Young People Speak Out on Their Priority Issues
Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Monday, November 7 / 22
The other evening I was channel surfing on my TV when I came across a CBC Nature of Things repeat program from a couple of years ago. David Suzuki, who has hosted this show for more than a generation and recently announced his retirement, focused on the “climate crisis” (I no longer call it “climate change”) and the role that youth has played in confronting governments and corporations whose policies – or lack of policies – has made this global problem worse.
I was truly inspired by this program that featured, among others, Greta Thunberg, as well as a number of young Canadians who lead demonstrations and meet with decision-makers in order to publicize and make a difference to our very serious climate concerns. Maybe it reminded me of my best self, not only in my university days but over a career of passion and hopefully concrete action in the area of global poverty alleviation.
I was a young person in the 70s when idealistic beliefs about peace, equality and a clean environment were dominant. The question is “What are youth thinking now?” when we are dealing with a very dysfunctional world of famine, war, polarized politics and natural disasters? To this question, I have three examples to share.
A number of years ago, I was involved in delivering written surveys and focus groups to high school students in a few Manitoba high schools, asking them just these kinds of questions – what is important to you, how to do feel about your school and community, and what does your future look like? Students invariably chose the following areas to focus on: their education, their potential employment, the state of the natural environment around them, the availability of recreation for them, and the economic prospects for their towns.
School was very important to students, obviously, not just as an educational institution, but also as their community of peers and the entity that structured their lives. However, some were concerned that a better quality of education was needed in order for them to succeed in post-secondary learning or in the work world. Interesting and well-paid employment was a goal, again with some worry if this would happen for them.
Just as we feared nuclear war when we were young, today’s youth fear climate disaster. They are also concerned about recreation and transportation, particularly because they see that without these, many young people will descend into drugs and crime. Finally, these Manitoba youth want a say in how their local communities develop but they find that they are often ignored or misunderstood. A voice for youth is very important to them.
My second example is more “official” - Canada’s first State of Youth Report. While these government processes often contain a bias toward the policies of the elected leadership group of the day, it is clear that they mirror what my small sampling of Manitoba youth chose as key issues. The State of Youth focuses on issues such as Truth & Reconciliation, Environment & Climate Action, Health & Wellness, Leadership & Impact, Employment, and finally, Innovation, Skills & Learning.
There is no doubt that youth who choose to get involved in these kinds of survey projects are often the more activist people, who would identify and be more in tune with social and environmental issues. Effort was made in the Manitoba project I was involved in to survey a broad range of students, not just the “keeners”. No doubt, not all students are aware of or care about racial, environmental or other social concerns and may focus on sports, a social life, computer action games, and bettering their own economic prospects.
An American survey which I also looked at, example number three, shows that US youth may generally have more personal or internal-to-America concerns, which is not unusual. The large urban population in the US and their more isolationist thinking may cause this. Thus, the “Ten Most Important Issues Identified by American Youth” include urban violence, drugs and alcohol, poverty and poor education in neighbourhoods of colour, broken families and obesity. Vast and relatively quick political and social change in relation to these issues is certainly one cause of polarized politics in the US.
We often refer to youth as “the leaders of tomorrow.” In fact, many young people in their teens, twenties and thirties are leaders today, confronting the same issues that I did many years ago and then throughout my career. Rather than say “We tried but it didn’t work, so why bother?”, we should celebrate their effort to make our planet not just a better place, but in the wake of our climate crisis, to try to ensure our survival.
Zack Gross is Board Chair of The Marquis Project, a Brandon-based international development organization, and co-author of the new book The Fair Trade Handbook: Building a Better World, Together.
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