A widely shared sentiment among many youth during the sixties and seventies was to withdraw from society and create new communities, invent new relationships, and find new meaning to the notion of self. Social and spiritual separation led to experiences with experimental communities, some urban and some rural, almost all of them with their own cultural definition. Most were shortlived but many continue to exist in various forms.
Whether they were rural communes in New Mexico or West Virgina, or “intentional communities” in Vermont, or beach communities in Costa Rica or artists’ neighborhoods in Soho, Manhattan, they projected an exciting uniqueness that was as exclusive as it was inviting, in many ways like the independence movements through which many old cultures were, at the time, becoming new countries. For the first time in human civilization, perhaps because the new miracle of real time global communication could amplify a synchrony of perspective, it was possible to see a global youth culture.
Today we can look back and perhaps justifiably consider those days to have been the dawn of a youth sector, the existence of which is now largely taken for granted, though it now has a far deeper and broader perspective that allow youth to relate differently with the rest of society. Rather than withdrawing to create new communities, youth are engaging in civic action to transform communities. Youth were always civically active, but as individuals and not as a sector. Global real time communications has continued to evolve, and youth social and political sophistication and power consciousness are using it to create a civic activism that has already begun to affect not only poicies but also global values and attitudes.
The Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafsai, at 17 the world’s youngest Nobel Prize winner; high school gun control activists like David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez; conservationist the likes of Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez and young inventors wuch as Sierra Leone’s Kevin Doe, and thousands of other social activists, inventors, and business people are having a combined impact that is changing the way we perceive the world and our roles in it. They are motivated by how they can improve their communities.
In working with youth we used to base our programs on self interest and the motivation of profit, and we wondered why so many successful individuals would simply take the investments made in them and move elsewhere, leaving behind our hopes for community-wide impact. But my own engagement with youth over the past several years, through community policing work in Jamaica, juvenile justice issues in Eastern and Southern Caribbean, civil society work in Haiti and work force policy development work in Africa, all confirm my conviction that civic engagement is a highly effective way -probably the most effective way- to build youth ownership for a neighborhood or community or even a country. Once that engagement is made and ownership established, the energy and creativity is limitless and the values are firm.
Youth are naturally protective of their communities. It’s where their identities and sense of values are formed. Economic development, governance programs, – and even youth enterprise development programs- should have strong youth civic engagement strategies.