From Apathy to Activism
Sabhanaz Rashid Diya
A couple of nights earlier, I received a buzzing call around 3AM. One of our members at 1° Initiative wanted to discuss an idea with me it couldn't wait. On any ordinary day, this would sound rather strange, but given the fact he and I are on two different time zones, I figured social innovation had no room for simple mathematics then. Good work needed to be done now, and I better wake up to my senses and start listening.
Large groups of volunteers may be easy to mobilise, but tapping their enthusiasm to long
term actions is always challenging. Photo: Umer Aiman Khan
It wasn't, however the late night call that led to this piece, rather the bubbling enthusiasm behind it that got me thinking. Even ten years earlier, young people getting proactively involved in community and social service would have seemed a laughable daydream, and now it's the most happening thing around. With the multitudes of youth-run or youth-focused organizations and projects in the country, a communal revolution doesn't seem too far off. Everyone, in their own capacity seems to be involved with one or more 'causes' and volunteerism is just as popular as underground music.
Which leads to the most important question is this newfound and profound sense of responsibility here to stay? A friend recently shared a note on Facebook, explaining the fine differences between volunteerism and activism, and how volunteers tend to burn out when 'real life' calls. It's not unsurprising, volunteers by definition are a floating mass of people they are designed to contribute actively over a short period of time. The challenge lies with transforming this fluid crowd into informed active citizens, who take their responsibility towards their community as a way of life, and not just a great conversation to share over chaa-shingara.
Suggestive as it may seem, no the answer is not confined to paying people to turn social responsibility into a job. It probably is a powerful incentive, but it triggers the same cycle of events that history and radical development economists have frequently criticized. It may as well begin with a shared vision. My friend suggested it in her note, and I agree somewhat. If say, an achievable and focused vision such as mitigating malnutrition by 15% through feeding impoverished children is placed and an action plan grounded on providing free milk and egg on a daily basis to x number of such children is implemented, it is not difficult to mobilize a larger, more sustainable group of 'change agents'. Young people, at the pivot of this action plan contributes initially by 'volunteering'to run such a program and soon, as life moves on, as potential suppliers of the egg-and-milk combo or social entrepreneurs with a weakness for malnourishment taking the idea to a scalable something. Seems like a plan!
However, the problem with this plan or shared vision is that unless enough people are instilled with its merits, it stays limited to a small group of people. Even when it does propagate to a larger audience, it no longer stays 'shared' it becomes amicably imposed. The assumption here is that such proliferation resulted because a dedicated visionary was able to move a large number of people in a specific way, as opposed to these people observing and adopting such a vision on their own countenance. The assumption extends by limiting the target audience to young people aged between 15 and 25 and naturally disposed to be experimental, energetic and frivolous. There are indeed too many assumptions being made.
So, is there another way?
I have always believed we live at a time of immense untapped human capital. The 21st century brought with it unaccounted amount of possibilities, and through the merit of new and rapidly growing media, the power to utilise these possibilities has never been simpler. Now, while involving in a 'shared vision', imagine what more we can achieve if people shared skills? If Change Agent A has xyz skills to offer and chooses to teach Change Agent B, the idea along with the necessary skills to achieve a goal are transferred, if not the same but under a broader umbrella, chances are the resulting action will be more sustainable. It's incredibly empowering because each individual in the chain of events has something to offer, everyone is a significant catalyst and most importantly, the macro outcome of a human intelligence hub emerges. This transfer of skills shouldn't be limited to a certain group or a particular socioeconomic class, but be easily propagated through shared learning, hence providing a more powerful and independent incubator for our fluid group to stay involved.
Take a simple example. Boy X happens to be a skilled accountant and intends to use it to make money in life. Instead of limiting his skills for personal gain, Boy X decides to teach Girl Y the basics of cheques and balances, thereby creating, through his own initiative, skilled labour. Girl Y is inspired by a certain social vision, for e.g. ensuring free primary education for all children in her community, but sees schools around her failing to keep up with rising costs. She decides to get involved with some schools and help its facilitators to better manage their money, in the process creating room for more children to be enrolled. Random Dude M is inspired by her initiative, and does the same with a local NGO in his community whose focus being environment, is financially struggling to meet up with adapting eco-friendly technology in their community. This way, the skill becomes socially relevant, and potential volunteers who may have simply participated in an event or a project turned to active citizens, even while they move through life.
This simple theory has already been put to practice. Over the past years, I have been privileged to work with many talented youngsters, whose specific interest and skills have been put to social experiments and given them a sense of empowerment and ownership, thereby effectively engaging them for a longer period and resulting in sustainable actions. On a personal note and perhaps contrary to most definitions, that is what makes an activist. Someone who finds a development niche within his/her niche, and harnesses it through life. This may not be the golden key to sustainable development or mobilizing youth volunteerism for the long run, but it's definitely an idea. Like imbuing a shared vision is an honest attempt, perhaps finding a niche within a niche might as well be another such attempt.
(Sabhanaz Rashid Diya is a major in Media and Communication at Independent University Bangladesh, and founder of the nonprofit youth organisation, 1° Initiative.)
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