youth activism

[New School] What should genuine ‘youth empowerment’ look like?

Kara Angan
[New School] What should genuine ‘youth empowerment’ look like?

Graphics by Alejandro Edoria

'[O]n the national and local levels, we’re seeing more young people running for office. It’s clear that we recognize the power formal political spaces hold.'

“Youth empowerment” is one of the biggest buzzwords in the development sector right now – used as mission-vision statements, project or campaign objectives, or the core principle of organizations for youth advocates. Over the past decade, we’ve seen more and more youth organizations and advocates come into local and national spaces.

The onset of the pandemic pushed this one step further. We saw the boom of webinars, information campaigns, profile picture blasts, and fundraisers. The struggles of distance learning mobilized the youth to form coalitions, issue statements, and lobby for decision-makers to protect our interests. We weighed in on and challenged national issues. We were moved by our anger and our frustrations, but also our passion, our love for our communities, and our love for the country. 

Other sectors of society have also thrown their hats into the youth power narrative. With the 2022 national elections coming up, there were countless initiatives targeted towards first-time voters. Groups put “the youth vote” in the spotlight. This is further emphasized by the Comelec report that approximately 52% of total registered voters fall into the youth demographic. That’s 31.41 million Filipinos.

With all these articles, awards, and campaigns to “empower the youth” – we have to start asking: What happens next? What does it really mean to empower the youth?

In an ideal Philippine democracy, empowered sectors run for public office to transform their interests into sustainable, long-term policies that protect their rights. Honestly – and frustratingly – our current politics don’t reflect that. We are ruled by the same political elites on both the national, and, more alarmingly, the local level. Swathes of provinces have been ruled by the same families for as long as half a century. Politics has become a family business. These families treat our experiences on the ground as talking points and empty promises for elections. They say they want to “continue their projects” for the next term, while in truth, development stagnates in their areas.

Now more than ever, we need to build a government that genuinely represents communities on the ground.

For the youth, an avenue for that representation exists: the Sangguniang Kabataan. The Sangguniang Kabataan, together with the Katipunan ng Kabataan, was formalized in the Local Government Code of 1991. At its core, it is a local government body that is supposed to represent and protect youth interests in the barangay. This can be through projects, programs, ordinances, or resolutions. The Sangguniang Kabataan Chairperson also has a seat among the highest ranking barangay officials to represent the youth voice.

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“Youth empowerment” was also a focus in Republic Act No. 10742, or the Sangguniang Kabataan Reform Law of 2015. Through the salient provisions of the law, providing for the Barangay Youth Development Plan and the Local Youth Development Council, the law adds spaces for youth involvement in local policy-making and reform. This avenue – if fully maximized – could serve as a place where young people of different sectors have the power to make changes. More importantly, the 2016 SK Reform Law contains an anti-dynasty provision, a good first step – but still far from the solution – to address rampant nepotism in our country’s politics.

I think that it’s more than safe to say that there are young people on the ground that recognize this potential. We’re students, out-of-school youth, working students, young professionals, community organizers, and activists who just want to see their communities get better. That’s why on the national and local levels, we’re seeing more young people running for office. It’s clear that we recognize the power formal political spaces hold.

However, despite the opportunities for genuine representation in the Sangguniang Kabataan, these structures face difficulties in maximizing their full potential. Some areas have incomplete or no present Sangguniang Kabataan officials, while other areas have officials who are appointed rather than elected. There are also officials who struggle to implement projects due to lack of financial support.

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Highlighting the Sangguniang Kabataan – what it is and what it could be – is important, because this is how we start transforming Philippine politics at the grassroots. When we award or recognize youth advocates or conduct webinars that try to inspire the youth to care about social issues, we have to remember that these cannot exist in a vacuum. Lobbying and organizing is important, but it needs to come hand in hand with champions in our political spaces who know and experience what we go through, who resonate with our experiences. Local leaders like Mayor Vico Sotto should not be the exception, but the rule.

When it comes to issues we care about, such as mental health care, student rights and welfare, accessible education, better job opportunities, freedom from exploitation, and the environment, the only way to solve these problems is through long-term solutions that tackle them at the root. The power to address these lie in our public offices, where laws, ordinances, or programs can create institutionalized and sustainable solutions.

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As we head into next year’s elections, the call from us is clear: local politics are as important as national politics. We’ve especially seen the visceral power of local governments over the pandemic, where they’re the immediate frontliners for policies such as vaccine rollouts and aid distribution.

With talk of barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan elections being moved yet again, it’s time that we reclaim local politics from the elite. It’s time to take a stand. Genuine youth empowerment means taking up space for ourselves in places where we’ve been excluded. It means making a collective push towards a future that we can truly believe in. –

Kara Angan is an AB Political Science student from the Ateneo de Manila University. She is currently the Advocacy and Communications Officer for the Legal Network for Truthful Elections’s (LENTE) Tayo Na! Collaboratory for Young Leaders of Democracy, a program that aims to push community youth leaders to run for the Sangguniang Kabataan in their areas through coalition building, capacity development, and policy advocacy.