Junior youth can change the world. There is an ever-increasing recognition of this in today’s world.
Internationally, there is more attention being paid to the education and well-being of children and adolescents. Slowly, but surely, governments have started to realise that an investment in the youngest members of their countries is the best investment that they can make.
The other day, I was talking to a friend (we both work in fields related to children and community development) about a program for junior youth that we are both working on together. We sat together, sharing our ideas for the program, but as time passed, the conversation became more philosophical in nature, and we began talking about the nature of children and youth, the kind of educational and developmental experiences that they need, and the role of programs for children and youth in the broader efforts for social transformation.
Generally, I am – by far – the quieter of us two, but as I shared my views on the nature of children and youth, I found our usual roles to be reversed. There I was talking rapidly and gesticulating wildly while my friend sat quietly, listening intently and reflecting on what I was saying.
Finally, she spoke.
“Where are you getting these ideas from?” she asked. “What has inspired these ideas?”
Her question had me stumped for a moment. I hadn’t said anything – as far as I could tell – that was terribly original or earth-shatteringly inventive. But as I paused to try and understand her question, I realised what she was getting at.
“Do you remember the Junior Youth empowerment program I was telling you about last year?” I began, tentatively.
“And the study circle I participated in to train as an animator?” I ventured. “I think that shaped a lot of my ideas about the education of children and community development.”
It was only then, looking at the Junior Youth program from someone else’s perspective, that I truly realised how lucky we are, as Baha’is involved in various fields of social action. The understanding of the true spiritual reality of humans – particularly that of children and junior youth – that the Writings provide us with, combined with the Ruhi Institute’s framework for community development is, I truly believe, incredibly powerful.
Reflecting on the conversation I’d had with my friend caused me to try and remember my approach to my own involvement in social action as an individual before I became Baha’i two years ago and how that has changed since I’ve been exposed to the core activities. As I thought about how much the Writings have shaped the way I view the efforts for social transformation, I realised how much I take so many of the basic principles underpinning the Baha’i approach to social action for granted. I also realised just how revolutionary many of these concepts are!
This is definitely the case with the Junior Youth Empowerment Program.
A word of caution, however.
The watchword in all cases is humility… Message from the Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 2010
I do not mean to suggest that the Baha’i community has all the answers when it comes to social action or community development – or the education of our youth. As the House of Justice emphasised in its Ridvan message from 2010, we should not overstate the Baha’i community’s efforts in the field of social action, particularly with regards to the junior youth spiritual empowerment program, which is still in its early stages.
There is a huge amount of work that has been done by numerous individuals, communities and organisations all over the world in service of humanity and with the goal of social transformation. There is so much that we can – and should – be learning from these individuals and groups who have achieved so much already.
The strength of the Junior Youth program, I feel, isn’t necessarily in what it has achieved so far – there is so much more we have yet to learn. However, the principles underpinning the program are what I find exciting and remarkable.
While global trends project an image of this age group as problematic, lost in the throes of tumultuous physical and emotional change, unresponsive and self-consumed, the Baha’i community – in the language it employs and the approches it adopts – is moving decidedly in the opposite direction, seeing in junior youth instead altruism, an acute sense of justice, eagerness to learn about the universe and a desire to contribute to the construction of a better world. Message from the Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 2010
These principles, I truly believe, are the way of the future – the principles that I imagine society will soon see are integral to all efforts for social change and transformation, particularly with those relating to young people.
1. The spiritual education of children and youth is of paramount importance.
Society, unfortunately, remains tragically myopic when it comes to the education of its children and youth. For decades, there has been a call for governments to spend more on education and less on warfare, but sadly, political will to do so has remained lacking. There has not been a sufficient appreciation of the real value of education – much less, the value of a spiritual education.
The Writings have a great deal to say on the importance an education for all children and youth. However, according to the Baha’i understanding of education, a grounding in the various branches of knowledge – as important as that is – must be matched by a spiritual education that allows children and youth to acquire virtues.
Training in morals and good conduct is far more important than book learning. A child that is cleanly, agreeable, of good character, well-behaved – even though he be ignorant – is preferable to a child that is rude, unwashed, ill-natured, and yet becoming deeply versed in all the science and arts. The reason for this is that the child who conducts himself well, even though he be ignorant, is of benefit to others, while an ill-natured, ill-behaved child is corrupted and harmful to others, even though he be learned. If, however, the child be trained to be both learned and good, the result is light upon light. ‘Abdu’l-Baha
The spiritual education of young people isn’t just desirable – it’s of paramount importance. I often reflect on the fact that three of the Ruhi books are dedicated to building capacity for this very task! Two out of the four core activities that Baha’is are encouraged to participate in relate to spiritual education.
I think this serves to remind us that the spiritual education of children and youth is not just the responsibility of a few professionals, but of all members of society. Imagine if everyone in the world saw that work of spiritual education as being theirs. Imagine what our world would look like it children and youth had that many resources dedicated to educating and empowering them!
2. Children and youth have the power to transform the world.
The Junior Youth (JY) program is predicated on the idea that all children and youth have the potential to transform the world around them. An education based on an understanding of humans as inherently noble and being as a mine rich in gems begins with a belief that all young people have innate potential. Such an approach is based on a certainty that education of young people will result in a generation of leaders who are empowered with the skills and knowledge to serve humanity and work for the advancement of society.
It is precisely that certainty – and the high expectations of young people that come with it – that imbues the JY program with the power to inspire these young people, make connections with them and touch their hearts and lives!
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt working with children and youth, it is that young people react to your expectations of them. When your expectations are low, they sink to meet them. But when you expect great things of them, they soar.
3. Children and youth need opportunities to discover their talents.
A focus of the JY program is on ensuring that youth are able to identify what their skills and talents are – and then use those strengths for the betterment of humanity!
So much of the oft lamented teenage apathy that we hear about comes from a lack of opportunity for youth to really be engaged with issues affecting their wider community. For junior youth, who live in a world with seemingly endless and complex problems, but who often have not had the opportunity to think about how they can use their talents to make a difference, apathy is often the only alternative to being overwhelmed.
The difference between an someone who is committed to working for social transformation and someone else who seems not to care is, I feel, the belief that they have some ability to make a difference.
4. Junior youth need to develop the power of expression.
Being a teenager isn’t easy – we all remember what it was like. As children, we all still lived in our own worlds, constantly learning and discovering and being inundated by new information. As children grow up and become junior youth, they start to have the knowledge and intellect to engage with the complexity of the world they live in. However, their spiritual and emotional resources they need to truly make sense of their worlds and to navigate its complexity are still being developed.
It is crucial that junior youth are given the tools that will help them to to process their emotions, communicate their thoughts and feelings and reach out to others. This is where the power of expression comes in. Whether it is in spoken or written form, creative, artistic or musical, junior youth need to be allowed to find healthy ways to express their thoughts.
These principles have largely shaped my own ideas in my work with young people and I find it hugely exciting to see them become – slowly but surely – more widely accepted in society.
The Writings provide us with a blueprint for social transformation. The next step, however, is to engage in a process of action and reflection – learning from the collective experience of all members of society in order to practically implement the framework that the Writings have provided us with.
What are your thoughts on the core activities and how they relate to wider efforts for social transformation? Have you been involved in the JY program? Share your thoughts and stories with us!