We’ve heard it said that young people are not what they used to be. They’re entitled, self-absorbed and instant-gratification-oriented, with their cell phones, laptops and other distractions. A generation raised on Facebook and “American Idol” has to be narcissistic, lacking a baby boomer’s zeal for social change.
But such assumptions were blown out of the water for me when I recently served on the selection committee for Grinnell College’s Young Innovators for Social Justice prize.
Young people are doing so much smart, impactful work for justice, humanity, peace, economic access and environmental respect, that one is tempted to step aside and let the folks under 40 run the world.
We sought candidates who were innovative and successful but hadn’t received much recognition. On Thursday the college announced the winners: Eric Glustrom and Boris Bulayev, both 26, a team; James Kofi Annan, 37, and Melissa Weintraub, 35.
Weintraub, a conservative Jewish rabbi, has been taking American Jewish leaders to Palestinian territories through her project, Encounter, to generate better understanding and reshape U.S. policies and priorities in one of the world’s most intractable conflict zones. Testimonials from people on both sides prove it has changed hearts and minds.
Annan, a survivor of child trafficking who escaped and taught himself to read, left a cushy bank job to establish Challenging Heights in Ghana. It rescues, educates and rehabilitates child slavery victims and works to end the root causes of child trafficking.
Glustrom started Educate! at 17 while working with refugees in Uganda, where half the population is under 15 and youth unemployment is the world’s highest. He met Bulayev at Amherst College and they’ve built the organization to provide training, mentoring and access to capital, so youth themselves can find solutions to problems like poverty, disease, violence, environmental degradation and unemployment. Now, Uganda’s government has asked Educate! to incorporate its social entrepreneurship course into the national education system.
Social justice is easy to talk about and hard to achieve. It’s one thing to criticize something but infinitely harder to craft an alternative. It means being clear-eyed enough to recognize what’s not working but visionary enough to imagine what could. The 48 nominees our committee reviewed (out of an initial 900 from 66 countries) have started projects for homeless transgendered people and for incarcerated youth, launched community food cultivation programs and rural clinics in depressed areas. Among their projects was an alternative to prison for immigrant detainees awaiting hearings; a new system to assess disaster-relief work; and audiovisual technologies to mobilize communities on problems they face with business or government.
These projects take courage and creativity. You have to work with, or around, institutions that may not be keen on change. You have to find new ways to raise money, as the Amherst pair did, by, among other things, holding date auctions on campus. You have to get communities you are working with to buy in. And you cannot expect much compensation or recognition because social change work is often neither lucrative nor popular.
That’s why Raynard Kington, Grinnell’s new president, created the prize soon after his arrival (he’s being inaugurated Saturday). He hoped the recognition and three $100,00 prizes, half of which goes to the winners and half to their organizations, would help affirm and support transformational grass-roots projects, and offer Grinnell students alternative models of leadership. Kington himself embodies a different model of leadership. He has a medical degree, is gay, black and raising two young sons with his partner.
And while college presidents are often picked to bring in money, he’s giving it out, for social change. But that’s entirely in line with Grinnell’s historical mission, and it’s a great way to keep academia socially relevant.
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