Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

How to Empower Youth to Change the World

September 20, 2013

UN Week is just days away in New York City where world leaders, entrepreneurs and innovators will descend on Manhattan for events like the Social Good Summit, the Clinton Global Initiative and of course, the meetings of the UN General Assembly. Discussions will range in topics and much will be said about the Millenium Development Goals (or MDGs) with a heavy emphasis on #2030Now, and the notion that we need to be hyper focused on addressing issues to achieve the goals we want to see in place by 2030, as a global community. For me, the answer of how to reach our goals by 2030 is easy: we need to empower youth to be change agents.

What is a change agent you ask?

BAVC Map Your World from Grainger-Monsen Newnham on Vimeo.

A change agent is someone who uses their voices and actions to create change, like three children in Kolkata, India who took it upon themselves to increase polio vaccination rates and help put their community on the map so that they could have access to clean water.

A change agent is someone like Jackson Merrick, a 5th grader from Virginia who happened to notice a Nothing But Nets sign at a basketball tournament.  He was so inspired, after learning about the organization’s efforts to help end deaths from Malaria in Africa, he decided to raise money by selling African themed bracelets, key-chains and necklaces to purchase 18 insecticide-treated bed nets to protect a classroom of kids and their families.

But How? How Can We Empower Youth?

Some would say that as idyllic as it sounds- to empower youth, it is not that easy as parents, community leaders and teachers to foster this sense of ownership and leadership in children. Some might even wonder how can we put our future into the hands of tweens and teens, whose ideas span from the simple lemonade stand to lofty dreams that are ridden with logistical complications.

 The "how" of how to empower youth to be change agents is to let them be kids and develop their own ideas- wherever they are in the range of potential social good actions.

The answer is simple- we simply let them "do." We let them dream and think. We give our youth the tools to collaborate and problem solve, brainstorm and reflect. We empower them to believe that their voice matters without judging or criticizing their ideas.

The "how" of how to empower youth to be change agents is to let them be kids and develop their own ideas- wherever they are in the range of potential social good actions. While one teen might be ready to speak out on a cause to their classmates or create an after school club, another might produce a video to build general awareness, while another might make bracelets to sell for a cause. The action almost doesn’t matter as long as it is meaningful to the student and fosters a sense of purpose.

A new study conducted by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and the United Nations Foundation found that 9 out of 10 American youth between the ages eight and 19 give money to organizations dedicated to charitable causes. Tweens and teens want to give, participate and have an impact- it is up to us to support and empower them.

When we let our children's voices and ideas speak for themselves, the actions are more powerful...more inspired.

Kids will be kids, and that is what makes their voices meaningful.

The truth is that kids, even the most well meaning ones, are going to have up and down days when it comes to using their voice. Sometimes their ideas will have expansive reach, while others may fall flat--and that is ok. They need to learn that being a change agent does not mean that everyone will always want to listen, just because we would like them to. They need to learn that sometimes even the most fabulous idea may need a bit more ‘oomph’ or logistical planning.  They need to know that ideas come to us sometimes when we least expect it, whether we are in the shower or walking home from the bus stop.

But most importantly, our children need to know that we believe in their ideas and potential as change agents.

As parents and adults we also have to face another reality of empowering youth. Tweens and teens are adolescents. They may be ready to inspire others one week and want nothing to do with the cause the next. The goal is to help our youth develop habits, that in the end, they can sustain without our ‘suggestions’ or prodding. We have to let their interests ebb and flow, while still talking about our own actions for good in the background, so that our behaviors and words create the foundation for a long-term lifestyle.

We have an opportunity, now- to empower youth be part of the solution to help shape what life will be like in 2030. Follow the #2030Now conversation next week and in the coming months and help foster the next generation of change agents.

 

 
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