During a recent visit to Zimbabwe, Restless Development’s CEO Perry Maddox had the opportunity to learn from a group of young people leading wide range of programmes with communities to address the issues that matter most to young Zimbabweans.
“I had no confidence,” said Tinashe, describing how he once felt as a young man. Since he started volunteering as a young leader, mobilising young people and his own community to tackle HIV, he began to see a change in himself as well. Dressed in a sharp pink blazer and bow tie, he explained in a soft voice, “I have now influenced people, I am able to motivate others. People see me as a role model and want to learn how to do what they see me doing.”
What was a personal highlight, I asked him. “Presenting our research to a room of MPs,” he responded. He explained how he and fellow young Zimbabwean volunteers led change in semi-urban communities through community dialogues, lessons taught to young people both in and outside of school, partnerships with health service providers, and grassroots research. They identified key gaps that were slowing efforts to address the challenge of HIV. Lack of access to health information and lack of access to youth-friendly services featured, as did youth unemployment and lack of access to capital. Putting these insights together, they shared their findings with health service providers and government alike to help them improve their work.
Describing these same activities and partnerships, fellow young leader Penina went on to describe how they led “comprehensive sexuality education” and a “multi-sectoral approach” – her words, not mine – with more clarity than most of the development ‘experts’ who use this jargon daily.
That’s the point. These are the experts. Not the folks sitting at desks in London, New York or even Harare.
Behind a beaming smile, she continued to explain how young leaders were mobilising their communities to partner with – not advocate at – service providers and government to improve sexual and reproductive health services at local clinics while helping government to improve delivery of health policies at large. The name of the programme – Peak Youth Tackling HIV – couldn’t be more apt.
Michelle, a trained lawyer and young advocate working with Deaf Zimbabwe Trust, explained how they partnered with Restless Development to support young deaf people not simply to benefit from programmes but to lead them. Conducting grassroots research on the barriers that young people living with disabilities face in accessing basic health services, young researchers Tariro and Eugene explained, “they think we are asexual, that we shouldn’t be having sex. Or they just give deaf people a flyer to read when we go to the clinic.”
Michelle reflected on the challenges they’d encountered in communities and with partners influenced by their research, but also on what they’d learned personally. I was humbled and inspired to hear them reflect on their personal learning through leading this work, notably how they overcame the communication challenges in reaching out to people with different disabilities to draw out their often excluded voices and insights.
Marshall echoed Tinashe, “I had no confidence before. I found joy in helping others.” When I asked his favourite part, he explained “using my skills to analyse the data and to adapt our programmes for better results.”
These are not beneficiaries of some development programme. They are leaders in every right.
“There’s this restless thing that stays in you” explained Kudzai about the impact she felt after working on her third programme with us, “you’re more confident, more self-aware, and always looking for how that youth angle can improve things.”
That youth angle. Not running programmes to help youth, but tapping into the power of young people to lead change, mobilising their communities and partners for better outcomes for all. In an era of Peak Youth, when the largest youth generation in history is alive with 9 in 10 living in the developing world, the youth angle offers tremendous, yet largely, untapped potential to change the world.
These are the young leaders making it happen already.