“Youth Activism is on the rise across the globe.” “Young people are angry.” Such headlines appear prominently across the United States, pointing to young people as beacons of hope, energized both by anger and by eternal optimism. Whether it is Emma Gonzalez’s heart wrenching moment of silence at the March for Our Lives protest, or the 7-year-old Wynta-Amor’s shaking fists that went viral as she passionately expressed herself at a Black Lives Matter march, youth are getting up, and getting involved. And it doesn’t stop in the U.S.
Youth activism is happening across the world. Young people are playing a critical role in making change happen. From North America to Africa and every continent in between, young people are positively impacting peacebuilding, growing economies, and contributing to the betterment of entire communities. But does international support by young people as change agents go beyond the headlines? Too often, support stops there. Pressing leaders and governments to honor the power and drive of young people is not only the right thing to do, it is necessary.
Before extolling all the incredible ways in which youth are engaging, and why it is critical to support them, Eugénie Lund-Simon, Associate at Chemonics International, aptly noted: “The U.S. has a bad habit of assuming that activism looks the same in every country.” Not only does activism look different, but the tools and language that we use to empower youth activism must be different as well. This becomes clear when we begin to recognize the unique and creative ways in which youth activists are mobilizing. Whether it is U.S. support, or otherwise, supporting youth activists must begin with a commitment to authentically understand the communities in which change is happening.
While in the U.S. a large percentage of young people are protesting, that same act of protest may be punishable by arrest, harassment, beating, or even death in other countries. So, before we rush to encourage and support a rally or a pride parade, we must pause and think carefully about what other ways young people are engaging in activism across the globe that are equally as important and impactful. As we begin to do this, I encourage you to think about the following “rock stars” who are making positive change happen in their communities:
- In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Boy Dhessa Pasha, a local youth leader, turned to rap to empower his peers and community. Boy had grown up in conflict and had been displaced numerous times. Using his own story as inspiration, he started a Hip-Hop radio program and offered young people in North Kivu a creative outlet to express themselves and their own stories. This radio program lead to an awareness raising campaign on youth leadership, and ultimately helped fuel one of the largest volunteer youth-led peacebuilding movements in the DRC.
- In Liberia, young people are turning to entrepreneurship and marketing to support their local economies by launching startups. Young marketing start-ups are enlivening what was once a stale market for Liberian goods, fueling small businesses. As their startups grow, so do their networks of investors, which puts pressure on more traditional foreign investments and the associated lucrative deals that fail to benefit local people. With youth unemployment at record highs, young startups are providing youth a way to empower themselves while harnessing power and giving back to local economies in creative and innovative ways.
- In Madagascar, Sharman Rambirana, youth activist and leader of “Act in Solidarity” (Agir Solidairement -AGIRS), is fighting the pernicious stereotype that youth are both insignificant and lacking in power, by getting involved in political and economic spheres. Rambirana formed a coalition called Youth Students for Peace (YS4PEACE), which provides college students with personal and professional opportunities to engage in activism and peacebuilding. YS4PEACE not only provides external opportunities to young people, but also offers their own development and mentoring programs that equip young people to create their own initiatives. Their peer-to-peer model has inspired groups of young people, creating a domino effect of positive social impact.
- In Colombia, in the wake of violence and disinformation, hundreds of activists have been killed fighting for change. Lina Maria Jaramillo, youth activist and peacebuilder, founded “La Panga”, a digital platform that maps art-based peacebuilding initiatives across the country, fostering collaboration and communication between artists and community builders. Featured in NGO Peace Direct’s Youth and Peacebuilding Report, Lina explained that young people are praised for their new ideas and celebrated as individuals, but rarely supported by institutions or offered long-term support. While her activism is far from performative, the support she is offered by institutions is. Lina Maria Jaramillo and La Panga bring up an unfortunate reality: that too often young peacebuilders and activists are written off or only supported in a superficial way.
These examples of diversity and power behind youth movements both locally and internationally offer strong evidence that youth must not just be celebrated, but they must also be trusted and empowered in thoughtful and strategic ways that go beyond shallow recognition.
Movements vary by community, and while we call universally for more support, we must not call for only one kind of support or one kind of youth leader. This hinders the very creativity that makes them powerful. Whether it is students marching in the United States, or creating apps in Liberia, they are both contributing to a better world. Young people don’t need new ideas- they need more funding, more ears listening to them, and deeper rooted respect from all in leadership.
As young people inherit the earth, they must be stakeholders in its shaping. The exclusion of young people in development and political change is the exclusion of the future. Energetic, innovative and thoughtful, youth activists around the world are speaking up, seeking to be actively listened to and included, not just talked about.
They are our future; it would be in all of our interests to listen up.
Note: This article is largely possible due to the expertise of both Peace Direct’s Youth and Peacebuilding Report and Eugénie Lund-Simon of Chemonics International. The author thanks both for their collaboration
By Megan Masterson
Photo by Vanessa