In the U.S. we are experiencing an amazing moment of youth activism, with the courageous voices of the survivors of the high school shooting in Florida leading to a flurry of concrete action: organizing town halls, marches around the country and sustained pressure on politicians for reform of our gun laws. Gun rights is one of the most polarizing issues in our country, and gun violence is part of why the U.S. ranks so low on the Global Peace Index (114 out of 163 countries.) Will these young voices continue to be heard and lead to real change, without increasing the vitriol and deepening polarization in our society?
I am steeped in the world of international peacebuilding and civic activism. We prioritize the role of young people through UN resolutions, and fund hundreds of youth empowerment programs all over the world alongside wonderful organizations like Generation for Peace and Peace First. Yet, how can international civil society and our funders evolve to best support young people within the current #resistance cycle of social movements, and still find ways to heal our divisions through coalitions like the Bridge Alliance that try to bring resiliency back into our democratic processes?
Some thoughts based on my most recent travels and experiences:
Strive for safe spaces where true discussion and differences of opinions emerge: I recently had the privilege of spending a week with future Slovak teachers as a guest lecturer at the University of Bratislava. We explored how to incorporate empathy, tolerance and inclusion into Slovak high schools. Like many countries in the region, Slovakia finds itself deeply divided on the issue of refugees, European integration and combatting terrorism. The students struggled to reconcile what they hear from politicians, their parents, their priests and their peers, to determine what they really think about policies that will keep them “safe” and protect the future of their country. It was a unique experience for them to spend a week deeply discussing and respectfully disagreeing with each other. While we’re “teaching tolerance” we can’t be intolerant or dismissive of conservative viewpoints that we might consider on the wrong side of liberal, progressive issues.
Supporting youth as social change agents must include a focus on collaborative leadership skills and systems thinking: I’ve been working with Rotary International for over a year to reflect on their Peace Fellowship program, and most recently, to help them develop a new curriculum for incorporating the Positive Peace Framework into Rotary’s global grants workshops. Thousands of young people have benefited from Rotary’s investment in them, and they are making a real difference in the world. Through this recent review of youth “peace” programs, we recognized the importance of incorporating systems leadership skills to broaden the definition of building peace beyond traditional conflict analysis and resolution processes. These young leaders need to be prepared to understand and engage with a range of sectors working on all the pillars of peace with the skills to truly collaborate, to build connections and establish creative partnerships for systems change.
Creative talents and new narratives are the future of peacebuilding work: We connect with each other online, through videos, transmedia and entertainment channels. Young people are shaping the opinions of the future generation. I believe through partnerships with the creative industry, peacebuilders will continue to make a difference in a changing world. That is why PartnersGlobal is working with the One Club for Creativity, Young Ones competition to invite future designers to promote a message of tolerance and inclusion, and why we’re establishing fellowships for creatives to work with peacebuilding organizations around the world. Young people have the ability to make a strong impact by raising their collective voice through arts and creative messaging.
Don’t always start something brand new, build on what already exists: After attending and speaking at the Venture Peacebuilding conference in DC in January, I was reminded again (and again) of how much we prize innovation and new ideas for the world’s young people to build peace through start-ups and impact investments. After 20 years in the sector, I can see that we won’t be able to entrepreneur our way out of conflict – rather, we need to support young people to connect dots, look around at what already exists and build on efforts that are on-going with an “entrepreneurial mindset.” It might be more exciting to start something new; and we must take advantage of unexpected flashes of possibility, like what is occurring now with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students. But to sustain efforts for real social change, young people need support to connect with and lend their talents to existing efforts and organizations. I’d like to see youth invited and encouraged to help the “old guard” evolve with new ideas. As a sector (especially those with funding), we need to stop romanticizing new start-ups that are going to “innovate” their way into peace; recognize expertise and experience and connect youth to what’s happening already to make their mark.
We will accomplish positive sustainable change TOGETHER. The old and the young; experience coupled with fresh perspectives; institutional infrastructure with social movements; technological ingenuity with old-school advocacy and coalition-building. We need different experience levels and talents. Yes, let youth lead. They are impressive and inspiring. But the change we need will not come from young people alone. It will come from all of us uniting for a more peaceful world.