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Amber Spalek column: Empowering youth at home and around the world: Here’s how we can do it
Peace and Security

Amber Spalek column: Empowering youth at home and around the world: Here’s how we can do it

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Everywhere you look, young people are working to build peace and justice in their communities in the United States and around the world. With International Day of Peace coming up on Sept. 21, there’s no better time to turn our attention to the young people tirelessly working in pursuit of peace.

The young people leading the Black Lives Matter movement? Check.

Greta Thunberg rallying to take action against climate change? Check.

The Parkland students working to combat gun violence? Check.

Malala Yousafzai advocating for girls’ access to education? Check.

These young leaders have proven their ability to make our world a better place. But how can we support other young activists looking to do the same in their communities?

In March, the bipartisan Youth, Peace and Security Act (H.R. 6174) was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by U.S. Reps. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., Susan Brooks, R-Ind., Dean Phillips, D-Minn., and John Curtis, R-Utah. A Senate version is expected to be introduced soon. The bill would require the U.S. to implement a comprehensive policy to promote the inclusion of youth in peace building. Too often, young people are excluded from conversations about peace and security. Youth often are perceived as being too naïve or inexperienced to be a part of these important conversations, even though the issues directly affect them. By investing in the world’s youth, the U.S. will empower young people to become active agents for positive change. After all, they are the ones that current policy and peace agreements will affect.

Youth across the world, including in Richmond, are living under the governance of people who have been in power for decades before we were even born. President Donald Trump is 74 years old; the average age of a congressperson is nearly 60. If Joe Biden is elected, he’ll be the oldest U.S. president ever. In Richmond, the average age of a legislator at the state Capitol is 54 and Gov. Ralph Northam is 60. Yet, nearly half the U.S. population now is millennial or younger.

Young people are not content to complacently accept the world that we were born into, and we will not wait for those in positions of power to hand their power over to us. Groups like the Virginia Student Power Network are advocating for justice on their campuses and at the state level. They are working to have the voices and interests of young people in Richmond and the commonwealth be heard. The dismissal of youth as forces for change occurs at local, national and global levels. The global youth population is 1.85 billion. One in 4 live in conflict-affected countries. Youth are the key actors working toward building peace in their communities.

During a Peace Direct #peacetalks event in June, Saba and Gulalai Ismail shared their experience working as young peace builders in Pakistan. They were raised witnessing the mistreatment of women and the rise of extremist ideologies in Pakistan firsthand. They were not willing to placidly accept this. So, they founded Aware Girls to advocate for girls’ human rights and empower young female leaders in Pakistan. Saba and Gulalai are prime examples of why empowering youth is vital to the promotion of peace. Youth have the vision to challenge the status quo, become active agents for positive change and break the cycle of violence.

U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine should demonstrate their support for young people building peace by supporting the Youth, Peace and Security bill, and U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, should become a cosponsor of the bill in the House of Representatives. In a time when U.S. leadership is waning, it is imperative that our legislators lend their support to initiatives like the Youth, Peace and Security Act.

For too long, we have allowed the opinions and needs of young people to be overshadowed and overlooked. Here is our chance to do something about it.

Amber Spalek is a Richmond native and a current intern at Peace Direct. She attends George Mason University, where she studies global affairs and Mandarin Chinese. Contact her at: aspalek@gmu.edu

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