Breaking from his mother tongue of French so that the English-speaking audience could understand him clearly without the assistance of the translators squawking through the earpieces: “I just want to say one thing.  In my home country [Burundi], they are killing young people like me every day for speaking out against the government.” He spoke slowly but fearlessly, with the defiance of a young man now living in political exile for trying to exercise his inalienable rights and political freedoms.

With these words, our young friend set the tone of the entire Generation Democracy conference last month. And thinking back over the year since we launched Generation Democracy, it is moments like this that I will remember for the rest of my life – moments that remind me that IRI’s work really makes a difference in peoples’ lives.

People think that the perk of this job is the travel.  They’re not wrong; but they’re missing half of the equation.  The real benefit is getting to meet the people who will become the next Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, or Abraham Lincoln – the people who have not only the passion to change the world by giving a voice to the voiceless but also the courageous drive to make it happen, no matter the odds.  We are fortunate enough to see the world, but it’s meeting tomorrow’s leaders that leaves the lasting impression. 

I have been working with Generation Democracy from the beginning; and this week marks one year since we first started Generation Democracy programming on the African continent.  Last October in Dakar, Senegal, IRI brought together 45 young political party and civil society leaders from seven countries in West Africa (Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal) for a leadership workshop and skills training.  During the conference, the participants shared their experiences in their countries as well as the difficulties they face in trying to advocate for and claim greater inclusion and representation of young people in political processes at home.  On the final day of the conference, the participants collaborated to provide feedback on a document that became known as the Dakar Declaration and serves both as the foundation for Generation Democracy’s global expansion and a statement of the core principles guiding the network.

This year, we moved to East Africa to reach out to the next generation of democratic leaders from that region.  As in Dakar, we gathered a group of 37 young people from eight countries in East Africa (Burundi, Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda) to try to build off last year’s successes and share their stories about trying to shape the world into the more democratic place that we want it to be. 

It was during the first few hours of this conference that our aforementioned Burundian friend shared with the audience his experiences living in a nation so ravaged by ongoing political violence. His statement brought a hush to the room as the audience began to grapple with the reality of what it must be like living in exile from one’s homeland as a result of trying to bring reforms, while simultaneously having to watch from a distance as his country plunged into political turmoil.

When I planned the agenda for the conference, I’d set aside time for representatives from each country to discuss their country’s political situation and had merely placed Burundi as the first panel because it came first alphabetically.  Though it was largely unintentional, the Burundi panel defined how the Generation Democracy members would interact over the course of the next three days – with constant respect for, understanding of and camaraderie with other young activists.  And again, just as we did in Dakar, the Generation Democracy team collaborated with the participants to develop the Dar Es Salaam Declaration (“Dar Declaration” for short) to encapsulate the vision, values and spirit of activism inculcated by the group throughout the conference.

The East Africans brought their unique flair to the message that they wanted to convey through their declaration: while the Dakar Declaration is about ideals and principles, the Dar Declaration is about action.  The Dar Declaration outlines the political barriers to the equal participation of young people in political life and then resolves that we, as Generation Democracy members, will take concrete steps to address these challenges so that our movement will not only focus on problems but also look toward solutions to fix them.

Reading through the Dar Declaration, it is plain to see that the whole group was struck by the words of our Burundian colleague and friend, as there are numerous references to speaking up for the voiceless and claiming political space for those who are not able to speak for themselves.  There are promises to support other young people with their own struggles to claim their political rights and be included in the politics of their countries.  There are even vows to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and ethical political participation, ensuring that all people will be able to voice their thoughts, even if we disagree with their message.  

Looking back at the conference as a whole, that first moment is still a palpable memory for me and was clearly on the minds of our East African participants at the time as well.  However, something beautiful came out of his story of adversity: the relationship that binds the Generation Democracy network was strengthened.  We could all sympathize with his experience, even if we could not begin to grasp what it was like to actually live in Burundi every day over the last 18 months.  This sympathy shines through in the Dar Declaration, as we all came together to declare that we, as youth, will support one another regardless of our nationality, race, religion, or social standing.  We shared the realization that we are all youth and must work together to shape the future.

This mutual commitment to unify as a coalition of young people underlies Generation Democracy at its core.  And as I look back on the past year since Dakar and the weeks since Dar Es Salaam, I cannot help but be excited about the future of Generation Democracy and all that will come from this movement and a united network of young people around the globe both motivated by the principles outlined in the Dakar Declaration and ready to take action as outlined by the Dar Declaration.

Our goal at Generation Democracy is to ensure that stories like those told by our Burundian brother are a thing of the past as young people claim our seat at the table and shape the world into the freer, fairer and more democratic place that we want it to be.

It has been a busy year for Generation Democracy, and I look forward to all that the network will do in the years to come.

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