A Youth Liberation Movement Is Taking Shape
By Ellen S. Miller
Imagine building a global "liberation" movement that transforms the
typical life experiences of young people throughout the world from one
of passivity to one of confidence and capability.
Now imagine what a difference such a movement would make to the strength
and creativity of the young people engaged. Envision the impact on society.
If most adults had the opportunity to develop self-confidence and the
capacity for leadership during their adolescence by creating their own
community-focused institutions, we'd have an unprecedented cadre of leadership
throughout the world. Developing such strengths at an early age is enormously
valuable - not only for the quality of the individuals who participate,
but also for society as a whole.
Why not give young people the opportunity to do this - the chance to successfully
launch their own ideas and organizations? Why not enable hundreds of thousands
of young people throughout the world to have the
deeply transformative experience of building their own enterprises that
enrich their communities and transform the world? These activities might
be anything from creating a community garden to founding a new organization
for mentoring younger children, from creating an art center where young
people can teach poetry and drawing to stablishing a basketball or soccer
league for at-risk youth.
Consider the work of Brandon Fernandez, the 13-year-old founder of EXPRESSIONS
in Brooklyn, New York. Born ninety percent deaf, Brandon grew up with
a speech impediment that hampered his ability to speak with others. Instead
of expressing his frustration through violence - the natural consequence
of his ability to communicate clearly - Brandon experimented with photography
and poetry and discovered an opportunity to communicate effectively through
Nurtured by Youth Venture, a U.S.-based not-for-profit organization that
empowers youth to create and direct ventures of benefit to society, Brandon
created EXPRESSIONS to teach other young people to express themselves
through alternative mediums as well. He leads a weekly class designed
to train young people in photography and poetry, and he isn't stopping
there. Armed with the confidence to succeed and a newly-found commitment
to community service, Brandon is branching out and starting a second class
designed to intervene with troubled youth and to teach these young people
how to resolve conflict through art.
Jesse Fuchs-Simon and Nicolas Cuttriss founded AYUDA (American Youth Understanding
Diabetes Abroad) when they were sixteen, to address the lack of resources
available to children with diabetes in Ecuador. Noting that there were
no support groups for diabetics in Ecuador, little information on the
disease and medical supplies that were both too scarce and too expensive
for many diabetics, these two teens established AYUDA to help solve these
problems on the one hand, and to increase awareness of the disease, on
the other. AYUDA members wrote a workbook on Type I Diabetes for young
people in Latin America, which they had translated into Spanish and successfully
published. They also organized a letter writing drive to pair Ecuadorian
children with American peers, and traveled to Ecuador over several summers
to organize support groups, run workshops and set up supply banks.
Larrel Simpson, 15, founded Story Zone to instill good reading habits
in younger children by showing them that reading can be a fun experience.
Her team writes its own stories and reads them out to younger children,
arranging to be in different elementary schools at specific times during
the week. They also make the learning experience interactive by constructing
games related to their stories for the children to play. Story Zone will
compile these stories and sell them at the end of each semester to parents,
schools and others, to help raise the necessary funds for their production.
Once young people have had the empowering experience of leading in this
way, they will be set firmly on a path toward a lifetime of leadership
Societies that do not foster leadership skills, broadly leave themselves
vulnerable. Societies that do, harness the incredible resourcefulness
and creativity of the largest segments of their population. This should
major society-wide goal for this next century. Such a movement will have
at least as profound an impact as the somewhat analogous efforts to carry
minorities through different but important redefinitions and transformations.
Freeing young people to seize the initiative is an opportunity with enormous
leverage. For young people in particular, the unfamiliar experience of
"owning" an idea and organization may be even more motivating than it
the rest of us. Their resulting energized commitment commonly leads to
surprisingly quick learning and substantial impact. It also makes each
success contagious as young people sell young people the idea of joining
When even a few successful projects are launched, an invisible "academy"
- a movement - of young people recruiting and training other young people
in the core competencies required, takes hold, "tipping" the culture.
Underlying in this youth liberation movement is a magical motivation that
grows strong for those young people involved, those who recognize that
they are pioneers in, and standard bearers for, a profound social transformation
- a redefinition of what is expected of young people, of the skills youth
communities must master and of the relationship between youth
and the rest of society. This awareness both increases their motivation
and makes them highly effective advocates for this transformation.
All those engaged in such an activity have an exceptional opportunity
to learn and practice teamwork and empathy with one another. Success requires
it and "ownership" makes success enormously, and very personally, important.
Mastering how to work in and between many different teams is absolutely
essential for effective participation in today's decentralized and constantly
changing society. So is the ability to guide one's actions based on an
empathy-based understanding of how they affect others. Individuals (and
groups) who fail to master these two skills are marginalized in modern
society. Both teamwork and empathy are social skills. They need to be
learned and practiced long and hard by young people if they are going
to be effective as adults. Each is a highly motivated opportunity to develop
just such mastery.
In the U.S. such a movement is now underway. Quietly seeded by Youth Venture,
a non-profit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., young people
are rising to the challenge. The opportunity is now available to
youth everywhere, through our Web site www.youthventure.org.
A quiet revolution is indeed brewing.
Youth Venture's ideas and methods have been distilled from the long,
successful, large-scale experiences of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public.
We build on Ashoka's 20-year history.
Ashoka's Fellows have learned, in independent and enormously diverse
ways, is that the one way a social entrepreneur can implement his/her
ideas is to get the young people they are seeking to help to do the work.
And, when given a realistic task and helped to learn how to do it, the
young people get the job done - and thrive in the process. Once armed
with this insight, one entrepreneur after another spread their different
approaches successfully across huge countries and regions - each demonstrating
in the process just how much young people can do if given a realistic
ELLEN MILLER is President, Youth Venture. Youth Venture is a nonprofit
organization that invests in young people as changemakers. It currently
operates in the U.S.
For further discussion:
1. Young people today, particularly in the United States, are often
seen as difficult and challenging. How do we communicate to all young
people that they are a resource for problem-solving in their schools
that they are competent and can contribute in significant ways to society?
Overcoming young people's negative self-perceptions is key to the success
of this effort.
2. Youth Venture is planting the seeds of a mass movement to redefine
the role of young people in our society, as they take the initiative
to improve their lives and those of their communities by launching ventures
own design. How can we persuade adults that teach, parent and supervise
young people, to stand back and allow young people to pursue their dreams?
3. Youth Venture is a U.S. program at present. How can the opportunity
to become a Youth Venturer spread throughout the world? How do we connect
young people working on similar issues, maximizing their learning and
creating a global adolescent culture of "can do?"
4. Youth Venture provides a framework for young people to showcase their
innate abilities to create, lead and persevere in ways that enable them
to develop the confidence and inner resolve that will stay with them
for life. What are the implications of "growing" the natural leadership
of societies (a core goal of Youth Venture) from 2-3 percent to 50-60