Young leaders discuss youth-led initiatives and the futures of education
On 23 June 2021, the fourth webinar of a series of Youth Webinars on the Futures of Education took place, bringing together six Young Leaders for the Sustainable Development Goals to discuss youth-led initiatives and the futures of education. The discussion was moderated by Karen Mundy, Professor of International and Comparative Education at the University of Toronto, a leading expert on education in the developing world and former Chief Technical Officer at the Global Partnership for Education. The webinar involved stories from the speaker and panellists, discussions on hopes for the future of education and the importance of listening to youth and youth initiatives.
Addressing the gaps in support for neurodiverse youth
Siena Castellon, an 18-year-old neurodiversity advocate and author from Ireland based in the United Kingdom, shared her story during her keynote speech. She spoke about her difficulties during her childhood, her experiences with bullying and the lack of support and resources for young neurodiverse people. When she realized there were no adequate resources for people like her, she decided to create her own. At age 13, Siena created Quantum Leap Mentoring, a website that supports special educations needs students. Recently, Siena also launched Neurodiversity Celebration Week, an international campaign that aims to challenge negative perceptions and stereotypes about autism and learning differences. She drove home the message that young people should not hesitate to act and effect change, and that by working together and taking small steps, they can have a major impact. “You are never too young to make a difference,” she said.
Youth as key to positive educational futures
Following the speech, the event moved to a panel discussion on youth-led initiatives. When asked about the advantage of these, Martin Karadzhov, a queer feminist activist from Bulgaria who is currently the Chair of the Youth Steering Committee of ILGA World and a member of the Global Queer Youth Network, was steadfast in the belief that all approaches to education should be youth-led, and stressed the danger of not including youth as full-fledged partners. Envisioning the future, Martin hoped to see more LGBTIQ-inclusive education and curricula. Satta Sheriff, a human rights activist from Liberia working to defend children and women’s rights and founder of Action for Justice and Human Rights, added that young people have the ability to craft policies that are in the best interest of young people and should collaborate in their efforts. Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi, a gender equality activist based in Nigeria and the Executive Director of the Stand to End Rape Initiative, also spoke on the power of collaboration to address sexual/gender imbalance and violence and shared examples of how governments can be pressured to change through this collaboration and action. She stressed the link between education and violence and highlighted a need for more educational programs at a grassroots level with comprehensive sex education.
Jichen Liu, Founder and CEO of Clear Plate® and Director of Youth Vegetarian Development Fund in China, turned the conversation to technology. He believes technological tools have the power to amplify impact and provide a tool for collaboration between private and public sectors. Jichen’s app Clear Plate® rewards people for reducing food waste, thus providing incentives for positive change. He expressed hope that technology can be a positive factor for the future if it is used as a common good, and it can encourage young people to get involved. Lastly, Tim Lo Surdo, Founder and National Director of Democracy in Colour, Australia’s first racial and economic justice organisation led by people of colour, eloquently explained that we need to acknowledge challenges as wicked, tackle root issues and stop attempting to use “band-aid” solutions. He believes young people need to play a central role and not simply be used as tokens in these efforts. If we spend more time diagnosing the problem, he said, we can design more successful solutions. The moderator Karen Mundy added that educators can learn from and be influenced by youth and involving teacher professional networks in the conversation can expand youth’s influence.
Encouraging young voices into action
A resounding theme throughout the discussion was a call to other young people to use their voice. Siena admitted that it can be overwhelming but shared that she started from nothing at 13 years old and, through small steps and by using her unique experience, was able to build up to where she is today. Satta advised youth to be civil but also radical, to not be afraid to speak up and take initiative. Tim added that youth are already reworking the status quo and should continue to be unapologetic in their demands. “Young people have this extraordinary ability to see both the world’s pain clearly but not get drowned by that or disempowered by that,” he said, but also noted that it is not only up to young people – allies have an important role to play and can utilize their resources to amplify the voices of impacted communities. As the panellists reflected on takeaways from the event, many called for increased support and investment in young people and youth-let initiatives. They stressed the importance of taking action, pushing for change, and believing that youth can have an impact. “Your voice and your experience is powerful. Use it to make a positive impact in your community and remember that you can never be too small to make a difference,” Siena said.