“You cannot begin anything by saying that you cannot do it.” – Elpidio Quirino
I’ve been called idealistic way too many times because I dream of a country that is not poverty-stricken, an education system that does not deprive opportunity, a government that sets aside personal gain and a world where a sense of community is undeniable.
Not so long ago, I got front-row tickets to miracles when I met an international school teacher who put up a school that provides high-quality education for less privileged kids, an advertising professional who gave up his job in one of the biggest agencies to have more time for his football and education-centered NGO, and a world-class violinist who discovers and teaches talented kids in his local community.
As a 25-year-old freelance writer, traveler, and marine conservationist, I am at the forefront of witnessing the best and worst of times. My friend always says that development work is like a big heartbreak conference, and it’s true. There’s no way to romanticize statistics. As of 2009, 2.2 million children (6-12 years old) and 3.4 million young adults (12-15 years) in the Philippines are not in school. In 2010, there were over 207,000 cases of live births from Filipinas below 20 years old. And while social networking sites connect people, they have also made us more disconnected and distracted.
But development work is also a one big hope party. People in my generation are increasingly self-empowered, thanks to greater access to information and opportunities. I know of a 25-year-old boatman who learned how to read because of text messages; his client made reservations that way. My 9-year-old cousin taught me how to use Emoji on the iPad. My 4-year-old nephew told me names of Japanese vessels from World War II. He said he watched it on Discovery Channel.
The world is illuminated by people like Alex Loorz, who was 16 in 2011 when he sued the US government to protect the climate, sparking a global movement called iMatter. There’s Needa, 21, from Yemen, who has literally dodged bullets to build libraries with her own hands. And Nadya, 25, who’s the CEO of Wangsa Jelita, a social enterprise in Indonesia that produces natural beauty products and empowers rose farmers through vocational and values formation programs.
I don’t even have to look that far — Alvin Dakis, 27-year-old Filipino nurse, became the youngest member of the expert panel of the Philippine Congress that reviewed and finalized the (still) controversial Reproductive Health Law. 18-year old Arriza Nocum brings together Christian and Muslim youth in KRIS (Kristiyano-Islam) Peace Libraries through reading sessions, tutorials by volunteers, scholarships, and computer lessons. Raffy Magno, 22, co-founded Mr. Kengkoy, a social enterprise in Naga that partners with mothers to create bags made of jute.
Whoever said “youth is wasted on the young” has obviously never met these people. The youth, more than any other stakeholder, is THE driving force of development. Because the adversities we face are greater, the solutions and efforts are far greater, more passionate, courageous, resilient, creative, and [insert positive superlative here]. Last time I checked, only dead fish go with the flow.
It has been reported that 50% of the world’s population is under the age of 27. More than the youth being the “future,” we are the present. We are the masses. There’s no way to ignore our capacity to love, give, and contribute to social change. “Hilahan pataas,” (pull each other up) as my brother would describe it. Enough of that “the youth is the hope of the future” bullshit (SORRY, JOSE RIZAL!). We are the leaders of today.
3. On the Road to Somewhere – Youth, Storytellers of Global Development
I am a red-headed Caucasian woman of average height and build, with happy childhood memories, self-confidence, and strong family relationships. I speak English and half-hearted French, have a good education, and enjoy high quality human rights, food and water security, access to free healthcare, and a wealth of opportunities. I am distinctly North American (despite my best efforts) and Canadian, taking pride in my country’s flag, democracy, and political and economic decisions. This laundry list of labels does not explain who I am or why I believe I can change the world.
When I was 14, the phone rang unusually early – a family friend calling to say someone had attacked the USA. I turned on the T.V. anyway and watched numbly as two steel skyscrapers wavered, billowing smoke, and came crashing down. I remember thinking two things: that I had no idea what war, suffering or loss really felt like and that this was part of a longer story that my elders had written. They had made some good decisions and some bad ones, but it had to be a little bit everyone’s fault. This was when I joined the global community.
When I was 20, I got tired of regurgitating other people’s opinions and talking about world problems without seeing solutions: I wanted stories, not just more facts. I packed a bag and left Hawaii on a sailboat, bound for French Polynesia with 30 other young people. 3 months later, we had sailed through some of the most remote places in the world: I had been to paradise. After a simple life of crystal blue ocean and singing, dancing and laughing with the locals, I couldn’t stomach heading back to Canada yet, so I kept my pack and flip flops and travelled through New Zealand, Australia, and Europe. I saw some of the world’s most famous art, met some of its oldest cultures, and felt my own smallness against the long history of time. Meeting young people along the road, I realized that we were pretty much all the same: trying to figure out where we fit; concerned about the oceans and rainforests; interested in other cultures; worried about free trade, infrastructure and discrimination; making our families proud and helping our neighbours; open minded, passionate and hopeful. I returned to university with a renewed sense of community and graduated in 2009. Spurred by my passion for other cultures and my experiences running summer camps, youth conferences and after-school programs, I kept working with youth.
