A Youth Activist on the Road Out

At the age of 17, Bremley Lyngdoh, a native of India, attended the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It was 1992 and he and other youth participants noticed a need for youth voices in international decision-making. Since then he has spoken about the importance of youth participation all over the world, from the chambers of the UN General Assembly to the streets of India. In 1999 he co-founded the Global Youth Action Network (GYAN), an organization which now serves to connect thousands of youth organizations in over 200 countries and territories.

An activist who prefers to work from the inside, Bremley recently brought his expertise to the World Bank where, among other things, he looked at the role of young people in preserving the environment and doing away with poverty. This fall he will be leaving his current position as Program Manager at the Youth Employment Summit Campaign (YES) and heading to the London School of Economics to complete his PhD in Sustainable Development.

Although he's no longer technically a youth, Bremley carries the institutional memory of an international youth movement that, over the last ten years, has grown increasingly sophisticated, creative and powerful. WireTap caught up with him recently and invited him to reflect on an ever-evolving movement.

WT: The World Bank has a pretty bad reputation with many people, should we people have faith in the Bank?

I was always one of those young people in the streets demonstrating and doing direct action because I was frustrated and apathetic and I labeled politicians all the same breed. I've done that for a long time, but then I thought hey, what if I speak their language and go inside the system of the Bank or the UN and change them from within instead of shouting out in the streets protesting and getting arrested.

I think the Bank and the UN save a lot of money because once you become staff you stay until you are 60. I just hope that the leadership will change and the doors will open up to the younger crew to come in at a professional level that will be respected for the value they bring, not just as youth or activists, but also as professionals who can really contribute to achieving what needs to be done.

WT: Do you think the role of youth is recognized in the international community?

Oh yes, I can tell you for a fact that since the Earth Summit in Rio [in 1992] many doors have been opened, especially in the Commission on Sustainable Development process, which is the most participative process in the UN system where governments consult with young people as part of the nine major [civil society] groups.

Even in the Security Council after Sept. 11, the governments are talking about youth because they are linking youth apathy and youth unemployment to destruction. They say an idle mind is destructive, but I would say that an educated, idle mind is worse because then you can organize, you can plan and you can really do bad things if you think in a negative way. Youth unemployment could lead to a national disaster. If we don't engage young people and give them a dignified form of employment or livelihood so they can sustain the family they will surely rebel against the system.

In 2005 we have the first five-year check on achieving the Millennium Development Goals, eight goals set by 189 countries of world to achieve in 2015. So far the world is not on track to reaching these goals, how can young people make these goals a reality?

My dream is to connect what I call the "triple A," the activists, the artists and the academics. I think the activist are the people that are on the ground who could do the hardcore development work, we could call them sustainable development professionals. The artists come in as people who are established and who want to help, young celebrities with money like Bono for example, or Jewel who supported us to fund the GYAN office in 2000. The artists can sing, act or use the media, to attack the mainstream by channeling their energy towards a development issues like HIV/AIDS, debt relief or whatever is closest to them. The artists can work with the activists on the ground by supporting their projects with fundraising. The academics, like Jeffery Sachs or Joseph Stieglitz, who are established and known around the world, can give youth academic and technical support so they become legitimate. And the best students at the best universities to get their professors to focus on regional issues facing young people.

WT: There's a lot of buzz in the international community about "partnerships." What kind of youth partnerships do you see working?

Why not hire the youth themselves to take care of the problems that young people face in their country, instead of sending in consultants from other countries who don't have a real picture of that country or community?

Partnerships mean really trusting youth with real resources and projects and policies on the ground so youth can implement, design, monitor and evaluate the projects themselves. The trust has to be built to say, "hey, we're going to give you guys a million dollars and it will be your show, we will not tell you what to do." It is not like "here's the money and here's how we want you to do it, that's not really a partnership," that's a dictatorship.

WT: Young people are often in school and in relationships; their lives are shifting and they are flaky; can they be real professional partners? Are you talking about 25-year olds, 18-year olds?

That's just a stereotype, that just because they are young they are unstable. There are a lot of young entrepreneurs out there who started before they were in high school or they started organizations when they were 10 and they have jumped over the age barrier! They may be barely 19, but they are acting like they are 30 years old and they have done so much that they are going to burn out. There are a few young leaders that exist in every pocket of every country and I think we should harness their energy and use their strength and replicate their success stories.

It seems like young people in other countries know more about what sustainable development is than youth in the US, do you think that is true?

That's true, they may not really understand the word "sustainable development," but they may have been practicing sustainable development since before the word came into existence. There is a lot being done now, the United Nations Education and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) will have a whole decade for sustainable development education, and there are a lot of college integrating sustainable development courses. But I wish more schools could integrate it, even on the primary and high school levels, so people could understand sustainable development early on.

Young people should not just be looking for jobs but creating jobs as sustainable development entrepreneurs. Sustainable development education means in 3-5 years they are being trained to develop, raise the funds, and when they graduate, run a business which they have created in the three years they have been trained. We need to create systems for a whole new breed of sustainable development professionals or entrepreneurs who go out in the world and create more jobs and for other young people. Of course you make your money, but you are also concerned about the immediate environment and people around you. We talk a lot about corporate social responsibility, but what about individual social responsibility?

WT: How can youth from the US partner with youth abroad?

I think the Peace Corps or Americorps could bring in youth from other countries to work in different states in the US with local governments and institutions. They could learn from these kids from other countries about interacting with governments in their country is like, and then these kids could go back to China or India or wherever they are from and share what they learned from the US system.

This is especially important in the Midwest and in the farming communities who are out of the [International] loop. I rode my bicycle across the US and when I was in Indiana people would ask me where I was from. I would say "India" and they would say, "Oh, Indiana," and I would say, "No, India." The media is run differently here, you don't really focus too much on international issues, on development issues in other countries. We could bring kids in from other countries to share their experiences in these big states in the Midwest, where there are a lot of young people who are totally disconnected. I don't blame them – the system they live in and the schools where they are taught do not integrate international affairs into their curriculums. They don't know other countries exist and this has to change.

WT: So you were at Rio at 17, that means you are 29. You have sort of fallen out of the "youth" category, are you passing the torch?

I have pretty much passed the torch. The [thing about being] a young person is that everyone grows out of it, and there is no continuity. It is always a question of resources and time, because we might be youth, but we are also students, we may have families to take care of or jobs and other commitments.Youth have bills to pay and they also have to lead a sustainable life and practice what they preach. You can't talk about sustainable development when you are not even sustainable yourself. That's why all these youth activists burn out. They move on to pay their bills and they go back to the mainstream. But we need to find new blood to take on this work and continue on what people started back in Rio.

For more info, check out:
Global Youth Action Network
TakingITglobal
Youth Employment Summit Campaign
United Nations Program on Youth

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