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Given the power asymmetries between adults and young people, youth involvement in research is often at risk of tokenism. While many disciplines have seen a shift from conducting research on youth to conducting research with and for youth, engaging children and teens in research remains fraught with conceptual, methodological, and practical challenges. Arnstein’s foundational Ladder of Participation has been adapted in novel ways in youth research, but in this paper, we present a new rendering: a ‘rope ladder.’ This concept came out of our youth-driven planning process to develop a Youth Advisory Council for the Human Environments Analysis Laboratory, an interdisciplinary research laboratory focused on developing healthy communities for young people. As opposed to a traditional ladder, composed of rigid material and maintaining a static position, the key innovation of our concept is that it integrates a greater degree of flexibility and mobility by allowing dynamic movement beyond a 2D vertical plane. At the same time, the pliable nature of the rope makes it both responsive and susceptible to exogenous forces. We argue that involving youth in the design of their own participatory framework reveals dimensions of participation that are important to youth, which may not be captured by the existing participatory models.
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Figure 1. Schematic of our process for developing a Youth Advisory Council (YAC).
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Figure 2. A rope ladder model of youth participation. (a) Braiding illustrates how diverse fibers form strands, and strands are braided together to construct the rope; (b) Swinging and swaying shows how the rope ladder can move flexibly in multiple directions; (c) Knotting and twisting depicts how knots can be employed to fix frays in the rope, and twists can create obstacles; (d) Looping shows the circuitous formation the rope ladder can take—rather than straight up and down—which can integrate feedback throughout the process.