By Margarita Maira
It all began with a fellowship
“How are young people participating in politics today?” “How are they involved in policy making?” “Are governments giving space for youth to have a say? If not, how are they making their voices heard?” These were some of the questions I set out to answer with my fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy in March 2018. Democracies today are globally perceived as not being entirely representative of citizens, where the longing for more open governments and participatory politics is gaining supporters every day. There is a need for more inclusiveness of the many groups that should have a say in politics: women, races, ethnicities, immigrants, disabled people, the elderly, LGTBQI communities and, of course, youth, who can contribute with fresh ideas for the future of their countries and who are tomorrow’s leaders and protagonists. To narrow down the gigantic issue of youth and political participation, I resorted to my own experience in Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente (Smart Citizen Foundation). I had spent the entire previous year dedicated to train young leaders who wanted to bring about change in four Latin American countries.
I had seen the lack of openness and political will in our governments give young people a hard time. But I had also seen how they had overcome many of those obstacles. More importantly, I had seen the young participants of our Advocacy School be passionate and engaged, far from the apathy stereotype. They had ideas and motivation to make their contexts better, they just needed to reach the people in power. And we provided some tools for them to do so. It made sense to look at youth-led advocacy. But this led me to a different set of questions, opening a world of possibilities in my intensely curious head. “How had other young people done it? What was the key to their success? What had they got right when they managed to make real changes in the system?” And then, not a secondary matter, “who were these young men and women whose movements and efforts I could learn from?” I felt as if standing at the beginning of a rainbow, certain that at the end a pot of gold for youth and democracy would be waiting for me. I would learn from their examples and share them with the next generation of advocates to promote more young visions reaching the not-so-impenetrable political sphere. But it wasn’t all pretty colors. Finding those millennials who successfully convinced their governments that their ideas are worth a shot took me a lot longer than I anticipated. I did not expect finding cases to be difficult, having seen with my own eyes the growth of a social movement of hope who took to the streets and changed
education in Chile forever in 2011. So I took the opportunity of looking at the Chilean student movement from a professional perspective. Then I contrasted it with another nation-wide effort: the #NotTooYoungToRun campaign in Nigeria that advocated for lowering candidates’ age restriction. Finally, I moved away from massive movements to see how organized youth
contributed to the development of RYCO, the Regional Youth Cooperation Office that would promote reconciliation through youth exchange in most of former Yugoslavia.
I set out to find these protagonists in the three continents and held long interviews with them. I complemented their stories with news, social media posts, papers, documentaries, newsletters, blogs and official websites. After weeks of deep diving I was inspired and impressed at the work these people my age and younger had done to change policies. I got to know them well, reflecting (and even dreaming!) of Abuja and Belgrade for the first time in my life, and connecting with my own country on a deeper level. These are stories and tactics worth sharing and I present them here as I learned them from their protagonists: first-hand. This and some of my own discoveries in the form of lessons from their unique work is what you’ll find in the following pages.
Santiago, Chile – August 18, 2011
The thermometer marks 4 degrees Celsius (39 Fahrenheit). It’s a dark and freezing Winter morning, with that piercing cold that gets into your bones in Santiago, a city where centralized heating systems are rare. Like every Thursday in the past three months, the Confederation of Students of Chile has called for the citizens to march down the most important avenue in the country. The traditional Alameda, where La Moneda presidential palace stands, is so wide that it takes two green lights to cross the street. And the students are aiming to fill it. On this occasion, the march is a response to the proposed measures the president announced the previous day to improve education in Chile. Improvement is indeed what the students have been demanding, but the offer the president is making has nothing to do with what they ask. It falls far from their official petition headlined by the concepts of “gratuity” and “quality,” carefully constructed to truly transform the Chilean education system. Turnout for the marches has met the students’ expectations each time. As the weeks have passed, the number of attendants has been on the rise. Especially after the extreme repression of an unauthorized march where police brutality left dozens of students fighting back wounded. The rest of the country has realized they’re not the vandals the news used to say. But on this particular day there is a major setback: it’s raining. And not only raining, it’s absolutely pouring. The dry central plain where Santiago was founded has so far provided the best weather conditions for the protesters, but on this crucial morning the clouds seem to be releasing all the water the polluted city air has been crying for all Winter. There is nothing more glorious than the Andes mountains after the rain: draped in snow all the way down and clear for the capital inhabitants to see, free from the layer of smog that usually screens it. But habitual expectations for the view is the last thing on the student leaders’ mind today. It’s highly unlikely that teachers, workers and families who usually join the protests will leave the comfort of their homes on such a dreary morning. But nothing’s stopping the student leadership, even if they’re the only people walking down the street. Determined and disappointed, they take their posters to the meeting point. The appointed time approaches. Presidents of the capital’s university federations stand in awe at the sight of Plaza Italia crowding rapidly as the march begins. Raincoats over hoodies over sweaters over shirts and woolen hats seem to be doing the trick. And umbrellas. Lots and lots of colorful umbrellas, filling the whole ample space between the two sidewalks. A massive spotted block begins to move down the avenue. Hand-painted banners turned into watercolor manage to convey the same message as in all the marches: the students and the rest of the country want change now. The feeling’s not been damped. Soaking young men and women do their usual dances and sore throats don’t prevent them from chanting “and it will fall, and it will fall, the education of Pinochet” (Chilean dictator from 1973-1990). Against all odds, celebrities, parents, elderly, they’re here too. Everyone’s come to show their support. “We weren’t able to do what they’re doing now” says a retiree to a news reporter. “I feel proud of them.” He might be referring to the 20 years of democracy that have gone by without changes to the Chilean education system installed during the dictatorship. Or he might mean that when his generation was the students’ age they were killed when they tried protesting, under the military regime. Meanwhile, a very dry President Piñera appears on TV accusing division, intransigence and violence to have taken over the streets. He believes in agreements, he says, and calls for unity and dialogue. At the same time, University of Chile’s Student Federation president and internationally renowned leader of the movement Camila Vallejo, complains -water dripping down her hair- that the President wants to send hisproposals
directly to Congress without discussing them with the students. So much for dialogue. As it usually happened during 2011 and 2012 in Chile, counts for numbers of people on the march vary widely: the government says 50 thousand, organizers announce the double. Whichever the case, the procession of colors filling block after block after block in La Alameda Avenue remains to this day a vivid image of the determination and the spirit of the Chilean student movement.
