By Manak Matiyani:
“What do you want to be?”
Throughout my childhood and early youth, I had no definite answer to that question. I remember feeling nervous each time it was asked. “Pilot” was my first reply and the second, less interesting option –“IAS officer”.
I didn’t end up becoming either of those and now work with The YP Foundation, an organisation that runs youth leadership programmes to advance the rights of young women and girls, and other marginalised young people.
The demographic dividend has brought young people into focus more quickly and sharply in the last five years, than any work done by youth-led and -focused organisations.
At The YP Foundation, we therefore often find ourselves in consultations, donor meetings, trainings and other platforms for youth organisations to come together to consult, collaborate or co-learn.
Between vision, mission, elevator pitch and indicator tables, people always want to know our past record and future plans. And so I find myself back in my childhood, speaking to ‘adult’ organisations about what it is that we want to do.
The development sector calls on youth organisations to mobilise young people for #MeaningfulYouthParticipation in the #SustainableDevelopmentGoals because #YouthVoicesCount.
There is a seat for the youth in each meeting, but little or no room for them to lead the agenda. Political stance-taking, critical questioning and pushing for rights-based development continue to remain the turf of ‘adult’ organisations.
I was at a meeting on the ‘future of youth’ coordinated by a reputed international agency in 2016. It was interesting to see how the overarching focus of the meeting continued to be on skill development and vocational training, even though most young people spoke directly and eloquently on the need to change the education system to create critical and questioning leaders.
With the internalised as well as the imposed role of being the repositories of energy, hope and, of course, being seen as leaders of the future – always the future – the switch from #YouthPower to youth politics is not that easy.
At The YP Foundation, we realised this when we undertook a strategic planning exercise in 2015. We asked ourselves ‘who we want to be’, instead of what.
What are the repercussions of articulating a firm belief in the light of young people giving consent while working on issues of sex, sexuality and violence with children and youth? How does one talk about the rights of young women and girls and articulate a stance on sex work, without losing sight of the diversity and the commonalities among those sets of people?
Re-examining and affirming our organisational values through questions like these was just the start. It has taken a conscious effort to remember them and thereby negotiate organisational sustainability and growth.
Surviving: Sticking with values in the era of #CSR, #PPP and #scaling is not easy. For young and youth-led organisations, the decision to let go of a big funder who is not bought into the sex work issue, or declining government funding so as to be able to continue critiquing policy, is also a question of sustenance and survival, in many cases.
Negotiating: The grants for youth work are large – but those for young youth organisations are small and usually short-term. For young organisations working with donors, larger non-profits or influential professionals, there is often little room for negotiation. The dotted line for signing is straight and inflexible – you either sign or don’t.
Young people and organisations have little control over the questions they are asked and so, they can only hope to do what they are asked to, while being who they want to be.
Risk-taking: The burden of risk is always on youth-led organisations, whether one speaks the language of impact investment or the return per rupee of CSR. The onus of risk, however, must be on the larger environment – to invest in youth-led organisations for the long haul.
Embrace their politics and include their voices
In an era where ‘shrinking space’ is an oft-repeated phrase, larger organisations and donors cannot shy away from politics or turn away from movements. To the contrary, they must contribute to creating a safer environment for new and youth-led organisations to engage with movements and the politics behind the issues.
Forge ‘equal’ partnerships
They must acknowledge and fund the many spaces where young people are already engaging with politics and leading the way, and endeavour to learn and forge meaningful partnerships with them.
This is particularly relevant in the field of sexual and reproductive health and women’s rights in India, where young people and particularly young women have been at the forefront of public movements to claim autonomy over their rights and their bodies.
To the young leaders, I would simply say:
Finally, if large, established organisations and funders really care about creating youth leadership for the ‘future’, today is the right time to start giving them that place at the leadership table and start listening – really listening – to their voices.
That is the way this sector can become an enabler for stronger, more politically aware and intersectional youth leadership of social change.
About the author: Manak Matiyani is a feminist, queer activist and the executive director of The YP Foundation. His work is aimed at facilitating youth leadership of social change with a focus on gender justice and sexuality rights.