Imagine building a global “liberation” movement that transforms the typical life experiences of young people throughout the world from one of passivity to one of confidence and capability.
Now imagine what a difference such a movement would make to the strength and creativity of the young people engaged. Envision the impact on society.
If most adults had the opportunity to develop self-confidence and the capacity for leadership during their adolescence by creating their own community-focused institutions, we’d have an unprecedented cadre of leadership throughout the world. Developing such strengths at an early age is enormously valuable – not only for the quality of the individuals who participate, but also for society as a whole.
Why not give young people the opportunity to do this – the chance to successfully launch their own ideas and organizations? Why not enable hundreds of thousands of young people throughout the world to have the deeply transformative experience of building their own enterprises that enrich their communities and transform the world? These activities might be anything from creating a community garden to founding a new organization for mentoring younger children, from creating an art center where young people can teach poetry and drawing to establishing a basketball or soccer league for at-risk youth.
Consider the work of Brandon Fernandez, the 13-year-old founder of EXPRESSIONS in Brooklyn, New York. Born ninety percent deaf, Brandon grew up with a speech impediment that hampered his ability to speak with others. Instead of expressing his frustration through violence – the natural consequence of his ability to communicate clearly – Brandon experimented with photography and poetry and discovered an opportunity to communicate effectively through art.
Nurtured by Youth Venture, a U.S.-based not-for-profit organization that empowers youth to create and direct ventures of benefit to society, Brandon created EXPRESSIONS to teach other young people to express themselves through alternative mediums as well. He leads a weekly class designed to train young people in photography and poetry, and he isn’t stopping there. Armed with the confidence to succeed and a newly-found commitment to community service, Brandon is branching out and starting a second class designed to intervene with troubled youth and to teach these young people how to resolve conflict through art.
Jesse Fuchs-Simon and Nicolas Cuttriss founded AYUDA (American Youth Understanding Diabetes Abroad) when they were sixteen, to address the lack of resources available to children with diabetes in Ecuador. Noting that there were no support groups for diabetics in Ecuador, little information on the disease and medical supplies that were both too scarce and too expensive for many diabetics, these two teens established AYUDA to help solve these problems on the one hand, and to increase awareness of the disease, on the other. AYUDA members wrote a workbook on Type I Diabetes for young people in Latin America, which they had translated into Spanish and successfully published. They also organized a letter writing drive to pair Ecuadorian children with American peers, and traveled to Ecuador over several summers to organize support groups, run workshops and set up supply banks.
Larrel Simpson, 15, founded Story Zone to instill good reading habits in younger children by showing them that reading can be a fun experience. Her team writes its own stories and reads them out to younger children, arranging to be in different elementary schools at specific times during the week. They also make the learning experience interactive by constructing games related to their stories for the children to play. Story Zone will compile these stories and sell them at the end of each semester to parents, schools and others, to help raise the necessary funds for their production.
Once young people have had the empowering experience of leading in this way, they will be set firmly on a path toward a lifetime of leadership and caring.
Societies that do not foster leadership skills, broadly leave themselves vulnerable. Societies that do, harness the incredible resourcefulness and creativity of the largest segments of their population. This should be a major society-wide goal for this next century. Such a movement will have at least as profound an impact as the somewhat analogous efforts to carry minorities through different but important redefinitions and transformations.
Freeing young people to seize the initiative is an opportunity with enormous leverage. For young people in particular, the unfamiliar experience of “owning” an idea and organization may be even more motivating than it is for the rest of us. Their resulting energized commitment commonly leads to surprisingly quick learning and substantial impact. It also makes each success contagious as young people sell young people the idea of joining the movement.
When even a few successful projects are launched, an invisible “academy” – a movement – of young people recruiting and training other young people in the core competencies required, takes hold, “tipping” the culture. Underlying in this youth liberation movement is a magical motivation that grows strong for those young people involved, those who recognize that they are pioneers in, and standard bearers for, a profound social transformation – a redefinition of what is expected of young people, of the skills youth communities must master and of the relationship between youth and the rest of society. This awareness both increases their motivation and makes them highly effective advocates for this transformation.
All those engaged in such an activity have an exceptional opportunity to learn and practice teamwork and empathy with one another. Success requires it and “ownership” makes success enormously, and very personally, important.
Mastering how to work in and between many different teams is absolutely essential for effective participation in today’s decentralized and constantly changing society. So is the ability to guide one’s actions based on an empathy-based understanding of how they affect others. Individuals (and groups) who fail to master these two skills are marginalized in modern society. Both teamwork and empathy are social skills. They need to be learned and practiced long and hard by young people if they are going to be effective as adults. Each is a highly motivated opportunity to develop just such mastery.
In the U.S. such a movement is now underway. Quietly seeded by Youth Venture, a non-profit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., young people are rising to the challenge. The opportunity is now available to youth everywhere, through our Web site www.youthventure.org.
A quiet revolution is indeed brewing.
Youth Venture’s ideas and methods have been distilled from the long, successful, large-scale experiences of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public. We build on Ashoka’s 20-year history.
Ashoka’s Fellows have learned, in independent and enormously diverse ways, is that the one way a social entrepreneur can implement his/her ideas is to get the young people they are seeking to help to do the work. And, when given a realistic task and helped to learn how to do it, the young people get the job done – and thrive in the process. Once armed with this insight, one entrepreneur after another spread their different approaches successfully across huge countries and regions – each demonstrating in the process just how much young people can do if given a realistic opportunity.
ELLEN MILLER was President, Youth Venture. Youth Venture is a nonprofit organization that invests in young people as changemakers. It currently operates in the U.S.
For further discussion:
1. Young people today, particularly in the United States, are often seen as difficult and challenging. How do we communicate to all young people that they are a resource for problem-solving in their schools and communities, that they are competent and can contribute in significant ways to society? Overcoming young people’s negative self-perceptions is key to the success of this effort.
2. Youth Venture is planting the seeds of a mass movement to redefine the role of young people in our society, as they take the initiative to improve their lives and those of their communities by launching ventures of their own design. How can we persuade adults that teach, parent and supervise young people, to stand back and allow young people to pursue their dreams?
3. Youth Venture is a U.S. program at present. How can the opportunity to become a Youth Venturer spread throughout the world? How do we connect young people working on similar issues, maximizing their learning and creating a global adolescent culture of “can do?”
4. Youth Venture provides a framework for young people to showcase their innate abilities to create, lead and persevere in ways that enable them to develop the confidence and inner resolve that will stay with them for life. What are the implications of “growing” the natural leadership of societies (a core goal of Youth Venture) from 2-3 percent to 50-60 percent?