At a time when graduation from university came with a three-decade debt, young Chileans were frustrated with their education being treated as a business that did not even provide a worthy service. The system seemed to take advantage of students and their families, without elected officials doing anything about it. Youth wanted education to be a right again, aiming to undo the mercantilization enforced by dictator Augusto Pinochet three decades earlier. In 2011, students from north to south in the long strip of territory united against what they felt as their common adversary -the first right wing government since Chile’s return to democracy in 1990- to demand free, high-quality public education for everyone, up to its higher levels. In 2011 and 2012, thousands of Chileans marched on the streets, consolidating the initiative as a broad social movement which, at its peak, had 89% of the country’s support. After a change of government in 2014, a 4-year educational reform process eventually materialized many of their demands.
Abuja, Nigeria – July 27, 2017
None of them can predict which way the votes will go today, not with a decent amount of confidence in their guess. The anxiety of not knowing if legislators will support the constitutional amendment to lower candidates’ age kept several of them up last night, working late. Ibrahim Faruk and the rest of the strategy team for the campaign are filled with uncertainty and can now do nothing but wait. As far as they know, anything can happen. Being the #NotTooYoungToRun National Coordinator, Ibrahim got to experience a similar milestone in the flesh when the House of Representatives last voted the bill a month ago. (The many legal procedures must scorch their patience like flaming torture!) That time, Ibrahim felt he was watching history happen with his own eyes as the bill got the votes. But being at the office now, surrounded by his comrades-in-arms around the TV, is probably better in case things don’t go well. At least they’ve made it this far. The campaign has overcome all obstacles since its beginning last year, so he has reasons to hope. But the rough patch they’ve been through in the last couple of weeks are more than enough to worry and believe that not everything will be alright. The Honorables almost turned their backs on them, how on Earth could they possibly relax? They could have never imagined that, after the House Reps’ voted in favor of the bill a month ago, there could be any risk of it not being included in the constitutional amendments for today’s session. The very final step for the National Assembly! It was now or never if they wanted to lower the age for running in the 2019 elections. Had they really been trying to kill the bill by leaving it out? Maybe the rumors were wrong. Ibrahim and his friends aren’t really sure. But they were not going to wait to find out. They had to be quick, even if it caught them entirely off guard. It was either that or death itself for the campaign, momentarily at least (they would rise again as many times as it proved necessary). Who would have guessed it was possible to organize a National Action Day in just one week? They really had been crazy to aim at getting two thousand people on the streets so legislators would really feel the pressure. Just reach for the sky, right? It was a bold move. It could’ve easily backfired, what if no one showed up?But the stakes were too high to play it safe. Now they can be glad they went all in. As it stands, the House Reps just couldn’t leave their initiative out after five thousand supporters blocked the National Assembly gates. That march was the first aggressive action they’ve had to take so far. They didn’t love breaking away from the spotless respect of their communications strategy, reminding politicians who had previously supported them that they had them on camera. And that youth vote as a block. The biggest electoral block in the country. As in, a block with the power to get you elected. Or not. Two days later, here they are, waiting for the next obstacle to be a thing of the past. Oh, if only it didn’t need to pass the vote in the House now. If only yesterday’s approval in the Senate were enough! How can anyone’s nerves be ok after all this? Deep breath. Fingers crossed. Let’s do this. Ibrahim’s palms are surely sweaty as the time for the bill they’ve dedicated their lives to for the last year finally arrives. He probably wonders if the flyers will do any good. He can see on the TV screen the House Reps reading the #NotTooYoungToRun printouts they left on their seats earlier thanks to an insider’s help, the bill’s sponsor. But what happens next blows every campaign member’s mind. As the Speaker opens the floor, there is uproar in the room, a chaotic confusion of yells all over the place. Dozens of hurrahing MPs stand, waving the flyers in the air, some of them nearly rubbing the paper on the sour faces sitting next to them. The Speaker’s voice calling for order is completely muffled under the shouts, heated discussions rising across the room. 289 legislators have suddenly turned the Nigerian House of Assembly into an out-of-control circus. A news camera recording the show zooms in on an angry detractor trying to rip the printout from his cheering neighbor’s hand. Ibrahim’s eyes surely open wide. Honorable proponents of the bill smile broadly, showing both sets of super white teeth as they chant “Not too young! Not too young! Not too young!” The very spirit of the march seems to have possessed some of the highest elected officials in the country. To see their protest cheers come to life on their mouths in this place today … It almost doesn’t feel real. I bet Ibrahim had to sit down to catch some air. 261 votes for “Yes” with only 23 “No” makes all the previous pains worthwhile. As it turns out, their biggest setback is suddenly transformed into their greatest victory yet. Discovering as if for the first time what profound relief feels like, you can just picture the campaign team screaming and hugging in front of the TV as they celebrate. Stronger in body and soul, the #NotTooYoungToRun campaign gains a confidence and a momentum they couldn’t possibly expect. They’ve won a huge battle and they’re ready for whatever destiny may have in store for the following steps. They’re willing and armed to face anything so that one day it will be them, Nigerian youth, deciding how to cast that vote that will be truly representative of the people who elected them .
