Young People - from Empowerment to Engagement

Nagaland government set aside a year dedicated to ‘youth empowerment’ and under that mandate, a series of events and programmes were launched all across the state. It is a good beginning. It is a critical beginning. But should empowerment begin and stop with events and programmes? To make youth empowerment impact social change and development, it is crucial to analyse deeper the processes that makes such a noble venture make a lasting impact to social change and development.  Are young peoples’ voices adequately heard in social, economic and political processes? If they are heard, are their opinions validated?  Do young people feel empowered enough to influence social change? Do they have the authorization to contribute positively to social change and development? These are tough questions, needing serious answers. 

Successfully engaging young people in social change inherently requires listening. Personal assumptions, organizational barriers, and cultural expectations are often barriers to listening to young people. One-to-one conversations, group discussions, youth action research, youth-created media, or artistic expression can be successful avenues that create space for young people to express themselves safely and responsibly.  

Validating young people’s opinion does not mean automatically agreeing with what is said. It is important to offer them sincere comments, criticism, and feedback. Disagreeing with them may help them to know that you heard what was said, thought about it, and that you have your own knowledge or opinion which you think is important to share with them, and which you feel they are entitled to because they also have their own perspectives. Young people must know that democracy is not about autonomous authority, and that a chorus of people, including young people but not exclusive to young people, is responsible for what happens throughout our communities. When we critical examine our Naga society today, we see that young people are repeatedly condemned, denied, or abandoned everyday because of the identities they possess. Democracy inherently requires ability, which comes in the form of experience and knowledge. Authorizing young people means going beyond historical expectations for youth by actively providing the training, creating the positions, and allowing the space they need in order to affect change. Transitioning from passive participants to active change agents and leaders requires young people actually taking action to create change. Mobilizing children and youth with authority allows them to affect cultural, systemic, and personal transformation in their own lives and the lives of others. It also encourages adults to actively acknowledge young people as partners in social change.

Social change led by and with young people is not and cannot be a vacuous event that affects only young people or the immediate situation. Children, youth, and adults should take responsibility for learning from social change by engaging in conscious critical reflection that examines assumptions, reactions, outcomes, and change. Young people and adults can also work together to identify how to sustain and expand the active involvement of young people for social change and development
An aggressive social, political, and cultural agenda seeks to portray young peoples violent “superpredators” beyond society’s reproach. A growing number of youth-led and partnered actions are struggling against these perceptions by waging into ‘anti-social elements’ as they are commonly referred to in Nagaland. 

All over the world new generation of young activists are making their voices and actions felt throughout their communities. Action includes critically examining popular media images of them, designing community action and education campaigns, and engaging peers in action throughout communities. While often seen as a traditional youth service activity, youth leadership programs and organizations are increasingly focusing on engaging nontraditional youth leaders as social change agents. Skill-based, issue-oriented, and youth-centered action engages young people in leading their peers and their communities for social, cultural, economic, and environmental justice.

While being some of the main victims of violent conflict, young people have also been historically active in opposing war. Across the world we see them engage in actions that promotes active pacifism, anti-militarization, nuclear disarmament, and anti-landmine campaigns. Others focus on preventing young people from experimenting with illicit drugs, promoting athletics and music etc.  Young people are engaged in every movement for social justice around the world, as activists, leaders, members, partners, and in other roles. Progressive action represents a variety of communities and perspective, each conjoined through a commitment for social, economic, cultural, and environmental justice.

Our youth are not failing the system; the system is failing our youth. Ironically, the very youth who are being treated the worst are the young people who are going to lead us out of this nightmare. - Rachel Jackson