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In July, we said goodbye to one of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, Rep. John Lewis. Among the many striking things about Lewis’ career is how early he started: He began his social justice work in his college years, inspired to take action after witnessing and experiencing the oppression his community faced. As a young man, he was a founder and chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an original Freedom Rider, and an organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. While Lewis’ work and achievements were unique, his experiences represent one critical aspect of so many other historical and contemporary liberation and justice movements: Young people are the ones on the frontlines.
Today, like then, young people around the world are eager to be active agents for positive change.
As Harvard students, we’re no strangers to the power of youth-led movements. From the moment we step foot on campus, we are told it’s our responsibility to help others and are dazzled by hundreds of student organizations that seek to empower communities or shape a better world. I've been inspired by my peers who have marched in Black Lives Matter protests, organized for fossil fuel and prison divestment on our campus, and marched with dining workers when they sought fairer compensation.
From our university alone we have seen many influential leaders and changemakers, but Harvard does not shape the revolutionary. It serves as a platform for those with revolutionary ideas. Harvard students should advocate for similar empowerment for our peers who may not have the privilege of a Harvard platform.
One easy way we can empower our peers is by supporting a bill that has already been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives — the Youth, Peace, and Security Act of 2020. The YPS Act is a bipartisan bill intended to establish a U.S. policy to improve the inclusive and meaningful participation of youth in peace and security efforts. It aims to lower structural barriers, standardize data collection and disaggregation, and prioritize funding and technical assistance to youth-led peace work.
Empowering young people is critical for peace efforts globally. Youth play an integral part of not just building peace in their communities, but also maintaining it. Youth make up 1.8 billion people globally, and one in four of those young people live in conflict-affected countries, according to the U.N. For example, Somalia has a median age of 18.5 years with a population of 11.8 million people.
By shutting out young people from peacebuilding processes, half of the population is ignored. Excluding over half the population makes any peace process temporary at best. One study carried out by the United Nations found that young people “described their experiences of exclusion as a form of structural and psychological violence that is indivisible from their political, social, cultural and economic disempowerment.” Instead, including the population that will inherit power in peace and security conversations makes it more likely that sustainable and long-term peace will grow.
Youth are not naïve or too inexperienced. They are not a problem that needs solving. Young people are best informed in their respective countries’ situations and are eager to be positive agents for peace and security. In Somalia between 2011 and 2017, youth peacebuilding programs funded by USAID substantially reduced the willingness of survey participants to support or participate in political violence. In Burundi, solidarity events between youth and police officers helped defuse a violent dynamic, and 88 percent of police-reported collaboration that outlasted the official end of the program in 2017. These examples show that youth are the emerging leaders who will eventually be making decisions impacting their societies.
As young people at one of the world’s top universities, we know best the value of investing in youth for a better future. American students should encourage their members of Congress to support the YPS Act. This small step, whether it be an email or a phone call, can be a start to supporting youth like us, who dream to — and can — make an impact in this world. An investment in the youth of the world could prove to be an investment in the future Nelson Mandelas, Martin Luther Kings, Yasser Arafats, and John Lewises of our world.
Sahar M. Omer ’20, a former Crimson News editor, was a Government concentrator in Pforzheimer House. She is currently supporting peacebuilding policy work with Peace Direct.
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