Seizing the future: Why empowering young people will build a better world

By Ellen Goodman and Rob Wilson

The world is changing, and it’s changing fast — much faster than our education system has so far been able to keep up.

In his TED talk titled “Do schools kill creativity?” Sir Ken Robinson says that the purpose of education is to “take us into a future that we can’t grasp.” In a world that is increasingly defined by complexity, hyper-connectivity, and rapid technological advancements, it seems ever more necessary to equip young people with skills that enable them to adapt and thrive.

Whether one calls these “essential skills,” “character traits,” “grit education,” or “a growth mind set,” there is a consensus on the necessity for collaboration, creativity, and the ability to act constructively in an ambiguous and changing environment. In the context of an uncertain world, educationalist Carol Dweck advises: “The best thing parents can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning.”

Education systems worldwide are facing criticism for failing to prepare children to face the challenges of the modern world, through an over-emphasis on repetitive learning and exam preparation. In this context we call for new learning ecosystems that empower young people to shape the future that they want, rather than only reacting to it.

But what do these new learning eco-systems look like?

Empowering within the education system

One example is School21 in East London. The school’s unique approach to education is rooted in their six attributes for success in the 21st century — expertise (mastering the basics of learning), professionalism (being ready to learn), eloquence (finding your voice), grit (overcoming set-backs), spark (creating new things) and craftsmanship (making beautiful work). They provide one-to-one coaching and personal support for every student. Their curriculum places a strong emphasis on spoken communication, and learning is rooted in real-world, hands-on projects that are displayed at regular community events.

Education is an important factor in a young person’s development, but it is not the only one. To genuinely support young people to become leaders we need to work across sectors.

Empowering children through entrepreneurship

Jeroo Billimoria is a serial social entrepreneur who has launched a number of initiatives that empower young people. She founded the Childline India Foundation, a 24-hour emergency telephone service for street children in distress. Volunteer street children are trained to man the telephones and direct callers to relevant services. Childline works with official services — which often have conflicted relationships with street children — to promote children’s rights, challenge perceptions of street children, and create interventions that support them.

“Children need systems that are inclusive and driven by them, systems that will enable them to respond to their feelings and needs at any time,” says Jeroo. As of March 2015, Childline had responded to 36 million calls, operates in 366 cities, and works with a network of over 700 partner organizations.

In the UK, the social enterprise Bite the Ballot is kick-starting a movement to engage young people in democracy by identifying and removing barriers that prevent them from taking an active role in politics. It helps young people realize their political power through grassroots campaigning, connecting with young people online, and influencing policy.

“We have far too many young people not understanding the link between the issues they feel passionate about, and them being political,” says Michael Sani, Bite the Ballot’s co-founder. “We are on a mission to create spaces to enable, engage, and empower young people to be change-makers.”

Building a better world

These social entrepreneurs and educational innovators are demonstrating the importance of placing young people at the center of creating social change. By supporting young people to actively shape the world they want to live in, they are preparing a generation to thrive in a world of change and tackle the biggest social issues that are facing our world today.

Perspective: Joony Moon, Associate, Analysis & Insight, Skoll Foundation

Social entrepreneurs must have a deep understanding of the communities they support. Young people know themselves the best; it seems sensible that they would be engaged as co-creators of the interventions that are designed to support them.
“The society of the older generation thinks we’re just lost and can’t really address the challenges that face us,” remarks Wiclif Otieno, CEO of Kito International, a Kenyan NGO focused on supporting the needs of street children.
Wiclif, 30 years old and a former street child himself, is just one of many young social entrepreneurs trying to address the challenges faced by today’s youth. Joseph Opoku, the 22-year old founder of the Youth Impact Workshop and alumnus of the African Leadership Academy, echoes this sentiment. “From my personal experience, I see that a lot of organizations that have their focus on being related to young people seem very detached from the very young people they are serving,” he says.
In partnership with the MasterCard Foundation, the Skoll World Forum acknowledges this disconnect — and the corresponding opportunity — through its Young Leaders Initiative. The initiative, now in its third year, brings together a dozen of the most promising young social entrepreneurs from around the world, offering them a chance not only to attend the Skoll World Forum, but also to join a community of change-makers.
The Young Leaders, of which Wiclif and Joseph are alumni, are encouraged to engage leading social entrepreneurs as peers and seek out connections and platforms to further accelerate their work. Their incredible stories and passion offer a promising glimpse of the future we are all hoping to build towards. Indeed, youth are seizing the future, and it would be wise for us to recognize and empower them in its creation.

This article is part of a series produced in collaboration by the Skoll Foundation and Ashoka, to coincide with the 2016 Skoll World Forum in Oxford, England. Follow the conversation at #SkollWF and #AshokaAtSkoll.

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