Every year at Youth Affairs Council Victoria's annual civic awards, we see amazing, super high-achieving people and paragons who probably deserve to be prime minister.
But we also see neighbours, colleagues, and friends who contribute greatly to their communities miss out. Too often, we see the same, well-connected people (statistically older Caucasian men) receive recognition for doing their jobs really well.
This year, the remarkable Grace Tame and Isobel Marshall were among an unusually female-led crew of national awards recipients, and their achievements and aims were different to what we might have expected.
What is Grace going to do with her award? In her stirring acceptance speech, she spoke of the benefit of having a platform to speak from, her voice amplified to educate and prevent sexual assault. She was empowered, and recognised the need to hand that microphone over to others whose voices should be heard, and not pretend to be the mouthpiece for all issues.
Young Australian of the year Isobel in her acceptance speech went even further noting that now, "we have a responsibility to acknowledge our privilege and use our resources to lift others up".
When we elevate young people, they elevate other young people and communities.
For young people, it is a rare opportunity to be heard by decision-makers about the cause they've worked for and to develop skills, networks and experience. And it is a chance to empower others to step up and speak up. Recognition can result in massive upswings in policy attention, funding opportunities and empower a community.
At a local level, some rural and regional communities struggle to get nominations for Young Citizen of the Year awards, and other community recognition. It is disappointing and puzzling to see so few young people and youth workers nominated for these important awards. We need more community members to nominate and elevate a young person or youth worker in their community, so it's worth considering why. It's definitely not because of lack of worthy candidates.
We know that some people are worried about backlash and being trolled. Promoting change from a high-profile space can leave you exposed to retraumatising. But as communities, we should be looking out for young people, and ensuring they have the support to have their voices amplified and prepared for any backlash.
By looking out for young people, particularly young people who traditionally don't get recognised as leaders or high-achievers, we are giving them equitable opportunities to go onto achieve other great things to support the community.
Young people and youth workers are often so caught up in the hustle and bustle of every day life, moving from work to study to family to other life commitments that we often forget to acknowledge our own hard work and be recognised.
Receiving an award can be surprising, uplifting and humbling all at once, and encourage us to persevere and continue with our endeavours.
YACVic's Royal Commission into Mental Health working group was made up of 18 young people with lived experience of mental illness.
They engaged with 378 young people and mental health workers which resulted in 49 recommendations relating to young people's struggles with the mental health system including access, stigma, prevention and community capacity, just to list a few. These consultations were at the heart of one of the most rewarding projects that these young people worked on, and it sparked the beginning for bigger and better things.
After that enormous piece of work, several members were recognised in their local community and more widely for their work advocating for youth mental health.
This has led them to opportunities in employment, other volunteering, further advocacy for youth mental health and even new business ventures.
This was just one small example of the enormous difference that can be made to transform our lives and communities.
Another way we can ensure young people are nominated and recognised is to overhaul the onerous and outdated processes. Who has time to write 500 words or apply lofty outcome criteria on a Google form that keeps crashing? Let alone organise the high-profile professional referees you may need to be available to support the nomination. We need new, innovative ways to promote and run awards that reach out and speak to young people.
Perhaps our traditional written nominations and formal criteria are off-putting and disempower young people. Tik Tok might just work, who knows!
At YACVic, we have tried to make nominations more streamlined and accessible, and we'll keep working on this as we celebrate the amazing contributions of young people and the youth sector.
We're committed to amplifying the voices of young people and making those voices count.
You can never underestimate the psychological impact of being recognised for good stuff that you do, especially for young people. It's not token, it's real and it's a win-win. By putting forward a young person, you can change a life, and transform a community.
Karen Walsh is Youth Affairs Council Victoria's rural development co-ordinator for the Great South Coast at YACVic based in Port Fairy. Jen Rowan is YACVic's lead facilitator based in Camperdown.
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