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Connecting Youth with Decision Makers
Start date: Feb 1, 2015, End date: Jan 31, 2016 PROJECT  FINISHED 

The aim of the "Connections" project was to “encourage positive, respectful relationships and represent the voices of young people on issues which affect their lives”. These are the words of the young people who worked with the Northern Ireland Assembly between March 2010 and March 2011 to develop proposals for a Youth Assembly. Given the history of conflict in Northern Ireland, much work still needs to be done to increase understanding between young people from different communities and promote good relations and integration. Northern Ireland is also affected by the general trend towards political disengagement across Europe; especially true for young people and for engagement with traditional political institutions. In light of this situation, the establishment of this project represented a significant opportunity for democratic institutions to show young people that politics is relevant to them and that their views are valued. It also aimed to provide the young people with opportunities to improve their skills and develop new ones. The project ran from 01 February 2015 to 31 January 2016 and gave 36 young people, from a variety of backgrounds, the opportunity to actively participate in democratic life by working closely with the Northern Ireland Assembly on an issue of importance to them. The young people were tasked with completing an inquiry into an issue of their choice. During the initial teambuilding and induction days, the participants chose ‘mental health’. They met with experts in the field and received training in research methods. They spent a week in August 2015 producing three short films on various aspects of the issue. They represented the views of over 2,400 other young people by conducting focus groups and designing an online survey. The participants organised an event in Parliament Buildings to mark World Mental Health Day in October 2015 where they showed the three films to an audience of Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs)and NGOs. The films, along with their quantitative and qualitative research, formed the basis of the evidence they presented to three Assembly Committees in January 2016. The young people were from a broad geographic spread across Northern Ireland. All participants were aged 16-18 and were a diverse group in terms of gender, religious background, disability and economic and social background. Of those who participated (41%) of participants indicated that they faced a barrier of some kind and 7% indicated that they had a disability. The aims of the project were to: 1. Equip young people (both within the group and beyond) with knowledge and skills required to influence democratic decision-making; 2. Highlight the work of government, showing its relevance to young people, motivating and encouraging them to get involved; 3. Empower young people to represent others and effect change in their community; 4. Facilitate young people's engagement with policy makers; 5. Encourage policy makers to engage meaningfully with young people. In addition to these aims, there were a number of other positive outcomes: 1. The young people were able to present to not one but three Assembly Committees during January 2016: Education, Social Development and Employment and Learning. This increased substantially the reach of the 'message' they wanted to convey. 2. The Education Committee subsequently entered into correspondence with the Education Department to raise the profile of mental health in schools. 3. MLAs expressed commitments to aim to: - listen to the views of young people when making policy decisions on their behalf; - involve young people in future Committee inquiries; - include mental health within the future Programme for Government.

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