In Canada, we have a population smaller than California in a land mass almost as large as Russia. We don’t get to know each other, or our majestic country, very well. So I moved from a city of 3 million people where I never interacted with Canada’s Aboriginal peoples to an Arctic town of 18,000 where I could listen to several Aboriginal languages on any street. Here I learned that the social and political issues I had studied in other countries existed right in my own back yard: Canada has rich and diverse cultures but also racism, abject poverty and food insecurity. I was, and am, devastated by these realities.
I now manage a non-profit organization connecting Northern Canadian youth with mentors elsewhere in the country. Students learn about their career interests and further education options; mentors learn a little bit more about their country. I believe that young people are essential to the future because we are dynamic: no matter who we are or where we come from, we are actively telling the story of our life. We need to learn from older generations and inspire them to reflect on their values and decisions, while simultaneously crafting the change we wish to see in the world.
I have been wary at times to call my line of work “development” related because I don’t meet communities regularly and most of my days are spent sitting on a desk, in the company of my laptop and books that have to be read for work. During weekends, I opt to stand and wield a piece of chalk, trading ideas with my undergrads. It’s a busy week but sometimes I get away and when I do, it’s clearest to me, what development really is.
On the road, I try to see as much as possible and wander off with all sorts of people whom I’m sure have lots to teach me. Once, while on a three-week workshop in Quezon, I traded in my accommodations to accept the invitation of some farmers. I accepted on the condition that they give me work and so they did–we planted vegetables, harvested rice and went to their monthly village meeting. I asked them about how the land was prepared for planting and how vegetables are arranged on farms. They were a small, self-sustaining community that put up incentives so all of their neighbors would practice organic farming.
On another trip, we were scaling a mountain in search of a mumbaki. He’s a priest in the tradition of the Cordilleras. When we met him, it was close to dark. He fed us chicken–one that was still alive when we arrived–that was dressed, thrown atop a fire then placed in a pot of boiling water, seasoned with salt. We sat around a fire eating with our hands and I asked him about this house of his and why it had to be so high up a mountain. On the way down, our original route had become too dangerous to tread so we forged another path.
On yet another adventure, I woke before dawn and headed toward a pier. The fishermen recognized me from the day before. I waved in excitement and heard the roar of the engine. An outstretched hand ushered me into the boat and before I could sit, we were moving out to sea to catch the sunrise. To my surprise, the fishermen prepared a simple breakfast of coffee and bread. We sat together, whispering at first, talking about what kinds of fish they caught and whether they sold them or ate them. As soon as the sun properly rose, we were silent–at home in the calmness of the sea at dawn.
These are but few of the people I have met along the road who have helped me discover the meaning of development–a word I’ve often tried to come to terms with. Regardless of the cause we choose to advocate, what’s clear is that the practice of development is very much like engaging in an ongoing conversation. We listen and speak to one another–not only to be heard but also to understand better who we all are.
But where is the youth in all of this and what role could we possibly play in this conversation? Well, I can say from experience that being young has been about having more questions than answers. At no point in my life have I ever felt so small, not inadequate or insignificant, but tiny in the face of an infinite world that contains so many wonderful places and people. My curiosity has brought me to places I never thought I would see. It has helped me live through the experiences of others. What I’ve found is that most of our problems are the same: food security, poverty, joblessness, the continuous pressure placed on resuscitating heritage and culture–yet, the ways in which we solve these are different. That’s when development becomes exciting–it’s a wellspring of creativity.
Young people drive development because we’re the ones that ask questions. We live them, as the German poet Rainer Rilke once advised his student to do, and in the process our curiosity fuels creative problem-solving that’s not just about doing away with what’s wrong but is about understanding people, listening to them and continuing a conversation as equals.
Despite being a young educator, I learned to believe that there is a dire need for social transformation in my country to happen. Unfortunately, we are usually discouraged with the cliché: change cannot happen overnight. But as I see it, it is true enough that we cannot expect change to happen overnight, especially when no one initiates to move mountains in order to overturn something that is considered a “norm”.
I am not a perfect person, but at the time I have chosen this profession, I have similarly accepted the lifelong responsibility of augmenting efforts for the much needed reforms in my land. How could I do it on my own, you ask? Well, I have a growing army of people to promote and practice my cause. They are the would-be nurses, educators, engineers, agriculturists, accountants, psychologists and artists who may have learned more of my idealisms in class than what the standard syllabus dictates. In fact, some of them are already in the field practicing their professions.
I studied international development for 4 years. Much of what I learned in the classrooms and lecture halls has been archived somewhere in the distant landscape of memory. What I know now of development is what the young people I work with have taught me. These experiences and lessons have been tattooed onto the blueprint of my being. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned.
1. “Landing can hurt quite a lot if you’ve never learned to jump properly”
– Aneesa Mustaf, age 17.
Without opportunities that support and promote civic engagement amongst young people, youth, especially those who live in underserved communities will remain marginalized from the machinery of the political and legal system within which they are situated.
