Memories of Mandela and Today's Youth

With the passing of Nelson Mandela, I was reminded of some of the very first meetings the founder of Global Kids, Carole Artigiani, had with young people who came from some of New York City's most challenged neighborhoods in 1989. Carole brought in activists from South Africa to speak to the youth about apartheid, oppression, and of course, the imprisonment of Mandela, as well as the campaign to have him freed.

For our youth, it was the first time they were learning about these issues. It was the first time they were challenged to think beyond their immediate neighborhoods, which were plagued by violence, poverty and oppression. It was the first time they came into contact with activists from South Africa, a place they knew little about or didn't know was a country. And, it was the first time when they started to realize how powerful it can be to connect what is happening globally to their own communities, and that they can be agents of change.

The broadened worldview they gained from that experience has continued to be the cornerstone of our approach at Global Kids. We know from our 25 years of experience that when youth learn about the issues and strategies being used by others to fight injustice around the world, they gain a deeper understanding and clearer perspective of what it takes to make change on the streets of East New York or Anacostia, D.C.

When they are able to connect the fight for raising the minimum wage to the larger global economic scene, they better understand how to critique everything from free trade to the role of multinational corporations in promoting safe conditions for workers.

When they learn that climate change will disproportionately affect poor people, and that it is not something relegated to polar bears, they start to understand that science and human rights are interrelated.

When they discover that millions of children around the world lack the basic right to a free education, they start to critically question the effectiveness of their own schooling, and start to advocate for an education that is relevant to today's world. Education that develops critical-thinking. Education that develops problem-solvers. Education that develops active, engaged global citizens.

This past summer at one of our intensive summer learning programs in Washington D.C., I was reminded how critical it is for youth from underserved communities to have the exposure to the types of global competency building experience that their counterparts in wealthier communities take for granted. One student, Nicole, said that she felt that being exposed to world affairs made her want to work for the State Department, so that she could tackle issues on a meta scale. A whole new world was opened for her. Another, Cynthia Johnson, traveled to Costa Rica, where she learned first hand the economic development, health and the environmental challenges facing that country. Along the way she realized the issues facing her neighborhood in D.C. may have different angles, but the underlying challenges are the same.

Experiences like these are literally life-changing. I know former U.S. Sen. Harris Wofford, who represented Pennsylvania, feels international learning opportunities are invaluable as well. Wofford helped create the Peace Corps and is a longtime advocate for national service and volunteering. He recently heard about Cynthia and our efforts to connect teens like her to international issues.

This week we are going to gather to learn about the Costa Rican journey by watching a short film created by Cynthia, Nicole, and the other students who participated in it. Costa Rican Ambassador Muni Figueres is going to join us, as is Sen. Wofford. We are even going to enjoy a "global pizza" created by Spike Mendelsohn from the TV show "Top Chef."

But most importantly, this week, and in this season of giving we are going to figure out how to help create opportunities for more Cynthias and Nicoles to become empowered through global learning and service, to honor the legacy of Madiba.