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How well are we empowering the next generation?

Haviva Ford, who keeps a journal to record her We activities, says she has found kindred spirits in the youth movement. At a recent Me to We camp ‘ I met so many people that were passionate about the same things as me,’ the Toronto teen says.

Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail

When Haviva Ford was just 8, she decided she wanted to do something to help kids around the world.

Ms. Ford and her mother had been reading Iqbal, a book about a young Pakistani boy who had been sold into slavery, and it made a big impression on her. When a pamphlet came in the mail about fundraising projects for UNICEF, Ms. Ford decided to take action. She organized a bake sale to raise money to fund the organization's School-in-a-Box, which supplies materials for a teacher and 40 students during large-scale health emergencies.

"I wanted to be able to send somebody my age something they didn't have," says Ms. Ford, now 16 and a Grade 11 student in Toronto. "That was the first time I was aware of other conditions around the world."

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Since that first endeavour, Ms. Ford has made leadership in activism a part of her life. She has organized UNICEF fundraisers every year, and she's been involved with worldwide development charity We for more than five years, joining her school's Me to We club in Grade 5 and organizing fundraising campaigns such We Scare Hunger and We Are Silent. Ms. Ford plans to go on a volunteer trip to Ecuador with We and took part in Me to We's Take Action Camp in Peterborough, Ont. this summer.

"It was the best week of my life," says Ms. Ford of her week at camp. "It was cool because I met so many people that were passionate about the same things as me, which was nice when you go to a school where people don't really talk about that."

Ms. Ford says her experiences with We have led her to think about a career in international development, and she's passionate about tackling issues such as child labour and ending the stigma around mental illness. She says that even though she is a teenager, she feels empowered to make change in the world and hopefully influence others to do the same.

"I have never been a very confident or outgoing person, but when I am doing something that is involved with We, I feel like I can do anything," she says.

In a world full of complex challenges, from environmental degradation to disrupted industries and xenophobia, Ms. Ford's positive attitude at such a young age seems like a welcome sign that her generation will be a force to be reckoned with.

But while some teenagers are confidently making waves and leading the charge to do good, what's less clear is how the rest of her cohort is doing. As Canada turns 150, the question looms: How well are we empowering kids to become the leaders of tomorrow?

U.S.-based demographer Neil Howe, who has authored many books on millennials (born in the 1980s and '90s), says it's hard to know what kind of leaders of Ms. Ford's generation will become before they actually get there. (He calls that generation – kids born in the 2000s and beyond – the Homeland Generation, but they are also known as Generation Z). But Mr. Howe says that because they are the children of crisis, never knowing a world without 9/11 and terrorism, they likely have a lot in common with the Silent Generation, who were born between 1925 and 1945.

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"If you look back historically at these children of crisis and war, you find some interesting traits, because they tend to be raised in these periods by parents who are very protective," says Mr. Howe. "As young adults, they tend to be very risk-averse and very well-behaved in general. The Silent Generation grew up as kids during the Great Depression and World War II. They came of age after the crisis, with a famous reputation for fitting in and conformity."

The Silent Generation also tended to be collaborative, he says. "They had all these committees, they loved making sure that everyone was treated fairly. I think that's one of the great strengths of the Silent Generation and it brought us the civil rights revolution and made sure that the law treats individuals fairly. [There's] a lot of empathy with this generation."

Mr. Howe says a movement toward teamwork and community is already well under way with millennials and that will continue with the generation behind them.

"By the time that they come of age, certainly by the time they are leaders, it will be an established fact," he says. "A society which is much more community-oriented, and government that is doing a lot more to serve the needs of people collectively."

Futurist and trends expert Jim Carroll, who has two sons in their early 20s, says that the generation of young people today is very different from any that came before it.

"They've never known a world without the Internet, they've never known a world without a mobile device," he says. "Half the global population right now is under the age of 25, they're entrepreneurial, they're wired, they're collaborative and I think they carry an attitude of philanthropy about them."

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Mr. Carroll says he gets frustrated when people characterize millennials as lazy or entitled because they still live at home with their parents. He feels their collaborative spirit and bond with the baby boomer generation could benefit society in the future.

