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Rewriting the Script: Young People as Champions of Belonging

Photo by Zainul Yasni on Unsplash
July 15, 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.

“I wear a black hoody and people see me as a hoodlum, a troublemaker. I enter the store and all eyes are on me. But I bet those people don’t know that I average a 3.86 GPA in high school. And I also bet you that those people don’t know that my intentions aren’t to destroy the community, but to restore it.” [1]

This statement by Javier (a young Latin male living in California) paints a stark picture of widespread stereotypes about young people. In particular, communities grappling with socio-economic challenges such as violence, poverty, and homelessness often scapegoat youth for these problems [2], characterizing them as lazy, complacent, and naive. Ironically, adultism – an assumed inferiority of young people and bias towards adults – also exists within social justice movements and civil society organizations who are committed to dismantling inequalities. [3] 

As early as the 1990s, studies have countered the myths that young people distance themselves from their communities and are not skilled enough to address social issues. In fact, a 1998 study showed that young people are “looking for new and distinctive ways to connect to the people and issues surrounding them.” [4]  In the same vein, more recent research has demonstrated that youth are highly impactful in mobilizing for social change: working frequently on equality and social justice issues, aiming for big goals and taking risks to achieve them. [5] 

Today, these findings continue to be validated by several youth-led social change initiatives within the Peace First global community. From Lagos to Lahore, Peace First (PF) supports young leaders in their changemaking journey through digital training, funding, and mentorship. While diverse issues are tackled by these young leaders, a common thread among them is their commitment to working at the intersection of social issues towards bridging historical divides. To a great extent, many of these youth-led initiatives centre the need to belong as a fundamental human need [6] and recognize the importance of social cohesion. 

A woman wearing a white head scarf with her head down behind jail bars
Illustration of an Egyptian female debtor “Gharemaat” in a prison. 
Photo Credit: Narya and Ahara / Facebook

A case in point is Narya and Ahara led by a young fashion designer and artist, Hana Moataz, together with her best friend Nourhan.  Under the Egyptian Penal Code, failure to pay back debts may attract a jail term of up to three years. The reality for poor women who complete their jail term is that they face social stigma within their community and find it nearly impossible to gain employment. Narya and Ahara is an online clothing store which employs these formerly incarcerated female debtors to produce sustainable fashion items for sale. Leveraging the power of social media, the items are then sold along with a hand-written note to the buyer from the woman who produced it. In Hana’s words, “people need to understand that those women are not criminals, they are victims of poverty.”

Homepage of The Solidarity Library. 3 rows of books in the background with words on top: A digital hub for social justice. An organization dedicated to diversifying higher education and equitable knowledge production
Homepage of The Solidarity Library Website

Another common feature of youth-led initiatives within the PF global community is the strategic use of digital tools and the internet to facilitate meaningful connections. For instance, inspired by the physical distancing restrictions necessitated by COVID-19, Mayumi (Social Connectedness Fellow 2020) and Trevor (students at the University of Cambridge) reimagined the offerings of a library to the community. The result was The Solidarity Library, a “safe digital convening space where marginalized people can present their own stories and experiences through storytelling and research.” Through this digital library, people access resources on issues like disability rights, LGBTQ+ communities, and climate justice. The platform has also hosted virtual conferences which have enabled individuals to gain a deeper understanding of the complex layers of racism, classism, and ageism, among other issues. In addition, The Solidarity Library runs a virtual graduate fellowship programme, which targets students from low-income backgrounds and under-resourced neighbourhoods. Through one-to-one mentoring and guidance, fellows are supported to gain acceptance and matriculate into postgraduate institutions around the world. This fellowship contributes to overcoming traditional barriers and challenging elitism within higher education.

From the plethora of youth-led social change initiatives supported by PF, one thing is clear: youth are combating social isolation and standing behind the fundamental right to belong. They are facilitating unprecedented dialogues, reinventing systems, and elevating the most relegated voices within their communities. We must amplify these efforts. A great place to begin is to learn about and share the brave stories of youth-led projects. These stories offer a more wholesome narrative about young people across our diverse communities. If you are a young person, consider getting involved in Peace First’s programs!

[1] Bodiford, Kristin. 2013. “Youth-Led Dialogues for Positive Change.” Revista Eleuthera 8: 103–141. Accessed June 4, 2021.

[2] Porfilio, Brad J., and Julie A. Gorlewski. “Promoting Active Citizenship through the arts and youth: Canadian Youth-Led Organizations as Beacons of Hope and Transformation.” International Journal of Progressive Education 8, no. 3 (2012).

[3] Mama Cash and FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund. 2018. “ Girls to the Front – A Snapshot of Girl-Led Organising.” Accessed June 8, 2021.

[4] Tolman, Joel, Karen Pittman, Barbara Cervone, Kathleen Cushman, Lisa Rowley, Sheila Kinkade, Jeanie Phillips, and Sabrina Duque. “Youth Acts, Community Impacts: Stories of Youth Engagement with Real Results.” In Forum for Youth Investment. Forum for Youth Investment. The Cady-Lee House, 7064 Eastern Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20012-2031, 2001.

[5] Ho, Elaine, Amelia Clarke, and Ilona Dougherty. “Youth-led social change: Topics, engagement types, organizational types, strategies, and impacts.” Futures 67 (2015): 52-62. 

[6] Thomas, Keith Trevor. “Bridging social boundaries and building social connectedness: Through youth development programs.” Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal (2019).