Each-one-reach-one: The power of positive youth role models (gold YOUTH)

Desiré Peters is the Chief Programme Operations Officer at gold Youth Development Agency.

Young people. How do we approach this category, this stereotype, this force of strength, energy, and insight?

Concepts such as intervention, youth development, and youth empowerment, are often surrounded by sensitivities that can shipwreck any good intentions. Working in this space, you have to be cognisant of these questions: “How do I create change? What actually works? Am I forcing my own agenda? Am I being patronising?” At gold Youth, we know that as much as we want to give young people what we think they need to thrive, we certainly don’t want to undermine the power of what they already have to give.

For this reason, we believe in youth being role models for youth. At gold Youth we create jobs for out-of-school facilitators, train and mentor them to train and mentor teenage peer educators, who in turn influence their peers and community. This is the power of positive peer pressure: allowing young people to grasp the value of who they are, and spread the change themselves.

Stats SA’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey for the first quarter of 2020 states that there are about 20.4 million people in South Africa who are 15–34 years’ old. That’s nearly 35% of the population. Those between 15–24 years are the most vulnerable in the South African labour market, as the current unemployment rate among this age group is 59%. These young people’s households have also been dramatically affected by Covid-19. In the 2020 Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey Report, two of every five adults reported that their household lost its main source of income since lockdown started, which has had devastating consequences for food insecurity and household hunger. Of the interviewed adults, 47% reported that their household ran out of money to buy food by April.

How do we even approach the urgency and scale of the situation?  Instead of seeing young people in crisis, we see young people as the solution. A testimony from one of our teenage peer educators: “I used to get drunk and smoke weed. My grades dropped because I would dodge school for weeks at a time. But when I saw my mom in tears because I was drunk and high, I realised I had to change. I joined the gold Youth programme, started going to church and got a mentor. He also used to smoke and drink before, but now he’s helping kids like me to stop and change our lives. The sessions have helped me to look at what I want in life: I want to make my dreams come true and make my parents proud.”  Another one says: “When my mother died, my gold Youth facilitator gave me hope and kept me sane. I’ve changed a lot since I started the programme: I’m more open, I’m studying hard now, and I have improved self-confidence.”

This is the currency of hope: It’s an each-one-reach-one solution. At gold Youth we long to see broken systems change, by creating a movement to embed long term peer role models and mentors into all schools and communities. We want to see young people across Sub-Saharan Africa assume the role of empowering themselves and their peers to become the ethical leaders of tomorrow as a recognised way to improve social behaviour, education and job creation.

We see the role of young people to #buildbackbetter clearly:

  • First, by leading in adaptability, grit and resilience.

Even though formal education has been compromised during lockdown, innovation has thrived and young people have adapted. gold Youth (alongside many other players) has continued peer education activities, mentoring and support through various channels. We need to be prepared for a future in which education is different to what it is now. Already about 60% of African youth are not enrolled in secondary school. Let’s follow the lead of our young people in exploring varied ways of learning.

  • Second, by championing enterprise and self-employment.

The unemployment crisis we find ourselves in requires innovation in our local economies. gold Youth is supporting these to flourish by incubating youth-led micro-businesses as a scalable job creation platform. We’re including our youth in creating solutions and food security, power security and financial inclusion, and strengthening micro-economies from the ground up.

  • Third, by living the message.

At gold Youth we believe that the message giver is the strongest message. Education is not only about information: none of us change with information alone. We change when people around us change. Our youth are powerful message “livers” and message givers. This is the fullness of education.

In closing, I’d like to issue a personal challenge: Are you engaging in your personal and work capacity with this deep well of strength, innovation and vision that is the young people of our country? Of course there are risks involved, but the rewards are worth it. Let us all embrace the philosophy of each-one-reach-one, and unleash the power of South Africa’s youth.

This talk was presented at Nation Builder’s 6th annual In Good Company conference (September 2020) which looked at “building back better”.