Giving youth voices accountability: Lessons learned from managing a global youth program

Young fellows engaged in project development as part of a youth program

Young people are growing up in an unsettled time characterized by fear of political, social and economic instability. At the same time, young people are increasingly taking the lead in voicing the urgency and multiplicity of problems that affect them and their communities.  From Emma Gonzalez demanding fierce and deliberate gun control policies to Muzoon Al-Mellehan fighting for the right to education for refugees, the needle of change has been moving for a while now. Despite dismissive stereotypes about millennials, young people are showing up, making themselves heard and are daring to act and organize when many institutions and political leaders are failing to do so effectively.

Youth voice is integral to many pressing conversations on topics ranging from education to climate change. The surge in youth development and leadership programs to amplify youth voices indicates the changing perception of young people as drivers of sustainable and long-term change. Although we have greater inclusion of youth voices at global forums and on key issues, often such inclusion remains symbolic in nature without being accompanied with adequate tools, networks, guidance and frameworks to enable young people to transform their voice into purposeful action.

For three years now, I have been managing a youth program at the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) to identify, support and amplify the voices and work of young people in education. Each year we carefully reiterate the design of the program to identify and empower young people with skills and knowledge to develop impactful education initiatives. As a participant, organizer, and advocate of youth programs, education is a surefire way to create those essential pathways for young people to not only amplify their voices, but also build knowledge, values and practical skills such as ethical leadership, user-centered design, and self-directed thinking habits to create systemic and lasting change in their communities. Programs centered on strengthening existing capacities and ideas of young people ensure that young people are not only placeholders at conferences but are also present on the ground, equipped with tools to lead change.

The inclusion of youth voices also necessitates including the multiplicity of voices that exist. Often times, the plague of self-selection and global inequalities prevent exceptional young people on the periphery from seeking available youth opportunities or finding a place in the conversation. As organizers and fellow young people at the table, we need to be cognizant of the voices that are absent and attempt to share our own platforms with those who are excluded. Thus, creating a cohesive youth program that ensures learning and elevation of youth innovation require frameworks that enable peer learning, and collaboration so that diversity within the program and outside it are leveraged to make bare the inequalities that surround us.

The final lesson I learn every day at work and watching my own passion projects fail is that despite the abundance of innovative ideas, young people have a lot to learn to transform their aspirations not only into action but also into efforts that are sustainable. Ideas come easily, but the ability to build and work in a team, garner community buy-in, manage resources, implement, asses, and sustain ideas pose barriers for many young people. A robust youth program that relies on curating learning environments where young people have access to a network of mentors, peers and relevant resources while being held accountable for pursuing their aspirations is one way of moving forward. However, certain individual qualities such as humility and the commitment to learn are essential to ensuring the success of any youth program. Harnessing such qualities must be a responsibility that each one of us should undertake on an individual and collective level.

Change is incremental, and having greater participation of young people at key forums is an encouraging start to realizing the potential of young people. Now, we must build on the momentum we have gathered. If our goal is to cement the role of young people as creators of an inclusive future, we need to ensure we not only create a rights-based world, but also a responsibility-based community where ideas and pledges are taken forward and they receive the support to do so.