Tag Archives: youth engagement

Coaches Corner: The Quest for Generational Solidarity, Dr. Robert Zuber

6 Oct

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Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.   Franz Kafka

The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.   Friedrich Nietzsche

I am the way a life unfolds and bloom and seasons come and go and I am the way the spring always finds a way to turn even the coldest winter into a field of green and flowers and new life.  Charlotte Eriksson

He stood at the window of the empty cafe and watched the activities in the square and he said that it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they’d have no heart to start at all.  Cormac McCarthy

Adolescence is like having only enough light to see the step directly in front of you. Sarah Addison Allen

As is so often the case now, there was an interesting, if sometimes uneasy mix of ages and age-related perspectives on display at the UN this week.

In the Security Council on Wednesday, current president South Africa led a good discussion on “Mobilizing youth towards silencing the guns by 2020” featuring three presenters (ages unknown but certainly not anywhere near their teens) who gave what most considered to be masterful presentations focused on the talent residing in young people across the African continent, the skills that are being cultivated in many quarters and that are increasingly impatient to find sufficient expression.

Youth briefers from the African Union, Uganda and Kenya skillfully pointed out the condition of “wait-hood” that many African youth feel trapped within, the sense that they are capable of more than their circumstances permit, forcing them too often to “hustle” as a precondition for being recognized, accepted, encouraged.  The Kenyan Peacebuilder was explicit in seeking “proactive” youth policies that resist “containing” the energies and aspirations of youth.  Recognize the good work we are already doing, she demanded, the responsibilities we already shoulder.  In a similar vein, the Ugandan youth representative noted that, as societies, we are getting more comfortable with the “language of participation” but not as much in identifying and sharing power.  He cited a certain kind of “exhaustion” from criticizing “war mongers” rather than engaging in peacebuilding, which he now believes is the “better way.”

As Peru rightly noted during this Council session, echoing the presentation by the AU Youth Advisor, we must all move beyond the flawed narrative and stereotypes that posits African youth as either instigators or victims of violence.  And as South Africa itself suggested, we must do more to release the “cultural expression” of youth as a contribution to peace and security, understanding that the creation and recognition of beauty is essential to peaceful societies.  Several Council members affirmed the need to take account of the diverse and altogether negative consequences for youth – including the many children considerably younger than these briefers – of armed violence and the trafficking in weapons and narcotics that often accompanies it.   As the Ugandan briefer rightly noted, war “turns everything upside down.” Violence isn’t by any means limited to conflict zones, but all violence has diverse and negative implications for the health, well-being and participation of youth, as of course if does for all in communities of conflict, those who participate directly and those who don’t.

Elsewhere in the UN, the Third Committee (human rights and social development) of the General Assembly also resumed its work this week, and one welcome feature of the initial social development- focused presentations was the presence of youth voices which, in many instances, punctuated this often dry segment of delegate statements with more passionate, impatient references to a world where sustainable development is not proceeding nearly quickly enough and is often not particularly “social” regarding achieved levels of inclusiveness.

The young people who spoke in Third Committee had many good ideas on promoting educational and employment opportunities for youth and, as Mexico’s youth delegate urged, “activities that promote a “just and democratic” society without discrimination.”   The Republic of Korea’s youth delegate garnered significant attention by proclaiming that, for her at least, “looking good” is not as important as “doing good.”  That same delegate, however, cited the many social development priorities, including employment, health and “marginalization,” for which youth have many suggestions and energies for change, suggestions which are too-often “heard but not listened to” by elders.

The youth in the Third Committee, much like those in the Security Council, did not represent what you would call a “random sampling” of their generation.  The UN tends to be highly-choreographed space and the voices given the floor were forceful, well-educated, on the older side of “youth,” and confident above all else. They rightly sought greater inclusiveness for their voices and recognition for the progress they are already making but in a manner that, ironically, seemed under-attentive to other dimensions of inclusiveness, including the aspirations of those younger than themselves and the needs and accomplishments of older persons also featured in that day’s Committee discussions.

Given this, it was the youth delegate from Thailand who made the biggest impact on me of all the young representatives we heard.  Not only did she make helpful distinctions between the “citizenship education” young people need and the “something less” they are likely to receive in formal classrooms, but she also referenced her chronological peers’ social responsibility in a kind and nuanced way, highlighting the commitment to “carry the torch” of sustainable development to succeeding generations.

This “carrying” is part of what we must locate if the elusive “intergenerational solidarity” called for during the week in this Committee is to be realized.  It’s not simply about resolving the “tug of war” between millennials and their elders.  It is more a struggle for the integration of aspirations across the human spectrum, from those taking their first steps to those breathing their last breath.  And beyond chronology, to open ourselves to the needs of those not in our own social groupings, to build more common interests that open safe spaces for migrants (as Norway’s youth delegate recognized)  and those (mostly other) persons habitually further from centers of policy influence than the youth speakers at the UN could possibly ever imagine themselves being.

