“We Keep Underestimating the Power of Youth”
How do young people shape a more just world? Pan-African activist, feminist and blogger Aya Chebbi shares her view on inequality and the special role of the youth in initiating change.
What are the major issues that need to change so that we live in a world with less inequality?
The fundamental understanding of inequality should be that issues are intersectional. A lot of people experience layers of marginalization: They can suffer from bad economic conditions, have experienced being a refugee and be female, for example. We are dealing with every aspect individually – that’s one reason we are not advancing when it comes to fighting for equality. When you go to the streets you see the youth movement fighting for youth rights and the women’s movement fighting for gender equality – but they are both sharing the same goal: They are all interested in equality. When we understand that all these issues are connected the way we deal with that challenge in our policies and programs must be intersectional.
Right now, we see a lot of young people at the forefront of activism. How would you describe the role of the youth when it comes to creating a world that is more just?
We continue to underestimate the power of youth because we think that owning power is when you are a minister or head of state. But young people hold so much power in their on- and offline communities and in the work they do. One reason is that this generation – partly my generation – is very interconnected. We don't recognize borders or language disparities. There's no limit, we can communicate with each other in any way, anywhere. That’s power. Looking back at the last ten years, there has been a huge rise of youth movements. From Africa, where we had at least ten uprisings, to the Occupy Movement to projects that happened in Europe, the U.S. or Hong Kong. What world would we live in if it wasn't for that movement building and for people standing up for their rights, pushing and changing policies?
Young people are often disproportionally affected by inequality. Why do you think the youth is so often left behind?
It always depends on the context. Let me give the example of Africa: In that continent the people in power are not representative of the population. Africa is the youngest continent in the world and still young people are marginalized and not valued. They see people in power as corrupt old men. And I think the establishment feels threatened by the young population because the millennial generation is fighting for their voice. I am part of this. The revolution in Tunisia started during my graduation year. Back then we were living under censorship, it was suffocating. Protesting in the streets was empowering and, thus, I made the decision to either die for freedom or that’s it.
Was there a tipping point for you to raise your voice?
I've been quite rebellious since I was young because of my gender. But when the revolution came I was surprised by what I could do: To be on the front line, to have live bullets, to get jailed or arrested. I never thought I was courageous enough to do any of this. But when I started protesting I became part of a bigger fight. I was one of thousands of people in the streets fighting - that’s where my activism started. Of course I was scared in the beginning. But then two things happened: One, I got arrested the first time. I was beaten and humiliated. This experience left me more determined – what worse could happen? And secondly, the feeling when president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali left, that it was actually worth it. I think in that moment, I felt completely fearless. Nothing seemed impossible to do anymore. I had gotten my freedom – and I had done it with a lot of people.
How does an individual fight turn into a collective one?
It’s providing a space. For us it was the streets - a public space where everyone can have her voice heard. For example, when we organize youth forums, we book a huge hall and have young people talking about their issues. Because sometimes, especially in countries where three people in a café would be considered plotting a revolution, they can't even find a space to speak. It does not have to be a physical space though. The digital became a collective space for us as well because we started to create groups, organized and coordinated. Here, you can create communities with people you have never met but who you share values with. Both spaces are powerful.
is a multi award-winning Pan-African feminist. She rose to prominence as a voice for democracy and as a political blogger during Tunisia’s Revolution 2010/2011. She served as the first ever African Union Special Envoy on Youth and as the youngest diplomat at the African Union Commission Chairperson’s Cabinet. She received the Gates Campaign Award and was named in Forbes Africa’s 50 Most Powerful Women.
What did you learn about power structures and how to change them?
After working with NGOs and in diplomacy I feel I'm more useful to activism than before. I now understand how power works within the system. And I think in the youth movement we are good at mobilizing, and finding a system, but we need to be good within the system, too. When I went into the system my mindset shifted in terms of understanding power. It is not enough to change one person. We must transform the whole institution to achieve our goals. We need to be on the streets but we also need to be at the table, otherwise we are missing out on the conversation. Sometimes the decision makers would look from their windows to the protest and feel nothing. But if you really make them uncomfortable within, not as a protestor, but as someone who is writing the concept, passing the memo, changing the dynamic of how decisions are made, then there’s pressure.
How can we as institutions support youth movements engaging for a world with less inequality?
By empowering existing things that work: When we see impact, let's scale it up. Because in many youth initiatives that are working people say “I'm inspired, great idea” - but then show no support. Really identifying those impactful initiatives that have the potential to have greater impacts and supporting them is one aspect. The second thing is to amplify diverse voices and really giving them a platform to engage with policymakers.