The Dichotomy of Being Young
by Hillary Bakrie and Jayathma Wickramanayake,
Originally posted in Medium.
“We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
of such a terrifying hour
but within it we found the power
to author a new chapter”
When Amanda Gorman took the stage this Wednesday, at the inauguration of Joe Biden, the 46th President of the United States of America, the world was left in awe. Amanda’s poem, “The Hill We Climb”, struck the hearts of millions, as her words carried truth and hope so beautifully without undermining the struggles that we have all faced.
“We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour, but within it we found the power to author a new chapter” is the line that resonated with us the most. Like Amanda, many young people in the world know first-hand what it feels to be afraid of the interconnected crises that we are facing, including the COVID-19 pandemic, multiple economic crises and an existential climate crisis. Yet, we know as a generation that we have no other option but to rise to the challenge and make things right. Seeing a young, Black woman like Amanda Gorman proudly reading her work out loud on Wednesday morning was a monumental moment for all young people around the world, including and especially minority youth, whose voices are too often unheard and deliberately silenced.
As the world cheered and voiced their admiration for the young poet, we can only hope that the world will continue to always be this welcoming to young people, their ideas and their voices even when the celebration is over. Young people are often celebrated for their remarkable achievements at such young age — in addition to Amanda, the world has also prominently celebrated other remarkable young leaders like Malala, Greta Thunberg, Vanessa Nakate, and Gitanjali Rao for the changes they have led from such young age. To be young is exceptional, especially when you are perceived as accomplished.
The result has often been that the mainstream media cheer on and glorify these “fearless” young people when they achieve remarkable progress mobilizing thousands of their peers on important causes, while ignoring that they are at times risking their lives simply by speaking up. At the same time, those who sit at decision-making tables often clap for these young people applauding their boldness and leadership, while not seriously considering their voices when it comes time to make decisions.
What we are trying to say is, the world has not always celebrated youth. At least not beyond tokenism. Our young age is most often highlighted in statistics: reflecting the highest numbers of unemployment, portraying us as members of extremist political or violent groups or as the population most affected by climate change. A lot of times, our age carries stigmas that we do not consent to, often tying us to crimes and chaos, all hidden behind headlines that were aimed to distract you from the roots of policy problems.
As youth, we are often sandwiched between the hot and cold social expectation of “you’re demanding too much change” versus “you’re not doing enough to create change.” We get praised for advocating against the climate crisis but also strategically sidelined when asked for a seat at the decision-making table. It’s almost as if we are either the beacon of hope or the black sheep of the community. The leverage of our age is often only acknowledged when we accomplish the extraordinary against all odds, while instead being a barrier when we wish to occupy spaces to fight for our future.
If we were genuinely celebrating Amanda in the past few days, and if we are really committed to celebrating young people, their ideas, their voices, their creativity, their innovation and their boldness in all their diversity — beyond tokenistic celebration — we would also support calls made by the coalition of youth organizations for a seat at the table in the new Biden administration to build an “Office of Young Americans” within the Executive Office of the President and to appoint a “Director of Youth Engagement” — who they say should be a member of Gen Z — to sit on the Domestic Policy Council and engage with the National Security Council.
We need leaders at all levels to ensure there is the same enthusiasm and commitment to supporting youth both while they are on stage and off stage.
The year 2021 should be a year full of exemplary leadership and this should be the time where leaders truly acknowledge youth as equal partners. As the world rebuilds itself with COVID recovery plans in mind, it is our great hope that countries will do so with keeping young people in mind and engaged as part of the process.
The accomplishments of young people, especially young women of colour like Amanda, are not only accomplishments that are well earned, but also accomplishments that took multiple barriers (including concrete ceilings) to break. When we celebrate the achievements of youth, let’s not forget that we owe it to the other 1.8 billion young people of the world to also offer the same encouragement and meaningful support so that they too can break these barriers down and help our world rebuild a better society that leads to better future.
Written by Hillary Bakrie and Jayathma Wickramanayake