The #NotTooYoungToRun campaign led by YIAGA AFRICA, a youth-led civil society organization not very different from my Smart Citizen Foundation, is the most organized of the three cases, with a clear strategy towards a specifically defined goal. Tackling the frustration of there being no space for youth in formal politics as it is today -a problem perceived by millennials worldwide-they advocated to lower 5 years the age restriction for candidates for president, parliamentarians and governors so that younger voices could enter the electoral arena. While over two thirds of the population is under 35, around a vast 130 million Nigerians, you had to be at least 40 to even run for the presidency. So in 2016 they set out to have the Constitution changed. The legal process was long: parallel bills were voted in the National Assembly and the Senate, then they went to Joint Committee where one harmonized version was agreed on, to finally send the constitutional amendment bill back to both chambers for approval. As if that weren’t enough, after the national challenge was unlocked, the bill had to be ratified by 24 of the 36 states to actually change the
Constitution. In the meantime, the campaign became a solid movement pushed by Nigerian youth all over the country, finding allies in formal politics both at home and abroad: the UN, impressed by their efforts, took #NotTooYoungToRun to a global level. Finally, two years after the initial campaign was launched, the president’s signature on the bill sealed their victory on May 31st, 2018.
The Western Balkans
Paris – July 4, 2016
Jasmina Lazovic’s hand is somewhat shaky as she holds her smartphone up to livestream the Connecting Youth Conference. This is a big day for her, her team and young people in the Western Balkans in general, although most of them might not even know it. And if they did, many wouldn’t appreciate it. As she steadies the phone (it’s about to begin!) she probably thinks back to the times when her organization was tirelessly trying to convince the Bosnian, Croatian, Kosovar, Montenegrin and Serbian governments to take up their work. She probably remembers that they got close too. Back in 2013 the Croatian president had finally agreed that youth exchange was a good idea to deal with regional feuds and was willing to go forward on an actual project. When he was voted out of office in the following election, Jasmina and her team would have never guessed that life would give them such a huge second chance. Only 3 years before this landmark day she remembers vividly saying to everyone around her, in the 50th anniversary of the Franco-German Youth Office, “if a regional office for youth exchange were to ever happen in the Balkans, I quit my job. There’s no chance it will happen.” That day has finally come now but she’s still sticking around Youth Initiative for Human Rights, holding her cell to livestream the event on the organization’s
Facebook page at this very moment. Soon enough she will uphold her promise though, carrying all these life-changing memories and lessons in her heart. When the presenter asks the last stragglers in the two hundred participants to take their seats, Jasmina focuses the video on the presentation in front of her. She knows that design all too well, she’s been seeing it for months. The PowerPoint (and much of the content, and the videos) for this conference was prepared by Youth Initiative. She and her team have been working really hard lately. They have for the past 2 years really, ever since the idea of an intergovernmental youth office in the Balkans was announced. It was perfect timing for Youth Initiative to be honest. They had received a grant that they were initially going to use during the Summer to continue trying to persuade governments of doing youth exchange. They were convinced: the answer to real peace was in the hands of younger generations. Anyone born in Yugoslavia with vivid memories of its breakup wars was more likely to bear irreconcilable grudges against their neighbors. Yes, Youth Initiative would continue to advocate for institutional youth exchange because the region desperately needed it. But logistic issues had made them postpone the activities until the Fall and suddenly there they were: a international youth office was announced out of the blue, they wanted to help shape its creation and they had funds to do so. The planets had aligned. Of course, her team was never officially part of the office’s creation process. The actual negotiations and statute-writing had been done by the working group now standing beside the stage receiving a well-deserved applause. During the whole development of the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO), which finalizes today, her team in Serbia and the other Youth Initiative branches in the Western Balkans had been working from the back row, just as she, her boss Anita and her colleague Ivan are now, sitting there in the audience. The recommendations discussed in this Connecting Youth Conference were also gathered by them. Only one week earlier they were in Belgrade facilitating the workshop where they’d brought together a dozen brilliant young people from all the countries participating in RYCO plus Croatia, the big absentee in the official initiative. They saw the importance of having the Croatian vision included, being a major player in the region’s biography. It’s this common history -a bloody history- that the group in the workshop places at the center of their recommendations for the work of the youth office, urging the governments to focus on dealing with the past. The family-severing, hatred-driven wars of the 1990s are all too present in Balkan identities today. How can the region think of the future without facing the profound resentments rooted in those dark dark times? Anyone working on youth exchange, like Youth Initiative has for the past decade, can appreciate the great power for reconciliation in these programs. And they are acutely aware of its value, even if it’s no one’s priority. It’s precisely the distance that the legacy of the Yugoslav wars produces between the peoples that prevents them from wanting to engage with their neighbors, let alone work together. Upon the initial announcement of the office back in 2014 this had been one of Youth Initiative’s biggest concerns: it didn’t at first seem the presidents were taking the potential of the office seriously. Erasmus-type exchanges look easy and harmless, and at Youth Initiative they feared the governments might just leave RYCO at that: a good-looking deliverable… Fortunately, many people inside and outside the process saw youth exchange as a seed for reconciliation; like the Franco-German Youth Office, probably the greatest allies in this issue and most certainly the greatest inspiration. France and Germany had been working on reconciliation for half a century now. They had a thing or two to share. As Jasmina reads the word reconciliation at the head of the slide officially describing RYCO, she must feel deeply satisfied, looking back on this: Youth Initiative’s most important personal battle during its development. Reconciliation is central in the conviction that a different Western Balkans is possible. And that youth are key to solve these deeply-rooted problems. Finally governments are investing in the power of younger generations! Only hours away the office they had longed and pushed for would be a real thing, in government paper, signed by six heads of state in a beautiful Parisian palace. It just sounds like a dream. Exhaustion and excitement mixed, no wonder Jasmina can’t hold the phone straight.
