The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams
— Eleanor Roosevelt
Much has been said of both the coronavirus pandemic, and of young people. In reflecting on the past few years, it is obvious that — albeit through necessity — young people have enhanced their resilience. It is now clear that young people are actually humanity’s great hope.
For students at Calwell High in south Canberra, the past two years have seen them endure deadly bushfires, toxic air that killed someone and a hailstorm that smashed Canberra — not to mention the coronavirus pandemic, which has devastated the world and seen students in and out of lockdown, and bouncing between face-to-face and online learning.
This is on top of catastrophic human-induced climate change, rampant social and economic inequality, the ongoing threat of high-intensity war and the myriad of other challenges that need to be addressed.
Now for the good news
Despite the somewhat ominous introduction, there is — fortunately for humanity — hope for the future: young people. However, this is conditional on youth being empowered and uplifted to lead. It’s in all of our interests that this happens.
As a humanities and social sciences teacher, I always asked my students to ensure that their contentions were evidence-based. Thus, the aforementioned contention will be grounded in evidence henceforth. Although the sample size is small, my students at Calwell High in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) represented the very best traits of humanity; in particular, courage, competence, curiosity, creativity and compassion. Consequently, they reinforce the point that young people are the hope of humanity.
Although they have not caused the problems, young people can provide the solutions for humanity. In many cases, they already have.
Example one — Curiosity and Creativity: harnessing power of art and culture
Commencing with a group of exceptional students, who were in Year 7 at the time. Constantly enthusiastic with a thirst for knowledge, they were also artistically talented.
Using their skills, they were ready to achieve something remarkable, perhaps beyond their imagination. I knew they could do it, I just wanted them to see it for themselves. So, I mentioned the idea of preparing an Australian-themed artwork for a former national leader, that would then go on display in New York City. A growing body of peer-reviewed evidence reaffirms the benefits of incorporating art into classroom activities, for both academic and social reasons. They were instantly excited and keen to participate.
Over the next few weeks, it became a genuine pleasure witnessing the four girls grow as confident young people, with their friendship strengthening. In addition to the lovely final product, the process itself is where the girls’ efforts were most impressive. They diligently planned, worked together amicably, overcame challenges, remained positively focused and of course shared a few giggles on the way. These are skills that will benefit them throughout life.
Creativity is intelligence having fun
— Albert Einstein
A highlight was seeing them during break times, armed with their pencils and equipment, asking me to open the classroom so that they could work on their project. A few moments later, the pencils would be spread out across the tables, pop music would be playing out of the speakers (one of the perks of the gig) and the magic would continue. They started with a dream, and successfully finished with an artwork they could all enjoy ownership over, proudly stamped with their names.
This artwork was then presented to former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in his office in New York City (please see the video below). Herein lies the significance of these girls’ efforts. Originating from a small school in Australia, an artwork now features in the office of an international leader, in a city of global significance, to be enjoyed by dignitaries from around the world. They are the only students in Australia to enjoy this privilege, and we were grateful to Mr Rudd for graciously accepting the gift. The students achieved an extraordinary feat, and they can cherish that experience for the rest of their lives.
Art builds bridges between cultures. It provides a way for people to express their identity, enhancing their pride and confidence in the meantime. Those four girls demonstrated how that’s possible.
Example two — Compassion: working as a team to help those in need
It takes a special kind of person, one that is truly kind-hearted and generous, to give up their time and effort in service of others. At Calwell High, there were such wonderful students aplenty.
Introducing you to another remarkable group of students. Like any good project, this started with an idea. Coupled with their desire to help, they were a group of students with sound practical skills. Harnessing those skills, we decided to repair old bikes to then donate to people in need.
Their first workshop was in a tiny, disused bathroom. It would then progress to a disused science room, before then being given a shed and outdoor space.
Throughout the course of the initiative, the students would come together in their own time — giving up their break times — in order to repair and restore the bikes. We would end up accepting donations of bikes from the community, resulting in dozens of bikes being repurposed for social good. The first batch were delivered to a bike library in northern Canberra, with the rest being distributed by the Australian Red Cross and GIVIT. There are now many people across the Canberra region enjoying bike-riding as a direct result of these students’ efforts.
