As we celebrate International Youth Day this week, I have been asking myself why it is that year after year, senior leaders are quick to applaud young people for speaking out but are so reluctant to make real space for them at the decision-making tables? Long before the COVID-19 virus first appeared, youth around the world were speaking out online and on the streets about the damage and injustices inflicted on the world by previous generations. They marched down the streets of Washington, D.C., and spoke on the steps of the U.S. Congress, at the UN, and on stage at Davos. Their policy demands were received by leaders of U.S. and global institutions with nodding approval; yet, no action was taken to advance urgent calls to address gun control, racial injustice, economic inequality, or the global climate crisis.
And now, we find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic that has left institutions scrambling. Daily news coverage tells us of flailing governments and political finger pointing, while the death counts mount. We are given confusing information about how to keep ourselves and others safe, resulting in standoffs between people in homemade masks, advocating for behavior change to save our future, pitted against others who are desperately hanging on to what feels like normal life.
Sound familiar? This pattern is not new: change versus status quo is a perpetual struggle. It is not unusual for each of us to want to hold on to what is comfortable and familiar, sometimes so badly that even when we see it is not working, we argue that the problem is not the process or the system but rather the way it is being implemented. We make small, sometimes token modifications and convince ourselves we have done enough.
But, we need real change and, with this global health crisis, we need it urgently. We must reimagine our world – how we move, work, learn, earn, vote, and, for many, how we survive the day. The pandemic is a terrible but important opportunity to understand how institutions and processes can and must serve us better, especially those who are most vulnerable because of systematic disenfranchisement. If there was ever a time to embrace the energy and imagination of young people who have long been asking for change, it is now. And, there are so many young leaders out there with ideas who are already hard at work.
When the pandemic hit, USAID’s YouthPower2: Learning and Evaluation project had just recruited its second cohort of YouthLead Ambassadors – a group of 22 young changemakers competitively selected from across YouthLead’s more than 7,000 members. Over the course of their six-month fellowship, Ambassadors designed issue campaigns on topics of interest that align with their work as community activists and social impact entrepreneurs. Every week, these young people led online campaigns that addressed COVID-19 with a focus on solutions rather than despair.
Asonele Kotu (South Africa) and Brian Mafuso (Ethiopia) shared tips for how youth can use technology to advocate for gender equality and sexual and reproductive health during the pandemic. Jacmen Kouakou (Côte d’Ivoire) and Humayun Nosheerwan (Pakistan) explored leveraging the power of social media to combat misinformation, advocate, engage, and hold officials accountable, ensuring transparency. Lesheve Arafat (Tanzania), Esther Akinsanya (Nigeria), and Meenakshi Monga (India) shared their experiences and strategies to curb the negative impacts of the pandemic and engage their peers in their efforts.
The cadre of young leaders is not limited to YouthLead. We have seen the same leadership in the youth who are part of Making Cents International’s Global Youth Economic Opportunities (GYEO) Summit every year. As a result of the pandemic, the GYEO Summit is virtual this year, which enables us to hear from an even wider pool of young people working for change in their communities. Last week in our Summit track event, Livelihoods through Self-Employment, young leaders from the Asante Africa Foundation and the Education for Employment Foundation shared how the pandemic has impacted their lives and discussed how they are finding opportunities amid the chaos, piloting ideas to meet health, education, and economic challenges in their communities. These virtual conversations with young people are a window into what our world could be if this kind of creativity, problem solving, and shared learning was the rule in leadership rather than the exception. In the coming weeks and months, we will continue to bring together young people alongside development practitioners, researchers and academics, private industry, funders, and policy makers to explore how we reimagine economic opportunity in a post-pandemic world.
And so, we come full circle, to International Youth Day and its 2020 theme that urges institutions to engage young people. What if, this time, we actually took up young peoples’ clear and specific demands for change? What if, this time, we regarded our young people as among our greatest assets for overcoming the challenges of the pandemic, and for reimagining our institutions, who they serve, and the kinds of systems they support? What if, this time, we did more than applaud?