As part of the Berlin Process, a European Union initiative to help the non-EU Western Balkans become members, two presidents proposed in 2014 a youth exchange office to show signs of collaboration in the region. A year later, an official “working group,” a half-youth-organizations-half-governments team was set up to develop RYCO, the Regional Youth Cooperation Office. Young people worked hand in hand with their governments to design this institutional space shared by countries with terribly tense relations due to years of armed conflict (tense as in Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo as a country). Dealing with the legacy of the Yugoslav wars was something only youth organizations had dared to tackle before and they had a lot to say on the subject. After months of negotiations and advocacy, in July 2016 the six governments involved in the Berlin Process signed the agreement that officially created a RYCO generally approved by youth inside and outside the working group. Croatia, though a major actor in the wars, did not participate, being an EU-member with no need of the Berlin Process. This case was at no point a massive movement like those in Chile and Nigeria. Before the Berlin Process, only a handful of civil society organizations doing youth exchange had advocated for an institutional version of their work. Even when RYCO was announced and organized youth in six countries came on board, it remained a niche matter because of the depth of the regional conflict, where the past is a heavy burden for the generations born right before, during and after the 1990s wars. Balkan youth (and the population in general) are not concerned about improving relations with their neighbors, they would rather never have to interact with one another. But if the masses did not share their interests, the governments did, which was not the case with better education in Chile or youth inclusion in politics in Nigeria. These differences risked dislocating my narrative but embracing them made the discoveries I’ll share with you in the following sections richer and multilayered.
Before you read on, please give yourself one second to appreciate the relevance of the three cases here. These young people were truly driven by their vision of the future and by an implicit conviction that stronger democracies are possible; with a farther-reaching perspective than those in power, it would seem. And it’s touching to see that when they needed to take matters in their own hands to make it happen, they were ready to dive all in. However imperfect the processes and the outcomes may be, these tireless young protagonists can go to bed at night certain that their children (my children) will be raised in a country where the educational system makes sure to provide the best opportunities for everyone. That they will grow up with laws more representative of the vast youth of their land (with the chance to themselves become the people making those decisions at a younger age!). And that they will develop in a more peaceful regional environment than the one they have today, despite their history of wars. And what’s even better: these babies who haven’t been born yet in Chile, Nigeria, the Western Balkans and so many other places in the world… these coming generations will know that change is in them, that they can make a difference if they propose to.
The million-dollar question: How did they do it? My first answer to this would be: by being young. As ridiculous as it may sound, the common, recurring element of success I identified is their newness, in form or in substance. I was at first convinced that my generation’s major breakthrough had to do with mastering technology available to us but as I delved deeper into the cases -where digital tools were used all the time, certainly- I realized their victories all involved other forms of innovation. We digital natives have grown up exposed not only to apps and the web in general but also to the internet’s underlying principles of horizontal, bottom-up participation that gave birth to collaborative coding. Once online, we supposedly all have a potential to access the same content. And although algorithms and ads and the people we follow do shape our personal experience of the internet, we grew up with a notion of horizontality. (Even if we know today that the same gaps of the real world exist online: patriarchy oppressing women, racial discrimination, class divide, they are expressed with the same strength than offline or worse.) It must somehow shape the way we see the world, right? It must contribute to millennials daring to ask for a seat at the decision-making table, for wanting more participatory politics. Our brains are wired with different logics.
I came to realize that the foremost innovative aspect of the Chilean, Nigerian and Western Balkan cases was deeper than the strategies they had implemented. The true innovation didn’t reside as much in the how as it did in the what . The political demands themselves were the epitome of breaking with the past. Education as a right, young leaders in power, reconciliation between peoples… These were all giant steps forward for their countries. From that perspective, I identified four aspects in which the advocacy itself was innovative and very much in line with our horizontal mindset. They acted in line with their political vision, enacting the break with the past they proposed with their demands (Lesson 1). They broke the language of politics loose from its institutional straps, making it their own (Lesson 2). They executed a new, more inclusive and empowering form for politics, which allowed them to work as a united front (Lesson 3). They thought out of the box to face problems and dared to have fun in the process, a source of fresh ideas (Lesson 4).