In recognition of how incredible their efforts were, the students were recipients of the 2020 ACT Government’s Sustainable Project (Secondary School) of the Year.
Another group of students volunteered to raise funds for Legacy Australia, whose mission is to ‘support to the families of Australian Defence Force men and women who have lost their life or health in conflicts’. A noble cause if there ever were one.
This involved multiple lunchtime breaks selling pins and teddy bears, raising hundreds of dollars for multiple years. There was no personal benefit for students; they weren’t getting paid, nor would they receive an award. Their efforts were driven purely by a sense of altruism and compassion for others.
The direct result, families of Australian Veterans receiving additional care and support, thanks to the efforts of these incredible young people. They are the finest custodians of humanity.
Having considered those examples, consider the benefit for humanity if every young person were enabled to contribute to their community. They are ready to serve, so let’s encourage and enable them.
Example three — Courage: developing policy ideas and advocating for them
The policy development process is a long and grinding one, even for seasoned professionals. Indeed, the root causes of many problems — such as climate change and pandemic response to name a few — are attributable to poor policy decisions by political leaders. Again, this is where young people are ready to step in.
As the capstone of the QUEST Leadership Development Program, students developed Adaptive Change Proposals. The theoretical foundation for this initiative is the notion of Adaptive Leadership, developed by Ronald Heifetz of Harvard University.
Consistent with that, students’ proposals needed to be well researched with a solid evidence base, considerate of competing priorities, inclusive of a specific plan, as well as a suite of recommendations. These included serious matters of policy, such as prevention of domestic violence, education reform, nurses in schools, youth mental health and expansion of youth centres.
This was not solely an academic exercise; policy proposals require advocacy if they are to be adopted and implemented. As such, as per the picture below, the students met personally with the ACT Deputy Chief Minister and Education Minister to directly pitch their proposals.
For most of these students, I recall their first day of high school as little, starry-eyed kids that were fresh out of primary school. Now — within four years — they are confident young leaders who are making their voices heard directly to a senior government official, for the betterment of the community.
It was the epitome of a ‘proud teacher’ moment. Again, perfect examples of humanity’s finest. It took immense courage on their part to achieve.
Given the undoubtable nature of these students’ incredible qualities, imagine the societal benefit if they had actual power and influence, rather than simply advocating to those that do.
Let’s consider it. If each of these students had it their way — based on their Adaptive Change Plans — we’d have more funding for education, a nurse in every school, better protection for women, increased levels of mental health support and more youth centres. Would these outcomes not deliver positive dividends for society? If tasked with it, I would guarantee that major policy challenges such as climate change mitigation, social cohesion and economic empowerment — just to name a few — would be dealt with as needed.
With the world facing many — including existential — challenges, we need utilise every tool in our arsenal to ensure that the world of tomorrow is cleaner, safer and more harmonious for all. A practical and necessary step is to empower and uplift young people so that they can not only be part of change, but lead it.
To expand the sample size a little further, here is yet another example of young people — this time on the other side of the world — working to make the world better.
As has been demonstrated, when given the right tools, a platform as well as power, young people are capable of achieving the extraordinary. The evidence is clear.
For just a few moments, I invite you to pause and imagine how magnificent the world would be if every young person were like my students at Calwell High, and how much better it’d be if they had the power to enact change.
I dedicate this reflection to each and every student that I had the pleasure of teaching at Calwell High. They inspired me every day, encouraged me to be a better person, and serving them will forever be the honour of my life.
This article commenced with a quote from the revered Eleanor Roosevelt. Hopefully students at Calwell High — and indeed young people everywhere — believe in the beauty of their dreams, because they deserve more than anything for the future to belong to them.
Thank you kindly for reading! Please feel free to leave a comment.
I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the Canberra region — the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples — whose cultures and customs have nurtured, and continue to nurture, this land, for thousands of years. I pay my sincere respects to Elders past, present and future. Noting that sovereignty has never been ceded, and the continued hurt and harm of colonial actions and policies, I pledge myself to the cause of Reconciliation.