~Looking Back~ Empowering youth for the common good — Common Ground News Service article by Nathan Render

* Nathan Render was a junior at Tufts University majoring in anthropology and child development when this article was written. At Tufts University, he was a leader of Pathways, an interfaith initiative on his campus.

*****

06 August 2013

Chicago, Illinois – What do religious extremists and interfaith youth organisers have in common? A lot more than one might think.

College students begin their search for summer internships with enthusiasm and excitement at the opportunity to make an impact. Unfortunately, many end up doing busywork, unable to share their skills and talents. Still, these overworked, underpaid students are motivated to find meaning in their jobs. Most are trying to find purpose in their lives as they transition from childhood to adolescence, and ultimately adulthood.
I have witnessed the demoralising effect this constant searching has on youth in contrast with the frequent declaration by adults that my generation is comprised of the leaders and visionaries of the future. How can youth be “leaders of tomorrow” until they are treated with respect and validity and provided with the resources and support to do so today?

Even in youth-centric institutions such as schools and community centres, young adults are often treated as an afterthought. It often seems as though society is too busy to stop and foster the growth of young people, leaving a growing gap between the meaning youth are trying to find in their lives, and the reality in which they are living. This dissonance is the reason why organisations such as Al Qaeda may appeal to struggling young adults. These organisations give youth the impression that they have a meaningful role to fulfil, empowering them to give meaning to their life.

Eboo Patel, a practicing Muslim and Executive Director of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a non-profit organisation committed to promoting religious pluralism in the world through the empowerment of young people, recognises this phenomenon. In his new book Acts of Faith, Patel writes, “Even people with the small interfaith movement generally treated young people’s involvement as a sideshow. Religious extremists didn’t view young people as an afterthought. Religious extremists saw a fire in young people that others were missing. They were stoking that fire and turning it into targeted assassination and mass murder.”

Religious extremists clearly understand and utilise the malleability of young people’s formative years to their advantage. A point often overlooked is that one of Osama Bin Laden’s keys to success is his effective youth organising ability. He employs these valuable skills to impassion vast numbers of struggling young people, connecting them to extensive social networks, teaching them the significance and relevance of their contribution, and imbuing in them an overall semblance of personal identity and purpose.
I am fortunate in that I have been able to pursue constructive opportunities where I felt valued and have formed a strong identity. Members of my communities, particularly the ones directly related to my faith, have taken the time and effort to invest in my future. In return, I have been empowered to support pluralism and contribute positively to the world I have envisioned. My experiences in high school – and now in college – have provided me with a strong foundation upon which to live my life as a pluralist and be an effective contributor to my community, my country and the world.

This summer I was blessed with the opportunity to work as an intern at the organisation Patel founded, the IFYC. The experience has provided me with yet another positively empowering community in which I can thrive, where my potential is repeatedly affirmed. Particularly influential was my work in the InterACTION youth exchange program, which encouraged interfaith and cross-cultural dialogue amongst Jordanian and American youth. In my first week as an intern, I was given the daunting task of planning all the dialogue sessions for the exchange. I then had the opportunity to participate in the program, practicing the core values of tolerance and hospitality that IFYC embodies. Most importantly, I have been given the opportunity to learn from my dynamic, intelligent and thoughtful colleagues, particularly my fellow interns.

But I know this experience is not the norm for all youth. While I have always found outlets that allow me to voice my opinions and be a vehicle for positive change, I recognise young people around the world constantly encounter resistance in their efforts to do the same.

IFYC and religious extremist organisations possess more similarities than one would first imagine, yet with one major difference: the IFYC strives to build and promote pluralism among youth through cooperative service and religious understanding. We need organisations which embody the youth-centred culture of religious extremist groups, but provide constructive, rather than destructive, opportunities for youth. Out of my experience comes what I feel is our biggest challenge – we need to explore, create and implement more opportunities like the IFYC internships to promote positive youth development and empower youth for the common good.

Source: Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews)

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