Playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, “Youth is wasted on youth. Obviously, he hadn’t met anyone on TBEN’ 30 Under 30 list. The 2021 roster includes a following of awesome young entrepreneurs, activists, scientists and artists, and I had the privilege of speaking with four of them: Kehkashan Basu, Andrew Brennen, Merrit Jones and Joe Nail. In this excerpt from our conversation, young leaders share their thoughts on what it takes to be a successful leader, their biggest challenges and lessons learned in a trying year, and words of wisdom for other young people. who want to seek solutions to planetary problems. problems.*
Vicki Phillips (vice-president):
Young people like you are leading important conversations and movements around the world. What do you think are the qualities of a strong youth leader?
Kehkashan Basu (Ko):
The most important thing is empathy, because it allows you not only to see your own challenges, but also to see the challenges of others and to see them as your own. For me, and in my work, and especially in these times, empathy is extremely important.
Andrew Brennen (AB):
It is also important to believe in yourself. In a lot of rooms with young people, the average age is probably double theirs, and there will be older people who will challenge you as a young leader – even contest your right to have an opinion. It’s important to believe that you should be sitting at the table and that your voice matters – and that it’s important because it’s your own experience.
In Baltimore, they have a student school board member who has repeatedly been the deciding vote on whether or not Baltimore city public schools return to [in-person] school. He was under a lot of pressure from the community for this vote, but he held on and continued to believe in himself. This is such an important quality when interacting with older people, especially if you are a black or brunette person.
Merrit Jones (MJ):
The quality that I admire in the young people I have worked with, especially last year, is flexibility and adaptability. At this time when much of our work requires a rapid response to address inequalities, young people have a unique ability to communicate quickly through so many different media that I think some adult-led organizations are not yet. also evolved. adaptability and flexibility around messaging, work, mobilization for causes is something that young people have as a unique skill set and that is really important in young leaders.
Joe Nail (JN):
I want to echo two points others have made – and add two more. The first is to put ambition for the community or country before yourself. We have seen how ambition can lead people astray into critical positions of public responsibility, and often our young people embed moral strengths. The second part, which goes hand in hand with passion, is being able to mobilize, recruit and identify other people to join you. In addition, being locally rooted and having a long-term commitment to the work is important. It’s easy to focus on our national politics, which certainly matters, but if we are to see a revival in this country, it will take a commitment to love and serve our friends, neighbors, community members and to make our best in our backyard. .
As young leaders, you’ve all done amazing things over the past year – but I imagine like everyone else you’ve encountered challenges as well. I’m curious: what was the biggest challenge of the past year for you?
There have been so many challenges over the past year, but one for me, as a white woman working to advance educational equity and justice, has been to re-evaluate my role in this. background, my background and the way youth ecosystems work so that we don’t recreate the systems that have marginalized people for so long. Lots of young people have this critical conversation that many adult-led organizations are not ready to have. It gives me hope for a future where we create better systems of power sharing and ensure that power is thoughtfully transferred to those most affected. A major challenge I’ve had is looking into the work I’m doing on student voices to understand how we make sure we’re not duplicating this. [old] system and we think about how we are going forward.
For me the hardest part has been realizing how ill-equipped our country is to do great things together right now – things like dealing with a pandemic or dealing with an election, things that will happen this year if you had looked at any sort of international measure of where the United States ranks, we were meant to be examples to the rest of the world. It has been really disheartening to do all the work that we have to do to get back to a place where our institutions are functioning as they should.
For me, it has been a challenge to manage my own sanity among all that is going on around us. I agree with Kehkashan that empathy is really important. The flip side of empathy during a pandemic and a racial upheaval is that there are a lot of people who are in crisis, and it’s impossible not to internalize it when you work so closely with the community. The hardest part for me was giving myself permission to take the time to step back when I needed to. For the young people who are engaged in this work, I think it is important that we all give ourselves permission to take the time we need to manage our own mental health, as this makes us more powerful advocates of our own. communities if we do.
It’s a great transition to my last question. What advice or words of wisdom do you give to other young people who want to make positive changes in the world?
Recognizing the interconnections between the environment, society, economy and the Sustainable Development Goals is really crucial. At the same time, localizing the SDGs and localizing your solutions – if dreaming big is important, it’s how you implement that dream that really matters.
Rather than offering my own advice, I’ll go back to the advice Bryan Stevenson gives in a lot of his speeches that I think everyone should hear. It has four stages. The first is: stay close to those you want to serve. Number two: you have to change the narrative. Number three: keep hope. And number four: realize that you’re going to have to do some uncomfortable things to see or make the change you want to have.
I remind people that being young is a power in itself. Your energy, your ideas and your optimism will be what will be useful, not only in the future but absolutely today. Young people are not only experts in their own experience, but experts in many other fields.
Great advice and a great conversation. Thank you for taking the time and being so open about both the power of what you do and some of the challenges facing the country and the world. I can’t wait to continue our conversation and see what you all do in the future.
[*] The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.