How We Can Create an Enabling Environment for Youth Action on the SDGs

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We are in the Anthropocene.

The world’s geological age puts us in the heart of what’s called the “Anthropocene”, an era where human activity has been the dominant influence on the climate and the environment. In all of its history, the world is youngest at this moment in terms of its population with the youth alone accounting for 18% of the world’s population. The number of youth between the ages of 15 and 24 is 1.1 billion and counting. Youth and children together, including all those aged 24 years and younger, account for nearly 40 per cent of the world’s population!

With so much robust energy on the planet, there is plenty of room for change to come from these quarters. That we have a roadmap in place with the United Nations’ well crafted Sustainable Development Goals, we already have a clear understanding of where we want to see the world in 2030. For many, a cynical worldview paints the SDGs as an unattainable unicorn. But in reality, as idealistic as it may seem, the aspiration should centre around getting as closely there as is possible.

Channeling youth and children towards being impactful agents of change is vital. In the thirteen years that remain from now until 2030, young people can create the world they want to go into, when we enter the phase after the SDGs run their course. To ensure that we include our youth in pragmatic stakeholding for the future of the world, we need to create an enabling environment. Here’s the recipe for that environment.

Awareness: The first step is to break down the SDGs for cogency, and to create a bridge that travels from ignorance to understanding. The SDGs are written in English, and have been translated into the six official languages of the United Nations on their own website. However, this is not enough as a sizeable number of youth and children have no access to the internet, and many of those who do, know none of these languages. Still more are illiterate and don’t know how to read and write. The goal then, should be to customise the manner of communication to help spread the word. Regardless of who you are, if you’re reading this and consuming this information, you can take the effort to look up the SDGs and translate them into a language they can understand. Better still, you can educate yourself and teach children and young people around you orally, visually, or by action.

Opportunities: Once young people are made aware of the SDGs, the next step is creating, making available or building opportunities for young people to engage with the SDGs, and perhaps, to begin to take action. While educating them and creating awareness, a good way is to encourage them to start small. What actions can they take to improve their everyday lives while falling in line with the SDGs? A simple way is to engage in critical thinking, in not wasting resources, in choosing to consume responsibly, and to pay forward. This will help create a critical mass of young people all aligning in thought and deed, with the overarching themes of the SDGs which can then create an interesting pool of futuristic action.

Access to resources: Once young people have the mind space to connect and align their ideas, thoughts, knowledge, enquiries and approaches toward the SDGs, the next step is to help them scale their vision into action that goes beyond themselves, their immediate families and friends. This step requires them to access resources to work on the SDG of their choice and to implement change. Do they want to create an initiative of their own? Do they want to learn how to do so? Do they need help with paperwork, with accessing training, technology or even money? When we facilitate opportunities at the grass-root, state and national levels, we can create a massive action plan to build forwards. Resources can be anything from space and online bandwidth, to money and planning support, from conferences and training programs to volunteers and support staff.

Collaboration: When we open up the doors to access resources, the first thing we’re bound to encounter is the astounding reality that resources are few, but actors are many. With the help of limited resources, we can still accomplish tremendous change. How can this be done? Through the rubric of collaboration. When we have ten young people working for the environment, we should aim to enable their work by facilitating collaboration, and not forcing or foisting competition. When we collaborate rather than compete, we make an impactful difference that does not come at the cost of anyone’s interests and that does not come with negativity.

Inter-generational Mentorship: True, the world’s youngest population is at an age where they can be engaged. But, this is not to mean that we should discount members of earlier generations. Surely, they got a lot right- they brought the world to this place with many of their innovations and creative advancements, and they certainly did get a lot right. Intergenerational partnerships can infuse the exuberance and enthusiasm of youth with the calculated pragmatism and cautious practicality of age thus enabling the two to come together and make change. It is also interesting to note and understand that the world is increasingly digital and that on a digital platform, the digital age of a user varies tremendously from their actual ages. This means that a person aged forty using the internet for the first time and a person aged fifteen also using the internet for the first time, start out at the same digital age. Think about how that can be leveraged!

Institutional support: While talking of young energy and enthusiasm, it is unfair to ignore the reality that there is tremendous pressure on young people to perform well at school, and to balance skills acquisition through extracurricular activities. The pressure to perform has also created tremendous adverse impacts on their mental and physical health. To channel their enthusiasm effectively in a way that they do not feel like there is a pressure to perform, or that something else is a priority, institutional support is necessary. Educational institutions should restructure their focus in favour of encouraging their initiatives under the SDGs. Remember, how are grades going to matter if the world is in itself destroyed? Furthermore, there are many young people who do not have the benefit of affiliation with institutions of any sort. These young people should be co-opted into the changemaking stream of efforts through support and encouragement from institutions that have the bandwidth to offer help. That in itself can be an endeavour in pursuit of SDG 4 (Quality Education) as an institution.

Time: Creating impact and seeing change takes time. Young people may have the age, but there is a paucity of time at hand. Be it the many opportunities they pursue to secure a future, or the skills they acquire for their future, or even the time they invest in their peers and recreation, there are a lot of things that require their engagement. A good program to engage the youth in changemaking for the SDGs would account for the inclusion of realistic time commitments and clear milestones and deadlines that they need to be aware of. This will also inculcate a sense of commitment and dedication in them.

Safe spaces: Working with the current state of problems can be overwhelming and can be threatening depending on where the young people are engaging and working together. Everything from wilderness and natural calamities to extremism, resistance and political will can be threats to their safety and peace of mind. Not achieving immediate results in a world that is built on speed can also be disparaging. Encouraging the youth to act, therefore, needs the functional support of safety. Preparing young people for what they may face, identifying where they can go for help if needed, installing safety measures to protect them from vulnerabilities and safeguarding identities wherever required, will go a long way. Engaging with experienced counsellors and therapists can also help young people in healing from traumas they may encounter while doing this work.

Technology: The connectivity that technology offers and the benefit of automation, accuracy and expediency makes technology a phenomenal tool to leverage action and to create global collaborations. Facilitating access to technology is one way to encourage youth action for the SDGs. Another interesting way is to use technology to create awareness, opportunities, collaborations and mentorships for young people. It could also be leveraged to deliver on the SDGs themselves.

Accountability: Young people may have the enthusiasm and eagerness to create impact, but it is also true that there is a massive divide between the privileged and the not-privileged. The former live in a bubble thinking that they don’t need the SDGs for a peaceful future. The latter have other pressing priorities. Empathetic individuals from the space where they overlap are the few that carry change on their shoulders. Teaching young people to check their privilege and bridging gaps between the privileged and the not-privileged through empathy-driven training can make a huge impact.

Kirthi Jayakumar is an Advisor at One Future Collective.