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Imagination is key to our Commonwealth’s future

Posted on 22/12/2020
By Alicia Wallace

In collaboration with the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust and Commonwealth Young Council, the Commonwealth Foundation’s third Critical Conversation—with Darrion Narine, Kavindya Thennakoon, Emmanuelle Andrews, and Kakembo Galabuzi Brian along with pop-up speakers Lance Copegog and Nondumiso Hlophe—centred the perspectives and needs of young people in the Commonwealth. All active in the Commonwealth space, the speakers were both critical of the existing structure and optimistic about our collective ability to build a more just, equitable future.

At the start, it was important to acknowledge the past, probing Kavindya’s decision to write an open letter to Commonwealth institutions challenging them to acknowledge and speak about the shared colonial legacy of dominance, violence, and atrocity. The speakers resisted the appeal of reform, instead focussing on the need to completely reimagine the systems we know. We cannot expect systems built to oppress and subjugate to be simply repurposed for equality and justice. We have to start again. Young people need to be at the forefront, providing the imagination and innovation required to build anew.

‘Recognising the expertise of young people and the value of their perspectives is critical to the development of a better Commonwealth’

As a queer Black feminist from the Caribbean, deeply interested in collaborative future-making, moderating this conversation was both a pleasure and confirmation that imagination is a tool for social justice. My work has primarily focussed on women’s and LGBTQ+ people’s rights with emphasis on expanding the understanding of gender, gender-based violence, and feminist policymaking. One of the most difficult aspects of this work is convincing people that we can create something new. My participation in regional and international networks has shown me that cross-regional collaboration, idea sharing, and skill trading are incredibly valuable and among the easiest ways to learn to think differently. Learning what others are doing often prompts more bold, interesting ideas and the confidence that a different world is possible. For me, Young Leaders Speak was about finding paths to create the Commonwealth we want.

Not only did the speakers have the opportunity to connect, talk about important issues, and raise their profiles, but also to participate in an exercise of going beyond representation. The event itself was not the intended outcome. The Commonwealth Foundation focussed on giving young people space to set a new agenda and make demands of Commonwealth institutions. Young Leaders Speak shed light on the challenges young leaders face and told people in positions of power what they need to change. This is the kind of conversation that is important to me—participants choosing the direction and issuing challenges to the people and institutions with the resources and power to take them on.

A theme that continually came up was the tokenism young people experience, being invited to spaces as ‘the young person’ rather than having their specific areas of expertise highlighted and contributions valued. Kavindya said, ‘We go into a panel[…] and our name is just “young person,” and that completely erases the years of [experience] that we have.’ Recognising the expertise of young people and the value of their perspectives is critical to the development of a better Commonwealth. In our conversation, the demands of young people were made clear. They reject tokenism and generic representation and demand strategic, radical inclusion that focusses on their expertise, skills, and interests and how they contribute to the space. Young people are experts in specific areas because of their commitment and that must be acknowledged beyond opportunities to attend occasional meetings.

‘Commonwealth institutions must be committed to spending money on high-impact programmes and activities. Young people need to be involved in financial decision-making processes.’

Darrion pointed to the need for intergenerational dialogue. Many of the issues we face today are not new. Some people have been working to address them for years and they have gained knowledge through their experience. They can look back and determine which strategies did or did not work and, combined with the ideas that young people already have, contribute to the development of new approaches. Kakembo added that it is important for us all to be able to offer differing opinions, then work together to find common ground. Both Darrion and Kakembo emphasised the importance of listening. It is critical for young people while positioning themselves as leaders and experts in their fields, to commit themselves to continuous learning, consultation, and openness to new information and ideas. In turn, older generations need to be willing to share information, offer insights, and support the work young people are doing. Forming strong relationships across generations is key to moving toward the future we all want.

While opportunities to physically convene can be beneficial, particularly for advocacy, young people are critical of the use of limited funds for travel, accommodation, and venues for large conferences. It is not enough to be transparent in spending. Commonwealth institutions must be committed to spending money on high-impact programmes and activities. Young people need to be involved in financial decision-making processes. There are often more cost-effective, innovative ways to connect people, host discussions, and ensure clear outcomes. By involving young people in planning processes and budget discussions, new methods can be created, tested, and put to use, allowing more funds to be dedicated to substantive work.

Young people want to see real change resulting from high-level activities. Kakembo pointed to the waste of resources and the need to redirect them to areas of greater impact. It has been repeatedly noted that Commonwealth-wide meetings have been useful for advocacy, technical discussions, development of policies, and commitments, but they have not automatically resulted in change on-the-ground. For that reason, young people demand higher investments in implementation, follow-up, and impact assessments. Commonwealth institutions need to hold governments accountable—insisting that they follow through on commitments—and support young advocates in the long-term work of agitating for implementation.

This vision for the future of the Commonwealth is not at all far-fetched. It requires significant changes to the way we are accustomed to thinking and working. It is not enough to checkboxes or use inclusive language. Speakers envisioned a discrimination-free, queer and feminist future, where racial and gender justice are a reality. They said that to get there, they need the agency to know, state, and contribute to creating what they want.

In other words, the people being impacted today need to be involved in the design of tomorrow. Emmanuelle prompted us to start with radical imagination. She asked, ‘What do we want our world to be?’ Creating an equitable, just future is not about working within existing systems, but making demands first, and having systems built around the desired outcomes. Young Leaders Speak challenged us to think beyond what we know. We have to dare to envision the world we want. Commonwealth institutions have been called upon to decentralise power, recognise young people’s expertise, direct funding to high-impact activities, and dedicate resources to follow-up on commitments. As for young people, we have to activate our imaginations. The future is being created every day.

Alicia A. Wallace is Director of Equality Bahamas.

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