How can the youth become a solution, not a problem?

Speech by Miika Tomi, UNESCO Youth Delegate of Finland, at the plenary session of the Third International Congress on Technical and Vocational Education and Training, Shanghai, 15 May 2012

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“How can the youth become a solution, not a problem?”

Dear ladies and gentlemen,

I am more than delighted to offer you the youth perspective this morning. After all, every policy recommendation, idea and concrete proposal coming out of this congress will have its most wide-ranging and direct and we impact on young people. So it is more than fair to hear what do the youth think. I am not here alone with my ideas, however. I was elected to represent the 7th UNESCO Youth Forum in Paris last fall consisting of 211 delegates coming from 127 different countries. The final report we adopted is the most representative document of the aspirations of the world youth that exists today. I will base my presentation on those recommendations.

I want to leave you with a simple idea today. The obstacle that stands between us and the solution in solving the global youth unemployment is our vision of the youth. It is that exact image that translates into educating and listening the youth in a certain way that has proven ineffective. Global youth unemployment is at its record high and young people everywhere around the world that I meet and talk with feel overly pessimistic about their future.

So how do we see the youth? There is the idealistic image and then there is the reality, but unfortunately there is no connection between the two. The idealistic image is what you see in TV and magazines when the marketing professionals are trying to sell you something. Energetic, innovative, always happy, independent, well behaved. Something I would call a “youth resource”. Then there is the reality. Youth are either a mere passive group that needs to be educated in order to keep the economy rolling or worse, a source for social unrest and instability. This is what is called a “youth burden”. Nobel peace price winner Martti Ahtisaari once said that a young, angry unemployed man is the biggest threat to world peace.

The real difficulty with these images is that they tend to become reality. Psychological studies suggest that the expectations actually have a direct guiding impact on people’s behaviour. When I was chosen as a Vice Chair of Education in the third largest city of Finland five months ago I was asked by a member of the committee in the first meeting whether I was the new high school youth representative? That person had a perception of the youth that I did not fit into. With our negative images of youth we end up wasting a tremendous global potential.

Secondly, this pessimistic vision of young people is also a challenge for our educational systems. This is especially so in terms of TVET. In no other form of schooling is it more true that education is seen as just a tool to transfer relevant knowledge and skills. A Chinese expert estimated in a UNESCO organized EFA-seminar in Beijing last month that in only 20 years the skills learned in vocational schools would become irrelevant in China, due to rapid transformation of the economic system and labour markets.  Why is it that some of the most innovative people who created whole new industries and millions of new jobs quit their studies before finishing them?

We have massive youth unemployment and dim global economic perspectives.  We need sustainable growth and only innovative solutions can take the world there. TVET has a great potential for this, yet it remains unused. The right answers are not enough. It is like a student who never became a good mathematician because he blindly believed in the answers provided at the back of the book. It did not help him that the answers were all correct.

Thirdly, we have not succeeded in listening to young people properly. Very few young people feel that their government is on their side or that they are truly listened to. According to a recent study conducted here in Shanghai, 70% of vocational high school students often feel that they are insignificant and neglected by society; indeed this is very true for most countries. Too often TVET learners especially are regarded as a group that has very little to offer to society. The simple truth is that by providing opportunities and truly listening to youth, governments strengthen social harmony in a most effective way. By not listening its youth the society teaches them to only care for themselves. Never have I heard a young person say, “I have never received any opportunities in my life but I still feel like I want to give back to the society.”

The youth of the world see three ways forward:

1) We start to see youth as experts and give them the required space to grow as citizens

2) We educate youth with life-skills so they can teach themselves

3) We provide incentives and advice for everyone to create their own jobs

Listening to youth means releasing their potential and teaching them new skills. I would like to think of it as youth crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing is a process that involves outsourcing tasks to a distributed group of people. Amazing work has been done recently through this method; including entire books, movies, music, art and so on. Not only can you have a much better final results, but the people participating start to care for it as well. They invest in it in all forms; time wise, financially and they talk about it – the best way of marketing. Youth are the experts of their own lives just like you are of yours. This means student led school participation where the adults only have a consultative role, youth-led projects on promoting green societies and building a school surroundings in collaboration with the students.

