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WPDI and the Promise of Youth Across the World - Blog by Forest Whitaker

During a recent visit to Uganda, I met a young woman named Asayo. Asayo told me a story about how, after receiving mediation training from Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative (WPDI) staff, she was able to successfully negotiate an agreement between the Lobung and Padibe peoples over a land dispute in her local community. Actions like Asayo’s mediation efforts can add up: youth played a key role in efforts to promote dialogue that ultimately led to a peace agreement in South Sudan a few weeks ago. These activities are perfectly indicative of the promising role youth can have in our global community, if we provide the opportunity and resources for them to do so.

On this International Youth Day, I want to take a moment to highlight more examples of the ground-breaking work young people are doing across the world. This year’s theme, “Safe Spaces for Youth,” is a remarkably important one. Youth need safe spaces to come together, learn from one another, express themselves freely and engage wholeheartedly with their communities. Their ability to do so should be of foremost importance to all of us - our society can only be a healthier one with the involvement of young people. 

I feel strongly about this matter because I have seen the dangers youth face, as well as the promise of their potential. Today’s young people are overwhelmingly concentrated in the poorest and most conflict-afflicted areas of the world; the United Nations estimates that about  600 million of them live in fragile or conflict-impacted areas and that there are 300,000 child soldiers around the world. These conditions can often create cycles of violence that lead to poverty, a lack of opportunity, additional conflict, and so on. But I have also seen encouraging signs of promise. In South Sudan – the world’s youngest nation – hundreds of young people have engaged in programs like the Youth Peacemaker Network (YPN) through WPDI. These youths have taken courses at our Community Learning Centers in areas such as peacebuilding, entrepreneurship, literacy, gender equity and internet and communications technology (ICT).  They have, in turn, had enormous ripple effects on their respective communities. Some have started profitable businesses, become educators, provided vocational training to fellow young people, or, like Asayo, have even mediated conflict themselves. 

WPDI has similar programs, which have achieved equally promising results, in other countries. Those include Mexico and Uganda: in those two nations alone, dozens of young people – after completing our YPN course – have designed and established community programs aimed at preventing sexual vio-lence, promoting literacy, protecting the environment and improving community health and well-being. One such initiative, the Production of Healthy and Nutritious Food Program, was planned and led by two youths. They taught rural families in three townships how to improve and increase food production using environmentally-friendly agricultural techniques. By doing so, they impacted almost 300 people by lowering food costs for families living in the townships while also providing them with an ability to sell excess produce locally. The project was so successful that it is currently being expanded, in partnership with local NGOs. Actions like these are simply remarkable and have reached thousands so far. Knowing that young people will continue such work and reach many more provides me with hope. 

By fostering safe places for youth, young people can show their promise and achieve their full poten-tial. In conflict-affected areas, youth are often characterized as perpetrators or victims of violence – often this can be true. However, by broadly categorizing young people in this way, a deep well of po-tential can be overlooked due to a lack of trust. I reject painting youth in this way and instead believe that they should be active partners in peacebuilding and development efforts. If we choose that path, our communities can grow and thrive in newfound ways, hand in hand with our young people.