Editor’s Note: Forest Whitaker is an artist and social activist. He is the CEO/Founder of the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative and UNESCO Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation. Whitaker won an Oscar for his portrayal of Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland.” He will be keynote speaker at UNLEASH, a nonprofit innovation lab, in Singapore on June 6. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
We often hear the future belongs to the youth. This may be true, but the adults who are presently in charge can only ensure a safe and prosperous future if they make room for youth participation now.
Though the United Nations estimates that around 600 million young people live in fragile or conflict-affected contexts, it is rare that young people emerge from behind the headlines to showcase their change-making abilities.
I think of those places where armed violence and conflict have become pervasive and chronic. Take South Sudan, where children and teenage openly carry weapons as fighters in the country’s civil war. Or Mexico, where young people from cartel-subjugated neighborhoods are foot soldiers in drug wars. And yes, even the US, where students now feel as if their schools are under constant threat of gun violence.
It is also telling that in countries affected by fragility and conflict, close to half of the young people are jobless. This picture of disenfranchisement and missed opportunities is certainly not good news for these young women and men – nor is it good news for the future of their communities.
Indeed, on any continent, fragile communities are trapped in disruptive cycles of violence. Youth are disproportionately affected by such cycles because they are more likely to fall prey to conflict – by death, injury, displacement and, in most cases, trauma – and even if they survive or overcome that trauma, they face immense difficulties reconnecting with a normal life.
I have witnessed such trauma in young people – be it among survivors of gang wars in Los Angeles where I grew up, in my cousin after he returned from Vietnam, or among child soldiers I met in Uganda on the set of “The Last King of Scotland.”
These are places where young women and men bear the highest costs of armed violence, and do so because of decisions made by so-called grown-ups. And it’s manifest in scores of other places globally, from the civil war in Myanmar to the refugee crisis on all sides of the Mediterranean to urban zoning that ends up generating racially-based segregation and exclusion in the US
Although they are particularly vulnerable in these situations, young people rarely if ever have a voice in building peace. I believe that this is a mistake. Young people have ideas on peace, and they should be heard.
We have witnessed this in the US with movements like Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives. And, on the global scale, there is UNLEASH, the nonprofit innovation lab that convenes millennial thought leaders from more than 100 countries to try and help achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. This includes SDG16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, which aims to, among other things, “end abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children.”
Many things about these movements are different – but they share a deeper message: Young people want peace and will take action to engineer it. To me, the only issue with Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives is that we don’t have more of these initiatives.
Nearly 60 years ago, John F. Kennedy came up with the idea of the Peace Corps – after an improvised speech at a university prompted thousands of young people to write him about their desire to commit to peace and development in vulnerable countries. We need that kind of responsiveness from the adults – but we need more than a volunteer program that will mobilize young people around projects designed and managed by adults.
We need policies and programs that truly embrace change and social innovation. We need institutions that assume young people are going to come with ideas that don’t necessarily fit what adults believe to be an established truth. Of course, young people need guidance and mentorship. But I think that they want to establish a genuine dialogue with the older generations. They want to be taken seriously.
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Young people should be invited to do their part, starting with local initiatives which promote tolerance and non-violence. These would be seen as services that governments and businesses would support as investments in the bottom line of the future.
We could also think of “youth banks,” or earmarked funds that governments and businesses would establish to finance projects designed and implemented by young people to serve their respective communities.
We must realize that whatever challenge we are faced with, young people can and should be part of the solution – both for today and tomorrow.