Tendencies exist in our world now which impede the promotion of this highly-prized intergenerational solidarity: people who talk more and listen less than they think they do; people who judge the worth of “insider” groups by their best examples, and outsider groups by their worst; people keen to make too much of their own accomplishments and too little of the accomplishments of others. There is also the trend to be plaintiffs in only a limited, personal sense for the too-many ways in which people’s aspirations and ideas have been patronized or blocked altogether by those in authority; thereby abandoning the large majority of people (of all ages) to process the unsettling reality that leadership won’t fix what needs to be fixed and won’t let anyone else try to fix it either.

And there is a trend, one perhaps more toxic than the others, to “essentialize” groups of people, to blithely assume common characteristics for “youth,” or “women,” or “white men,” or “Mexicans” that tend to sweep away – often in a self-serving manner — the distinctive characteristics, aspirations, frustrations and failures that each brings to life, the unique “light” in others that we often can’t see because we have allowed ourselves to be blinded by our own erstwhile “brilliance.”

What has been clear inside and outside of UN conference rooms is the urgent need for an infusion of young energy, enthusiasm, determination, ideas and skills (perhaps minus the over-confidence and proliferation of Instagram photos).  Equally clear is that those of us who are older need to spend more time coaching and less time lecturing, coaching for character that encourages reliability and builds capacity to rebound from loss and failure; coaching in anticipation of long winters that eventually give way to a more bountiful spring; coaching others to “carry the torch” for generations to come rather than hording it’s light for themselves and their peer group; coaching that remains conscious of the need to “change the game” such that the mistakes of one generation are not simply camouflaged by the next under some clever new costuming.

My generation hasn’t always coached well; we have sometimes resisted too mightily getting off the playing field and allowing that space to be creatively occupied by younger others. But there is still time to fix this. We must start by recognizing that, literally and figuratively, it is “their time” now, albeit with many more young still to come, some already lying in wait, anticipating their own chances to be heard.  We older folks can surely do more to ensure that this “time” is well spent; that development becomes more sustainable and that social inclusiveness extends well beyond the age, race and social class of the “usual suspects.”  At this juncture in these unsettled times, this is quite possibly the best investment we can collectively make.

Island Get-Away: Heeding the Call of the Climate-Vulnerable, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 Sep

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Delays and laziness are the two great gulfs in which multitudes of souls are drowned and perish. John Fox

You cannot prove your worth by bylines and busyness.  Katelyn S. Irons

Nathan thought people needed to wash dishes by hand sometimes. Prepare their own meals more often. And take walks.  Eileen Wilks

We cannot put off living until we are ready….Life is fired at us point-blank. Jose Ortega Y Gasset

If you want to save some money at Christmas, you can say Santa Claus died in a wildfire. Chuck Nice

This year’s high-level week at the UN has come and gone.  Barriers designed to separate those invited and not-invited to this grand political party are coming down as I write and most of the dignitaries (and their entourages) have had their say and boarded planes for home. The time will soon come for the diplomats and other stakeholders who walk the UN’s halls daily to translate some of the promises made into concrete policies, as well as to attempt to soften some of the bravado of heads of state who came to the UN to air their grievances and/or to use their platform to, in some instances, defend the indefensible (as with Brazil) or attempt to undermine the value of multilateralism from multilateralism’s most cherished podium (as with the US).

It was a frenetic scene from early Monday’s opening of the Climate Summit through Friday’s high-level event focused on some of the growing, existential threats posed to small-island states from climate change.  Indeed, some of the most significant take-away messages from this UN week were from those very same events.  The widely-reported, emotional statement uttered to dignitaries by Greta Thunberg (“how dare you”) at the Climate Summit underscored the absurdity of middle-age diplomats of privilege putting “hope” in a teenager who should be home and in school, a teenager who is asking only that leaders listen and respond to the science of climate change and not their own polling numbers.  For her part, Greta might well have been one of the only persons in that Summit (not living within walking distance of the UN) whose mode of transport did not contribute to the problem that the dignitaries had ostensibly gathered to address.  Indeed, the vast environmental “footprint” associated with this event (a fact not lost on some skeptics) should have led less to “hope” in the singular determination of a teenager and more to shame regarding the behavior of political leadership who, in too many instances, still lacks the fortitude to practice what they preach.

