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An Open Letter to Young Changemakers on International Youth Day

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash
August 12, 2021

Olaoluwa Abagun (she/her) is a 2021 Social Connectedness Fellow working with Peace First. She holds a Bachelor of Laws degree and a Masters in Gender and Development (with distinction) from the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex under the prestigious Commonwealth Shared Scholarship. She was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria where she cultivated a strong passion for girls’ rights, gender equality, and youth-led advocacy/community mobilizing. She is the Founder of Girl Pride Circle Initiative – a registered girls’ rights advocacy NGO in Nigeria. Olaoluwa hopes to undertake participatory research that drives informed programming and policy-making for/with girls and young people. In Autumn 2021, she will begin doctoral research on teenage girls’ voices and social media at the Waterford Institute of Technology, Ireland.

Dear Young Leaders,

Times have changed rapidly. 

Over the past two years, we have been confronted with unique challenges, which have had a far-reaching impact on our personal lives, families, and on the critical work we undertake across our communities. The reality of living through a global pandemic as young people is that our education and livelihoods have been heavily disrupted, and our mental well-being has worsened significantly due to the uncertainties associated with these times. Beyond our personal lives, we have also seen COVID-19 highlight the widening socio-economic inequalities across our communities. What is more, the current distribution of vaccines (a critical part of stemming the spread of the virus) tells a story of the gross inequities around the world.

As young leaders working to achieve social change, we have stepped up in dynamic ways to advocate for the most vulnerable communities, combat the spread of fake news, and provide the essential services that would otherwise have been harshly cut off from those that need them the most. Notably, initiatives like the COVID-19 Young Leaders Fund, the Global Resilience Fund for Girls and Young Women, and the COVID-19 Rapid Response Grants have invested in these youth-led response and recovery efforts on the ground. Relevant stakeholders have also increasingly advocated for the optimum engagement of young people as communities take action and make pivotal decisions to tackle the pandemic.

There is no doubt that our commitment to combating the present challenges as young changemakers is critical. However, we must recognize the need to look beyond ‘fire-fighting’ and step back to reflect deeply on what this new experience means for us and our various forms of organizing. While our systems and institutions were largely unprepared for the negative impact of the pandemic, the onus now lies on us to be intentional about organizing a post-COVID future. 

To begin with, self-care is non-negotiable. We must overcome the unspoken expectation to power through the present reality and move into the future without committing purposefully to our individual and collective nourishment. There is no better time to normalize ‘unplugging’ from our fast-paced lives and leaning inwards to prioritize our health and well-being. This 30-day self-care calendar and the Happiness Manifesto put together by FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund are great places to begin. They offer practical ways to engage in self-care, both for ourselves and others within our change-making community.

Secondly, we need to become more deliberate about solidarity. As young leaders in all our diversity, we are bound by a golden thread: the strong desire to improve our communities, amplify stifled voices, and champion social change. More than ever, there is a need to stretch hands of collaboration across thematic issues, borders, and generations. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that injustices often overlap, and that co-creating intersecting solutions is the sustainable way to go. ‘Resilient Realities’  (a youth-led report on youth civil society’s experience and response to the COVID-19 pandemic) also emphasizes that “the crisis has made us ever more aware of our interconnectedness.” It is important that we center this interconnectedness in a post-COVID world and dismantle all existing silos of oppression in our youth-led work. In Greta Thunberg’s words, “together and united, we are unstoppable.”

Finally, adaptability must become our main mode of being. As we chart our post-COVID future, it has become imperative to rethink traditional modes of organizing, and invest in new skills that will support fresh approaches to social change. For instance, the pandemic has put a spotlight on the need to design new forms of digital organizing, as well as effective strategies for virtual community engagement, against the backdrop of a significant digital divide. Again, the extensive economic impact of COVID-19 is a call for all young changemakers to reimagine resource mobilization in order to sustain grassroots initiatives. The evolution of youth-led NGOs into social businesses and strengthening meaningful intergenerational partnerships between young leaders and international/multilateral organizations are a few options to explore.

Overall, in embracing our new reality, it is beyond question that our attitude to youth-led social change requires some transformation. As the world celebrates youth voices, leadership, and meaningful engagement today, let us consider setting up the building blocks for this timely transformation.

Happy International Youth Day!

In Solidarity,

Olaoluwa Abagun