It’s becoming commonplace to see headlines highlighting young people doing great things. A boy raising money at his birthday party to donate to a food bank. A pair of girl scouts inspired to protect orangutans. A teen who has started her own non-profit organization to help build schools in a developing country. A group of students working together to get plastic bags banned in their community.
Kids have done and are doing amazing things. But they’re not doing them alone. They’ve been given tools, resources, and support to help them thrive and succeed. Here are 9 ways you can help nurture young changemakers.
1. Offer Support
In his book, Free the Children, Craig Kielburger, youth activist and founder of the worldwide organization, Free the Children, said, “A child with adult support and one without can mean the difference between an international movement such as FTC or an idea that never goes beyond a child’s mind.”
Support is one of the most essential factors for helping a young person be a successful advocate for change. I’ve noticed that many of the world’s activists—including youth—who are making a major difference have come from a background of support. They’ve had role models to follow, people who believed in them, people who gave them freedom and opportunity. Craig had very supportive parents and an activist brother as a role model. He said, “I think it was from watching my brother’s involvement in environmental issues that I realized children have power.”
This foundation at a young age of being supported in one’s beliefs and pursuits and having role models and mentors to serve as guides and sounding boards is one of the single most important elements for nurturing effective young changemakers.
2. Inspire Connection
Developing personal connections to and relationships with places and beings outside ourselves is also essential. Alec Loorz, founder of Kids vs. Global Warming, started his own organization after seeing the film An Inconvenient Truth. Jane Goodall developed a deep love for animals at a very young age. At six years old, Phoebe Russell was inspired to action when she passed some people who were homeless and felt sad about their situation.
Changemakers are born when they understand the impact of their choices, when they begin to empathize with another’s plight, and when they form a bond with someone or something else.
3. Encourage Confidence
Effective advocates also have confidence and belief in themselves – in their ability to make a difference, in their assurance in what’s possible. The young changemakers we read about in the news all have confidence that what they do matters.
4. Facilitate Success
Seeing that our actions can make a positive difference is empowering & energizing. Activists in all areas are burning out constantly, because just as they put out one little fire of exploitation, cruelty, or destruction, more blaze up. Most activists wouldn’t continue if they never experienced success.
Young people need small successes to build on and savor in order to maintain momentum, hope, and interest.
5. Cultivate Power & Responsibility
In his book, Free the Children, Craig Kielburger said, “…children like us needed to be freed from the misconception that we were not smart enough, old enough, or capable enough to contribute to social issues.” He’s correct that too many people don’t have confidence in the abilities of youth to make a difference, and that especially kids in many industrialized countries “are conditioned to become passive bystanders.”
Providing young people with responsibility and leadership opportunities can inspire them to become advocates for change.
6. Provide Resources
All the dreams and passions and ideas in the world will only remain dreams and ideas without resources. Changemakers of all ages need resources: contacts, other people, money, supplies, technology.
7. Allow Freedom & Independence
Paul Shapiro, who started his own animal protection organization when he was young and now works for the Humane Society of the United States, went to a college that promoted independent study. Activist Julia “Butterfly” Hill lived in a tree by herself for more than two years. Jane Goodall worked alone in Africa. All of these activists had freedom and independence to act and to follow their passions when they were young.
Providing young people with freedom and independence will help facilitate their success as advocates for change.
8. Connect Colleagues
Embarking upon a new path can be a lonely experience, especially if you’re advocating something the mainstream considers “fringe” or “radical.” Young people need to know that they aren’t alone in their efforts. Young changemakers need to work with other changemakers — young and old — who share at least some of their values. They can gain great confidence and sustenance from working together, as well as build on each others’ ideas and strengths.
9. Show Respect
Ocean Robbins, founder of Youth for Environmental Sanity, said that his parents saw him as “a small, but fully capable, intelligent, and wise person.” The human rights organizations who worked with Craig Kielburger when he was young didn’t patronize him because of his age. Louis Leaky didn’t dismiss Jane Goodall’s skills and potential just because she was young and inexperienced. Everyone—including children—craves (and deserves) to be respected.
Young people tend to respond and to flourish when working with people who treat them respectfully.
In his book, Generation React, environmental advocate Danny Seo said, “We have proved that young people have the tenacity, intelligence and enthusiasm to make a real, lasting difference in the world.”
Young people have so much potential for becoming successful advocates for change. They need the opportunities and support to realize that potential. We, as humane educators, parents, and concerned citizens, can help.
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