A commitment to the empowerment of young people is a high priority for effective youth AOD services.

The ways in which power is understood have important implications for practice and outcomes, thus articulation of a philosophical position on power is essential. Australian social work academics Karen Healy and Bob Pease have argued that an oppositional construction of ‘the powerful worker’ and ‘the powerless client’ discourages the use of power by clients (Pease, 2002). Alternatively, Pease recommends Foucault’s understanding of power as distributed or diffused throughout social networks and groupings. This approach still acknowledges that power can be unequally distributed, but does not imply that redistribution of power requires or involves its transfer from people who are powerful to people who are powerless. Rather redistribution of power can occur in a variety of ways including, for example, strategies that help the less powerful to recognise the power they have and to use it more effectively to meet their own goals. Within this model of distributed power, practitioners clearly occupy positions of greater power than clients within social structures. Such acknowledgement is critical to the ability of practitioners to work with clients in an empowering way.

In youth AOD work, the therapeutic relationships that young people form with practitioners and environments in which they participate are designed to work as ‘microcosms’ where empowerment can be experienced on a small scale, to inspire understanding and belief about what can be achieved in larger life.

Empowerment involves a sense that choices or alternative courses of action are available for the purpose of negotiate ones way through life and minimising the harms that may be encountered along the way.

Empowerment requires that young people:

  • Have access to the material, social and cultural resources required for coping and thriving
  • Are aware of their freedom of choice to participate or not in the programs and activities offered
  • Are enabled and encouraged, as much as possible, to make decisions for themselves about all aspects of managing their lives (This approach demands that workers consciously let go of any inclination to control immediate outcomes, and to allow young people the ‘dignity of risk’, including the risk of making mistakes)
  • Experience more control over all aspects of their life. Rather than being entirely buffeted around by events perceived as outside of one’s control, empowerment involves a sense of being the ‘driver of one’s own life’. 
  • Feel confident in the support that is available to them should they make mistakes or need help. It is important to acknowledge that for most people, not just our client group, this sense of being the driver of ones life does not necessarily mean being fully independent. Rather the intention is to create a healthy interdependence between the individual and others in their environment – through closer connection with family, friends and community
  • Are able to participate in the community, and to receive the benefits of this participation. Experiences of inclusion and reinforcement for participation help build a sense of agency, which is a key element of empowerment.
  • Have sense of aspiration and optimism about what it is possible to achieve in life. Aronowitz (2005) has argued that “envisioning the future” is central to the development of resilience among at-risk youth.

Progressive organisations also establish formal mechanisms through which young people who are clients and at times their families can participate in a range of decision making activities. When done well, this has been found to be enriching for both young people and organizations (YACVic, 2004).

Youth Drug and Alcohol sector has lagged behind other service sectors in developing the mechanisms through which young people can participate more formally and be recognised for their valued contribution. Service sectors such as mental health, disability, and housing, have been incorporating consumer participation practice into service design and delivery for upwards of 20 years.  Whilst still not perfect, these sectors have shown some leadership in the field (APSU, 2010; p.17).

The National Youth Participation Strategy in Mental Health Scoping Project Report (2008) states that client participation needs to integrated into the fabric of organization and move beyond being ‘ad-hoc’ or a ‘service add-on’. This involves allocating or securing funding to ensure that client participation initiatives get traction within organisations and sectors and are sustainable. 

There is an abundance of literature which discusses the benefits of having consumers input and feedback about service design and development (see National Youth Participation Strategy in Mental Health Scoping Project Report, 2008). The report is clear that inclusion and participation in service planning is empowering for young people, building self-confidence and self-efficacy, giving them a sense of meaning, control and connectedness.  The Straight from the Source report identifies that consumer participation creates “a feeling of ownership and development of greater cooperation between the consumer and the service provider” (APSU 2010 p19).