2. “I come from a place where bombs talk and people listen, could someone please tell the government that I’m young but I’m not invisible” – Hamza Ali, 16
Young people’s voices need to be heard, celebrated and acknowledged by decision makers who direct development. Only youth can speak first hand about their lived experience and the unique needs of their communities. I facilitate leadership after school programs for youth in priority communities by utilizing the medium of spoken word in my programs. I have seen how spoken word is used as a transformative tool – not just because it’s hip and popular but because it genuinely gives youth the chance to speak – to give voice to their lived experience and through their words be a testament to their own excellence.
3. “We must be diamonds in the rough the way they try to keep us underground”
– Marcus Lomboy, age 20.
From my involvement in the municipal political arena, I have learned about the politics of exclusion. I’m talking about deliberate exclusion that serves to shut out people from the democratic process. Most young people from vulnerable communities are too busy trying to survive to really engage in municipal politics. I had no time to even contemplate how city policies were affecting my lived reality when I was raising my younger brother and myself at 18. Take the City budget process for example. If vulnerable youth who are most affected by the city budget are absent from the budget process, then the process itself is broken. Youth need more than lip service. They need city funded after school programs, recreational space that is accessible and affordable, and increased involvement in City planning by looking at the respective needs of different communities and making sure that meaningful engagement is accessible (e.g. bus fare and childcare provided for youth at Town hall meetings etc.).
4. “The Freedom to expand the knowledge hungry depths of my brain and arm myself with the artillery of education as I crush the forces of ignorance with my witty battalions” – Rashmi Logo, age 17.
So many young people drop out of high school not because they are not smart enough to succeed, but because mainstream educational institutes do not meet their diverse learning needs. Young people are falling through the cracks in the education system because their unique skills and talents are devalued or unrecognized. Alternative educational models provide a bridge for the gaps in the system. I’ve been sitting on a steering committee for a curriculum development program for front line youth workers. This program bridges the gaps between what is taught in university and what happens on the front lines in youth work; with youth being active in every level and stage of this project. When youth are given ownership of their education and taught in a way that nurtures their creative and intellectual capacity, they fly.
Youth can be leaders, innovators, trailblazers and directors of development if they are seen by those in positions of power, not just as youth, but as agents of change.
7.“Kizuna 絆 Amidst Disaster”
“The world’s youth have significant and realistic potential to reduce the risks before, provide relief during, and aid recovery after a disaster.”
—Sec. 4, Sendai Communique, UNESCO LBD Youth Forum
March is the month when the world marks the second anniversary of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake–the strongest earthquake known to have pummeled Japan, generating a tsunami that wiped away people and towns instantly. Nearly 16,000 lives have been lost, with over 6,000 injured and nearly 3,000 missing. In one quick snap, this natural disaster brought in waves of sorrow, fear, and trauma—which up to this very day, is still felt lingering in the hearts and minds of many people.
Remnant of the disaster, in Miyagi Prefecture
At the coastal tsunami affected area
However, aside from the tragedy that is commemorated this month, the world also remembers the powerful display of kizuna 絆 in the aftermath of this disaster. Kizuna 絆 is the kanji word for “bond”. It captures the spirit of unity and friendship that people, from Japan and all over the world, displayed when they came together to help the country recover.
I understood the spirit of kizuna 絆 even more when I got to visit Japan twice last year. Particularly, I grasped the concept of kizuna 絆 under the lens of youth involvement and empowerment. The first time I visited Japan, I was among my country’s Tohoku Student Goodwill Ambassadors. Under theJapan East-Asia Network of Exchange Students and Youths (JENESYS) Programme, Japan invited youth from different countries to visit the Tohoku region and to learn from disaster management schemes that we could bring back home to our respective countries.
Apparently, many young people also displayed a strong sense of volunteerism during those times of distress. For instance, I personally met students from the Fukuoka University of Education who shared how they formed youth volunteer groups in order to assist the victims of the disaster. As they shared their stories, I was in awe because I remembered how young people, such as university students, also became very active when disasters like Typhoons Washi and Ketsana devastated my country. The youth is indeed an indispensable force when it comes to rebuilding communities after a disaster strikes. The youth in general, coming from different countries, contain this massive energy and creativity, that once channeled efficiently, can contribute huge effects in strengthening community resilience and promoting disaster prevention schemes. Through that program, kizuna 絆 or the bond of friendship among youths from different nations was solidified even more.
Yuri, Yuko and Yuto, friends that I have met from the Fukuoka University of Education
The second time I visited Japan was as a youth delegate to the 2nd UNESCO Youth Forum: Looking Beyond Disaster. Around 80 young leaders from different disaster-stricken countries came together in Sendai, Japan in order to discuss our experiences and share ideas on how youth like us can better be involved in disaster management efforts. We all developed action plans and committed ourselves to delivering these causes in our own communities. We also developed the Sendai Communique, which was a declaration that displayed the necessity of active youth engagement and involvement in lessening the catastrophic impact of disasters.
As the Millennium Development Goals and the Hyogo Framework come to an end in 2015, it is important that nations discuss how they can strengthen disaster risk reduction and disaster management in their countries. And, in doing so, the youth must also be involved in the process. I can personally attest to how many young people, from around the world, are committed to this same cause of creating a safer world.
Like the youth that I have met, let us all move forward and look beyond disaster.