Almost 60 years ago, the UK rock band, The Who, wrote an era-defining song called My Generation. The track is famous for the line “I hope I die before I get old.” Pete Townsend, who wrote the lyrics (and is now quite elderly), said, “My Generation was very much about trying to find a place in society. I was very, very lost.” (https://genius.com/The-who-my-generation-lyrics)
It seems that every generation of young people needs to find themselves and their place in society. The challenge is, how do we create an environment for young people to discover their place in society without them falling prey to desperation and negative life choices? Perhaps the challenge is even greater now than it was 60 years ago. The so-called generation gap continues to grow and non-profit organisations face some very real challenges to effectively empower young people in this globalised world.
Given the scale and scope of challenges that young people face around the world, it is impossible to address every issue within the confines of these articles on youth development. However, I want to draw from my own experience of working with young people and leading organisations focused on empowering youth. In the next few editions, I want to highlight some principles and approaches that could help unlock potential in young people. In this edition, I want to set the scene by sharing my own background in youth development and some key lessons I’ve learned along the way.
I’ve been involved in youth work for most of my adult life. In 1997 I became an employed youth worker at my local church in the UK. The following year I had an opportunity to do a youth work placement at a church in Cape Town. I’ve been based in South Africa ever since! When I arrived, the country was emerging from apartheid and transitioning from the presidency of Nelson Mandela. However, at grassroots level, it was clear that the legacy of institutionalised racism had had a devastating impact on the prospects for young people in Cape Town’s underprivileged communities. It was in gang-infested communities and through working with incarcerated young people that my passion to provide an environment for young people to flourish was first forged.
As a foreigner, I recognised that I needed a vehicle to build bridges with young people. Sport, in particular football, provided me with that bridge. Football was a sub-culture that helped me overcome other cultural barriers and enabled me to connect with, and learn from, the young people that I was engaging with. And this is the first principle I want to highlight; that youth development is all about bridge-building. A former colleague of mine said, “we give them what they love in order to give them what they need”. People who work with young people are essentially bridge builders. We need to find creative avenues through which we can build meaningful relationships. Those years were a fast learning curve for me as I sought to integrate the young men from underprivileged communities who I was playing football with, into a youth group that was in a historically white and privileged suburb. At times, it was quite messy. Yet it set me on a pathway that was committed to developing organisations that prioritise integration, equality, and diversity across socio-economic and cultural divides.
In 2001 I started a South African branch of the international organisation, Ambassadors in Sport (now Ambassadors Football). This afforded me the opportunity to not only engage young people in Cape Town but took me to other parts of the country and into Africa. Within a few years I was invited to take international teams of Christian football players to far flung countries such as Nigeria, Mali, Kenya and Sudan. My horizons were broadened, both on and off the field. As I engaged with young people across the Continent, I was struck by their tenacity and positivity, even in adversity. I recognised that my privileged background meant I had a responsibility to create opportunities for young people who didn’t have the privilege of resources and relationships to provide them with a step up in life. This shaped my personal mission to invest in emerging leaders and to seek to provide environments where they can flourish in faith and in life. This is a further principle; those engaged in working with young people need to recognise it’s not about you! Your job is to provide a platform for young people to fulfil their potential.
In 2014, I changed jobs and began the first international hub of a UK youth-focused organisation called The Message Trust. For the past nine years, we’ve sought to apply the principles of bridge-building and creating a platform for young people in tough neighbourhoods in order that they can fulfil their potential. Our goal is to raise up transformational leaders from the margins. We call these emerging leaders Urban Heroes. (see www.message.org.za).
My work with The Message Trust has brought home to me the importance of a third principle for working with young people which is that we must have faith in young people. The challenges that young people face are compounded when we speak negatively about them or write them off as being troublemakers or a lost cause. Rather, I’ve found that young people often rise to the level of our expectations. Having faith in young people enables us to remain positive and full of hope that even the most troubled or broken life can still be restored and find their God-given purpose. I often say that Cape Town, beautiful city as it is, is more often known for the bad-news stories that emanate out of our troubled communities. These bad news stories are often associated with youth crime, gangsterism and youth unemployment. However, those of us who have faith in young people start believing for a different story to emerge; that the bad news stories can become good news stories as Urban Heroes arise who are committed to becoming the change they want to see in society (to quote Gandhi).
Having started with a song from a bygone era, let me close by quoting Taylor Swift. Feeling disenchanted by politics, Swift released the song “Only the young” in 2020. She writes the song to help inspire disillusioned youth recognise that they do have the potential to change the status quo. The chorus has the refrain,
But only the young
Only the young
Only the young
Only the young can run
Can run, so run
And run, and run.
For those of us involved in youth development, this provides us with a horizon to look towards. We are bridge-builders, providing a platform for young people to flourish, because we have faith in young people. And with these principles in place, we believe that young people can find their feet and run the race ahead of them – a race that leads them to a better destination where boundless possibilities are available to them.
Through doing this, we are serving young people and providing them with an environment to flourish in faith and life.
This article was previously published in NGO Whisperer magazine.
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