Time to Stop Assuming and Start Listening to Our World’s Youth

Andrew Leon Hanna
October 19, 2011

“LOL, sent to Paris to discuss global problems but never solve any of them. This kid will end up like the rest of the faceless governmental bureaucracy that has driven America into the brink of bankruptcy and failure.”

That was a comment underneath the short article on my hometown’s website, Jacksonville.com, about my selection to be one of two American representatives at the upcoming UNESCO Youth Forum.

Anyone who has ever spent time reading comments underneath YouTube videos (a favorite pastime of mine, especially when I have an essay due the next morning) understands that what people say online sometimes shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

Still, I think there’s more to this particular comment. And now, sitting on a plane with six and a half hours to go until Paris, I want to explore it more concretely.

Is this person's reaction so unreasonable? In a word: no. Americans are disillusioned with a political landscape that appears to be both too tangled and totally divided at the same time. We watch the news and we see a lot of talk. We see town hall meetings, Congressional hearings, international conferences… but we don’t see as much action as we’d like.

That's a valid reason for frustration, and perhaps that’s what drove our online friend to make this comment.

While I understand how this frustration could lead to the assumption that nothing is going to get done at the upcoming Forum, I could not disagree more with the perspective and attitude behind it.

Youth worldwide are very rarely given real opportunities to influence policymaking.

Youth worldwide are very rarely given real opportunities to influence policymaking. There have been greater efforts to genuinely engage young people both in the U.S. and around the world, especially in the wake of the UN's “International Year of Youth" (from August 2010-2011). But our generation’s input is still quite limited.

Really, our Internet pal should be sympathizing with us; if our government is as inefficient as he believes it to be, WE as youth are the ones who will be shouldering the burden of the consequences -- even though we had very little to do with the poor decisions.

Rather than argue, however, I think a better way to counter the dismissive comment is to spotlight the amazing things that young people all over the world are doing to truly and measurably help their communities.

American youth today – the “Millennial Generation” – are much more involved in civic engagement and community service than previous generations, and that's saying something. When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, it is well documented that the government was remarkably slow in responding. But not the students and young adults. They dropped their to-do lists and traveled to New Orleans in droves to help rebuild the city’s structure and spirit. (As did adults, but it's noteworthy that so many young people made this cause their own.)

Youth all over the world are standing up, too. To give more personal examples, I have a Brazilian friend named Mattheus who recently moved to Haiti to start a music school for children there. His message is rebuilding the spirit, creative energy, and education of Haitian children through music. I have another friend named Mahmud who co-hosts a talk show to raise awareness about AIDS prevention and is working to re-establish Liberia after the civil war. I met both of these inspiring young guys at a youth conference I attended last year.

True, those are individual examples, but research on the trends worldwide (not to mention the headlines on the "Arab Spring" and "Occupy" movements) support the idea that  young people are paying attention and coming together to try to change the way things work, from Texas to Tunisia.

I don't know what to expect from the UNESCO Forum that starts in a couple of days. If nothing else, however, I suspect it will provide me with more friends like these from all across the world -- devoted young people who are locating problems in their communities and working with others to solve them. That cooperation, sharing of ideas and bridging of gaps is nothing to be scoffed at; it has lasting implications. It's not naive to think we could be forging connections among future leaders.

My generation is more connected than those who came before. We see past many of the divisions that our elders have taken for granted. That means we can think differently, see a different potential structure, globally. When we find opportunities like the UNESCO Youth Forum, where youth leaders from around the world can actually influence decision-making, the last thing to do is jeer.

I say it’s time to stop blaming youth for the problems we see in our communities. It's time to stop expecting the struggles of this generation’s leaders to be translated onto our fresh, new generation of leaders. Maybe it’s time to just ... listen.

The UNESCO Youth Forum will be going on from October 17-20. I encourage you, and our Internet buddy, to tune in and to give our generation a fighting chance.

Andrew Leon Hanna is sophomore class president at Duke University and a Robertson Scholar. He is studying Public Policy at Duke, and is the founder of a peer mentoring organization called IGNITE, which focuses on high school freshmen.


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