In my City of Tampere each school has a student council that sends representatives to the city youth Forum meeting that elects their council members. The council is then given 10 000 euros to distribute to the different youth projects that benefit the youth of the entire city. Everyone is free to apply for funding. The council also has representatives in all the relevant city committees in all of their meetings to give a youth perspective. The city employs a full time youth ombudsman who is responsible for promoting youth issues in the city and provides support for the youth forum. This practice was raised in the evaluation process of the European Council as a recommended practice. I am also a product of that system. In U.S.A consultative youth hearings are done regionally and youth experts employed by the government. You all have two UNESCO Youth Delegates in your countries – use their expertise too. Youth play a positive role in transforming the society. Youth are not a problem, they are a solution.

The one who can re-educate herself will be the winner in tomorrow’s labour market. The scope of education should include entrepreneurial skills and training opportunities. Through reforming our schooling system to support innovation and teaching youth to teach themselves, new industries will be created. We heard yesterday from the representative of OECD that employees in companies where they are not challenged and their skills do no therefore develop, are in a disadvantageous position. How about if every employee would learn to challenge themselves?  Maybe it is not the economists that need to create the jobs, but rather everyone: through innovation. The IT-sector is a good example of an industry where a simple idea can create a million new jobs. That is why we need to support intergenerational partnerships particularly in non-traditional fields, such as e-learning.

There are numerous independent online learning tools available nowadays. Khan academy and TED talks are good examples everyone should be familiar with. The most important task of our educational systems should be to spark the interest for self-learning and provide skills for it. We must admit that what schools can offer in the skill-level will not be enough for a lifetime of a modern person. We need to ensure access to quality formal and non-formal education, including informal education, intercultural education, values-based education and civic education, as equal parts of general education.

Incentives and advice will then lastly improve the school to work transitions. Governments should allocate resources to promising fields and offer incentives to the youth so they can develop their expertise. Youth-led initiatives promoting green societies should be especially encouraged. The German dual model is good example for illustrating how important mentoring is. When a young person meets an inspirational expert from her field, she will be better motivated to learn and will develop her skills faster when understanding why they will be relevant.

A special emphasis should be placed on offering support for marginalized youth, women, girls, children with rural and migrational backgrounds, and develop their potential as well. Why not guarantee an internship or additional training for all the youth under 25 if they graduate without a job, like some governments are now doing?

I would like to end with a story. A Sheppard finds a hole from his fence and realizes that all his beloved sheep have fled away. He departs to find them and finds them just in time before being eaten by a big wolf. He brings them home and against all the advise from the others refuses to mend the hole in the fence. As educational experts you are the shepherds. Like with these sheep, in the end it is better to let young people learn by trial and error what is best for them; rather than just fixing the fence. Truly listen to us, even if we are sometimes wrong just like you– and give us real responsibility to find our potential. That is the way to real prosperity.

Thank you, Merci, Xiexie!

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Speaking to the world

My colleague Nasma Dasser from Switzerland and I have now had the honour to hold speeches to the 195 Member States of UNESCO on seven official occasions in all the Commissions and the plenary of the 36th General Conference. We were the first people ever in history to have the chance to address all the Committees on the results of the Youth Forum. I especially enjoyed the Education Committee, since UNESCO is the educational organization of the world and this committee the place to have that debate. Both of us represent world’s youth, which counts up to half of the world’s population. That is quite a task and responsibility.

We have talked a lot about better access to quality public education, the importance of sustainable development, enhancing youth participation, gender-equality, youth-led student democracy, making youth as UNESCO’s global priority and regarding young people as co-decision-makers. You can read the recommendations in detail at the end of my previous post.

In all committees we have been welcomed in such a positive way that no one could imagine. The debate in PRX and EDU for example completely evolved around the Youth Forum and the recommendations were cheerfully accepted. Our speech at the plenary was personally thanked by the Director General Irina Bokova and many more. With the difficult situation in the global economy and UNESCO’s budget perspectives the important work is to secure the tools to implement the positive atmosphere into real action.

unesco/ foto : Thierry Rambaud

Read more and watch videos on our thoughts about the Youth Forum from this post by Martina Castigliani, an inspiring youth blogger.

http://earthands.wordpress.com/2011/11/03/the-youth-report-at-the-unesco-general-conference/

I will also attach my speech from Tuesday here:

Education Commission, Tuesday 1st October, Speech By Miika Tomi

Monsieur le Président

Les excellences,

Mesdames et Messieurs,

Today, we have the honour and pleasure to represent the voice of young people at the General Conference. My self Miika Tomi and Nasma Dasser, who is currently attending a parallel session, have been elected to represent the Final Report of the 7th UNESCO Youth Forum. The Forum was held from 17 to 20th October 2011 bringing together 211 delegates from 127 Member States around the world.

