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How to Better Empower Youth: Shift to a Positive Approach

When we stop viewing young people as problems to be solved, we see them for what they really are – critical resources for building a better tomorrow.


Imagine for a moment that you are a young person – you’ve been labeled as “at-risk” or “underserved” or you’ve been told you live in poverty. These discouraging thoughts are hurled at you on a daily basis. They do NOT make you feel empowered. Traditionally, youth programs have tended to be reactive in this way. They have targeted a specific subset of young people, focusing on repairing the negative actions of adolescents rather than promoting positive behaviors.

As a Peace Corps Community Economic Development Advisor in Guinea, West Africa, I gained an invaluable perspective on the intricacies of youth development programs. I met many young men and women who had great fires in their bellies for change, but needed someone to believe in them, to support their journey. It was clear that the youth in Guinea, like those around the world, have the motivation and intelligence to succeed. It was equally clear that they lacked crucial support systems.

Globally we need to adopt positive youth development approaches. This means not viewing young people as “problems to be solved,” but rather as resources. Fortunately, a vital revolution has been brewing and a shift toward programs that are proactive and inclusive is finally here. This welcome transition to asset-based and capacity building approaches acknowledges that young people supply a wealth of information and abilities that we can reinforce and build upon for positive change.

Dare to Innovate, a youth development program in Guinea, is an example of the revolution at hand. Dare to Innovate and the youth employment situation in Guinea can serve as microcosms of how positive youth development programs can be utilized to address the global crisis. In Guinea, youth make up 74 percent of the population. Yet 70 percent of those 25 and younger are unemployed regardless of education level. Even 65 percent of all young people holding university degrees are jobless.

At its core, Dare to Innovate promotes positive youth engagement through the means of social entrepreneurship. It was founded by a consortium of Peace Corps Volunteers, myself included, and local partners, who believe that Guinea’s development goals can only be reached if the youth are leveraged as drivers of this change. Guinea faces a myriad of development challenges including a disconnect between educational programs and available jobs. This causes not only unemployment, but also the frustration of broken promises. In response to these challenges, Dare to Innovate was created as a social entrepreneurship training program, ideation process and incubator. The training opens participants’ eyes to see the entrepreneurial opportunity presented in each of the many challenges that Guinea faces. It charges youth to become actors in their economy and introduces social entrepreneurship as a way to make a positive social difference, and a living.

Participants come from diverse backgrounds – spanning academic interests, regional borders, religions, and ethnicities. We are proud to have among them several exceedingly bright young women. In a predominantly male-centered society, these women are not only important role models but are also working to fight the societal biases that prevent women from finishing their studies and working outside of the home.

According to the World Bank, “The global population of young people (ages 15-34 years old) is large and growing, with greatest growth in sub-Saharan Africa, followed by South Asia.” This means that 600 million jobs will be needed within the next 15 years just to keep employment rates constant. Even in the U.S. the youth unemployment rate is 16.2 percent. Youth unemployment is a recognized global crisis. So, how do we help this “jobless generation?”

Researchers, in partnership with organizations such as 4H, have developed the “Five C’s” of positive youth development:

o Competence: Positive views of one’s actions in specific terms, including social, academic, cognitive, health, and vocational areas.

o Confidence: Internal sense of overall positive self-worth and self-efficacy.

o Connection: Positive bonds with people and institutions that are reflected in exchanges between the individual and his/her peers, family, school, and community in which both parties contribute to the relationship.

o Character: Respect for societal and cultural norms, a possession of standards for correct behaviors, a sense of right and wrong, and integrity.

o Caring/Compassion: A sense of empathy and sympathy for others.

When a young person embodies these five C’s, a sixth “C” emerges - Contribution. Dare to Innovate’s youth contribute to the economy, to the moral fabric of their society, and to social development. They are not beneficiaries, but partners working with us to create a better Guinea and a better world. So often we focus on what seems to be lacking in an individual or situation. Yet, by designing projects that support and train youth, we can unleash and magnify their talents. Through programs that increase knowledge, develop skill sets, and promote the adoption of new positive behaviors, we can prepare young people to become responsible, caring, and contributing adults.

Instead of spouting more facts about Dare to Innovate, or the impacts of positive youth development programs, I’ll share with you some thoughts from young participants themselves:

“Before, I was discouraged. Now, I see that life is full of opportunity waiting to be seized and I have the support I need to seize it. I am starting my new life today!” Ibrahima Camara

“I think that youth are very powerful. They constitute the future of the nation. They are becoming increasingly conscious of what they must do in order to lead the country toward a better tomorrow.” – Amadou II Barry

“I strive to be a female social entrepreneur, to be modern, to be creative, to teach entrepreneurship to others in my community, to be seen in my country and in the world as such, to be a role model and example.” – Fatoumata Binta Diallo

As I reflect on the state of youth development programs in Guinea and at home, a famous Lao Tzu proverb comes to mind:

“Go to the people: live with them, learn from them, love them, start with what they know, build with what they have. But of the best leaders, when the job is done, the task accomplished, the people will say: 'We have done it ourselves.'”

Youth are not a problem to be fixed. They are key stakeholders in our economy and our shared future. They are our next generation of business and civic leaders. We must incorporate them into development programs, empower them to lead, and adapt programs to better prepare them for our ever-evolving and interconnected world. Through positive youth development approaches we can build more successful and impactful programs, doing so with youth rather than for them.

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