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Never too young to lead

Today is International Youth Day, designated by the United Nations to draw attention to issues uniquely affecting the world’s young people.

Wikipedia has a very simple definition for youth: “the time of life when one is young.”

As youth engagement director at World Vision International, it is my job to be connecting, catalyzing, and convening youth around the countries where World Vision invests. In doing so, I have found that there are a lot of similarities and differences among youth around the world.

In some countries, it seems that every day is “youth day.” You turn on the television or open a magazine, and the culture seems preoccupied with feeling young again and hanging on to that time of youthfulness. In other countries, youth are struggling to have a voice in their community and are disproportionately affected by issues of unemployment and poverty.

The importance of role models

When I travel and meet with youth, I like to ask them who their role models are. Who do they look up to? Who spends time encouraging and helping them? The answers are diverse and depend on where I am. In some parts of the world, there’s a long list. In others, I find youth who don’t even understand the question. I tend to find a strong correlation between their answers and their well-being and prospects for the future.

When I was in Bethlehem (in the West Bank) several months ago, I asked the above question to a group of six women and two men who were youth leaders in the community. Their response showed me the critical role of mentors. The young women’s response was the local World Vision community development manager, because she showed how a woman could be a strong leader and respectfully ask questions and even challenge customs. They said that she provided a great example that the young girls in the community emulated.

Good role models are key for young people today. Youth are looking for examples and relationships with adult leaders. I still remember some of the key people who were available, showed an interest, and helped me as I moved from childhood to adulthood.

Learning from each other

When we invest in youth, they often become role models for us as well. Robert F. Kennedy said, “The world demands the qualities of youth. Not a time of life, but a state of mind.”

I’ve worked with youth for most of my adult life! They challenge me to embrace so many of the qualities I admire in young people. Here are four of the more important lessons I’ve learned from youth:

Youth want to participate. Wherever I travel, I find youth wanting to engage and participate in conversations and decisions affecting their communities. As part of our community development approach, we really see active participation as key and have made exciting progress toward increasing youth engagement.

It’s okay to challenge expectations. With age comes a tendency to stick to the rules and do things the way they’ve always been done. But youth are unafraid to question expectations and rebel against what’s placed on them -- often to our annoyance. Many youth have a curiosity to understand things and forge their own path, which often enables them to discover new and better approaches.

Have fun -- the journey is often as important as the destination. Youth remind us that life is to be experienced and explored. I have found that youth value having fun and experiencing life. And when they get excited about a cause, their passion becomes contagious, and they freely invite others to join them and be a part of their journey.

It’s about relationship -- community is key. Community, collaboration, and friendship are important values to this generation. All young people learn and grow, positively or negatively, from the relationships they form after they begin to break away from their parents. Creating a good community is something they yearn for and it impacts them profoundly. When I think of the range of World Vision’s youth networks around the world, each group seems to thrive on core communities of friends first.

“You’re never too young to lead”

Youth have a unique perspective on the world as it is and the world as it can be. There is a lot our generations can learn from each other.

This International Youth Day, we are focusing on this quote by former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan: “You are never too young to lead.” On our Global Youth Blog, we are sharing stories of how young people all around the world are leading. We’re also asking youth to share their voice, passions, and opinions by taking our Global Youth Vote survey. No matter your age, we’d love your input; and perhaps you can share it around.

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Paul Newnham is the global youth engagement director for World Vision International.


In honor of International Youth Day, we’d like to invite you to join World Vision and our partners at Microsoft, Intel, and the UK development agency, British Council, to help bring digital access and education to children in Africa by building fully-equipped computer centers in schools. Through these partnerships, your gift will have double the impact to fund a child’s digital future.

Read more on the World Vision Blog about: United Nations Youth MInistry

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