Some say that youth is wasted on the young. But rapid developments in education mean students are taking action and making themselves heard.

A group of 65 representatives of international NGOs sit in a hall, waiting to hear the opening speech for an event. At the appointed time, the speaker, “Linda”, steps onto the podium, checks the microphone, smiles demurely at her audience and begins.

In fluent English, she lists the many reasons people should pay more attention to protecting wild animals. She talks at length about the sad fact that no place on Earth is safe enough for these animals to roam, and laments how human consumerism has caused the depletion of species. She floats several solutions – not eating meat, banning hunting – and expresses the hope that in the near future “humans can learn to respect nature and all its wonders”.

Linda is 14.

The Indonesian teenager attends an international school in North Jakarta. In November 2010, she joined the school’s debate team and participated in Walk-a-Thon, a charity event sponsored by local companies and members of the school’s Parent Teacher Association to raise awareness about environmental hazards.

“I don’t think it’s too much for students my age to start learning about the real world, because it’s better to know these things now than when it’s too late,” says Linda.

Timothy Carr, head of Jakarta International School (JIS) in South Jakarta, agrees that there is a need to empower young people to make their way in the world.

“People are excited to see young people stepping up and taking responsibilities,” he says. “The role of a school, as an institution, has changed considerably in the last decade. We’re less focused on pure academics and more on how the students are going to transition into the world of the future.”

Real World, Real Issues

The “Internet Generation”, the “Facebook Generation” or the “Miracle Generation” – such are some of the labels given to today’s youth by Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University, in an article in TIME in February about the youth-driven revolution in the Arab world. In discussing how power and youth have reshaped our understanding of the world, Nafaa described the current movement as political change that suggests to the global community that youths are taking things into their own hands because they can no longer trust the older generation to do it for them.

The kids are doing it for themselves. And they are all right.

“If you had said some years ago that my students would be responsible for democratic change in Egypt, I would have laughed,” Nafaa is quoted as saying.

Parents, educators and guardian figures alike are largely in awe of the way students today are grappling with real-world issues, whether demanding protection of wild animals or political change. The fact that today’s youth is empowered and emboldened by the availability of information (and the speed with which it travels) cannot be disputed. Knowledge is perhaps the most powerful tool for effecting change, followed closely by the Internet.

“What is happening right now is we are focusing on getting students to take more ownership of their education,” says Carr. “We want them to play an active role in what they learn and how they learn it.”

Power of Youth

One way to do this is through the GIN (Global Issues Network) movement, which encourages students to “work internationally with their peers to develop solutions for global issues”. The movement is largely inspired by Jean-François Rischard’s book, High Noon: Twenty Global Problems, Twenty Years to Solve Them.

The book, which was published in 2003 and went on to become a bestseller, divides the world’s most pressing issues into three camps: sharing our planet, sharing our humanity and sharing our rulebook. Each camp corresponds to several specific issues, such as water shortages, depletion of fisheries, the digital divide and reinventing taxation.

Carr claims that young people understand the importance of taking certain matters into their own hands and contributing to the cause of making the world a better place. At JIS, middle school students are already engaged in the simple act of reducing their carbon footprint by cutting down their use of paper and recycling trash; high-school students are actively reaching out to surrounding communities and raising funds to pay for community outreach programs of their own design.

“The students understand that no one else is going to do this for them,” says Carr. “So they have to do it themselves – now.”

This means empowering young people, and trusting them with that power.

“As educators, it’s essential for us to introduce the values of encouragement and power to the students,” says Carr, who is also head of EARCOS (East Asia Regional Council of Schools), an organization that sponsors GIN to support student learning. “They have to be active global citizens; and that means they’re actively thinking about it and trying to make a difference while they’re students at the school.”

High Tolerance

Another global organization encouraging youth proactivity is CISV International, which promotes world peace via cross-cultural understanding and team-building. Founded in 1951, it operates in more than 80 countries around the world and works in tandem with UNESCO. Each year, massive exchanges take place as international students enroll in programs established by CISV, from Brazil to France to India to Indonesia. So far, more than 165,000 delegates have participated in the programs.

“The programs are aimed toward empowering young students to have a better understanding of the world through intercultural studies,” says Herlina Sandi, a program leader who has been actively involved in CISV Indonesia for the past four years.

“We teach them what it means to build something together with others who have different values and traits; and we raise the bar really high on tolerance.”

A great example of setting the bar high on tolerance, according to Herlina, is when the students are asked to build, in teams, their own “villages” using clay and sometimes Lego – only to have them destroyed later on by the leaders. It is cruel, perhaps, but the lesson behind it is that bad and unjust things happen and they have to learn how to rebuild something out of nothing.

“Each program is designed in a specific way for students of certain age groups,” says Herlina. “And students are encouraged to question the things they are asked to do as well as the things they observe. This way we are able to measure their process of understanding.”

The organization is based on the strongly held belief of its founder, Dr. Doris Twitchell Allen, that people are never too young to learn about peace and how to apply it in the real world.

“In the past, children were expected to grow up and create their own values of the world,” says Herlina. “It doesn’t work that way. We have to mold them and instill in them these values that we want them to have as they are growing up.”

As Carr notes, this begins in school.

“We have to give students the skills to consume, digest and apply their knowledge,” he says. “It means changing some of the fundamental understanding of what schools are about. And we’re just starting the conversion process.”

At the end of the event, Linda steps off the podium and is congratulated by the school principal, teachers and the NGO representatives. She is full of smiles and a little nervous, but for a 14-year-old she seems to know exactly what she is doing and why she is doing it.

“If we can make a difference in the world and are given the opportunity to do so, I think we should take that opportunity and give it our best shot.”