Clicking beyond hashtags in new age of youth movements
© Getty Images

We live in an age of movements: people-powered democracies that lead to people taking to the streets in greater numbers than ever before. They are everywhere — movements with inspired individuals challenging the status quo, fighting for social justice and what they believe are positive changes to the social, economic and political structures of their societies.

ADVERTISEMENT

From global climate change to the Movement for Black Lives, from protests against anti-abortion laws in Poland to peace process advocates in Colombia, people power is spreading. People are standing up for what they see as injustices in every region and across all issues of work, education, gender, health, the environment and development.

Movements are the most powerful vehicle in the world to create real, lasting, structural and systemic change because their success requires active participation from diverse citizenry.

But lurking behind all these signs of activity are troubling developments. There are more movements than ever before, but they are succeeding at lower rates.

A new report on youth leaders — the future of civil society — suggests that young participants in social movements overseas feel disconnected and disengaged from the sources of leadership and funding that have traditionally encouraged civil society actors. "The New Global Citizen: Harnessing Youth Leadership to Reshape Civil Society" is a report sponsored by the Gates Foundation as part of the Rhize Emerging Catalyst Project, which brings together a network of youth leaders and organizations to look at how they lead.

The research looked at youth in six target countries — the U.S., U.K., France, Canada, Germany and Australia — and how they are statistically less engaged in formal institutions.

It reaches startling conclusions about the sector most vocal to global progress — young people — finding that, if social movements are going to survive and thrive, there is a critical need for infrastructure that creates access points for youth.

Old-style institutions need new training to integrate with all these social movements that have nontraditional ways of building support — the hashtags, e-campaigns, GoFundMe pages and other online ways of organizing. Beyond social media and online advocacy, we need to build a new web of structures for movements that create leadership over time and meet the needs of the new global citizen. Networks need buy-in and engagement.

Youth are disengaged from formal institutions, but that does not mean they are apathetic or inactive. Youth are participating through alternative networks and in different ways, but lack compelling connections to institutions and global causes. There is a gap in civil society's current architecture of participation that must be addressed through collective, intersectional, networked, resourceful engagement — the characteristics of this generation's emerging leadership.

Digital tools allow for decentralization, creating more access points for people at the margin. Youth understand that their work is "translocal" and seek to connect their local efforts to a global network, but not all of the major organizational stakeholders understand the needs of the local activists.

One solution: a "Global Citizenship Lab" to innovate around developing global leadership — a hub of learning, testing and exchange for organizations and donors to advance citizen engagement.

Another answer is for big organizations to better engage with a more diverse set of community leaders and organizers, facilitating, rather than dictating, outcomes.

Mostly, as the study points out, we need more coaching and training for grassroots organizations, more cross-organizational collaboration using a bottoms-up approach to agenda-setting, and better measurements of youth participation.

Today, we have a global demand for systemic economic and political change to address global inequities. But the institutions that work on civil society are not structured for the challenges of working in fast-moving digital environments, online campaigns, networked societies or decentralized systems.

We live in populist times. Let's ensure that those advancing social good have roots in sustainable strategies, proven tools and avenues to bend the arc toward youth and community-led efforts that are already changing civil societies across the globe for the better.

Mazursky is founder and executive director of Rhize, a nonprofit global organization that coaches social movements, trains organizations and connects communities to global issues.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.