It is one of the world’s highest-level formal decision-making body for the youth and as a result we came up with 18 concrete proposals and 11 of them deal directly with education. I have been told that this commission could be interested in hearing more about them. Therefore I will take the courage to discuss access to education, gender-equality, youth-led student democracy and new learning methods to tackle the youth employment more in detail. As the youth count up to half of world’s population I hope that our recommendations will receive the weight they deserve.

Firstly, we urge Member States to ensure access to equal quality public education as a basic human right and to ensure free, universal and mandatory education to secondary level, especially in rural areas. As you might notice, we don’t settle with only the primary education but call upon free, universal and mandatory secondary level education. I believe that you are in this room for a reason and understand the necessity for this cause.

We, the youth, believe that in order to have a complete education we need access not only to quality formal education but also non-formal education. We request new approaches to be adopted in learning methods. Learning should more often be human rights-based, informal, intercultural, value-based, and civic education. E-learning is a tool that we need to better utilize as more free knowledge is available and youth have better access to it through Internet. The role of sport and arts education must be also recognized as key elements to prevent violence and to promote a culture of peace.

Secondly, we stress the importance of gender equality. We strongly request Member States to ensure women’s and girls’ empowerment, and also encourage gender equality in acquiring essential life skills, as well as including literacy and sex education. The world cannot waste half of its potential by excluding females from right to education, work and life. In Finland 56 % of the PhD students are women and for their intellectual capacity rightly so.

Thirdly, we believe that ensuring that all students at all ages must have the right to participate in youth-led student democracy at both local and national levels. Young people learn to be active or passive at an early age. Through student run school democracy they can learn to become active citizens and responsible men and women in their communities.

Lastly, In response to employment challenges, we strongly encourage Member States to expand the scope of education by including entrepreneurial skills and training opportunities, and intergenerational partnerships for youth aligned to rapidly changing labor market needs, particularly in non-traditional fields, such as e-learning. My generation is very capable of taking the initiative into its own hands as we have all read from the news. We can teach them to direct that energy in a positive manner into the construction of the society. If we fail in this task an unemployed, frustrated and disappointed young person can have a very negative impact in his community.

We are very honored to present you our recommenda­tions, as we both know that UNESCO was the first UN System agency to define and develop specific programs for youth. It has acknowledged the fact that we, young people are assets and integral parts of development processes.

Therefore we are ready to engage in a constructive discussion in order to ensure the implementation of our recommendations and to find together a solution to our world’s unprecedented challenges.

Je vous remercie!

What can young people do in order to enhance dialogue between cultures?

Speech at the meeting with UN High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations, president Jorge Sampaio of Portugal on September 6th.

What can young people do in order to enhance dialogue between cultures?

Mr. President, dear ladies and gentleman,

It is my distinct honor to address you today as we consider how young people can enhance dialogue between cultures. I am going to start by telling a story, firstly because stories are always nice to hear and secondly because this story in particular can teach us something that I believe to be essential to intercultural dialogue. I will then talk about why the human need to comprehend differences can be an opportunity at the same time as being one of the biggest challenges to peaceful co-existence between different religious, ethnical and cultural communities. Lastly, I will propose that through the comprehension of one single lesson, young people can be vital players in intercultural dialogue.

Let me start with a story from a book entitled ‘The Song of the Bird’ by Anthony de Mello, an Indian Jesuit priest who taught and studied in the U.S. and had a breadth of encounters with different cultures and religions. I believe that this story speaks to a central understanding that is essential to comprehending and improving cultural dialogue.

De Mello’s story goes like this. Nassrudd had become the Prime Minister for his king. Once he was walking though the palace when he saw the king’s hawk. Nassrudd had never seen such a bird and he fetched the scissors and cut the bird’s claws, beakand wings shorter. He concluded, “Well now you look like an proper dove! Your keeper must have mistreated you.

Nassrudd did what anyone might have done: he encountered something new, compared it with his previous knowledge, and made a conclusion based on this comparison. Upon encountering a bird that bared no resemblance to any bird he was familiar with, he concluded that something was wrong with the bird and took initiative to that end. How nice of him to make this strange bird into a beautiful and familiar dove, right?

Human beings have a deep need to comprehend the world around us, a need that is perhaps strongest of our instincts. That’s why we have so many schools, theories and religions – to give us answers to help us understand and relate to the world around us.

