Violently assaulted by a group of girls she had never met before, Kathryn Kinley, a high school student, was wounded both physically and emotionally. While recovering in the hospital, friends discovered the identity of the attackers and offered to retaliate against the group. Realizing that lashing out wouldn’t make her feel better or safer, Kathryn declined their offer. She knew it would only lead to more wounds, while still leaving her one burning question unanswered: Why?
Instead, Kathryn gathered the courage to take more meaningful action. She started talking to other students about what was at the root of youth violence in their small Winnipeg community. Together, they were able to identify key factors like racism, poverty, boredom, and stereotypes, and began to raise awareness of the connection.
They eventually took their concerns to the government. Kathryn is now a member of the Manitoba Youth Parliament, and is working to influence policy at that level. Speaking out about the issue helped her regain the confidence she lost in the attack, letting one of her most difficult life experiences inspire leadership, growth, and social change.
Many of you, like Kathryn, are confronted with problems at some point that make you frustrated and angry at the world: you’ve felt unsafe walking home, noticed garbage littering the parks that you spend time in, been bullied or seen a fight at school that could have been resolved peacefully. But what can you do?
Thousands of young people are learning that change begins when you find an issue that means something to you, educate yourself about it, spread your message to others and organize to create a solution that makes sense. When you approach these steps with passion, conviction, and a lot of heart, there is no goal you can’t achieve. At the root of all social change is also a willingness to change your own attitudes and ideas. This was something that Sheena Kamal, a youth activist in Toronto, had to do in order to help street kids in her city. She realized that before she could help them, she needed to understand them and their experiences.
So, Sheena invited two speakers, who each at one time had been homeless, to help a group of her friends compile a list of useful items to include in a basic living kit.She then arranged for the group to go on street runs to provide these kits to the homeless, and to learn about what life on the street was like, and what it means to be poor. They also had the chance to interact with the homeless and to develop friendships. This willingness to reach beyond their own experiences is what made the project so successful, and is an important part of building a better world.
There may be moments during a campaign when you feel overwhelmed or discouraged. This is natural. A better world does not happen overnight, and getting involved in social issues often means taking risks, going against what is popular, and putting yourself on the line. Chances are, you will encounter some opposition along the way.
This is what Jean Domenic Levesque-Rene discovered when he first began his fight to ban pesticide use in Quebec. After discovering its link to his own cancer and that of many other children in his hospital ward, Jean Domenic organized a youth demonstration calling for a ban on pesticides and repeatedly brought his request to town hall meetings. Although initially ignored by legislators, he pressed for a scientific study to be conducted, which eventually confirmed his research. He then coordinated letter-writing and petition campaigns, and went on to speak to various associations, students’ groups, and government officials. After a long six-year struggle, the Minister of the Environment of Quebec finally banned the non-essential use of pesticides on Quebec lawns and public green spaces—passing the strongest law in the world concerning health and the environment.
Change can begin and grow from a single person, a single idea, a single hope for a better future. There exist limitless possibilities for change that have not yet been explored. Every person has the potential to come up with a unique solution, with a new way to make a difference. What will yours be?
How to make it happen!
1. Choose an issue. Choose one that is close to your heart. This is the key to unlocking your passion, and to starting a project that you are committed to seeing through.
2. Do your research. Use a variety of sources of information, such as newspapers, libraries, the Internet and community organizations. Share your knowledge with your friends, family, classmates and community. Educate others during class discussions, lunchtime conversation, speeches at schools, and community or city assemblies.
3. Build a team. When you are working with a team of people who are committed to your cause, you are sure to accomplish more. Start building your network by encouraging your friends, teachers, and family members to join your effort. Publicize your cause at school, religious gatherings, community centers, malls etc.
4. Hold a meeting. Meetings are a forum for the exchange of different ideas about the issue, as well as possible solutions and action plans.
5. Make a plan of action. This will be your guide to making a difference. It should define your goal, how you plan to get there, and how you will finance your project.
6. Take action and then review. Choose an action that reflects your values. Common actions include using pamphlets, letters, petitions, and holding demonstrations, rallies, street theatre, speeches, visits to a public official, press conferences, volunteering, etc.
7. Have fun! Getting involved in social issues is a way to bring the best of yourself to the world. Celebrate your efforts and victories!
Kids Can Free the Children and Leaders Today are two global organizations dedicated to youth empowerment and active citizenship. They have supported thousands of young people in their efforts to become actively involved in social issues and in transforming their frustration and anger into passion and concrete change. Taking action in this way is the difference between living in a world that just happens to you and creating the world that you want.
And then there’s the book:
Take Action! A Guide to Active Citizenship by Marc and Craig Keilburger published by Nelson Canada