When President Barack Obama was inaugurated this month for a second term, it
was in large part due to the youth vote. According to the Tufts University-based Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), which conducts research on the civic and political engagement of young Americans, 23 million Americans between the ages of 18-29, or approximately 50 percent of that demographic, voted in the election on November 6, 2012. CIRCLE further reports that 60 percent of those young Americans voted for President Obama over Governor Mitt Romney. Tellingly, had Romney won half the youth vote in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, or had young people abstained from voting there, not only would Romney have won those battleground states but he also would have won the presidency.
In addition to domestic American politics, youth are increasingly critical to international affairs. Indeed, the Diplomatic Courier has dedicated an annual issue since September 2011 to exploring challenges, aspirations, and behaviors of the Millennial Generation: those individuals born between the late-1970s and the early-2000s. As part of the first such issue, the Diplomatic Courier, in partnership with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, launched a yearly list of the Top 99 Foreign Policy Leaders under the age of 33 (99ers) to highlight examples of the impact young people can and do make.
One of the fields in which youth have exerted significant influence is social
entrepreneurship, or innovative ventures—whether for-profit, not-for-profit, or some
combination—that seek to benefit society. My new book, Social Entrepreneurship in the Age of Atrocities: Changing Our World, provides firsthand accounts and reflections about social entrepreneurship from visionaries, practitioners, and theorists. The book aims to clarify and illustrate the concept of social entrepreneurship, particularly as it relates to genocide and other atrocities. In addition, the book examines challenges, obstacles, and opportunities in the field and lends new insight to the phenomenon, history, and methodologies of social entrepreneurship. Social Entrepreneurship in the Age of Atrocities features case studies profiling some of the most innovative and impactful social enterprises, including Americans for Informed Democracy, Asylum Access, Children of Abraham, Generation Rwanda, Indego Africa (of which both the past—Ben Stone—and present—Conor French—CEOs are 99ers), the Kigali Public Library, the National Vision for Sierra Leone, and Orphans Against AIDS.
Social enterprises, including each venture profiled in this book, are often founded,
led, and staffed by young people. While people of all ages and experience levels are
engaged in social entrepreneurship, youthfulness often provides the requisite time,
idealism, energy, enthusiasm, and boldness to launch a social enterprise. Bill Drayton—the founder and CEO of Ashoka, the premier global association of leading social entrepreneurs—and Cheryl Dorsey—the president of Echoing Green, which provides strategic and financial support to select social entrepreneurs—emphasize these dynamics in the book’s Foreword and Afterword, respectively. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has similarly noted: “Youth are uniquely equipped to change the world because they dream. They choose not to accept what is, but to imagine what might be.”
Yet these efforts by youth are not always viewed positively. Guidance counselors
often criticize students—and parents are often frustrated by their children—for
possessing vague aspirations for their future, such as “wanting to help people.”
Compared to many of their peers’ meticulously planned careers, young social
entrepreneurs do not necessarily strive for linear professional paths. Despite adult
criticism about unorthodox plans, adolescents should cultivate these instincts and feel encouraged. As youth learn about the world’s needs and develop skills, they will be ready to apply their knowledge and expertise when they confront problems and
opportunities that inspire them to act in concrete ways.
While social entrepreneurship has become increasingly professionalized, such
activities may also be performed and treated as a “hobby,” especially among such
young, socially conscious individuals. Young people often start off as part-time, extracurricular social entrepreneurs and may or may not eventually pursue the field full-time. Youth—with their ever-changing interests and priorities—often exercise little patience and long-term commitment. Since the broader goals of social enterprises may take longer than even a lifetime to accomplish, such ventures must feature leaders who are dedicated to prolonged participation or who develop and implement realistic succession plans.
Furthermore, young leaders are sometimes naïve, immature, undisciplined,
inexperienced, and ignorant in ways that may be harmful or even catastrophic to an
organization. Therefore, social enterprises requiring a relatively large amount of
knowledge, diplomacy, or sensitivity may also require a greater dose of “adult
supervision,” which can mean incorporating an experienced, engaged Executive
Director and/or Board of Directors/Trustees/Advisers into the organization. While we
should not doubt the vigor of youth, we should remember to learn from the wisdom of
In addition to the fact that the book’s profiled social enterprises are run, at least in
part, by young people, these ventures also focus primarily on aiding young people.
Children of Abraham targeted youth between the ages of 15 and 20. Generation
Rwanda and Orphans Against AIDS both concentrate on orphans and others who have not yet completed their education. Americans for Informed Democracy aims its
awareness-raising and training efforts at American youth. The Kigali Public Library’s
mission includes serving children’s educational needs. The National Vision for Sierra
Leone used its exhibit as a forum for educational activities benefiting children in school and youth groups. Asylum Access has provided legal assistance to young people, including those in danger of being forced to become child soldiers. Indego Africa’s efforts have enabled more of its partner cooperative members’ children (some of whom were born of rape from the 1994 Rwandan genocide) to attend school.
Why are these social enterprises so focused on youth? Because the social
entrepreneurs profiled in this book are young, they naturally gravitate toward their peer age group. Furthermore, young people play a critical role in the international arena. Children of Abraham underscores this point, which may be especially acute in the minds of young social entrepreneurs. Noting that young people comprise the majority of terrorists and soldiers throughout the world, Children of Abraham observes in the book: “With their capacity to inflict harm and inspire hope, young people should be seen as central actors on the global stage.” Moreover, young people, even if they are not central actors now, will grow up to be integral. Americans for Informed Democracy and the Kigali Public Library both stress in the book that young people are future leaders and so must be a focal point for change in the present.
Due to a reduction in infant mortality amidst societies with consistently high
fertility rates, much of the developing world currently faces a “youth bulge,” or a
disproportionately large share of young people in the population. For example,
according to the World Bank’s former chief economist, nearly 70 percent of the
population in Africa (both North and sub-Saharan) is under 30. Because of this
demographic stratum’s sheer size, its current and future impact on political and
economic stability, and its potential to promote positive social change, President Obama and other world leaders must continue to engage young people constructively. (U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s creation of the Office of Global Youth Issues—the former director of which, Ronan Farrow, is also a 99er—was a positive step in this direction.) At the same time, youth themselves must seize every possible opportunity to be productive changemakers.
Zachary D. Kaufman, J.D., Ph.D., is a Fellow at Yale Law School, at Yale School of
Management's Program on Social Enterprise. Diplomatic Courier's January/February 2013