Natasha Parker, Head of Compassion not Consumerism at Global Action Plan, explores the role school leaders must play in supporting young people to create a better world and give them hope for the future
“It’s a new day in America” President Joe Biden tweeted to 25.7 million followers on the first day of his presidency. A succinct message of hope that rippled across the world. However, for a lot of young people, these words will likely not be enough.
The fact is the crises we face are multiple and many are worsening. We are seeing our young people become increasingly frustrated and anxious about the lack of meaningful action on climate and on social, gender and racial inequality. As educators and leaders who understand the need for, and role of, youth-led action, we must find new ways to support young people in the face of issues that can sometimes feel overwhelming.
Our latest research, as part of the Persil Dirt Is Good Project, reveals that most young people are feeling worried about the future. Many are not, however, taking as much action as they would like. The reasons why are multiple – lack of opportunity, busy schedules, and the distractions of everyday life all play a part – but there is deeper, emotional blocker, young people are feeling alone in their concern. The research found that most young people are compassionate and want to have a positive impact on other people and on nature but believe their peers do not.
The misconception that others do not care when in fact, they do, is called the ‘values-perception gap’ and has important implications for educators and leaders alike. We found young people to be pessimistic about how compassionate the adults in their lives are too. Almost half of young people (41%) did not think adults care for nature, and more than half (57%) thought that most people where they lived did nothing or little to help environmental issues.
They also did not trust that the groups with the most power to make positive changes and more than half did not believe it would be important to businesses and politicians to care for the natural world.
Reinstating hope for the future
This does not have to be the norm. At the highest level, young people need four key things to enable them to act on the issues they care about: knowledge, skills, opportunities, and self-belief. They also need each other; they need to feel united in their values.
Reconsidering the way that we as educators and senior leaders help young people to reflect on their shared compassionate values could lead to a real shift in the way that we design and deliver social and environmental action. Is it time to turn away from structuring schools around a competitive culture through league tables, talent pooling and individualistic values? Could we, instead look to build a culture of collaboration, creativity, and compassion around our young people so that they feel less alone in their care for people, the planet and more confident in taking action?
A core theme of President Biden’s inauguration speech was ‘unity’. He emphasised the importance of coming together to heal the wounds of division that Americans have suffered. Unity can be even more powerful than that, it can do more than just heal wounds, it can unite people and empower them to act. Harnessing global initiatives like the Dirt is Good project will give young people the opportunities and confidence to act – together – on the things they care about. This will create a greater shared sense that, while we have our differences, on this ‘new day’ we are united in compassion when it comes to tackling the world’s most pressing challenges.