whole.
Question: What do you hope to accomplish in the future in this area of work? What advice would you give to those who want to work in the same field?
Tahere Siisiialafia: I personally would like to become a consultant specializing in work with young people. However, my principal ambition is to establish my own organization that nurtures young people to create and bring about transformational social change in whatever capacity they have, without any form of prejudice and discrimination.
I would not say that I have any particular advice for those who want to work in the same field, but rather mere encouragement for them. We all have the potential to bring about transformational social change to better the societies in which we live. Therefore, I would them tell them not to underestimate their potential to do better and to do greater good for their communities. It is also important to look beyond whatever limitations are in front of them by continuing the great work they are doing, in whatever field of development they work in. By keeping at it and being determined, they will overcome what may have once a limitation without even realizing.
About Tahere Siisiialafia:
Tahere Siisiialafia, aged 26, is from Samoa. Tahere graduated with a Bachelor Degree in Sociology and Psychology from the University of the South Pacific in Fiji and a Masters of Social Work at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. She currently works as a Lecturer in Sociology at the National University of Samoa. Tahere has been involved in community development especially with children and youth all her life through her faith-based activities and has worked as a caseworker and coordinator for a youth-led social work non-governmental organization (NGO) called “Really Make a Difference” (serving socially deprived young people in squatter settlements) for two and a half years in Fiji. In 2013, she was elected as an Executive Board Member of the Pacific Youth Council (PYC), a regional youth-led NGO platform for the interests, needs and development of young people in the Pacific Region. She is also involved with the Commonwealth as a Pacific representative of the Commonwealth Youth Sports for Development and Peace Network, and the Commonwealth Youth Health Network.
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