Steven Culbertson, president and CEO of Youth Service America, explains why youth leadership is essential social change and global transformation
The world has to offer today’s youth something better.
–President Barack Obama
Whether you are considering the recent events in America’s cities, or those across the globe in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, young people’s voices are crying out to be heard.
A youth development “reformation” has been unfolding quietly under our noses for years, giving a proper burial to the Victorian concept that children are to be seen and not heard.
Today, more youth programs treat young people as assets and resources, as opposed to recipients, victims, or problems to be fixed. More youth are now at the leadership tables, just as we began to include women in previous generations, sharing their concerns and their suggestions for a better world. And they are volunteering at record rates, more than any generation in history.
But the world’s current events, especially poverty and terrorism, are shining a big spotlight on our slow pace of reform.
Every organization is taught to know its competition, and YSA (Youth Service America, of which the author is CEO) knows of several of ours: ISIS, al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Shining Path, Real Irish Republican Army, FARC, and more than 50 other terrorist organizations on the State Department list.
These groups recognize what kings and conquerors have known for millennia: young people make very effective warriors for achieving their ends.
YSA’s beliefs are the same worldwide: Children and youth, ages 5-25, are making their communities and the world healthier, smarter, safer, cleaner, greener, fairer, and kinder.
At YSA, we constantly say, “If you don’t have a youth strategy, you don’t have a strategy at all.” Fifteen years into the new century, many people still don’t understand why.
4 critical reasons why we must engage young people as soon as possible:
- There are more young people on the planet than at any time in human history. Half the world’s population is under 25 years old; 40 percent is under 19. In a nutshell, we are outnumbered, but this gives me hope, since young people are always at the center of social progress. Yes, the youth bubble is on our side.
- Young people are biologically wired for the three critical assets that lead to social improvement: novelty, risk, and peer authority. It’s no coincidence that UPS, Microsoft, Apple, HP, Bristol-Myers, and Dell were all started by teenagers on bicycles and in garages and dormitories. Brain science confirms the unique power of young people to see new things and then take the risks to bring them to the rest of us. Because young people listen to each other more than they listen to adults, they also bring their entire generation along with them. Yes, biology is on our side.
- Every parent knows the intrinsic value of starting early, whether it’s reading, computation, music, sports, or the arts. What you learn and do in childhood will stay with you the rest of your life. In the same way, there is a deep connection between youth service and lifelong service and even philanthropy. Yes, childhood is on our side.
- The world’s problems today are extremely complex and interrelated, driven by competing political, social, and economic forces. Climate change and humanity’s role are now backed by irrefutable science, and clean water, the essence of all life, is in scarce supply in many parts of the world. Simply put, we cannot afford for young people to grow up before they learn about and help solve our biggest challenges. No, time is not on our side.
At YSA, we believe in youth changing the world. Working with partners around the globe, we help young people find their voice, take action, and make an impact on vital community issues. Young people have always been at the center of social change, and we ignore their potential to reshape the world at our peril. If we in the civilized, law-abiding society do not engage them, someone else certainly will.
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