Polycrisis: a single term to encapsulate the countless ways today’s world is falling short of our hopes. As adults, we shoulder the responsibility of repairing what we inherited before passing it on to the next generation. However, one of the biggest levers we can pull to solve today’s global challenges lies in our youth.
Young people bring a sense of urgency to the table. Following in the footsteps of Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg, a new generation of youth activists is making its mark. Thanasi Dilos, the cofounder of Civics Unplugged, empowers high schoolers to become active citizens and social entrepreneurs. Sophia Kianni is using her voice at the global level for climate activism. Aidan Kohn-Murphy is using TikTok to promote public discourse and civic engagement.
Having witnessed the Arab Spring, I can attest to the transformative power of young people when equipped with an Internet connection. But a decade on, that movement has fallen short of disrupting systems. Society and social impact leaders in particular have an opportunity to ensure that today’s civic activism — engaging in discourse and creating solutions for communities — fosters more equitable and sustainable outcomes for everyone, but especially local communities with intricate issues. To help achieve this, we must focus on closing the digital divide, providing funding and support, and creating real-world opportunities for change.
The first step is applying critical thinking skills to benefit civic action. Misinformation and the digital divide present significant barriers to meaningful engagement. The advent of generative artificial intelligence has made it exponentially harder to discern fact from fiction. By fostering critical thinking and enhancing digital literacy, we can debunk misinformation and nurture more informed and equitable activists. The work of organizations like Media Literacy Now showcases how youth can learn how to navigate and consume the news in productive ways.
Through innovation challenges, we at MIT Solve have witnessed firsthand the groundbreaking tech solutions that emerge when young innovators receive funding like unrestricted grants, and support like connections to potential corporate partners and mentor figures. Devshi Mehrotra, CEO and cofounder of JusticeText, developed nationally recognized software that aids public defenders in analyzing body-camera evidence, ultimately benefiting low-income criminal defendants by ensuring fairer trials. Mehrotra and her team have served over 1,000 attorneys, investigators, and support staff, spanning more than 100 public defense agencies, nonprofit service providers, and private practice firms. JusticeText has also just partnered with the Committee for Public Counsel Services, an agency that provides legal representation to those who cannot afford it.
The rest of us can offer and provide support in campaigning, marketing, networking, and resources — and, eventually, by getting out of the way. Generation Citizen is engaging young people through project-based civics education. The organization believes in sharing power across all stages of the learning process. Generation Citizen has helped to educate over 28,000 middle and high school students across 152 schools where the students lead their own learning with the support of educators.
Engaging young people is not just a moral imperative, it is also a strategic one. By investing in our youth and promoting civic engagement, we can help shape a generation of passionate, informed, and engaged citizens ready to tackle the challenges of tomorrow and make a lasting impact on the world around them.
Hala Hanna is executive director of MIT Solve, which is hosting a public plenary during its annual flagship event May 4 on MIT’s campus.