Friday’s event focused on the growing climate urgency felt by small-island states couched within a mid-term review of the SAMOA Pathway.  This review highlighted the plight of states staring “point blank” at rising sea levels and ever-angrier storms, and gave rise to frustrations with the limited ability of UN leadership to evoke practical climate commitments from the heads of several large-emissions states. But the event also underscored the degree to which the UN remains highly valuable as a platform to appeal for and garner support for island states which have contributed little to the climate problem but which, in too many instances, suffer from its most severe impacts.  In some ways, this event represented the best (as Sweden’s Foreign Minister referred to the UN) of this “global public good” – passionate, honest, helpful and thoughtful –offering hope to small islanders that big-power interests would not be allowed to deflect responses to the now-existential fears that the economies and cultures of their small-island homes could soon be added to our rapidly-growing list of global extinctions.

There were many important messages emanating from this event that highlighted the urgency of the times and the “lazy delays” that have often characterized our common commitments.  Ireland’s President Michael Higgins spoke well of the dangers of “recurrence” of our collective challenges which he believes can only be prevented through a new ecological-social “compact.”  A native speaker from Hawaii was more graphic, noting that there are more plastic objects in the ocean “than stars in the Milky Way” and highlighting the greed that makes us the only species that “forces disharmony” with the natural order.  Climate problems for one, he noted, soon become “problems for all,” underscoring the hope of UN SG Gutterres that if we can find the courage to solve climate change at its most difficult point, we can solve it at other points more readily.

And in a remarkable SAMOA event statement, Barbados’ Prime Minster wondered aloud how long her taxpayers would continue to authorize trips to New York to continue to say and hear the same things over and over, statements with political value perhaps but also with limited practical impact, statements which merely provide cover for the “arrogance” of too-many leaders and other stakeholders who apparently believe that we are already doing enough to stave off our own extinction when we clearly are not.

Back in the General Assembly, Palestinian President Abbas might well have put the matter before us most succinctly:  “Be careful. Be careful,” he warned, “you must not deprive the people of hope.” The following day, also in the GA, the Prime Minister of Lesotho highlighted the role of the UN in saving people from the “follies” of their leaders, surely including the folly of those who tout “patriotism” and “nationalism” as some “magic-bullet” antidote to the limitations of the multilateral order, an “order” that can clearly still attract a crowd but which its own leadership acknowledges has not yet lived up to its lofty billing. We should be so very grateful for the confidence that people continue to place in these hallways despite evidence that the UN’s signature, high-level segments still care too much about themselves and not enough about the yearnings of global constituents.

In a Lower Manhattan park this week, removed from the traffic jams and crowds of people with credentials trying to push their way into UN conference rooms, a small group of people led by Green Map’s director toured a small and now-threatened area once dominated by drug culture but now an oasis of hopeful possibilities – sculptures and a turtle pond, chickens, recreation areas and gardens full of native plants. The tour highlighted the sustainable development goals and was accompanied by park rangers who know just how far this strip of land has come, how much love and attention it has received from current and former neighbors, how much would be lost if the city’s plans to denude the park ostensibly to make it more “climate resilient” would take effect.

It is an emotional and intellectual challenge, for us and others, to balance the “bylines and busyness” so very much valued in the crowded halls of the UN with the millions of local actions (and actors) struggling to overcome impediments imposed by some of the very same global leaders who should be opening pathways to well-being instead.  These actors, the ones perhaps more likely perhaps to “wash their own dishes and prepare their own meals,” the ones who must find walking destinations to restore and refresh in local contexts, are also the ones who need the promises made by leaders during this high-level week to translate — somehow, someway — into fresh motivation and inspiration for local, climate-related progress.

Greta and her youthful colleagues have laid out before us a science-informed path where practical hope in a healthier and more sustainable future is still feasible.   With all the power and influence at their disposal, global leaders can do better than defending their political and “national” interests and (in some instances) casting dispersions on young actors who have taken into their hands responsibilities for climate changes which too many leaders have neglected for too long and which now threaten virtually every island and coastal community on this fragile planet.

Simply put, we need to see more urgent leading from leaders well in advance of the next UN high-level party in 12 months time.

Geopolitical X-Games: Extreme Measures to Stifle Extremist Recruitment, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 Apr

This week two major UN events highlighted the scourge of extremist violence and offered testimony to the roles that youth, religious leaders and others can play in reducing threats from terror groups, including threats related to recruitment.

In the General Assembly, a two-day discussion brought to the UN a group of diverse religious leaders to reflect on ways that communities of faith can have more of an impact on bringing terrorism to heel.  Such discussions, featuring presentations mostly by men of middle age, seemed largely devoted to “rescuing” the essence of “true religion” from the falsehoods promulgated by terrorists.  As a former theologian in training, I found it interesting how ‘above the fray’ many of the presentations stayed. Apparently many religious leaders have misplaced an important truth, especially valuable in the context of encouraging youth participation in peacemaking and related activities, that we as a people are judged less by what we profess and more by what we practice.

