August 12th marked the celebration of the 16th International Youth Day. Amidst the fury of activities -- Tweet chats and online consultations and webinars and blog series -- members of The Torchlight Collective wanted to take a moment to reflect on what International Youth Day has meant for us over the years. We share perspectives on how far we’ve seen youth movements come in our lifetime, what barriers still appear to remain, and what makes us hopeful about young people organizing around key health and human rights issues.
We talk about how we’ve grown up in these movements, what inspires us about these movements, what we’ve learned from the dynamics and people these movements are comprised of, and how these movements have changed (and have changed us).
We call you to action. We ask you to reflect. We hope to challenge you. We hope you remain committed to supporting youth-led initiatives and movements.
The youth movement was really the first opportunity I had to engage in political activism and organising within a community. I cut my teeth on anti-war organising in the US as an adolescent. We would meet in a church with a long history of opening its doors to the arts, local programmes, and social movements. Here we'd organise the youth block in marches, walk outs, and protests. It was bittersweet, because it was also the first time I realised that unequal power structures carry through even to places and spaces that consciously want to dismantle inequalities. I think the youth movement is a force for so much hope and change. Its vitality is its ability to keep diversifying, and keep ensuring new voices are heard. I think the movement is increasingly aware of that, and that young people are organising more than ever in a way that is collective, inclusive, and increasingly cognisant of how intersectional and interrelated key issues really are.
Youth movements, especially as they intersect with queer, feminist, black, indigenous, LGBTQ, etc., have changed (and continue to change) the world for the better. Young people are active leaders for our present and future lives, societies and environments. As adolescence and youth gain attention in all spheres of society, investments and trust will increase to make the world really inclusive for different voices. Unfortunately, the opportunities, information, and services that adolescents and youth have access to today are so unequal, and it is my hope that they are not fighting to get their rights recognized over the next 15 International Youth Day celebrations.
One of the things I've loved about being a member and admirer of youth movements is watching the way we've struggled to blend together our identities and be real and whole with each other. We all had to learn how to check our privileges, internalized biases, and assumptions at the door. It was never easy, but as a result we've built something that is capable of (if not always perfectly successful at) reaching out to marginalized, excluded, or otherwise vulnerable young people wherever they are. Youth movements continue to strive to be better, more inclusive, and more self-aware: we’ve learned a ton from other progressive social justice movements, and other movements are now starting to see what they can learn from young people.
Today there are more people and governments talking about youth engagement, meaningful participation, and the relevance of working for and with youth. This has taken lots of work from lots of young people and allies over the years and across many sectors. Yet, the barriers to achieve young people's full access to sexual and reproductive health and rights are still the same (if not worse off) in many parts of the world. Everything from the criminalization of same-sex activity to lack of access to modern contraception to a lack of comprehensive sexuality education in schools, and so on. Sometimes there is a lot of noise and little action. Plain and simple: Young people and youth-led organizations need money and resources to increase their capacities and do more. Many stakeholders expect young people to be volunteers, learn by themselves, and reach decision-making spaces with little or no support. Without money behind these words, the promises related to youth are empty.
I can't imagine what my life or work would be without youth movements. I was one of the lucky ones who found youth movements at a very young age and was able to participate in, nurture, and build on that. Working in these spaces gave me my sense of self and understanding of the impact I might have in my community and on our world. I grew with the understanding that being involved and working to improve lives, policies, and experiences was a requirement for me to operate. It's taught us to be solid in our convictions and strong in the face of opposition, taught us compassion for those different than us or struggling in different ways, while finding the threads that connect us to find some shared ground.
To work within the youth movement opens up a world of possibilities to transform realities, building on the capacity, commitment, and strength of a generation that mobilizes ideas, resources and the will of individuals and communities to build societies where everyone can realize their fundamental human rights. It is uncertain what the future holds for adolescents and youth, but as long as they continue to thrive together we can say that we are right on track to achieve what we've envisioned.
We have reached a tipping point in our global health and development efforts. It is no longer an anomaly to hear a CEO or a Prime Minister or a Minister of Health or the Secretary General of the UN include statistics or talking points in their speeches about why young people should be a priority. There is a critical mass of decision-makers and influencers who get why engagement and participation are important. Every sector has a stake in the youth movement. But these speeches are one pieces of the paradigm shift puzzle. It’s time to follow up these commitments with lasting, sustainable, and meaningful support for youth civil society initiatives. In the global health and development space, we need to move beyond funding our “favourite” young person to attend events and speak on behalf of young people everywhere. We need to challenge ourselves to ask adolescents and young people -- especially those who are hard to reach, who are marginalized, who don’t fit the perfect mold of what it means to be a youth activist -- what they need so that they can support their community, their peers, their country, their issue, their movement. It’s time to listen, listen, listen, listen, listen, ask question, listen, listen, and offer your resources to this movement. It has been time.