"Solving the big challenges of our time – energy, education, health care – they know they don't have to do that in isolation, they know they can reach out to peers, to people who share common interests and insights very, very quickly and we never had that capability."

He does see some challenges ahead, though, because of the storm of divergent media bearing down on youth today.

"On the flip side, do they have the patience, depth of understanding to truly understand the world and understand the issues?" he asks. "I mean, my kids, they get their news on Twitter. And so they might be a little bit too quick to judgment."

Jennifer Kolari is a Toronto-based child and family therapist and author of Connected Parenting: How to Raise a Great Kids. She's worked with parents and kids for two decades, and she says that when it comes to empowering our kids, today's parents could be better at it.

"In fairness to the young kids today, they are divergent thinkers, they're passionate, they can think outside the box, and so, in some ways, I would say we've done an okay job," she says.

However, Ms. Kolari sees problems ahead for kids whose parents "snowplow," or constantly clear the way for their kids by removing all adversity from their lives. "Not catastrophic adversity, but the healthy normal struggles that make kids strong, makes them a great leader."

The parents that are up till midnight doing their children's homework or running to school with the forgotten gym shorts are keeping their children from feeling like they can handle challenging circumstances, explains Ms. Kolari.

"I think it's all done from a place of love. We want our children to be happy, but what's actually happening is that children are not having enough negative experiences or healthy adversity to build the emotional hardware in the brain that you need to handle adversity when it comes."

Her message to parents is to trust their children enough to let them figure things out themselves, because that's the path to empowerment.

"Give your kids messages of confidence, listen to them, hear them, connect with them. It's the connection that makes them resilient," she says. "And then step back and say, 'I trust you. You can learn from your mistakes, and mistakes are not terrible things, mistakes are necessary things.' Every mistake we've ever made has helped us improve and be better at something," she says.

Craig Kielburger, co-founder of We, says his organization has made empowering kids one of its main missions, and it has done so by teaching youth they can take responsibility and become leaders even at a young age.

"There's piles of research that show when a young person becomes engaged, they make more responsible life choices," says Mr. Kielburger. "They develop grit and perseverance, they're more likely to succeed academically, they develop life skills, they become active citizens. So all these great things for the young person and then, of course, a huge impact on the causes that they're advancing."

In Mr. Kielburger's view, even young children can learn responsibility and that their actions can have positive influence. That's why We focuses its programming on kids as young as kindergarten-aged.

To help instill a sense of empowerment in children, Mr. Kielburger says it's important to teach them the idea of service.

"If we could get young people involved in service learning at a young age, they learn a sense of responsibility to their community and to the world," he says. He notes a study of youths in the We organization that showed that 19 per cent of their alumni ended up creating something, whether it was a company, a social entrepreneurial enterprise or a non-profit organization.

In Mr. Kielburger's opinion, the best long-term job creation and entrepreneurial project Canada could launch is to ensure every young person gets involved in a meaningful service project. To emphasize the point of youth service, he says We is launching a campaign in honour of Canada's 150th anniversary, asking a million Canadian kids to take a pledge to serve and take action.

"Young people are creating a very different paradigm of addressing the issues of our time, and we have to support them and we have to get out of the way," he says.

For Ms. Ford, being involved in activism has not only strengthened her own confidence, but had an impact on the people around her.

"Now that I'm able to be more confident and speak up about [my activism], more and more of my friends are actually interested in it, which is really cool," she says.

She has this advice for kids wanting to take charge and pursue an activist project of their own: "Do it, and don't be afraid."

The We effect

A 2014-15 study by Mission Measurement found that kids involved in We programs were more interested in school, more likely to be leaders and more likely to work better in teams. In the study, 70 per cent of We participants said that as a result of their involvement, they became strong leaders, and 81 per cent said their experience helped them identify career goals.

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About the Author

Shelley White is a freelance writer, editor, video producer and mother of twins. Before taking the plunge into the wild world of freelance work, she produced educational programming at TVO, explored digital culture at the late lamented Shift magazine and entertained young minds at MuchMusic. More

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