A Message from WPDI CEO Forest Whitaker
August 12, 2020 – As one considers the wide range of impacts that COVID-19 has had on humanity, there’s a paradox. When it comes to health, young people seem to have been relatively spared by a virus whose primary target has been the health and lives of people older than 60. Yet, our youth are probably the generation to have suffered the most socio-economic consequences as a result of the pandemic.
Social distancing and quarantine have been necessary to curb the spread of the coronavirus, but have also meant an abrupt halt to the lives of millions of young women and men. Those who live in abusive homes find themselves unable to escape from their tormentors. Those who have been unable to attend school in person have suffered from incomplete educations. Those who have unstable access to internet have been especially hurt, as they’ve struggled to learn online and connect with others. The youth who graduated in 2020 must now find internships or first jobs in order to begin their lives as professionals, but are faced with a world that has seen its job market shrink dramatically. Beyond these material consequences of the pandemic, young people have had to confront restrictions on their physical interactions with friends and social groups, which causes distress and trauma.
As a transition from childhood to adulthood, adolescence is a delicate phase of life when we learn how to fend for ourselves and become an autonomous person. This experience is different for each youth, but it doesn’t have to be a solitary journey. Youth know this intrinsically, as they seek out peers and discover safe spaces for themselves. Mentors from older generations can help on the path to self-confidence and empowerment. Through my foundation, the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative (WPDI), I have been aiming at such a goal, working with young people from vulnerable and violence-affected places in Mexico, South Africa, South Sudan, Uganda, and the United States. This is a very diverse array of young people: some are former gang members and others are former child soldiers, some have grown up in refugee camps and others have been raised in dire poverty. They are all unique individuals with their own perspectives on life. Yet, they share a common need: time and to be trusted. Empowering young people and partnering to help them help humanity starts with simple things that many adults may overlook.
In the coming months and years, we will need to pay extra attention to our youth and make special efforts to ensure that we do not fail the current generation’s capacity to make the world a better place. This is why the UN has themed the 2020 International Youth Day “Youth Engagement for Global Action.” At this time, it is truly crucial “to highlight the ways in which the engagement of young people at the local, national and global levels is enriching national and multilateral institutions and processes, as well as draw lessons on how their representation and engagement in formal institutional politics can be significantly enhanced.”
Our attitudes towards the current youth generation will be one of the most important tests of our era, as it will ultimately reveal whether or not we believe in our future. At the end of the day, it seems to me that the most critical thing young people need is for us to genuinely listen to them and work alongside them to take action, and in doing so, show that they have our trust. I’m consistently impressed by the youth that I meet all around the world, and I know that we have a great generation in the making.
In the past years, youth have grown more and more socially active and committed. We have seen this in the past years through movements against gun violence and police violence, through movements for the expansion of LGBTQ rights, and through movements about the climate (as manifest in youth support of Greta Thunberg). The energy of this youth generation has also been palpable in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, when so many black and white youth demonstrated together to voice their ambitions and demand a more just and equal society. In fact, the ordeals of COVID-19 have been an opportunity for many of them to reflect deeply on the world, determining what they expect from it and what they wish to accomplish. In our efforts to help youth through these immensely complicated times, we cannot be satisfied with rebuilding things as they were before the pandemic. We need to aim for better. This can only be accomplished through our trust of the current youth generation. We must listen to this voice of today and tomorrow, and act upon what we hear.