December 10, 2018

How adults can empower youth

The grown-ups in this youth activist's life have inspired her to make a difference in the world.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

I grew up in an environment that dismissed the idea that youth are the leaders of tomorrow, and instead encouraged youth to be the leaders of today. It was a mindset that made me feel empowered to make a difference in the world.

That’s what led me, at just 11 years of age, to launch my own fundraising campaign: “Climbing Mountains for Girls’ Education.” By climbing physical mountains, my goal was to combat a mountain of injustice—that of girls’ unequal access to education. I raised funds for WE Charity’s two all-girls schools in Kenya, with the hope of raising awareness of the human right to education for women and girls.

My parents, teachers and other adult members of my community helped me develop the skills I’ve needed to become a leader and activist.

The adults in my life valued my passion for change, my opinions and my overall work as an activist.

For those looking to encourage other young people to make a difference in the world, I share the following five key steps:

1. Encourage youth to stay up-to-date on current events.

Current events can spark a passion for social justice. My desire to do something began when I was watching the news and learned about the shooting of Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani schoolgirl. The fact that she’d been targeted by an extremist group for speaking out about the right to education inspired me to begin campaigning for equal access to education. As I sat watching Malala’s story on TV, I felt shocked and upset, and motivated to want to make change in the world. It was my keeping up with current events that was pivotal in starting my journey toward social activism. It changed my perspective and understanding of the world around me. By encouraging youth to stay up-to-date on current events, adults can expose them to unjust social issues that they can currently, or in the future, work toward changing.

2. Eliminate taboo topics.

When first becoming interested in human rights, I realized that discussions on certain world issues were often put aside because they were considered somewhat taboo, or they were too controversial, negative, political or generally uncomfortable. However, by not discussing these topics, adults are discouraging youth from educating themselves and becoming involved in these very important issues. In my own home, I was always encouraged to discuss and ask questions about any world issues in order to become more educated. This included when I was learning about equal access to education, which my parents encouraged me to research and discuss further, paving the way for me to become an activist on the topic. If it weren’t for that openness, it’s possible that I would never have campaigned for equal access to education for women and girls. I therefore encourage all adults to expose youth to world issues so they can become educated about them.

3. Teach important life skills alongside academic skills.

In school, youth learn many important academic skills that they’ll use in the workforce, like a strong work ethic, organization, self-regulation, etc. At home, they learn practical skills like cooking, morals, and ethics. But what about the skills for self-development, such as leadership, critical thinking, finding one’s own voice and risk-taking? Coming from a home that always encouraged concepts like these allowed me to formulate my own ideas, plans, and opinions. It helped shape me as a leader and make me independent. Planning campaigns with WE Charity was made easier because I already had the necessary skills to do so. Helping youth to develop these skills can help them develop into change-makers!

4. Enable youth to explore their passions.

Life in the classroom and at home can get so incredibly busy, but it’s important to give youth some flexibility to develop their passions and explore them in school and at home. If it wasn’t for my teachers giving me time to discuss gender equality with my peers in class, my fundraising would have been much less successful because I wouldn’t have gotten my school community’s support. Additionally, being given time and space to explore my passion in school gave me the motivation and support from my teachers and classmates to continue my work! Allowing time for youth to explore and learn about their passions can help them learn how to formulate plans in a positive way.

5. Value the aspirations of youth.

The adults in my life valued my passion for change, my opinions and my overall work as an activist. The support I received from parents, teachers, and family friends helped push me through all the difficulties I faced. Times when I felt scared or helpless, because I was so young and had doubts about being seen as a leader, were made better because I knew that adults valued my contributions to making the world a better place. Adults who show they appreciate the efforts of youth can make a huge difference in their confidence and can encourage them to want to continue working to “be the change [they] wish to see in the world” (as Gandhi said). So, I highly encourage adults to show the youth in their lives that they value their contributions to our global community and their work as leaders, even if it’s just verbal appreciation. A little encouragement from an adult can go a long way.

These five steps taken by the adults in my life have been essential in my journey toward becoming an activist. If you are a parent, teacher, coach or community influencer, I encourage you to employ them with the youth in your life to help create our future leaders.

This essay first appeared on

Chiara Picao

Chiara Picao has been fundraising for girls’ education since she was 11 years old. She is an active supporter of WE Charities.