Senior Leadership: It’s Time to Share Your Power

By Catherine Lane, Director, Adolescents and Youth Portfolio, FP2030

Cate Lane is the Director of the Adolescents and Youth Portfolio at FP2030. She has worked to advance the sexual and reproductive health and rights of young people for 30 years. In this first-person essay, she advocates for better partnership with young people and encourages the most senior leadership in this arena to better share their space.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit a highly regarded nongovernmental organization (NGO) in Maharashtra, India. Like many NGOs, this one was founded by a charismatic and visionary man, who was passionate about improving the sexual and reproductive health of women and adolescents and ending early marriage.

After this leader had tirelessly led the organization for nearly 30 years, donors who had invested substantially in the organization were concerned that if he were to suddenly resign — or even pass away — the NGO and all the resources invested in establishing and sustaining his organization risked collapse. The donors were interested in helping this organization develop a plan to identify and groom a successor and to map out a succession plan that would ensure continued implementation of its popular and well-regarded programs. While the NGO recognized the importance of having a succession plan, the leader had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that at some point the organization would be run by someone else. Personally, I could see it would take some convincing.

I’ve reflected about this interaction over the years, especially in relation to my own experiences working to advance the sexual and reproductive health and rights of young people. In fact, I’ve observed this same phenomenon throughout my career: For many of us, the passion we have for this field is our reason to get up in the morning — yet perhaps this very passion blinded us to the reality that many of the young people we work with today are not program beneficiaries but active holders of ideas and solutions. Young people are no longer waiting for “the elders” to make change happen — young people today are demanding change and are clearing stating what needs to change.

Over a long career, I’ve had the pleasure of working almost exclusively with adolescents and young people, as both colleagues and clients. I love the energy, enthusiasm, optimism, ideas, and curiosity of young people. I’ve learned a lot from them, and I hope they’ve learned from me. But what’s become increasingly apparent to me are increasingly intense feelings of frustration on the part of young people at being tokenized or trivialized, at not being listened to seriously, at not being treated like professionals, and impatience with the status quo. Recently, an old friend and I were talking about his experiences as a college student, volunteering for an organization that was addressing hunger and poverty around the world, and his still deeply felt frustration that ‘if the adults had just gotten out of our way, we could have achieved some real progress!’” We had a good laugh over that because really, not much has changed.

In the 27 years since the International Conference on Population and Development, family planning programs have repeatedly acknowledged the importance of youth participation in any policy, program, or initiative that is developed for young people, yet effective, meaningful, and institutionalized forms of participation still seem to elude us. We struggle to define the “right” outcomes of youth participation: Is it improved contraceptive uptake? The development of important life skills among young people who participate? We think these arguments miss the mark. In our view, young people should participate because it’s simply their right. Young people have a right to participate, and organizations have a responsibility to champion and facilitate their effective participation.

FP2030 is embracing the full participation of young people at all levels of the partnership. And we believe one of the most important ways we can achieve full participation is through fostering honest, trustworthy, respectful, and equitable relationships between adults and young people. In a word: partnership. FP2030 is entirely framed as committed to building and leveraging partnerships with government, donors, civil society, the private sector, academia, and so on, to achieve our vision of a world where all women and girls can obtain and use contraception to prevent, plan, or space pregnancies. We’ve stumbled a bit in our efforts to fully integrate young people into the partnership, but we acknowledge that we can and will do better to build and sustain effective partnerships with young people and youth-led organizations. We will do this through equity of opportunity, investments in leadership and management skills, and support to secure the resources they need to engage as equal partners.

Still, what I’ve come to realize is that the complexities of adolescent sexual and reproductive health cannot be solved by well-meaning NGOs led by adults who clutch their pearls over the tragedy of teen pregnancy. They also can’t be solved only by scrappy, passionate, youth-led organizations that are fired up over the inequities and vulnerabilities they face every day.

I recall a conversation with some peer educators in Zambia when I went to conduct an informal assessment of an HIV prevention program among urban youth. It was a hot, dusty day, but the peer educators received me enthusiastically and showed me around their community, discussing their awareness-raising activities and condom distribution efforts, even in the face of community opposition.

I asked what could be done to better support their efforts, and the group mood shifted immediately. The subject of compensation came up first; this program paid a modest and much appreciated stipend to the peer educators. What they didn’t appreciate was the “wahala” [the trouble] they often experienced to get this bit of cash; the program required them to travel at their own expense to the distant project office to submit and sign receipts. When they did make it into the project offices, they found well-dressed adults, sitting at desks in air-conditioned offices, collecting generous salaries paid by an American NGO. Too often they were sent away without their stipend because the project or finance officer happened to be out. While this was a frustration for all the peer educators, underlying the concrete issue of compensation was a more nuanced feeling that they were neither acknowledged nor respected by the adults in the project office.

And to me, that is the crux of the problem: respect. As adults, bosses, teachers, and parents, we demand the respect of young people, but too often we do not similarly show this respect to the young people with whom we work. Could it be that lack of respect is grounded in a bit of fear? Young people today are better educated, better tapped into global movements, and better prepared to argue their case than they used to be.

It’s often said that young people are the future of any country, and there is a huge difference between countries that invest in their young people and those that don’t. Similarly, today’s young advocates, youth leaders, and youth-led efforts are committed to advancing the sexual and reproductive rights of their peers, and they are the future of family planning. What will happen to the family planning movement if we don’t adequately invest in and support our young colleagues? Just like the organization I visited in India, the family planning field needs a better, more intentional succession plan that ensures that today’s youth leaders can seamlessly transition into middle and senior leadership and sustain forward momentum.