In the Security Council, the Crown Prince of Jordan (the only speaker under 30 all morning long) led an intense discussion on ways of responding to the growing problem of youth recruitment by terrorists such as ISIL.  The chamber was unusually full; delegations had much to contribute, some of it highliy substantive and practical, some borderline hysterical, some quite sober in its assessments. In the balance between “push and pull” factors leading to recruitment, a number of delegations jointed UN Alliance of Civilizations in highlighting under-employment as a trigger for youth violence. Lebanon noted that youth are both targeted and targeting others. Chile wisely urged efforts to close development and gender gaps as ways to establish credability and build confidence.

It was a bit sad at times, as noted by one of our valued NGO colleagues, to hear youth portrayed as they were in these discussions. For some delegations and even religious leaders in the GA, youth seemed to be depicted as a vulnerable and volatile presence who didn’t know what was best for them and certainly didn’t appreciate all the blessings of home. We apparently need youth to help us combat messages of extremism, but don’t always accord them the respect they deserve, the autonomy of opinions still unformed, but certainly worth a hearing. “Respect” in this instance does not mean deference, nor a cavalier passing on of responsibilities to new generations that we cannot find ways to handle in our own.  It does mean a bit more of what psychologists refer to as ‘de-centering,’ seeing the world through the eyes of young people who, as noted by outgoing New Zealand Ambassador McLay, cannot be expected to trust our “modern state” policies and social structures at face value.

At both events, the Secretary-General was thoughtful and emotionally engaged. Clearly for him, as for many diplomats and non-governmental leaders, there is much at stake in providing what was often referred to as a believable “counter narrative” to the alleged attractions of terrorist groups.  From my perch, his major contributions to both the GA and SC discussions were twofold:  First the insistence that youth not be problematized when it comes to terrorist recruitment.  His statement that youth represent “potential not peril” has been given wide media play, but it represents a positive, helpful perspective. Increasingly over the years, the UN has been host to thousands of smart, aware, committed youth who, as the SG put it, “seek to fight injustice, not people.” This is the image that needs wider play.

The SG also made an important statement in both venues, that extremism is not confined to regions under terrorist control. Indeed, one of the most powerful images of the SG in the General Assembly was the one that drew straight lines connecting discrimination, extremism, and the commission of atrocities. Extremism, he noted is not confined by geographic boundaries, culture or religion.  We are not like ISIL to be sure, but neither are any of our societies exempt from the “push factors’ (noted by Indonesia and others) of unemployment, limited educational opportunity, violence, a lack of inclusion (Nordics) and, yes, discrimination that help to create the vulnerabilities that many delegations seemed to fear.

A recent, extreme example of extremist inclinations came in the form of a now widely known article by Sun (UK) columnist Katie Hopkins on 17 April, demonstrating yet again that vicious attacks on the ‘other’ are not confined to the terrorists. Hopkins described migrants as “a plague of feral humans,” compared them to “a novovirus” and said some British towns were “festering sores, plagued by swarms of migrants and asylum seekers shelling out benefits like Monopoly money.”

I would suspect that most of the religious leaders participating in the General Assembly debate would want to redefine this ‘shelling out’ as “compassion.”

I don’t want to make too much of the ramblings of a few bigots — we have our share in the US as well.  But in our anxiety to address terror threats with “all hands on deck,” it is important to young people that we acknowledge the limitations of our own cultures, our many strivings and achievements of course, but also our unfulfilled promises.  Youth are often more affected by our hypocrisies than our failures. They are disinclined to accept judgments that ‘all is well’ in their societies of origin when their intensive social media reminds them of all the problems they seemed destined to inherit from adults who aren’t nearly honest enough with them.

As France noted in the Council, it is important to convince youth of the republic’s “relevance” to their lives.  But with so many cultures drowning in celebrity materialism and community indifference, there should be no deceiving ourselves about the degree of difficulty associated with this task.   Nigeria’s call to ‘shield’ youth from narratives of terror is much easier said than done as is Egypt’s call to ‘dry up’ funding sources for youth recruitment. Poland rightly rejected the notion that youth recruitment discussions were in any way related to a “clash of civilizations.’   Such discussions might, however, be related more to a ‘clash of generations.’

Venezuela urged us in the Council to see youth as a “barometer” of our political health and future.  At that same debate, Qatar maintained during the Council debate that ignoring youth is akin to ignoring history.  It’s certainly akin to ignoring skills and attitudes we will require in the future to overcome climate crisis, inequity and other discouragements. As Austria reminded delegations, young people are so rarely heard by decisionmakers, which sows suspicion.  As we seek to prevent terror recruitment and, as Pakistan noted, help direct the energy of youth to peaceful, productive ends, suspicion is the one thing we can most do without.