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 Much of what I learned in the classrooms and lecture halls has been archived somewhere in the distant landscape of memory.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.