In collaboration with Foreign Policy, the National Democratic Institute celebrated the power of youth voices in a Defending Democracy “game changer” event, featuring U.S. Representative Sara Jacobs and U.S. Special Envoy for Global Youth Issues Abby Finkenauer, and three young leaders, Lu Argueta, Eliud Luutsa and Marina Csikós. They discussed the multifaceted issues that young people, including youth of diverse identities and backgrounds, face in democracy today as the youth population grows larger and more disaffected than ever. These challenges include access to education, health, employment and gender equality, resulting in growing concerns with the ability of democracy to deliver. Without proper representation and the inclusion of young people in decision-making processes, such issues are inadequately addressed within communities and by governments. It’s important for leaders and other active members of any given democracy to meaningfully represent youth interests, to listen to youth-led organizations, and to consider what can be done to help young people choose and become defenders of democracy.
The event opened with keynote speakers, Congresswoman Sara Jacobs and Special Envoy for Youth, Abby Finkenauer. Congresswoman Jacobs, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, opened her discussion with a conversation on the global democratic backsliding seen at many different levels. Through her work on the Africa Subcommittee, and with youth constituents, Congresswoman Jacobs shared that one of the most important ways to build back the bridges between governments and young people is to ask young people what they care about – and then deliver on it. Abby Finkenauer discussed the need for more youth engagement and the importance of partnering with youth, without shifting the burden onto them. Based on her own experience, she has never felt more hopeful about young people’s ability to make a difference.
NDI and Foreign Policy also had the opportunity to showcase a panel of young activists and organizers from Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe. Lu Argueta is the Secretary-General for the Latin American Youth Network for Democracy (JuventudLAC). She works to defend democracy and human rights in over 20 countries in the region, focusing on youth empowerment and civil society in politics. She spoke about youth engagement, emphasizing that access to international networks is imperative to help young people become involved with democracy. Through trainings to involve youth in democratic action and by partnering with other organizations, youth in different stages of their personal and political journeys can be supported. As an example, NDI partnered with JuvendtudLAC to identify delegates to participate in the 2nd Summit for Democracy in Costa Rica last March, a key opportunity to promote international youth voices and their inclusion in democratic processes.
Marina Csikós, a panelist and Project Officer for Phiren Amenca International Network, works on the intersection of Roma and youth issues, such as political participation, hate speech, intersectional discrimination and the lack of opportunities. Marina shared that in her experience, hate speech is an area where many people are heavily impacted. One of her organization's programs in Europe is focused on hate speech against minority groups in Hungary, which has been inspired by a partnership with NDI Hungary in support of religious freedom. Working with NDI and other organizations, the Roma Women Network has bolstered its ability to bring Roma women together and fight discrimination and racism, both on and offline. The Network publicized a letter to the legislature, which demanded that politicians curb the use of hate speech in the Roma community and develop initiatives that protect democracy and human rights. Marina spoke to the importance of representation for young Roma girls, “[They] need to see other young Roma girls and women who care about politics, education, democracy and the world around them to engage them with politics on a deeper level.”
The final member of the panel was Eliud Luutsa, the Co-founder of Innobid and Ye! Advisor to the International Trade Centre in Kenya, which develops innovative solutions to assist youth in democratic participation. When asked what role the private sector and businesses can play in supporting young people, Eliud asserted that young people already have the energy, skills, trust and passion to participate. They have compassionate belief systems, and support involving marginalized populations in their work and in their goals. He noted that 60% of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa are young people, and that they have the trust of their communities. But according to Eliud, what youth need are resources. He shared that passion alone is not enough, and the private sector and businesses must provide resources to spur change.
Marina, Eliud and Lu concluded the panel by discussing the needs of organizations and movements that amplify and strengthen youth voices. Lu stressed the need for education on basic rights, freedoms and democracy for citizens. She also reminded the audience that “It takes time to understand how abuses of power, violations of human rights, populism and authoritarianism can happen on both ends of the political spectrum.” Eliud added that young people are asking for intergenerational solidarity and everyone must give them the respect and solidarity they deserve in support of democratic progress. Marina focused on the importance of relying on marginalized groups as experts on the issues they encounter. She also reminded young people that if they work and dream big, they can be whoever they want to be.
When young people’s voices are heard and meaningfully included, change can happen. However, when young people are not meaningfully included and their grievances go unaddressed, these barriers influence their decisions, including the type of governments and leaders they choose. The decisions being made on issues such as inadequate representation, economic inequality, environmental degradation and access to education have the potential to impact young leaders and their communities for the rest of their lives. To ensure that young people have power over their own futures, their education and the world they live in, it’s imperative that democracies invest in initiatives that motivate their political participation, and foster their support for democracy. The NDI and Foreign Policy event highlighted young people who are game changers in forging the path for others, helping to support the need for diversity in decision-making, political agency and allyship as young people strive to make change in their communities.
Author: Hannah Richards, Project Assistant for the Government Relations and Communications Team
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.