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Written By

Hannah Gray


College of Science and Engineering

Publish Date

12 August 2020

The power of youth engagement

Greta Thunberg. Malala Yousafzai. Joshua Wong. Autumn Peltier. These youths are proving that age is truly nothing but a number when it comes to standing up, speaking out, and fighting for change.

But you don’t have to have a million followers to make a difference. On International Youth Day, Dr Kearrin Sims tells us why it’s so important to let the leaders of tomorrow learn to lead today.

The 2020 theme for International Youth Day is “Youth Engagement for Global Action”. In discussing this topic, Kearrin has a simple message: youth engagement matters.

“Young people bring fresh eyes and insights to local and global challenges,” Kearrin says. “They are often energetic, courageous, open-minded and idealistic. And they are not afraid to take risks.”

Being unafraid to take risks is a quality of ever-increasing importance. The local and global challenges that we face include climate change, species loss, global poverty, pandemics, inequality, food insecurity, racism – the list goes on. With our world being more interconnected than ever before through media, education, and social media, living in constant awareness of these many challenges can bring anxiety and depression.

Kearrin says that the best way to cultivate hope is through action and engagement. “Engagement is contributing to a community – it’s being a part of something,” he says. “It is, to quote a common aphorism, to ‘be the change you want to see in the world’.”

Kearrin describes social engagement as a process of active learning, or learning by doing. “It teaches the power of partnership and collaboration,” he says. “It teaches the importance of empathy and listening, of finding ways to work with others of differing views. It teaches self-reflexivity.”

Becoming a global citizen scholar

This kind of education is vital for our youth.

When young people  are encouraged to look carefully at the world around them, to develop their own ideas and understandings of social issues and challenges, they are learning what it means to be what Kearrin calls a ‘citizen scholar’.

Kearrin describes citizen scholarship as “bringing humanity and humility back into the rationality of scientific knowledge production”.

In other words, being a citizen scholar means being someone who turns rational knowledge into empathetic action.

When we do this, we can influence global and local change at any age.

You don't need a worldwide platform, either. Pursuing an understanding of an issue and letting your passion drive you can lead you into making a difference right where you are.

“The world needs more Gretas and Malalas. But the world also needs much smaller and more localised forms of youth engagement, too."
Dr Kearrin Sims 

“In Cairns, Molly Steer’s “Straw No More”  campaign to reduce plastic waste offers another poignant example of the power of youth engagement. And at the national level, student climate change protests or youth Black Lives Matter protesters yet again showcase the power of young people coming together to work for positive social change.”

Little girl protesting climate change
Girl planting tree

So, if we seek out education and learn about social action by engaging with it, we can spark change. But where do we start?

There are lots of ways to engage in social issues.

Kearrin points out that one benefit of university is the engagement and support of on-campus, student-based groups and activities that can lead to influencing change.

“Groups like TropEco provide students with opportunities to take action against real-world sustainability challenges,” Kearrin says.

But social change can be ignited outside of the university setting as well.

Maybe you want to dig deep and help our climate by forming a group that plants trees to grow awareness. Or maybe you’re passionate about bringing an end to injustice and you want to create petitions and join protests to ensure that you give a voice to those who may not have one. Or maybe your goal is to be a global activist and give a platform to your passion. When you want to make a difference, no goal is too high.

By looking at the world around you, taking notice of the things that you think should change, and seeking out the steps you could take to influence action, you have the potential to be a world-changer.

“There is no single recipe for what youth engagement looks like or how it can be fostered,” Kearrin says. “But when young people are encouraged to work together, to learn and listen and share ideas together, and to show kindness and empathy to one another, powerful things happen.”

Are you passionate about being a global citizen that makes a difference? There are many routes that you could take.

Maybe you’re ready to start turning the tide against climate change and the first step is checking out JCU Environmental Management.

Or, if you want to make a difference in the legal system or in politics, you can start your journey with JCU Law.

And if you’re passionate about tackling social issues and protecting human rights, JCU Social Work can take you where you want to go .

Just finished your undergrad and ready for the next step in your journey? Learn how to be an effective global citizen scholar with JCU Development.

Discover JCU Environmental Management

Gain the skills and knowledge to start turning the tide against climate change

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Featured researcher

Dr Kearrin Sims


Dr Kearrin Sims is a critical development scholar. His approach to academia is centred on finding creative and collaborative mechanisms for bringing together teaching, research and community engagement activities. To date, much of Kearrin’s research and community outreach has been focused within Southeast Asia. In particular, he has had a strong interest in transnational connectivity programs and the geopolitics of development in Laos.

By approaching the field of development as a highly politicised arena of resource struggles and competing value-systems that are entered from different positions of power, Kearrin has sought to uncover how processes of social and economic power redistribution might lead to greater representation and accountability for the poor.