Lesson 1. Be true to your vision
After drawing diagrams and writing on post-its for weeks I was one day struck to realize that young people in the three continents were truly embodying their own visions and proposals right then and there, actually bringing the new to life. The same things they were asking for, they themselves did. And this was no conscious effort. They were simply being coherent with their own political vision for the future, something my generation would like to see more of in people in power today. This proved to be really useful for the three cases in different ways, the most universal of which has to do with legitimacy. Being politically consistent is a major factor to be taken seriously, to validate your demands as a credible, solid actor in the political arena. And this is how they did it: One of the recurring arguments against #NotTooYoungToRun in Nigeria was that “youth are not prepared.” A typical, adult-centric homogenization of the demographic block that is also profoundly inaccurate. Of course there are young people not fit to be parliamentarians, but many older people aren’t either. While doing advocacy to change the law, youth behind the campaign deployed all the political savviness that would make anyone on their team a great representative of his or her constituency. Take the way they organized, for example. YIAGA, the nonprofit at the center of the whole thing, was fully aware of the need to take the campaign to a national level to make it work. So they handpicked 20+ people covering all fronts. Some members in this “strategy team” ran organizations dealing with governance issues, some worked with youth, others came from the media, traditional and online. They served as 24/7 ambassadors of the cause, writing articles and blogs, going to radio stations and TV channels. And they were smart in finding a coordination medium that suited all of these busy young professionals’ schedules. They were in permanent communication over a Whatsapp group that never slept (a capacity that some 2011 Chilean leaders would have sacrificed a cow for back then). When the bill was transferred to be voted in the State Houses of Assembly, the structure expanded strategically. The existing team identified and appointed state coordinators with experience in advocacy at a grassroots level. They had the competence and the networks to make #NotTooYoungToRun happen in their territory, becoming the campaign’s “legs,” as one interviewee described them. They rallied volunteers for ground work, sent letters to state legislators -991 in the 36 states, according to YIAGA’s records and met with State House speakers, which allegedly every one of the 35 state coordinators
did. It makes you wonder what would be the result of putting these same efforts into an electoral campaign, doesn’t it? #NotTooYoungToRun also performed its vision for Nigeria by politically stimulating the newer generations. Organizers of the campaign spread civic education, trained participants to become effective representatives for the movement and its ideals, and held debates to encourage “public discourse on the rationale and general principles of the bill” (which they also used to identify detractors’ arguments and construct counter narratives to disarm them). This campaign/pilot served as a simulacrum for real, formal political work. Their nation-wide deployment provided enough trial and error to prepare young Nigerians for their first steps in institutional politics. If this is anything like the Chilean student movement, protagonists from #NotTooYoungToRun will end up in Parliament or other elected offices (maybe one of them might be president one day!) Luckily enough, they have themselves lowered the age restriction to do so. I can’t wait for the moment when I see this cycle complete itself. It is no surprise that one of the items on the Chileans students’ list for the government should be the need for more “democratization” in higher education. The lack of a real representative democracy in Chile was the backdrop for dissatisfaction in universities and the rest of the country. In the official petitions, the movement asked for three-level participation in decision making processes: it should involve students, academics and workers at universities and institutes. And as they demanded, they themselves did. They actively sought the other agents in the education sector to join the movement. They partnered with the national teachers’ guild; they invited professors and institutional workers to their decision-making assemblies; they worked with the Students’ Parents Corporation; they organized events with scholars and regularly met with the Chilean Universities Provosts’ Council. The epitome of this approach is the image of several heads of universities
famously marching alongside the students. And it was not easy to truly incarnate this demand. While universities were physically occupied, paralyzing all academic activity, many “federations” -student governments- had the hard task of maintaining the balance between the rising students on the one hand and deans and provosts on the other. For the movement to work, both sides had to be kept in reasonable harmony. It was often necessary to enforce occupation rules and limits so that the very mechanism they were using to get their voices heard wouldn’t backfire and harm
the movement’s credibility. The tension was constant and some leaders did not make it through precisely because of how democratic the movement was: many federations were voted down by the very students who had once elected them. Civil society organizations in the Western Balkans also served as a hinge. They had the task of bringing together a history of youth exchange with political institutions who finally wanted to implement them. Governments had never done youth exchange before, making the Balkan youth the clearest example of this performance of the new. The need to bring together young people from countries who had recently been at war to become aware of their ethno-nationalist culture and break those barriers… this was not on anybody’s radar except for a handful of youth organizations in the region. Fortunately, they kept at it, solitary precursors of their cause. By the time RYCO’s process kicked off, they were themselves the (small scale) evidence of the future they were proposing. The youth network Youth Initiative for Human Rights, for example, had been consistently doing youth exchanges since 2003. Their good, if isolated, results were living proof that an initiative like RYCO could have a future. Governments recognized in civil society the foundations for their youth office. As one of the process’ moderator put it, “if there hadn’t been youth exchange before, RYCO wouldn’t have been created. The idea didn’t come from nothing. Without practices from before this would not have been launched.”
Lesson 2. Make their language yours
It was pretty impressive to see the extent to which the young people in my cases comprehended (and apprehended) the technicalities involved in their demands. They studied laws and specialized literature until they could properly speak the jargon -not precisely the slang you’d expect to see from a protester in school uniform. Words that were commonly used inside thick institutional walls were now being chanted on the streets or used to convince stakeholders, passed from one wrinkle-free mouth to the next for once. They took the language of politics for themselves! The redistribution of power, this new face of democracy that millennials are asking for all over the world, can also begin with a linguistic shift that dissolves boundaries between older politicians and passionate, hopeful youth. At a discourse level, in both Chile and Nigeria, my contemporaries won the first battle before the adults really understood the magnitude of what was coming. By making the language of policymakers theirs, they became valid interlocutors in stakeholders’ eyes because youth could unexpectedly hold their own (something they did not need to worry about in the Balkans). These weren’t a bunch of angry kids, these were young adults who knew what they were talking about. In the Nigerian case, this was twice as important, since this is the language of people in office, the new space in dispute. Can you believe the Not Too Young To Run bill was actually drafted by law-trained YIAGA staff? With some outside support, but still. I can just picture how a strategy team member described this accomplishment: their first draft appeared on the Whatsapp group where the rest of the team read directly on their phones and gave their comments back in real time. I learned also that they knew enough to actually lend the House Reps technical support during the different steps of the legal procedure. They were very smart in providing the bill exactly as the sponsoring MPs would need it. This same advocacy lesson I got from Serbian Ivan Djuric not much later: the more ready-made you hand the bill/solution/arguments, the more likely it is that stakeholders will use it. It’s a matter of making things easier for those who have the position to officially push for it, be it legislators or other government allies. In Youth Initiative they put forward their official vision on how RYCO should be on a concise but precise paper -their main advocacy weapon in terms of content. And Youth Initiative staff are convinced that they used it as a reference when drafting RYCO’s final statutes. #NotTooYoungToRun’s communications are very specific on everything concerning the legal intricacies of the process. I remember my perplexity when I got hold of a campaign magazine. Flicking through the glossy paper that had travelled all the way from a box in Abuja to my desk in DC I realized they did not hold back in the use of technicalities that the reader was probably not interested in. But they were making a point. They could use politicians’ language with the same swiftness that they translated it to easy infographics for everyone to understand. In Chile, they managed a similar feat. Student leaders would discuss the complexities of the educational system like they were singing a hiphop song: you
