The Empty Seat at the Table: Are we Paying a Heavy Price for Ignoring Half of the Global Population?
I have seen the power of youth voice firsthand. As a child growing up in India, I watched my dad mentor troubled kids and even bring them along on our family vacations. I saw my mother constantly cooking for complete strangers, many of whom were youth. In my teens, I started the Calcutta Youth Club to encourage youth participation in civic projects. We produced handwritten leaflets to post on message boards; organized blood donation camps, charity events, and sporting activities; improved living conditions in several slums in Calcutta; and provided shelter to women facing domestic violence. The Club provided a safe place for many vulnerable young people, but most importantly, it offered a practical internship on writing, mentoring, organizing, budgeting, and other critical professional skills that enabled youth to articulate their interests and convert them into action.
In the face of the convergent trends of the so-called “youth bulge” and pervasive—if not increasing—unemployment and community violence worldwide, there is a clear opportunity to better leverage youth as catalysts for social change, rather than drivers of global conflict. In short, we need to give youth a place at the table. When youth gain a voice, good things happen. The conversation around youth voice isn’t just a conversation about violent extremism or misinterpreted religious ideology—it’s a larger conversation that requires connecting dots across both contexts and countries.
The lessons I learned from my teen years at the Calcutta Youth Club inspired me. I witnessed youth transform when they were allowed to express their ideas and act on them. I see enormous potential in harnessing youth voice as a solution to some of our global challenges—from violence to employment. It is no longer enough just to provide youth with employment training or to counter the narratives that lead to violence. We must provide channels to solicit youth ideas and provide support to turn those ideas into action.
In the United States, empowering youth voice is something both Democrat and Republican policymakers can get behind. While governments and multilateral and bilateral organizations have a primary responsibility, it is critical that foundations and corporations (both multinational and national) also play a major role. Foundations can pursue an intentional vision for supporting youth who are not already involved in education, employment, or training—instead of simply assuming they will be supported through child or adult interventions, as is often the case. Corporations can also reap both social and economic benefits by investing in potentially disenfranchised youth, whether as employees, consumers, or elsewhere along their operations.
Similar programs have also been successful in the United States. In Philadelphia, the State’s Attorney’s Office recently started supplementing law enforcement tactics with a filmmaking program called “Voices of Youth,” which provides inner city youth who’ve experienced violence with expressive techniques through narratives and film. The program aims to give youth a positive creative outlet and voice in their communities, while also fostering strong relationships between them and authority figures such as police and their parents. The post-program results have been promising—simply by being treated like they have power to effect change in their communities and help reduce violence, they have done exactly that.
Through these experiences working directly with youth, it is clear that we must work with organizations operating on the ground to give youth a voice. When it comes to capacity building, it is imperative that we shift our focus from a supply driven, one-size-fits-all approach to demand driven models.