Do you remember as a child being asked the age old question: What do you want to be when you grow up? I can remember the answer changing every time someone would ask me. I wanted to be a Marine Biologist, a Inventor or a Producer. More distinctly, I remember telling my family and friends I wanted to work with other cultures and write. My mother would smile and say, “Yes Diane, you can be whatever you want to be.” Family, friends and mentors all encouraged me to pursue my career in global development. There are countless number of people who have supported me along the way. I am sure you can also think back to a moment in time when someone believed in you and encouraged you to move in that direction.
September 2nd was my 31st birthday and I am still considered a young person in most countries. I am so grateful for the empowerment and support I have received from so many individuals, communities and organizations over the past 31 years. Both personally and professionally, I would not be the person I am today if other people had not chosen to invest in my personal and professional growth and development.
As an international development professional and writer, still early in my career, I have experienced both empowering and disempowering leadership. An unwillingness to be open to change or new ideas is one of the greatest disservices a leader can do. An empowering leader must be open and willing to accept new ideas and encourage change from the bottom up. Several years ago, while attending graduate school I remember meeting with the Executive Director of the nonprofit I was working for at the time. We sat for several hours and talked about the organization, its model and work around the world. I began sharing my ideas of how the organization may benefit from change and an improvement in their strategies. The Executive Director stopped me mid-sentence and stated, “Diane, in five minutes you have given me the best solutions. I have been trying to get the Executive Team to truly see the value of these ideas for years.” I learned a valuable lesson from him that day:
Always speak up and share your ideas.
Both as a leader and as a young person learning from other leaders, I have realized there are several critical ways to empower young people and encourage their ideas. I want to share with you five ways we can all work to empower young people and each other.
1. Listen More
Sometimes I have a difficult time with this one! Too often, we tend to talk more than we actually listen to young people and their ideas. Like in most relationships, the simple act of listening and truly hearing another person’s perspective is so empowering. It is so important to know that your ideas are valued.
In the global community, we must value the need for mentorship. Leaders must consider it a priority to come along side young people who also desire to create change in their communities and around the world. Peer mentorship is also important. You are never too old or young to mentor another person!
3. Pass the Torch
Leaders in organizations, businesses and communities must recognize when the torch must be passed on. Young people are leading the way for change. In so many countries, the torch from the “older generation” to the younger generation is not being adequately passed. This point directly ties into the importance of leaders also being mentors.
4. Exercise Humility
As leaders, we must be humble and willing to accept new ideas from young people and others we are working with. We can not always think “our way is the right way.” Empowering young people means being humble and willing to admit and utilize good and new ideas especially when they are better than our own.
5. Give Young People a Seat at the Table
Over the past several years, I have attended a variety of events led by the United Nations and other organizations. At many youth-focused events there has been one very significant component missing: YOUTH. Young people need an actual space at the table to share their views, opinions and about the great work they are doing.
These lessons are not rocket science. However, you might be surprised at how infrequently these lessons are being utilized by companies, organizations, governments and communities. Let’s all work together to empower young people and pass the torch of leadership on to them.
Continue to follow the hashtag #YouthVoices to hear from young people and for more personal and inspiring stories!
Illustration by Elina Tuomi.