Beyond Baristas: Youth are the Future Soft Power for Communities
By Yuan Shi
Youth can do and want to do more than just work at a fast-food restaurant or a café. Why don’t we do more to support them in turning their own ideas for employment into action?
When you hear the words “youth employment,” what comes to mind? Perhaps high school students aspiring to be either doctors or engineers? Maybe teenagers who work at a McDonald’s or Starbucks? The United Nations defines youth as persons between the ages of 15 and 25. According to Statistics Canada, the youth unemployment rate in Canada was 13.3% in October 2015. As of June 2015, youth unemployment rates in the European Union were 20.7% and 49% in Spain. Many people think that working to pay tuition or saving up for travel plans is the most common way that youth engage with employment. As such, they don’t realize the negative impact of high youth unemployment rates. Likewise, they underestimate the power of a highly productive youth workforce.
In October 2015, I attended a youth forum called “The New Era of Employment and Education: Solutions for Change” in Barcelona, Spain. The conference gathered 75 young professionals and senior experts throughout the world to exchange ideas, share experience and build a global network to contribute to tackling the issue of youth education and unemployment.
What I found unique about the forum was that 16 youth-led community projects, initiated by over 30 young leaders, were selected to compete for financial and technical support. The projects ranged from social media information sharing platforms and professional development programs to education models and collaborations with businesses. It was interesting to note that 73 out of 75 program participants were from developing nations, with only two people from North America. It was equally interesting that 70% of the presenters were female. The youth presenting their projects have been leading small but powerful social programs in their local communities and making genuine contributions.
The competition winner was a recent medical school graduate – Swekshya Neupane from Nepal. During the 2015 Nepal earthquake, she witnessed the poor state of child health care in rural communities. This inspired her to initiate an educational project called “Health for female community leaders.” According to her presentation, the percentage of child mortality in Nepal was 54 per 1,000 live births and most health facilities only provided services to the rich, those living in the capitals and to males. There were many social reasons that caused this imbalance. The accessibility of health-care infrastructure in rural communities, a lack of transportation, and multiple barriers to affording health-care expenses are some good examples. Another major contributor to the social imbalance was the lack of knowledge young rural mothers had regarding the health care of their children, along with their attitudes towards health care. Neupane’s project focuses on connecting and mobilizing young doctors to implement an educational series for mothers assisting them in delivering adequate baby care and recognizing and reacting appropriately to emergency situations.
Spending four days with young leaders was an inspirational experience which reminded me of a term I had heard a few times – soft power. This term was initially coined by political scientist Joseph Nye as the ability to attract and persuade. Shashi Tharoor, in his TED Talk, called it, “the ability of a culture to tell a compelling story and influence others to fall in love with them.”
Neupane’s story is admirable and a perfect example of soft power. The reach of her positive impact spans not only the communities she works with, but also the professionals she engages and the individuals and families whose lives have improved on a daily basis. Now, as a result of participating in the youth forum, she has impacted young leaders who dare to make a difference in this era of instability.
The young leaders who presented at and attended the forum clearly demonstrate that active and effective youth engagement in the job market is a key way to address both current and future employment issues. The question becomes, how can we, as community organizations, corporate representatives, educational institutions, educators and student services staff, support youth employment? How do we create opportunities for students to develop agency and build their own ideas?
An example from my own community set the stage for students to tackle current issues. The University of Alberta’s Undergraduate Research Initiative and Kule Institute for Advanced Study collaborated on an event called “Tomorrow’s Ideas, Now (TIN): Connecting Communities.” The goal was to support students in building connections with local communities, and working together to develop projects that can break down stereotypes and implement tangible contributions. At the end of the project development day, event organizers and facilitators provided monetary awards and resources to help students get their ideas started.
Youth unemployment has been a topic for decades. Youth can do and want to do more than just work at a fast-food restaurant or a café. Youth are the future soft power for communities. They can better understand the special concerns and doubts that their fellow peers are experiencing. Why don’t more institutions, educators and community organizations support youth with accessible opportunities and platforms where they can truly turn ideas into action?
Yuan Shi, works as the Engagement Facilitator at the Undergraduate Research Initiative which is part of the Career Centre at the University of Alberta. For the past five years, as a youth herself, she has been highly involved with diverse community engagement initiatives.