Listen. Who's Leading Who?
Over the past two years, we have seen a growing trend in youth-led movements with kids using their voices, harnessing the power of social media, and directing calls to action from the national stage in an effort to enact change for our country. These young people are passionate, intelligent, articulate, inspiring. Through focus and clarity, they have mobilized not only their peer group, but an entire nation—and in some cases, the world, by speaking out to demand change.
It was Valentine’s Day one year ago when 17 teens were shot by one of their peers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. While I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in America who doesn’t believe that all children should be safe at school—and museums, shopping malls, parks, movie theaters, concerts, and places of worship—the ongoing debate on gun reform and common sense gun laws has been, and continues to be, difficult and arduous. And yet, in a matter of days after the Parkland shooting, five survivors—friends, classmates, and peers of the victims—came forward and spoke out, campaigning and mobilizing a grassroots effort that inspired one the largest student protests in history. More than 1.2 million people across the country participated in the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, DC, on March 24, 2018, and #NeverAgain and #EnoughIsEnough seen and heard at more than 800 marches for gun control across the United States. Within six weeks, we began to see signs of change, including a bump stock ban and stricter gun laws in Florida—evidence that March for Our Lives is not a moment, but a movement, in legislative progress.
More recently, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg implored to the heads of state at the United Nations Climate Action Summit, You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words…how dare you! The Internet trolls stumbled out of their caves to attack, but the fact remains that 12 months ago, Greta was a single student protesting for climate change reform; last Friday, she was joined by many hundreds of thousands of young people around the world striking for climate change and noting that failure to act is not without consequence. We even had young protesters (peacefully) interrupt a session at conference I was attending last week in Beirut!
I am not the first to go on record to state that it is this generation who will be making a difference in our world. Today’s kids are bright, innovative, articulate, and focused. They have capitalized on their technological expertise to share their beliefs and goals, build connections, and move communities to action; we can learn a lot from these young leaders.
We should start by giving them a voice at the table when it comes to discussions around policies that directly affect them.
Last summer I attended a conference in Croatia and sat with members of the Scottish Youth Parliament (SYP). These teens, democratically elected for two-year terms, represent constituencies across their country. Each year, they, along with all of the 6-21-year-olds in the United Kingdom have an opportunity to identify the issues most important to them, which is then elevated as a national campaign. As I chatted with one of the youth parliament members, I learned that SYP is completely youth-led with strong roots in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Its purpose is to enable Scottish youth to discuss issues of significance to them, and to provide a platform to ensure that their voices are heard by decision-makers. This week, thanks to the work of the SYP, Scotland became the first part of the U.K. to ban corporal punishment for children, giving kids the same protections from assault that their parents have. The SYP website notes the vision for Scotland is of a nation that actively listens to and values the meaningful participation of its children and young people. The country’s goal is to make this vision a reality, such that Scotland is the best place in the world to grow up.
This goal is not a unique one—in August, New Zealand announced the first-ever Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy—but what I found most incredible was how this landmark piece was developed. Like Scotland, New Zealand is a committed follower of the UNCRC and prioritizes children’s rights; in fact, when referencing the new Strategy, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern noted, many of us have often heard it said that ‘New Zealand is a great place to raise a family’… but what would we need to do differently to have children themselves believe this is the best place possible for them? I was blown away by what they are doing: more than 6,000 children and youth in New Zealand were asked for—and returned—input through postcards, online surveys, focus groups, and in-person interviews, on what would make a good life. With children as its focus, New Zealand’s Office of the Children’s Commissioner used this information to develop the framework, strategies, and outcomes for policy makers, community, service providers, and families in this “once-in-a-generation” piece. The program of action was financially backed with funds from the government budget and its government, having prioritized the wellbeing of its nation’s children, will deliver on and add to the actions over the coming years.
Why, in the U.S., aren’t we giving our kids opportunities to have their opinions formally heard when it comes to policies and programs that affect them? Many of them have experience starting as young as elementary school when they participate in student council/government, and throughout high school in the Model U.N. and Junior State of America programs, as well as in local city councils, sports teams, and leadership training. It is time we give kids a seat at the table and listen to them. And yet, as inspired as we are, and through our awe and hope for this next generation of young leaders, I think we are also right to remember: they are still kids and it is our collective societal responsibility to care for them, protect them, and ensure that they have the opportunities they need to succeed. It is a delicate balance, but we can do it.
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