Building Bridges: Why Young Activists are Vital to the Future of Cities

Above: youth from Dakar, Senegal, participate in an Innovation Lab as part of Young Cities’ programme of work

Author: Hélène Bradburn

Author: Jasmeet Sahotay

‘Young people are the future’. While this is a truism, the reality of a growing youth population for cities makes the prospect a daunting one.

In some cases,  youth population growth is outstripping the country’s ability to provide basic services. As a result, tensions can arise between young people and city authorities, who can feel frequently regarded as population facing suspicion, with youth accused of driving civil unrest and crime.

However, this disregards some important facts. Firstly, the majority of young people lead peaceful lives, are the group most likely to be the victim of violence, and are the most vulnerable to violent discourses, including extremist propaganda. Secondly, marginalising, diminishing or ignoring youth will inevitably cause the issues affecting them to fester.

Not only are young people particularly attuned to problems affecting them – they are also uniquely positioned to find new and innovative ways of approaching them. However, they frequently lack the access they need to their local government to address these issues.

Cities are therefore in a unique position to bridge the gap between local decision makers and their youth. To address this, the Strong Cities Network developed Young Cities, bringing ISD’s Youth Civil Activism Network (YouthCAN) to the steps of city halls around the world.

Launched in 2017 with funding from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Young Cities connects young change-makers – a mix of more experienced youth leaders, young artists and young people keen to become more socially engaged – with local municipal stakeholders from select SCN member cities. Through a series of Youth Innovation Labs, parallel trainings, dialogue sessions and small grants, both groups are able to better understand and collaborate with each other on key issues.

The Young Cities approach is unique, in that this array of activities enables the creation and implementation of youth-led initiatives, which all receive tailored support and guidance from the city stakeholders. In 2019 alone, the programme trained over 100 youths and engaged over 50 city officials and CSO stakeholders in Kenya (Kwale and Mombasa), Lebanon (Majdal Anjar, Saida and Tripoli), Senegal (Dakar). Young participants are currently launching a dozen initiatives in those locations, with support from local CSOs, government stakeholders and the Young Cities team.

Above: Farha Taysha campaign, produced by youth from Tripoli Municipality in Lebanon with backing from Young Cities

Above: A behind the scenes look at the Washwasha campaign, produced by youth from Ain al-Hilweh camp in Lebanon with backing from Young Cities

The initiatives tackle everything from racism to gangs, from stereotyping refugees to the stigmatisation of youth convicts. While they all use various methods, including  rap, poetry, music, dialogue sessions, sports and more, they all share a common goal: creating stronger and safer communities in partnership with local youth. Previous examples include the ‘Stray Bullets’ campaign in Lebanon, which raised awareness of the dangers of celebratory gunfire and recently received coverage on national television, and Washwasha, an online show aiming to break negative stereotypes of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, which has been widely followed on social media.

The success of previous initiatives shows what can happen when youth are given that access, opportunity and responsibility in their local communities.

Above: Maire de la Commune de Dieuppeul Derkle dancing with youth from Dakar, Senegal

During Young Cities workshops, policy makers sit down with the participants to discuss how they can, together, create initiatives that address their communities’ issues. During the most recent workshop, in Dakar, one youth participant said:

“Up until now, we were just coming up with ideas to initiate change in our area. But now that we’ve discussed details with the policy makers, it feels real. They took us seriously and exchanged ideas with us as equals. I feel responsible towards my community now – I am an agent of change.”

On the municipal side, stakeholders feel equally inspired. In Dakar, city officials and the youth even celebrated their collaboration through dance!

As evidenced by the energy and passion they bring to the trainings, young people have great potential for creativity and problem-solving. Through Young Cities and the commitment and strong partnership with Majdal Anjar, Saida, Tripoli, Kwale, Mombasa and Dakar, we have watched how that potential, hope and ambition can instead be recognised and encouraged by city authorities, and transformed into a fruitful relationship. We look forward to seeing what they produce.

Are you interested in learning more about the Young Cities Programme and what we can do in your city?  Email [email protected] to express your interest.

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