Critical Positive Youth Development as a foundation for supporting youth activism. By Hilary Dutton

  • 15 March 2021

Young people are always at the heart of social change. While often dismissed by adults for their idealism, it is this underpinning belief that we can do better that makes positive change possible. I have thought about this a lot in the past year, discussing youth activism with colleagues and looking on with awe at the young people who organised and marched in protests demanding change on issues of climate change, indigenous rights, and #BlackLivesMatter. These recent examples epitomise how young people have led the charge on social justice issues for generations. My admiration for their mahi is not sufficient though: I, just like other adults who work with and for youth, must be deeply reflective about how I can best nurture and support young people in their social activism.

In our work with taiohi in Aotearoa, we often look to Positive Youth Development for strengths-based approaches to working in respectful, youth-centred ways. One of the most popular PYD models for doing this has been The Five C’s whereby the development of compassion, confidence, character, competence, and connection ultimately leads to a sixth C, contribution. Contribution is typically conceptualised in the context of the young person and their immediate community. A recent article by Gonzalez and colleagues (2020) argues that this is a limited view of contribution and offers a revised model called Critical Positive Youth Development (CPYD) that includes a seventh C, critical consciousness. Critical consciousness refers to the “ability for individuals to identify and reflect upon oppressive social conditions … and subsequently take action to change said conditions” (p. 28). This means understanding systems of power and believing, individually and collectively, in the capacity to make systemic change and overthrow conditions of oppression. Judging by their recent actions across Aotearoa, it seems many of our young people possess this awareness and a desire to engage in collective action such as protest.

We know many of our taiohi have strong views on social issues. Recent reports from ActionStation (2018), the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (2019) and Youth’19 (2020), for instance, have shown youth are acutely aware of social, economic, cultural and political inequalities in Aotearoa. Talk of individual and collective privilege is common in conversation with youth. Thinking about the growing push towards authentic youth participation in our sector in recent years, I can see how this could be extended to more explicitly include the ways in which we support the development of political identities and critical consciousness. This is especially important for our taiohi Māori, Pasifika, refugee/migrant, rainbow, and disabled young people who are so often at the margins of our society and have to fight not only to have important issues recognised, but then acted upon.

Of course, the relationships we build with young people are essential to this process. They provide the context for intergenerational support and understanding; for wisdom, counsel, and care to pass between kaumātua and taiohi, mentor and mentee, adult and young person, as we advocate for justice. Mana Taiohi is a brilliant foundation for building such relationships, as challenging oppression and working for socially just outcomes is integral to enhancing the mana of young people. As a researcher who specialises in youth mentoring, the potential for youth-adult relationships to enrich the lives of young people is never far from my mind. The powerful work of Torie Weiston-Serdan (2017) on critical mentoring goes hand-in-hand with CPYD. Following the lead of our young people, including critical consciousness, socio-political development, and social justice outcomes in PYD-driven research and practice seems not only prudent, but necessary. The CYPD framework outlined by Gonzalez et al (2020) is a useful starting point for this journey.



ActionStation (2018). Nga korero hauora o nga Taiohi. A community-powered report on conversations with 1,000 young people about wellbeing. Retrieved from

Gonzalez, M., Kokozos, M., Byrd, C. M., & McKee, K. E. (2020). Critical Positive Youth Development: A Framework for Centering Critical Consciousness. Journal of Youth Development, 15(6), 24-43.

Fleming, T., Ball, J., Kang, K., Sutcliffe, K., Lambert, M., Peiris-John, R., & Clark, T. (2020). Youth19: Youth Voice Brief. Retrieved from

Office of the Children’s Commissioner & Oranga Tamariki (2019). What makes a good life? Children and young people’s views on wellbeing. Wellington, NZ: Authors. Retrieved from  

Weiston-Serdan, T. (2017). Critical mentoring: A practical guide. Stylus Publishing.

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