Youth is speaking — will Power listen?

Global and rising

Kids these days: Questioning. Incorrigible. Disruptive. Entitled.

A few weeks ago, in the winter wonderland of Davos, 16 year-old Greta Thunberg stood up and told a room full of global elites, most of whom have reached the pinnacle of their professional careers, to grow up.

“You (adults) say: ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

Young people around the world are taking to the streets demanding action on climate change. Thunberg has for months been skipping school on Fridays to sit on the steps of Parliament in Stockholm to protest. Hundreds now join her each week, and this past Friday, youth mobilized in the UK, Belgium, Germany, and elsewhere, on her lead. Their signs read, “Stop f***ing our future” “the seas are rising and so are we”, “we’re in a crisis, get real”.

The blunt statements reflect this generation’s approach to solving our challenges: direct, bold, commensurate with the realities we are facing. And this is true all over the world.

From Dhaka to Parkland

Six months earlier in Bangladesh, triggered by a series of preventable road killings of their peers, tens of thousands of youth took over the streets of Dhaka to protest the lack of road safety policy and enforcement. They set up spontaneous check-points to verify license and registration. For those drivers and vehicles, including police vehicles, that failed to produce up-to-date documentation, they blocked the vehicles and seized the keys. The city came to a standstill. The adults followed the young generation’s lead. Though policy is still catching up, there have been tangible changes and this momentum has inspired the students with proof of their power to create change.

Exactly one year ago, in the aftermath of the Parkland High School shootings, a group of student survivors brought a message to adults across the USA:

“We’re children. You guys are the adults… We need to do something. We need to get out there and be politically active. Congress needs to get over their political bias with each other and work toward saving children’s lives.”

Though we may see them less in headline news these days, their momentum has created the adult political will to change gun safety laws in 26 states.

Adolescent agency is a powerful force. Now. For the future.

So what can we, as adults, do? How might we authentically engage adolescents in a wider list of pressing crises of our time: human rights, preventable diseases, rights of migrants, economic equality?

  1. Invest in their networks.

    Youth leaders are connecting with each other to build formal and informal networks.  These networks are becoming new, powerful sources of change: more nimble and more responsive. The Shornokishoree Network Foundation (SKNF) currently supports over 60,000 youth leaders, representing nearly 2 million adolescents in Bangladesh. These leaders are taking action in their communities and nationally (regularly writing their Prime Minister) to address issues from early child marriage to improved food choices. By the end of 2019, with assistance from visionary investors, SKNF is expected to more than double in size -- that’s 5 million adolescents across Bangladesh engaged in improving their communities and their country.

  2. Bring them to the table and listen.

    Nothing about us, without us. We need to recognize that the adolescent perspective is not just informative, it is essential. Established organizations, and the adults leading them, have baggage: agendas, pre-conceived ideas, outdated perceptions of the possible. We need to listen, deeply, to the raw and honest views of the youth, and then match them with the hard lessons we’ve learned. After all, they’ll be flying this planet on their own in a few years.

  3. Connect them: to information and allies.

    While they don’t need outdated perspectives, they do need connections to sources of reliable information, institutions and channels of authority. As Greta Thurnberg said, “If everyone listened to the scientists and the facts - then no one would have to listen to me and the other hundreds of thousands of school children… and we could all go back to school.” Equipped with the right data, resources, networks, and platforms, Thunberg has been able to rally peers and capture the media attention that can help shift the tides.

  4. Raise their voices and amplify their stories.

    In Bangladesh, we have been working with young people in participatory theatre workshops to hear how they think and feel about nutrition, preventable diseases, and their options for their future. We’ve heard stories of kids making compromises to take care of their families, and of adolescents stepping up, dreaming big, and working hard to fulfill their dreams and give back to their communities. We know they want better food for themselves and their communities and will fight for it. They just need their peers and the adults to hear them, and join them. Through the right media channels, storytelling platforms and networks, these young people can reinforce each other.

  5. Empower them to find their own path, and follow.

    All over - young people are determining how they want to engage and how they will shape the campaigns that will shape our future. This past weekend, hundreds convened for Powershift: Young and Rising to determine the future of the climate movement in Canada, amplifying and deciding to center the voices of Indigenous youth leaders. Around the world, youth are organising themselves for the future in ways that weren’t possible 20 years ago. It’s their path, not ours. Our job is to empower them, and then follow their lead.

The children they mark, the children they know

Kids these days: Informed. Articulate. Tenacious. Courageous.

Despite our worst efforts, these kids know their place. They may save us yet. We think of childhood as a time for possibility and play, finding space and taking our time. Except, right now, the children are telling all of us to run. Run as fast as we can. Like their future depends on it. Because it does.

There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.
— Shel Silverstein

Justin Stokes is co-founder of Ananda Partners, a collective action agency.

Contact: justin@anandapartners.com

Marie-Marguerite Sabongui is Strategy Director with Ananda Partners and Chairs the board of Leadnow.ca

Contact: mm@anandapartners.com