Learning from young activists

By Sunga Kufeyani | August 12, 2022 | Africa & The Middle East, Asia, Europe & Eurasia, The Americas | Youth Empowerment

A version of this article was originally published in the Alliance Magazine blog.

For International Youth Day, Global Fund for Children’s Learning and Influencing Fellow Sunga Kufeyani shares advice for funders on engaging adolescents and empowering them to advocate for their communities.

Happy International Youth Day. I thought I would start this day by telling you a story. When I was an adolescent, I loved knitting and enjoyed teaching kids younger than me to knit. I had a big blue ball of yarn and a pair of knitting needles that sometimes crowded my aunt’s house. On more than one occasion, I sat my family down to present a case on the importance of knitting and why I deserved more knitting needles for the kids in our neighborhood. I would spend sleepless nights putting together facts to convince my father so we could provide free materials to other children.

Advocating for something when we are young can look different but is no less powerful. It may be easier to take seriously a child advocating for knitting materials than one advocating for equal access to good quality education, but the truth is that both have a clear understanding of what they are fighting for.

Adolescents in different parts of the world fight for many causes close and dear to them, such as ending cultural practices that harm young women or ending period poverty (inadequate access to menstrual hygiene products). I was fortunate to see adolescent-led activism during the West Africa Adolescent Girls Summit in Liberia this spring. As an African (Malawian), I have no words to express the awe I felt seeing young activists engage with different stakeholders.

Over the course of one year, a committee of adolescents designed the West Africa Adolescent Girls Summit to bring together more than 100 of their peers ages 13 to 19 from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ethiopia.

Participants in the West Africa Adolescent Girls Summit

Participants in the West Africa Adolescent Girls Summit. © GFC

During the summit, young people engaged with various stakeholders, including international funders and the Vice President of Liberia. The young activists advocated for equality when accessing education and called for change when addressing female genital cutting and menstrual poverty. The young activists clearly articulated the changes they wanted to see and outlined ways stakeholders could stand alongside them. Four months later, I still dwell on the passion and drive that I experienced and how we can learn from these young activists.

Usually, when we speak of youth engagement, we think about young people in their 20s. Adolescent girls and boys are often not listened to, nor is their activism taken seriously.

For a long time, funders have said, “Youth are the leaders of tomorrow.” This thinking places young people on the back burner. It says we will make decisions for you today, but you must live with the consequences. Young people need to be engaged in advocacy now.

Increasingly, as various sectors frontline the people and groups most affected to create solutions to problems, it is crucial to look at youth advocacy to determine philanthropic priorities. Understanding youth advocacy gives visibility to the issues that genuinely matter to adolescents and their desired solutions. Youth engagement requires an open mind and a willingness to learn and be challenged. Here are a few things we should have at the top of our minds when engaging adolescents:

Treat youth as the experts they are

Most of the time, we design and fund programs, projects, and even events for adolescents without including their expertise. We must avoid utilizing youth as the face of movements without engaging them. We must remember they bring the most crucial experience – the lived experience – and understand the implications a particular problem causes in their lives. We must rely on their expertise in designing projects and respect the way they want to advocate and the issues they want to advocate for.

A young woman speaking into a microphone

A young person advocating during the West Africa Adolescent Girls Summit. © GFC
Walk alongside youth by providing avenues of growth and encouraging their expressions

Young people are not a monolith even when they come from the same country. When working with young people, cultural and environmental differences must be considered. If you have an adolescent advisory group or committee, always make room for young people in marginalized communities and those living in poverty; as such, look for opportunities that will not only advance the issue they are fighting for but also help them grow as advocates, activists, and strong voices for their communities. It is always essential to create spaces where young activists can fully express themselves and practice their activism with ease. Working with young people means we are constantly listening to what issues they want to be highlighted and addressed.

Please pay close attention to what youth are proposing and incorporate that into your program funding areas

One obvious thing throughout the summit was that the young activist understood the issues they were advocating for. For example, they clearly wanted communities and the government to end and penalize female genital cutting. They did not want to have this practice modified. They wanted it to end. They clearly stated the steps they wanted the government to take and the support they needed to bring this conversation to their communities. When working with young people and organizations working with young people, it is imperative to consider the existence of program areas that directly address issues the young activists are raising and addressing.

For change to be made in philanthropy, young people’s voices are of the utmost importance in the conversation. We must promote youth activism, especially for young people in marginalized communities.

For this International Youth Day, I hope we learn to encourage and support the various ways young people advocate for their rights and passions. When I was younger, in my father’s living room, I learned how to advocate for knitting materials and my dad graciously supported my efforts. This response made me feel seen, and my father made me believe that what I was doing was worth investing in.

As a scholar-practitioner and human rights activist, I am committed to advancing educational access and promotion for young people in marginalized communities. I use my advocacy to fight for people of color to gain access to spaces from which they have historically been excluded, and this drive goes back to my knitting days. It is most vital for us to listen to the concerns of young people, whether they are advocating for knitting materials or education. We need to hear them and respond as they are asking us to.

Global Fund for Children supports a network of six community-based organizations in West Africa that are tackling violence against girls in their communities, while empowering girls to exercise agency and autonomy over their bodies and their lives. The initiative is a partnership between Tides Foundation, People’s Postcode Lottery, and GFC. The adolescents who led the design process for the West Africa Adolescent Girls Summit participate in the programs of these GFC partners.

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