Youth, Power, and Action in Nairobi

fA reflection on Amnesty International’s first global youth summit

As soon as I was outside the airport in Nairobi and found the group I was arranged to meet with, I got the feeling that the next few days would be very stimulating. I waited in the car for the other arrivals with one of the Amnesty Kenya volunteers, a university student around my age, and I was struck by how quickly and naturally we jumped to talking about the societal problems we cared about most, despite being strangers from opposite ends of the world. In our short time together, she recounted, intensely and without interruption, the situation of politics and human rights in her country through her perspective, and I did the same for her. It was a fitting start to the Youth, Power, Action Summit, and for me, a micro-representation of it.

For context, the summit brought together over a hundred activists from across the globe, and each section was highly encouraged to send a youth leader (my role) in addition to a staff member. It was the first summit of its kind; dedicated to exploring and improving youth engagement in Amnesty International’s movement. We were essentially working on how to implement the International Youth Strategy for 2020 by learning from each other in a mix of larger plenary sessions and smaller workshops.

I had the opportunity to facilitate one of these workshops on AI Canada’s National Youth Strategy, and how to build youth leadership at the governance level. When I got to the portion where my participants would break off into groups and discuss, it was so clear that everyone was on the same page: even though everyone’s section was at different stages in creating a youth strategy, they all recognized how important it was to break down the process, and look at how to overcome barriers such as geography and internal politics. It was very moving to see how ready everyone was to get youth into meaningful leadership positions.

The workshops that I got to attend as a participant were equally as moving. It definitely wasn’t always positive; about half the time we were talking about very disheartening challenges facing youth in activism. I felt very grateful for how privileged I was as a youth activist from Canada, where the challenges (political, social, and legal) I face are much less severe than elsewhere. I heard my counterparts from other continents share stories of blatant discrimination and threats, online data being used for harm, education initiatives being shut down, and many more ways in which their contributions to the human rights movement translated to their demonization. It was kind of sad how quickly we could brainstorm all the barriers.

1

During a workshop on digital campaigning, May from AI Thailand explains her vision of a movement where online work is youth-led.

This always ended in hopeful, forward-looking conversation though; the solutions to overcome the barriers just took a bit longer. My new friend Shafee from South Africa’s Fees Must Fall movement  captured this sentiment in a perfect quote by Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan activist, during his speech; “human rights are not things that are put on the table for people to enjoy. These are things you fight for and then you protect.”

By the end of the summit, I had certainly felt the power of youth. And I loved that this wasn’t just within Amnesty’s movement; we had young people representing outside organizations like CIVICUS, March for our Lives, and Afrika Youth Movement. It was a week that reinforced over and over, that young people are ready to fight for and protect human rights, and that their being at the forefront now of decision-making processes that directly affect them is crucial. Hopefully, it wasn’t just all talk and no action. On the last of the four days, we closed off by finishing our Call to Action, which was a carefully revised compilation of our solutions to the barriers. I’m so excited to see these ideas and projects come to life over the next few years.

call

The canvas-draft of the Call to Action in its original languages.

I think the Youth, Power, Action Summit is something that Amnesty International should continue in the coming years (because until youth are completely and seriously included in the movement, I think it’s something we have to continue). It was an invaluable experience for a young activist wanting to do more, and take their role to a greater level. I can’t count the number of times I’ve said the words “inspiring” and “informative” when describing it to others. The first step is always sharing, learning, and opening up the dialogue, which is exactly what the summit gave us. It also gave us so many new friends, who shared so much knowledge with us to take back and use in our sections.

Most of all, I feel we were rewarded strength (being thrown together with a hundred other human rights activists for four days straight, I think it was inevitable). It takes a lot of courage, for youth especially as we’ve learned, to fight for human rights. Jacklyn Corin from March for our Lives said what we all felt concluding and sadly getting ready to go home: “We are not scared, because we know in our hearts that we are right”.

 

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