Engaging Young People Leads to Transformative Change

Reflections from a Youth Envoy at the RTI Ideathon in New York

Since an early age, surrounded by other youth in my community in Zambia, I always marveled at the idea that we young people would eventually replace my parents’ generation as the adults, working professionals, and leaders in our community, our country, and even the world.

I have always believed that young people have the power to change the narrative around meaningful youth engagement. Not only because of what research has said about the importance of integrating young people into the public dialogue by giving us a voice, but also because I have experienced this need first hand and witnessed how it truly leads to transformative change.

I’ve recently had an opportunity to volunteer with Restless Development, whose mission is to engage young people and treat them as critical partners to solve the pressing challenges of today and tomorrow. Problems such as lack of good education, access to sexual health services, and unemployment are just a few of the issues that require the input of the youth voice.

It was by way of my role as a young Zambian researcher with the Africa Youth Think Tank (YTT) that I received a singular opportunity to represent Restless Development and the YTT as a youth judge at this year’s RTI International “Ideathon.” The YTT is an initiative implemented by Restless Development in partnership with The MasterCard Foundation, where, in this particular case, 28 young people from eastern, western, and southern Africa came together to conduct research to conceptualize the aspirations and challenges their peers face. These challenges include acquiring key skills, securing employment, starting and growing businesses, and transitioning into the labor market.

Serving as a judge and roving mentor in New York as a representative of YTT was a great opportunity. It was exhilarating—and a bit surreal—to receive a chance to share my insights on youth employment and use my voice to represent the YTT, my peers from Zambia, Africa, and the world.

In partnership with The Ford Foundation and 1776, RTI International’s Global Center for Youth Employment (GCYE) hosted a two-day event called the Ideathon. This was the third event of its kind since it was established, and its mandate is to unify stakeholders engaged in workforce development by identifying and pursuing innovative solutions to the worldwide shortage of job opportunities for young people.

Prior to my arrival for the event, I participated in developing a shortlist of ideas from over 200 submitted applications, identifying the top 16 for review at the event. Although it is not strictly a competition, day one saw the top 16 participants pitching their ideas to the general audience of approximately 50 people representing NGOs and the private sector. These ideas were a product of organizations from across Africa, Europe, and the United States, all seeking to be a part of the solution.

At the end of day one, votes were cast and the top five ideas advanced to the final round. In as much as the votes signified the top five “winners,” the organizers echoed the understanding that making it to the top 16 must be viewed as a win because all top 16 ideas gained great exposure to multiple funders and a broad network of youth employment organizations for future partnerships and collaborations.

Alongside the Atlas Corps fellows in attendance, I used the afternoon of day one and the morning of day two to focus on each of the five ideas and support the finalists as they honed their idea and crafted strong problem and solution statements. My intention was to guide their thinking on how their idea can help solve the problems confronted by young people, especially marginalized youth. Through the 30-minute sessions I had with each team, we were able to think outside the box and view young people not only as beneficiaries but also as partners in reducing unemployment. The discussion helped them to articulate questions that I was able to answer from the perspective of young people, which allowed them to refine their ideas.

The second day was as thrilling as the first, beginning in the early morning hours preparing my speech. After I presented on my experience as a roving mentor and relayed the insights from the remote YTT members, I had the rare privilege of introducing the Ford Foundation President, Darren Walker. He is an inspiring man who I had only read about and seen in YouTube videos. As I waited expectantly for this honor, I had to pinch myself to remember this was really happening. I remember saying in my speech that “it’s not every day you’re in the same room with Forbes top 100 influential people and experts in different fields, so this is a grand moment,” and the audience laughed.

At the end of day two, group members representing the top five ideas each gave a five-minute presentation to the audience. Because of my familiarity with the ideas from the selection stage (months prior) and from the previous day’s working groups, I was happy to hear the idea leaders point out areas I asked them to consider.

I felt so proud to be a young person whose voice has been heard and acknowledged. It gave me the confidence to ask follow-up questions concerning how they would like the GCYE to help them scale up their efforts to see if this idea had the right recipe for success. I have never before experienced a more empowering moment.

The Ideathon concluded as the judges adjourned to a private room and shared our scores and comments on the ideas. In the end, Lynk won with the best idea, followed by Harambee; the other three ideas were not ranked. These teams will now receive additional support, including a catalytic grant of between $25,000 and $75,000, depending on needed resources and further idea development support from Center staff and Center members through periodic meetings and check-ins. Finally, through a new partnership with the Center, the German research institute RWI, which co-authored the seminal meta-study on youth employment programs, will provide advice and possible support to the finalists on how to approach rigorous evaluations of their ideas. The Center expects to support and help grow the ideas over the coming 18-24 months.

Being a judge and a roving mentor, I learned that confidence builds through experience. I am passionate about young people, and having a chance to speak about issues like unemployment, which affect so many in the world today, is transformative. This experience has made me treasure the true meaning of purposefully engaging young people in development. When the global community sees that young people have the solutions to our shared challenges, we will then have an integrated strategy to achieve global development. I remain grateful to be a part of this vision.

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