Youth, civic engagement and the power of social movements

When I first received the invitation to present the Occasional Address for Deakin University’s graduation ceremony, I happened to be in the middle of a field trip to North Africa (more specifically Tunisia, the birth of the Arab spring and where the World Social Forum was held) and also Vienna (where I took part in the UN Alliance of Civilisations annual global forum). Both events were dominated and shaped by youth social entrepreneurship, their intercultural creativity and personal ingenuity. I will come back to the momentous events sweeping the Middle East and North Africa region in a moment. But in relation to the UN event in Vienna, I had the honour and pleasure of being a member of the jury for the UN intercultural innovation awards (sponsored by BMW and presented by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon).

The Awards solicited in excess of 500 applications from all over the world, with only 30 making the final cull and 10 shortlisted for the Vienna Awards ceremony. All ten finalists were youth-led organisation srepresenting the five continents: from young people working on inter-ethnic peace building initiatives in Minandao (the Philippines), to a Mexican youth-led organisation training young film makers as a way of promoting cultural interaction; to an Indian non-profit organisation engaged in urban recycling undertaken by low caste marginalised migrants; to a young Italian social entrepreneur who launched an internet-based NGO that provides children with captivating illustrated reading books (in their own languages) about tolerance, respect and acceptance of diversity.

These and many other projects submitted for these awards by young people were truly inspirational and indeed taught us the jury members invaluable lessons about how to connect with our communities in the most relevant and positive way. Most of the submitted projects exhibited a high level of innovative design and engaged authentically in grassroots partnerships to achieve their objectives.

But I would like to explore briefly why ‘youth’ are an optimal demographic group through which we can understand, even predict, various political transformations and social trends.

Young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 represent approximately half of the global population (the figure is proportionally much higher in some world regions for example in the Arab countries and much lower in others as is the case with Europe). Young people represent the next generation of workers, citizens, and leaders in our increasingly cosmopolitan societies. In the context of the UN development agenda (as articulated within the MDG platform), the UN secretary general Ban-Ki-Moon stated that:

“The world’s young people are a major human resource for development. Young men and women everywhere are valuable and committed partners in the global efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, including the overarching goal of cutting poverty and hunger in half by 2015. Young people ….bring fresh thinking to longstanding development concerns.”  Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations (2007).

But youth can also be vulnerable as their life chances are shaped by a wide range of social, cultural and economic experiences.

Youth experiences are increasingly being affected by a number of processes associated with globalisation such as technological advances, economic development and political transformations. The impact of social problems associated with lack of development and social marginalisation is arguably far greater on young people than on any other section of the population.

Many young people in developing countries lack access to information, schooling, social influence and basic rights, and are often overlooked in national development and political debates.

It is no surprise then, that these young people may feel frustrated, excluded and marginalized.

Even in Australia, a substantial number of youth have lost confidence in decision-making systems and consequently experience disaffection and disengagement in terms of traditional participation in public life (this was a key finding of a current ARC Linkage project I am involved in on social networking among migrant youth).

But despite all of this, young people also often act as forceful agents and catalysts for positive change. The recent ’Occupy Movement’ and the“Arab Spring”, to name but a couple of recent examples, emphasized the power and creative energy of youth.

As uprisings swept the Middle East and North Africa, thousands of young people took to the streets to demand reform, equality, justice and economic opportunity for all – using the creative power of social media –  itself a creation of young minds.

These events reflect a major shift in the literature from looking at young people as ‘problems’, to young people as ‘assets’ with untapped potential and dynamic energy capable of playing vital roles in the development of their communities.

Young people have often been the key players in critical social movements that have transformed the course of human history.  This has been the case in particular in relation to environmental concerns, social justice, human rights, and international conflicts.

Therefore, youth must retain a deep-seated notion of hope for our society, and society in turn must associate youth with hope. Here I would like to link hope to empowerment or more specifically empowering youth to be a driving force for social change. In the Australian context, we need to nurture a sense of Hope that our society will come to grips with its history, its indigenous heritage, its diversity, and its responsibility towards the environment as well as the many inter-related development challenges facing our global society.

But hope has to contain within it a more vibrant and interactive notion of care: and undoubtedly youth have the capacity to generate, sustain and extend this notion of Care to all of those vulnerable, excluded and marginalized groups and individuals amongst us. 

Such articulation of care can also encompass an expanded notion of civic engagement, which entails more than just political or social engagement: it should include a sense of ethical engagement with community groups, local organisations and charitable foundations. It is an articulation of a deep personal responsibility towards others with whom we share our public space.

Caring about others and caring for others are the essence of humanism in its most basic meaning which emphasises respect towards and acceptance of the other (with all its diversity and variability).

Let us all remember that ours is a world that is increasingly interconnected and interdependent. It is up to all of us (but especially our youth who represent the next generation of our leaders and decision-makers) to ensure that we remain hopeful for a more just and inclusive society where unconditional care is a fundamental characteristic of all our endeavours.

We live in a dynamic multicultural society with a global outlook and with multiple channels for civic, economic and social interconnectedness. Within this dynamic social environment, youth are best equipped to lead us into the future and to ensure that these endeavours will become a reality.

p.s.: this is an edited version of my Occasional Address, delivered to Deakin University’s Graduation Ceremony, 17 April 2013.

Fethi Mansouri