Moving when it is impossible

Being stuck in Nairobi traffic in the afternoon, in a city where everyone moves, and where everyone is stuck at the same time. Young people trying to catch a shared taxi, a Matatu, many struggling for a while before getting a lift home. But are they stuck, really? Youth on the Move describes the feeling, of not accepting to be stuck, of not accepting any reasons or excuses, to still say “we gotta move”.

But how do youth move when it’s impossible, how do they change things? Is it the – often stereotypical –  view on youth being looked at as revolutionaries, with the dynamic, strength and determinism to change things dramatically, combined with radicalism, violence, and impatience? In this view youth have been seen even as ‘time bombs’, not quite ready to lead, but quite ready to cause damage.

So let’s leave those ideas behind for a moment and rather have a look at some contemporary Youth on the Move, perfectly selectively and in no way representative, yet important examples because they challenge our perception on youth. All of them are also controversial in one way or the other, or even highly controversial. But then again, if you enter an international arena with a cause or an agenda, you do something wrong if no one is criticizing you for at least something you represent, you argue, or you have done.

1. Emma González and powerful silence

A recent protest against gun violence and for gun control in the US, the ‘March for our Lives‘ gathered according to organizer estimates up to 800,000 participants; while it may not have been predominantly a youthful march, many youth were among the organizers and speakers.

One of the speakers, 19 year old Emma González lost friends in recent school shooting, herself being a survivor of that shooting. Her powerful speeches have made her a serious influencer, with now 1.5 million followers on Twitter. In this protest though, it was her silence that expressed best the feelings of her generation and for that moment. The average age of the protest participants has been estimated by some at just under 49 years, so this can make a powerful example of youth having cross-generational influence.

2. Malala Yousafzai and persistence

For many the actions of Malala Yousafzai have been seen as courageous. She was 11 when she began to campaign for girls education rights. In October 2012, when she was 15, she and two other girls were shot by a Taliban gunman in an assassination attempt in retaliation for her activism. After recovery of her serious head injury, she continued her work.

Now, as Peace Nobel Laureate she is globally admired by many, and her education agenda continues to inspire. She still took a considerable risk to travel where her safety is most at risk  as she went back home to Pakistan for the first time after the shooting. She continues to be persistent in pushing her cause.

3. Chelsea Manning and courage

The last and most controversial example has actually multiple layers of courage. Yes, it certainly courageous to risk your life for something you belief in. And to act on it even if it means you end up in prison, and you betray your country – as many see it.

No matter what, it was brave to leak US army documents, later published as the “Iraq War Logs” and “Afghan War Diary”. But I think it is similarly brave (understanding the multiple dimensions of on the move), was her (lawyer’s) announcement of actually being female a day after her sentence.

Bradley, now Chelsea Manning has been living a life full of internal and external struggles. Yet, she acted on those struggles, irrespectively of the circumstances. This is admirable (even if her legal and illegal approaches need serious reflection). I find this also admirable from an international NGO community point of view. The community has in many regions and instances still tremendous work to do to adequately recognize the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.

Some of those examples are controversial in one way or another. But they are mentioned here not for what they are, but for what they represent: they show us what some Youth on the Move are capable of. And remind us that at times we really need someone to tell us they we gotta move on that issue.

The writer is Development Manager at Finn Church Aid. This is the first text of a series of blog posts under the theme #YouthOnTheMove published this spring at the FCA website.

See also FCA’s Youth on the Move report (pdf)


Matthias Wevelsiep