were expecting them to get it wrong but they didn’t. And you were pretty impressed by the time they were done. You would see teenagers shouting against the “LGE,” the law that basically permitted the privatization of the educational system. The movement had identified in which laws resided the problems they saw in their education and learned them well enough to explain it in simple words to the rest of the country. To strengthen their knowledge, some of the university federations had technical teams devoted specifically to the task. The position of power that millennials in Chile and Nigeria were trying to reach, youth in former Yugoslavia already had. The governments’ ignorance on youth exchange not only opened the door for youth organizations into the creation of RYCO, it also gave them leverage in the discussion, a rare case in youth-government dialogue anywhere. Being the only experts who managed the technical language gave youth a status that allowed them influence the process deeply. There is little disagreement that youth got most of the content in during the creation of RYCO, winning battles in their favor like maintaining the 50-50 composition of government and civil society in the working group for the governing board of RYCO -a much more permanent position of power for younger generations. “They needed to respect our opinion,” a youth representative in the working group said to me. The fact that young people in civil society had been visionaries back in the early 2000s provided both the evidence for their idea of governmental youth exchange to materialize and the experience/legitimacy for young people to have a say in its design. Well done guys! Youth’s expertise was not only their entry point for the official working group, it was also what allowed organizations outside to influence the process, like the youth network Youth Initiative who played multiple roles during that time, organizing consultations and funding promotion activities. If you think about it, it is quite extraordinary that a civil society organization who 1) doesn’t get along with all presidents involved and who 2) is not part of the official structure set up to develop the youth office, gets to play such a constant role in the whole thing. But then you realize that they were authorities on the subject, so it would have been kind of irresponsible not to give them some space. And Youth Initiative knew it, staying as close as possible to the working group throughout the process. In every collaboration they made sure to get their vision in there, a sort of disguised inception that allowed them to instill the importance of dealing with the past and including educational institutions in the exchanges.
Lesson 3. Include all voices to work as a united front
It comes as no surprise that youth, ever excluded from decision-making in political processes, should innovate also by enacting the inclusivity they would like to see in their democracies. In Chile and Nigeria, this characteristic served them well to gain supporters on a massive scale. They wanted to be able to have a place in the discussion, they wanted politics to represent them, they wanted to be taken into account. So when they deployed on the streets (and the internet) they incorporated a variety of voices. They welcomed everyone who wanted to join, and by doing so they redistributed power. This strengthened the commitment of the many enthusiastic youths participating in their movements, feeling there was a place for each of them to contribute. The way I saw it, the Chilean and Nigerian processes were much about constructing common identities (hopeful identities!) in response to democratic flaws. The possibility of a better education or the chance of young people gaining access to political power tapped on how each young individual positioned him or herself within the system. It resonated with who they were in the present and who they -and following generations- could become to be in the future. And after synchronizing on this emotional and ideological level with young citizens, the movements gave them an outlet: they could take action towards the changes their governments weren’t introducing. Coming from shared frustrations and aspirations, participants were all in it together. This at once provided and enabled unity within the movements, which organizers boosted and capitalized on. Both movements were very careful about also maintaining their narratives unified so that young people would be speaking with one voice, thus strengthening the cause. While in Nigeria the tone was purposefully set to avoid sounding like a threat for those in power, in Chile it broke clean from traditional politics, involving the rest of the country in it. Intergenerational dialogue and learning from those with experience in one case, and the idea of a common political problem that is hijacking our future in the other. They knew their audience, how they should speak to reach them and so reinforced these narratives to get the right message out there. This the Nigerians did by getting all the state coordinators together for an intense three-day training, for example. It was of utmost importance for anyone talking about #NotTooYoungToRun to phrase it correctly, lest adults listening might get the wrong idea. In Chile, they consciously chose to communicate complex political issues in easy-to-digest messages directed towards families’ empathy. To do so, they had to simplify
the content and also brand it in a way that wouldn’t share any characteristics with previous protest movements or political discourses. Here the initial communications campaign was crucial in setting the tone and the clean, modern design that would accompany the students for the following months. (There are very characteristic aesthetics for resistance in Chile which date back from the dictatorship, usually associated with historical left-wing parties.) After looking at the things young Chileans and Nigerians did I had a yearning for politics everywhere to be more like this, where individuals were truly encouraged to engage. In both countries, there was freedom of action within the movements, where Nigerians from any state could contact their representatives in the name of the campaign. Or where spontaneous groups of Chilean students with a crazy idea in the name of education could self-organize and carry it out. And tools were available for anyone appropriate the cause. By providing the necessary arguments and useful templates (letters and texts directed at legislators in Nigeria, along with their contacts, tweets and pre-designed logos and posters in Chile) anyone could become a fully armed protagonist. All the activism done with these tools would have a similar texture, no matter who or where it was coming from. This simultaneously empowered the participants and made the movements grow with one voice. Territorial decentralization was another important seal of inclusivity, one without which the Chilean movement would not have been validated by students all over the country. Early in 2011, universities from the north and the south became national spokespersons for the movement. And when mobilizations were at their peak, presidents of federations would travel every weekend to a different city for their weekly meeting. Similarly, #NotTooYoungToRun state coordinators created their own advocacy strategies according to whatever they believed would work best in their territory. The strategy team, entirely Abuja-based, trusted fully in their judgement and capacities. With the initial three-day training, these local coordinators had strengthened skills and were ready to launch their own chapters of the campaign. Of course, we cannot ignore the fact that the most important leaders of the student movement in Chile were in Santiago and the core strategy team operated in Abuja, but we should recognize these younger generations’ efforts to begin rectifying a characteristic of politics that had previously raised discontent in them. And I was happy to see that the three processes involved women as much as men in prominent positions. In the Western Balkans, youth had officially been included in the decision-making group for the creation of RYCO, so their particular inclusivity challenge was to make their voices truly representative of youth in their respective countries. After each official work session, youth delegates would go back to their countries and hold open meetings to share advancements and get civil society’s feedback before the next round. They sent emails through Google groups to gather input on specific documents, allowing for those who couldn’t join physically to send comments. They also had consultations go out to youth in the different countries. This strengthened the youth delegates’ position in the working group, since it was important for the governments to have youth organizations on board. Or else, who would participate in RYCO’s projects and grants? The whole point for the office to exist was to strengthen their work in youth cooperation and exchange. Governmental awareness