Sometime between 4000 and 1500 years ago a large meteorite hit what is now Estonia in Kaalijärvi. The sound and light from the impact, equivalent to a small nuclear explosion, could be seen from a radius of 700 kilometres. People at the time could not comprehend the event so they created stories that helped them explain the event and incorporate it into a comfortable understanding of life as they knew it. Some historians suggest that this might be how folklore and religion was created. Interestingly enough, biologists argue that this adaptive and explanatory ability sets us apart from animals. Evolutionarily, it is our sharp minds that have kept us alive when we have lacked sharp claws and hard shells.

The need to comprehend is deeply rooted within us. It can be greatly beneficial, but if we fail to find the reasoning to our problem, we might end up reacting just like Nassrud by concluding, “You’re so foreign that something must be wrong withyou.” I believe that this is the biggest challenge we face on the road to a peaceful and harmonic world.

Science has so far been unable to answer how gravity works or how matter and anti-matter are created. Religions that go beyond what science cannot explain acknowledge that the greatest knowledge is to know that we cannot comprehend God. The Catholic theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas says in his Summa Theologiae that theology is the most speculative of all the sciences since its source is divine knowledge, which cannot be deceived, and most of it transcends human reason. It is also said that the Buddha stubbornly refused to discuss God for this very same reason.

After having been lucky enough to live in six countries on four continents, I have developed a vast body of theories and perspectives regarding different cultures and religions. However, the more I have seen of the world, the more I have become convinced that I know very little and that it is a grave mistake to assume anything about a given culture. I have made culturally insensitive errors such as offering my food to a Muslim friend that contained pork and not buying the object I bargained for a long time in India. Always, however, was my ignorance forgiven because of the tolerance of my hosts.

Ultimately, I have found that the biggest barrier to real understanding between different cultures is in our own minds: our perceptions of what we encounter, our stereotypes and prejudices. For example, I have a French- Canadian friend who lives and works in Paris but has such a wholly negative perception of the French that it constantly stops him from making local friends.

Such an attitude does not serve anyone well in the very multicultural world we live in today. Some of the cities I lived in, especially London, Paris and Kolkata, embody this intersection of cultures and have taught me to reach beyond my perceptions. Us Finns travel more than any other nation in the world and all of us have friends from many countries – just check your Facebook. Such opportunity for travel and intercultural exchange has surely shed light for many of you here today on the importance of broadening one’s pre-conceived notions of different cultures.

At the same time as being open to learning and understanding, we naturally try to make some sort of sense out of the diverse world we live in. We build an image what a Muslim country, the U.S., Greece or China is like to serve as points of reference for our daily lives; however these images help us only if we understand that we cannot comprehend it all. Just like science or religion will not give you all the answers, cultural dialogue cannot be ruled by our images of the other but rather by true and honest communication.

Trying to fit 1.57 billion Muslims, 2.1 billion Christians, and 900 million Hindus into one frame is absolutely ridiculous. The same goes for the Americans, Chinese and Portuguese.

Knowing this, the greatest error we can make is to assume that we truly know and understand a given person, situation or entire culture and choose to intervene based on our pre-conceived notions. We then risk acting like a monkey, who upon being asked why he caught fish from the river, replied: “ I am saving the fish from drowning.” Avoiding similar nobly- intentioned yet ultimately culturally insensitive actions is the goal of improved cultural communication.

So, let’s resist the temptation to simplify and make stereotypes of our fellow cultures when we hear news about Muslim terrorists, Americans torturing inmates, the Chinese not respecting human rights, and so on. That is what I believe young people can do to enhance the dialogue between the cultures. We can be open to listening, learning and understanding that the stereotypes we are given are not true unless we make them true. Most people are good if they are simply given the chance to move beyond the perceptions.

I have a story to share to that end. When I lived in the U.S. I was once walking to change classrooms between my courses. A fellow student walking next to me clearly noticed that I was one of the few foreign exchange students in his school. He asked me: “So, you’re the exchange student, right? “ Yes, I replied. “Where are you from?” From Finland. “Oh, is that in Canada?”

To improve intercultural dialogue, I would ask young people to be like the student in my American school. He did not know where Finland was but he asked. He was very frank. He made a wrong assumption, but he made the crucial gesture of inquiring rather than acting upon his assumptions. Ignorance is perfectly okay since we all are ignorant in the end, however assuming that we know can be much more dangerous and indeed irresponsible in today’s world of increasingly intersecting cultures.

Let’s change the world by asking when we don’t know instead of acting on what we assume to know. That is the way I believe the youth of the world can make the inter-religious and intercultural dialogue more equal, open and constructive.

A column based on the speech in Finnish can be found at: http://www.ykliitto.fi/kolumni/olet_niin_erilainen_ett_jokin_on_vialla