To mark the 75th anniversary of the United Nations in 2020, its Member States issued a joint statement to express their commitment to transformative change and new efforts to meet the great challenges of the 21st century. In the same statement, they also pledged to “listen to and work with young people”. But what does this mean in practice?
When young thinkers and activists are asked what needs to change in terms of how the international system engages with them, the word they use most often is ‘symbolic’. They’re tired of being asked to speak at events, ostensibly on behalf of all the world’s young people, and used for photo ops by leaders wanting to appear as if they’re ‘down with the kids’ “. What young leaders now demand is instead “meaningful engagement” and “intergenerational co-leadership”.
This message is slowly getting to the “authority generations” who currently monopolize positions of responsibility. Yet while at many UN-related events – including some that I have personally attended – ambassadors and national leaders use buzzwords like “meaningful engagement” and “intergenerational co-leadership”, unfortunately, they are just buzzwords: buzzwords, which have not yet brought about any real change.
Of course, that’s partly because “talking the talk” is much easier than “walking the walk.” World leaders often make promises they don’t keep, sometimes because of a lack of capacity and resources, but in other cases because of a lack of commitment or even will.
The other reason for the lack of progress, however, is that the “authority generations” don’t really know what terms like “meaningful engagement” mean in practice. They may have grasped the high-level messages embraced by young people, but they haven’t yet understood the specifics.
Could this be due to a failure on the part of young thinkers and activists to properly articulate their demands? This is a legitimate question, given the number of issues around which young people are mobilizing, which could lead to mixed messages. This is also fair, given that young people are not necessarily as well versed as their older counterparts in how to frame advocacy campaigns or the language used by decision makers.
Alternatively, is this inability to grasp the demands of young people due to the control practices of generations of authority, which allow young people to get their foot in the door and start important conversations, but do not have enough power? influence to bring about real transformation? Given that there are few young people, especially from marginalized communities, among the ranks of global leaders, this would not be surprising.
It is likely that a mixture of these two factors has left world leaders confused about what they should actually do to end the “token game” and encourage “intergenerational co-leadership”. A number of organisations, however, have recognized the lack of clarity on how leaders can listen to and work with and for young people, and are now exploring new ways to do so.
A number of organizations have recognized the lack of clarity on how leaders can listen to and work with and for young people, and are now exploring new ways to do this.
One such example is the Unlock the future coalition: a network of youth-led and youth-focused organizations with a collective reach of over 500 million young people around the world.
Inspired by Appeal by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to young people to be the “designers of their own future”, the leaders of the organizations that make up the Unlock the Future coalition came together during the United Nations General Assembly high-level week last year to launch the Unlock Statement. In this document, they promised to build “a coalition of high ambition with and for all young people and future generations”. And they set out key priorities, including “fostering opportunities for young people…to lead and mobilize in the face of emerging threats” and “ensure that young people from all backgrounds are at the heart of decision-making processes, including those who are the most affected by discrimination. and inequalities.
Those promises may seem even more empty, but since the Unlock the Future Coalition launched in September, its member organizations have already begun to open avenues for young people to collaborate and engage with leaders and experts across generations. ‘authority. More recently, for two weeks in February, these organizations held a Big Brainstorm: a series of events, inspired by the principles of Open spacedesigned to offer young people a platform for intergenerational action.
In the run-up to the Big Brainstorm, thinkers and activists around the world were invited to form action groups and work on any issue they perceived as a challenge for young people or future generations. During the Big Kick Off on February 7, all the action groups presented the challenge they wanted to explore during the workshop and invited others to join them. They then used the rest of the Big Brainstorm to collaborate on action plans for 2022 and beyond, which they presented during a Big Pitch on February 18.
Giving young people the chance to work together is nothing new. The Unlock the Future coalition, however, incorporated “meaningful” and “intergenerational” engagement at all stages of the process. To begin with, all action groups were completely open to people of all ages, as long as they were led or co-led by young people. Additionally, throughout the Big Brainstorm, the Unlock the Future Coalition hosted a series of Spotlight Sessions: policy discussions bringing together experts of all ages on topics such as education, justice and future generations. The Education Transformation Spotlight session, for example, brought together 60 people of all ages for one of the first substantive discussions about the upcoming UN Education Transformation Summit in September. Basically, it offered young people the opportunity to share their thoughts on the summit with UN officials, ambassadors and others who play a key role in his organization.
The Big Pitch was also open to young changemakers and those from the authority generations who stood up for them, and intergenerational dialogue was in fact a key part of structuring the event. After each action group presented its action plan, they had the opportunity to receive comments and questions from an advisory group including Chido Mpemba, the new African Union Special Envoy on Youth; Johanna Lissinger-Peitz, Swedish government official overseeing preparations for the Stockholm+50 conference; Kate Hampton, CEO of the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation; and Rahul Chandran, the former CEO of Care Impact.
Rather than acting as keynote speakers, these high-profile guests acted as ‘primary listeners’, ensuring that it was the action group’s youth leaders who were the stars of the Big Pitch. That said, each guest provided the young participants with concrete recommendations. Noting that young people are not a homogenous group, Mpemba urged young activists who come forward to ensure that they are reaching out to “young people from non-urban areas, [Global] South, and disabled. Lissinger-Peitz emphasized the need for gender discussions to be “integrated into conversations with men and boys.” Hampton explained that young people should seek to adopt an “inside-out” model, organizing in non-formal spaces as they did at the COP26 UN Climate Summit in Glasgow. last year, but also looking for champions who could help them work through the formal. process. And Chandran spoke of the growing consensus around the importance of “reverse mentoring” – the idea that young people can offer valuable advice to their older counterparts, and not just the other way around – and suggested groups could enjoy, as long as they stayed true to their ethics and their dreams.
Last but not least, the Unlock the Future coalition made it clear that the Big Brainstorm was just the beginning. They pledged to support the Action Groups that came together at the Big Brainstorm to bring their ideas to life with regular check-ins, mentorship, and any resources they might need. They are particularly keen to support action groups to diversify their membership and reach young people at the local level.
It will be interesting to see what these action groups come up with as they come up. But the Big Brainstorm already provides a compelling example of what “meaningful” youth engagement and “intergenerational” action can look like. Young people around the world hope that generations of authority will adopt such models, moving from access control to an open door and open space approach.
Aishwarya Machani is a United Nations Foundation Next Generation Fellow. She led a consultative process bringing together hundreds of young people from around the world to contribute to the UN Secretary General’s ‘Our Common Agenda’ report. She also co-wrote “Our future program», a vision and a support plan for future generations. She is a recent graduate of Cambridge University. His weekly WPR column appears every Tuesday.