of civil society’s power to invalidate the office made it a priority to have organized youth in the countries believe in RYCO. But the governments also knew that they needed to earn that trust, which they did by empowering the youth delegates. These, in turn, strengthened their position by making sure they represented a united front. In this sense, both sides won: the governments let youth influence the process to such an extent that it made young outsiders believe the official institutions behind it. Civil society allies outside the official process also worked towards validating RYCO in the eyes of Balkan youth where they found gaps that needed to be filled. During the official agreement signing that established RYCO in Paris, for example, Youth Initiative staff saw the paradox in that they would be celebrating this great step forward -where youth would be at the center of such a great challenge as dealing with a violent history- without young people present at the event. If the political power was all in a Parisian palace far from Balkan youth, they would take the palace to them. They organized three parallel events where they transmitted the ceremony live for young people in Belgrade, Podgorica and Tirana. Previously, they had prepared videos with young people from different countries (including Croatia, who is not part of RYCO, to send a political message criticizing its absence) sharing their vision for the office. These were played in Paris earlier that day. If Youth Initiative could make youth in the region a part of this historical moment, they would do it.
Lesson 4. Have fun, think out of the box
It was difficult not to laugh, gasp or whoop from time to time, as I learned about the odd things my protagonists did to manage ways out of difficult situations o about the mind-boggling strategies they came up with to obtain their goals. They taught me that serious, traditional solutions will give you serious, traditional outcomes. If you want change what better than creativity to disrupt the status quo? In this light, the student mobilization in my country is an outstanding case study even outside the scope of youth-led advocacy. Feats that I had undervalued because I was familiar with them since 2011 really were out of this world when looked at from a professional perspective. These included a massive zombie flash mob dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” running around the presidential palace for 1800 hours -the amount of USD millions free education would cost the state-, a Genkidama from Dragon Ball Z anime in the name of education, multiple “kissathons,” Grease and other musicals with changed lyrics, Chilean folk dances on the street, satirical costumes for the marches… these are some of the things any average Chilean my age will be able to name.
The creativity displayed by my contemporaries did more than just bring smiles to passers-by. This strictly friendly form of manifestation countered the negative image that the government and the media were trying to create of the student movement, often placing the whole focus of the marches on the final clashes with the police. The thousands of peaceful participants at each march were conveniently secondary, if not ignored, in the accounts by traditional press and TV (owned by the same elite that was ruling the country at the time). While it was true that hooded demonstrators often ended up throwing stones at security forces and breaking window-shops sometimes, they were very far from being a significant percentage of the whole. Student organizers publicly insisted on the non-violent character of their invitations for marching and exposed the fact that headlines would inform of violent student mobs but remain silent on the abuses of the police. The more creative the demonstrations, the harder they were to skew –and the more interesting they became to tell in a news story. These cultural actions were attractive and relatable. They managed to catch the whole country’s attention, filling many Chileans with awe. The media, always in the lookout for greater ratings, suddenly shifted towards wanting to share the students’ performances. In this sense, they became unwilling allies, promoting a positive narrative that played a decisive role in developing the rest of the country’s empathy. Difficulties met with creativity brought Nigerians major-league political victories, like the disheartening moment when the Not Too Young To Run bill -struggling for approval from two thirds of the State Assemblies- was first voted No by Taraba State legislators. They had met several other states with success when the news arrived to raise concerns in the campaign’s strategy team. They needed to do something . They couldn’t just sit there and watch Taraba set this ominous precedent. So they decided to create a Hall of Fame to reward the State Assemblies on their side and a similar Hall of Shame to chastise those who were not. In the press conference they called that day, they made sure to highlight in green on the map all the nice State Houses who could congratulate themselves on getting it right, while isolating this one solitary territory in the East in bright red. “Shame on you who don’t support young people,” it spoke out. Their public punishment was so effective that the Taraba House Speaker afterwards called them to explain. And, coincidentally, that one state had a revote and turned out to be in favor of #NotTooYoungToRun in the end. By the end of the state procedures, the Hall of Shame remained empty. Similarly, when the rumors indicated that the constitutional amendment bill would not be voted by the National Assembly, which was equivalent to legislators killing it, the strategy team had to come up with a quick solution. Not only did they manage to organize a massive march in one week, they complemented the traditional street protest with a more personally directed one: they flooded legislators’ phones. Strategy team members couldn’t help giggling mischievously when telling me how they just kept calling and texting them, driving legislators mad. It would be impossible to ignore youth, if that had been their plan. “We heard you guys,” many parliamentarians said. The different #NotTooYoungToRun Whatsapp groups were filled with screenshots from legislators’ replies. They applied this strategy again, on a state level, when local voting was taking place. It is interesting to see how this offline innovation was escalated by social media. The creative actions in Chile were fun to watch, allowing them to go viral. Facebook and Twitter played an important role amplifying their reach by allowing massive participants join the decentralized organizers’ open calls (just like the Nigerians did) and then further disseminating their effects afterwards through retweets and shares. The Hall of Shame press conference, in turn, was streamed live so that as many people as possible would watch, including those who may miss the news that day but not their timeline. Despite Balkan protagonists’ insistence that theirs had been a very traditional advocacy strategy with nothing to describe as creative, they managed to surprise me on at least two occasions with an “if you don’t come to us we’ll go to you” attitude. When the idea of the youth office was announced, Youth Initiative had been advocating for institutional youth exchange for months. And to promote both the governments’ initiative but also their particular take on how it should be, Youth Initiative staff got on a plane and traveled for a month in what they call the “advocacy trip.” (For narrative purposes, I would’ve preferred it to have been an advocacy roadtrip. I can just picture Anita Mitic and Jasmina Lazovic riding a convertible, hair loose in the wind, a Serbian advocacy version of Thelma and Louise. But their budget allowed them to fly and even go to Brussels for the occasion, so I’ll just have to skip the pop comparison). Between September and October 2014, these two women and their local partners managed to talk to over 20 different institutions, including governments and international organizations, in 5 different countries, about a project that wasn’t even officially theirs.
