January 25, 2013

Roots of Change

By Sheila Kinkade

What compels a young person to become a social entrepreneur? Over the past 12 years, YouthActionNet has traced the social change journeys of hundreds of young leaders, ages 18-29, in 70-plus countries. Their motivations for taking action range from profound personal experiences of human suffering and social and political upheaval to growing up in families and environments that nurtured a strong sense of social responsibility. 

As development agencies, donors, and academic institutions look to support the growth of youth-led social innovation, the experiences of YouthActionNet Fellows offer valuable lessons. Below are the “Six Key Drivers” most commonly cited by Fellows in describing their motivation for taking action to address a particular issue.

1. Profound personal experience. 

Fredrick Ouku
Many YouthActionNet Fellows have themselves experienced injustice, illness, discrimination, inequality, and/or personal tragedy and were driven to find answers to challenges they themselves know all too well. Disabled as a result of childhood polio, Fredrick Ouku, knew first-hand the challenges that young people with disabilities face in accessing services and securing employment. To advance the wellbeing of youth with disabilities in Kenya, he founded the Action Network for the Disabled. Similarly, Agustín Rodriguez Aké was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at the age of 12 and experienced the emotional and physical challenges faced by thousands of children hospitalized with serious illnesses in Mexico each year. Today, Agustín is the founder of Caza Sonrisas, which trains volunteers to deliver play therapy to hospitalized children. Read more in Agustin’s blog.

2. Exposure to an urgent, unmet need. 

Whether it’s through exploring challenges in their own communities or traveling halfway across the globe, other Fellows speak of the life-changing impact of seeing and experiencing first-hand the effects of poverty, ill health, discrimination, and lack of opportunity on people and communities. It was after volunteering for a girls empowerment initiative in India that Alex Budek was inspired to co-found StartSomeGood, a website that offers social innovators a platform for communicating – and raising support for – world-changing ideas. Following a 12-week study tour of Kenya, Canadian college students Jessica Lax and Jocelyn Land-Murphy took action to launch the Otesha Project. Otesha uses performances and workshops to raise awareness among high school students of everyday actions they can take to address social and environmental issues.

3. Applying a passion or talent to a cause. 

Other Fellows have found ways to apply their interests and passions to make the world a better place. Their social change work becomes, in effect, an extension of that passion. Lachlan Ritchie in Australia loves to ride bikes. He also cares deeply about the environment, people’s health, and the needs of disadvantaged youth. Through Dismantle, Lachlan translated his love of cycling into a social enterprise that uses bicycles as powerful tools for social change. Karina Peña is passionate about design. Trained as an architect and deeply concerned about the environment, she began looking at ways of nurturing a culture of sustainability in Barcelona. The result? Karina co-founded MAKA GREEN BCN, an online magazine, to promote sustainable design and spark dialogue around creative solutions to local environmental issues.

4. Transforming university education into social action. 

Marita Cheng
Whether studying to be a doctor, an engineer, or a journalist, many YouthActionNet Fellows were motivated to take action during their university years, applying their knowledge and passion to a social need connected to their field of study. While in her second year of university, Marita Cheng created Robogals in Australia to empower more young women to pursue careers in the engineering field. Similarly, Jennifer Staple-Clarke was inspired to create Unite for Sight (UFS) in the U.S. as a result of a summer job with an eye doctor following her freshman year at college. Today, UFS is a global organization that has provided eye care to more than 1.5 million people, performing more than 
                                                       60,000 sight-restoring surgeries.

5. Action rooted in political or social injustice.

YouthActionNet Fellows who have grown up in environments characterized by political unrest or social injustice have developed responses based on their first-hand understanding of the root causes and systems that perpetuate such environments. Besa Luci grew up at a time of violent conflict in her native Kosovo. The journalists she met during those years inspired her to pursue a career in journalism. At the same time, Besa knew that the future of her country depended on the active engagement of today’s youth. She founded Kosovo 2.0 as an independent, youth-led media outlet though which young people express their voices on critical issues. Similarly, Afif Tabsh grew up in a divisive Lebanon and was motivated to promote the values of respect, acceptance, and love. Through Aie Serve, Afif is spreading a spirit of volunteerism among Lebanese youth, ages 15 to 30, through equipping them with the skills they need to develop their communities.

6. Action grounded in strong spiritual, religious, or social values.  

Faith and deeply-held personal values have a strong role to play in the decision of a young person to take action to address an urgent social need. Driven by a passion for peace-building grounded in his Buddhist faith, Freeman Trebilcock founded the InterAction Multifaith Youth Network in Australia as a means of bringing together youth from diverse cultural, spiritual and religious backgrounds to enact social change. Similarly, Muhammad Shahzad founded the Chanan Development Association (CDA) in Pakistan to empower youth to combat violence, discrimination, and social injustice, based on his own deep-seated commitment to promoting the rights of women in particular.
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