Last month, USAID launched a new “Youth Impact” initiative to acknowledge the powerful role that today’s young people can–and do–play in global development. According to the program’s new site, “America’s youth understand and care more about development than ever before, inspired by the chance to drive meaningful change and eager to use their skills to help those in greatest need,” and I couldn’t agree more! My only question is, why did it take them so long?
Throughout history, young adults around the world have proven themselves to be agents of change. We have bravely staged sit-ins and marches to achieve civil rights. We’re responsible for both the development and explosion of social media and social entrepreneurship worldwide. We have led democratic uprisings in the Middle East, secured legislation to free child soldiers in Uganda, and sacrificed time, energy and salaries in order to serve the world’s poor and oppressed. Here in America, youth are credited with a record voter turnout that was crucial to the election of President Barack Obama, not to mention that we have helped thousands of our peers register to vote across the country. We’re on course to become the most educated generation in American history. We’re resourceful and innovative, passionate and, thanks to modern technology, we’re now more connected than ever.
Yet somehow, time after time, it seems that we are still overlooked. In the US, we’re written off as passive, disengaged or apathetic. We’re given inspiring speeches by politicians who say we matter, but fail to include us in the conversation as they make decisions about issues that directly impact our futures, whether they be student loans, climate change, social security or foreign aid. We’re criticized for poor historic voting rates while simultaneously disenfranchised by new laws in states like Ohio and Wisconsin that impose voter ID requirements and seek to eliminate early voting, same-day registration and preregistration. We’re accused of apathy toward the political process, even as we attend White House Youth Roundtables, “Twitter Town Halls,” and “How to Make Change” web-chats and conference calls. We’re told that because we are the victims of high unemployment rates induced by the recession, we shouldn’t–and won’t–care about any issues besides the economy in the upcoming 2012 presidential race.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the youth bulge around the world is depicted as dangerous. Young adults who are hungry, disenfranchised and denied basic rights are characterized as volatile, even violent, and are faulted with bloody revolutions. Yet while this is sometimes the case, it shortchanges the great promise that youth, who disproportionately represent the world’s poor, have for accelerating development in their regions. It characterizes youth as a problem, and overlooks the structural repression and inequalities that have prompted unrest in the first place. These young people are desparate to be heard, to have freedom, economic opportunity and a hand in shaping their own futures. In that respect, they have much in common with their American peers thousands of miles away.
I, for one, am tired of the exclusion of young adults from policymaking–especially when it comes to global issues–that come as a result of these trends. I’ve watched in frustration as the US Government has blocked progress on climate finance at national and international levels, blocked funding for the United Nations Population Fund and slashed other foreign aid programs, and acknowledged the role of youth in fostering the Arab Spring revolutions while failing to lay out concrete steps for engaging those same young people in leading their nations toward democracy. And, while I’m thrilled to see USAID emphasize “the important role youth play as partners and leaders in development” and seek our suggestions for how to “empower youth in development and tell us about innovative ways you are contributing to global solutions,” I’m left wanting more engagement at the highest levels of governance.
While I think the White House’s recent push to engage youth is a great step forward, I’m disappointed to see it emerge so late in the game, and to see no similar efforts come from Congress. I’m tired of being told time and again that my generation doesn’t vote enough, doesn’t care enough, doesn’t have enough willpower or manpower to make a difference when it comes to influencing governance–whether it’s local, national or global. That’s why I’ve spent my time this summer as the Global Development and Environment intern at Americans for Informed Democracy, and it’s why I plan on returning to DC after I graduate to continue to advocate for international development.
If I’ve learned anything over my summer it’s that youth care about global issues and our role in addressing them. We’ve already accomplished so much when it comes to tackling these issues. But today I want to challenge you to keep going, to do more, and to seek entry into discussions and arenas that you’ve long been led to believe you don’t have access to. Don’t settle for youth roundtables: demand more roundtables with high-ranking policy officials. Don’t just vote: help your friends register to do the same. Don’t just build a health clinic in Africa: petition for better foreign aid funding for maternal health. Don’t just reduce your own carbon footprint: campaign for concrete funding for climate adaptation and mitigation at the upcoming COP17 in Durban.
Congress, the White House, USAID, the EPA, United Nations, the IMF and World Bank–these institutions aren’t off limits! If anything, we’re being given opportunities to engage with them more than ever. I’ve had the privilege of meeting individuals in powerful positions this summer who want to hear what I have to say–moreso then I ever expected them to. But I’d never have learned that if I hadn’t gone out on a limb and introduced myself, asked tough questions and shared my honest opinions. I have a lot left to learn, but my summer has shown me that though we may be young and inexperienced, our generation truly does have the tools work to make our vision for the world a reality. Are you ready?