In the same spirit, when the RYCO official working group held its intense five-day sessions, the Youth Initiative network found a way to make themselves present even though they weren’t invited to the conversation. They held their quarterly planification coincidentally in the same place at the same time, at least for two of the four sessions the official working group held between November 2015 and February 2016. So when everyone was done with work, Youth Initiative staff would go for beers with their friends in the working group, commenting everything that had happened during the day. This way, they were on top of every detail, every aspect that was being discussed or negotiated in the official space, providing instant feedback to their allies inside the official process.
As this journey draws to an end I look at where my dear protagonists are today. They advocated, they succeeded, what now? I am happy to see that they continue to be a source of inspiration: In the seven years that have passed since the beginning of the Chilean student movement, their demands continue to materialize into laws and programs. During Michelle Bachelet’s presidency, cost-free higher education reached the 60% most vulnerable students in Chile studying in certified-quality institutions. In the meantime, many of the 2011 and 2012 federations’ presidents shifted towards formal politics, some of them becoming parliamentarians and others running for local government or working within Bachelet’s administration. The most prominent outcome derived from the student movement is the creation of a new political party and, with it, a new coalition that in the 2017 elections obtained 20% of the presidential votes and a 20-member caucus in Congress. Now that the President has signed the NotTooYoungToRun bill making the process complete (which happened only a week ago, as I am writing this, in May 2018), the
movement has a clear horizon ahead: they want men and women their age in the House of Assembly after the 2019 elections in Nigeria. And now that the Constitution is not stopping
them, neither should lack of preparation. Promoting a new hashtag, #ReadyToRun, YIAGA is inviting youth interested in running to attend their training. They will help them become suitable candidates. If the team keeps up the quality of the efforts they have displayed so far, they have every reason to expect some degree of success next year. Almost two years since the official signature for the Balkan youth office in Paris, I’m delighted to see that RYCO continues to serve as a platform where youth can have a fruitful dialogue with the different governments involved. The governing board for the office has the same composition as the working group that designed RYCO: one half is for youth organizations’ representatives, the other is for youth ministries. And together they make all decisions concerning the 2-million-euro-budget institution now funding 34 exchange projects. Youth involved in RYCO’s structure are turning into relevant stakeholders as they become increasingly recognized authorities in their respective contexts. People in the Balkans are growing used to seeing these young men and women sharing the table with ministers. I am proud to see the young protagonists of these processes, who are my protagonists too now that I’ve written about them, armed with skills and confidence to tackle the political system with a younger, fresher, more innovative mindset. They are slowly but steadily gaining ground for my generation inside institutional walls, making our demands and recommendations legitimate. Advocacy, I conclude, lays solid foundations for youths’ insertion in formal politics. In a bigger picture, it also promotes the shift towards the participatory, inclusive democracies many of us want to see taking place in the 21st century. As I’m writing these finishing lines, I think of my protagonists. I look back on all those conversations, hours of patience on the other side of the line, allowing me to ask sets and sets of intrusive questions. I recall all the amazing anecdotes and milestones I had the privilege to picture from their testimonies and my ever-growing yearning for better democracies dares to admit signs of hope. If we connect young people from across the globe, if we learn from each other’s experience, we’ll realize that we are not, need not be, alone. Other young men and women have already struggled with, and have even overcome, similar difficulties. My protagonists’ stories will inform my work training young leaders in Latin America and will be available for other youth out there, struggling to find their way but determined to make their voices heard. With these humble words, I add a hard first stone on what I am convinced now that will continue to be my path: discovering and sharing lessons to irreversibly empower my generation to change the world.
A note of gratefulness to my interviewees, who made it possible for me to dive deep into the
Camilo Ballesteros, Gabriel Boric, Giorgio Jackson, Catalina Lamatta, Laura Palma, Nicolás Rebolledo, Nicolás Valenzuela
Mark Amaza, Ukachi Chukwu, Ibrahim Faruk, Ryan Dalton, Maryam Laushi, Cynthia Mbamalu, Bella Anne Ndubuisi, Nkiruka Nnaemego, Christopher O’Connor, Iris Navarro de Tomas
Faith Bailey, Djuro Blanusa, Marija Bulat, Ivan Djuric, Tucker Jones, Edin Koljenovic, Jasmina Lazovic, Anita Mitic, Frank Morawietz, Nicolas Moll
Reposted with author’s permission, please access original here.