To Truly Empower Young People, Invest in Them and Then Step Aside

Cynthia Steele

There is no group more qualified to lead solutions to our world’s most pressing problems than the communities who directly experience them.

For young people in emerging markets — who are disproportionately affected by issues such as climate change, gender inequity, education disruption, and economic upheaval — this sentiment rings truer than ever before.

But too often, youth programming understates — or outright excludes — the valuable perspectives of the communities it purports to help, leaving young people feeling disengaged and unsupported in their quest to build healthy, meaningful, and productive lives. To drive transformational change and empower a generation of young people, funders must invest in youth-centered programs and then let them lead.

Enabling youth protagonism — where youth are seen as the leaders of their own lives and are capable of designing, leading, and implementing change — is where true empowerment lies. This principle is what guides my work as the president and CEO of EMpower, a foundation that has supported young people in emerging markets for over 20 years by backing programs that advance economic wellbeing; mental health and sexual and reproductive health and rights; and inclusive learning.

Our belief is simple: young people should be treated as the smart, dynamic, and resourceful individuals they are, not as victims or charity beneficiaries who lack agency. This means we must listen to and amplify their varied voices, needs, and desires and encourage them to lead on their terms. It also means improving their access to financial and educational resources so they’re equipped with the tools they need to live their full potential. This is where funders can play a key role.

At EMpower, this ethos guided our creation and longstanding support of the Learning Communities model, a global programming framework now in its tenth year, which champions girls and young women to lead change in their communities. Learning Communities do this by facilitating conversations around the barriers girls and young women face and the solutions they want to see; nurturing their confidence and self-esteem around developing and leading interventions that address these barriers; and connecting them with mentors and community members to enable lasting change. These efforts are led by local organizations who best understand the cultural, social, and economic contexts the girls and young women are navigating — an intentional and key component for success.

The first iteration of this model, in Mumbai, India, was groundbreaking.

Learning Community participants established The Time is Now campaign to improve girls’ safe and unrestricted movement in public spaces. After realizing there was no data from girls and women about the (in)accessibility of Mumbai’s public spaces, 80 girl leaders surveyed nearly 1,000 respondents in 10 Mumbai wards, analyzed their findings to present to stakeholders, and successfully advocated for the installation of streetlights on key routes throughout the city.

Additionally, more than 1,500 girls designed and participated in interventions such as protests, rallies, wall painting, and community dialogues to increase visibility around their safety and mobility demands. They ultimately reached 26,000 people in Mumbai with their messaging, and their success led us to establish a second Learning Community in Delhi. Together, both Learning Communities have engaged more than 300 girl leaders who have reached 3,800-plus youth participants and more than 57,000 community members.

This is a true testament to the power of local, youth-led programming and just one example of what can be accomplished when funders invest directly in youth, their leadership, and their expertise. Funding these types of models, where youth and local partners are in the driver’s seat, can have a catalytic impact on communities.

So, what actions can funders take to make youth protagonism not just a possibility, but a reality?

First, we should not place the responsibility of creating a better world solely on the shoulders of the younger generation. We must let youth lead, but we must follow closely behind with support to enable their success. This means working to increase funding for youth-led programs and being allies in solving some of the world’s most pressing problems, like gender inequity and climate change.

Second, funders need to engage directly with youth and ask them what they need and what advice they have. Recognizing that we are not the experts on young people’s lives — and creating space for ongoing dialogue — will make programs more relevant, effective, and equitable.

Third, youth-led programs need flexible, sustained funding to be responsive and to tackle entrenched issues that can’t be undone in the course of a grant cycle. It’s up to funders to remove bulky funding restrictions that hinder the development and implementation of youth-led programs.

Finally, funders should ask grantees how they involve youth in existing programs. This includes inviting youth to speak on panels, organize events, or contribute to policy and strategic dialogues. Their expertise is both important and necessary.

An attitude of humility, and the understanding that we’re constantly seeking ways to be more effective as organizations and as funders, is key. What I’ve learned over the past 15 years of my work with EMpower is that empowering youth to be confident, resourceful leaders in their own lives and in their communities is one of the most valuable investments funders can make.

Cynthia Steele is president and CEO of EMpower. Find her on LinkedIn and follow EMpower on Twitter.

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