A good look into youth empowerment

“I’m 22 years old and I have already been through the worst terrorist attack in the US, a financial crisis, a global pandemic and now we are facing a climate crisis that puts the life of my whole generation at stake”. That was, more or less, the tweet I read from an upset youngster a couple of weeks ago. He was not the only one, encouraged by Greta Thunberg and other activists that raises their voices. Every day we see a great deal of youngsters that are worried and upset about the many issues we need to resolve. They have every reason to be worried, upset and insecure about the future. But when all this leads to anger, anxiety and depression, -which is common too, I start to question how well we are empowering them.

The world was never free of serious issues. If you were born in 1910, by 22 years old you would have lived through a world war, a global pandemic and the great depression. And that was just a start, more terrible things were waiting for you just a couple of years further. So yes, youngsters need to deal with a lot…like many others did in the past. It is not ideal, but humanity always tried to evolve and progress, and this is no different. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of things that are awfully wrong and we need to fix: inequality, climate crisis, discrimination, poverty, etc., but making this generation of young people believe they are victims would be misleading and underestimating them.

Of course we should support youngsters in the battles they decided to meet. We do need their fresh ideas, revolutionary energy and insolence to question systems that are not working and urgently need to be rethought. But, we should not view them with pity and fuel their anger. Instead we should be there to guide, bring our experience to the table, help them to see opportunities that haven’t yet been identified and empower them with skills, tools and emotional intelligence. “Yes, you are right to be worried and upset, but we can fix this together”, should the main message from adults to them.

Young people have been talking about climate change for decades. But the latest generation of protestors is louder and more coordinated than its predecessors, says Dana Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland in College Park, who studies activism. The movement’s visibility on social media and in the press has created a feedback loop. “Young people are getting so much attention that it draws more young people into the movement,” she says. (From @afiqkhatem blog)

“The collapse of our civilization is inevitable”, said recently a recognized Argentinean XT Rebellion activist in Argentina. Beside the fact that nothing is really inevitable (will leave that topic to another post), the message was clear, strong and (to my eyes) dangerous; considering most of her followers are youngsters. We are telling a whole generation that there is nothing to be done, that they should rebel against “the system”, they should disobey rules and they should do whatever it takes to defend the planet since their lives are at stake. It is not their fault, but the generations before them -which, by the way, were youngsters some years ago. There are serious implications of delivering these extreme messages that put democracies in danger, creates radicalization and threaten those much needed conversation. The key to facing complex issues is understanding that we need diversity of ideas, points of views and critical thinking.

“The problem with inevitability isn’t just that is specifically incorrect. The premise is wrong. The future is determined by so many factors which themselves are ambiguous, that the idea of knowing with confidence what will happen is impossible” (Margaret Heffernan)

In my experience of working with youth there is something very clear: they don’t appreciate condescension. So if our idea of actively listening and empower our youngsters is only saying “Yes, you should be angry! Demand for change” we are not doing them any favours. Worst of all, we won’t make any progress on the issues we need to resolve. Complex problems are difficult to resolve and we should be able to propose to them more than just kicking an open door again and again. A better approach would be to help them to deal with their emotions, developing emotional intelligence, fostering collaboration, giving them tools to understand systemic problems of how we can drive change and accelerate transitions, and making the big picture visible. Yes, we have a lot to deal with, but we are also better equipped. We have science, data, technology and knowledge. But we depend on our humans capacities to create, imagine and work together. All these need a spark of hope, trust and even faith in the potential to do great things.

We need to create platforms for inter-generational collaboration where youngsters can truly become agents of change by taking action driven not by fear and urgency but by coolheaded analysis. The future hasn’t happened yet, and we can shape it together.

Cofounder of non profit El Desafio Foundation and member of Humankind team. Passionate for youth development, sports for development, cities and social change.