Dr. Aminata Sillah delivered the University of the Gambia’s Convocation Lecture on February 26th, 2022, with a title that captured the essence of her work for equality and greater access for young people.
More than a convocation address, the moment was an ardent call to action by a persona deeply committed to the cause of young people.
“The Role of Youth in shaping the future of the Gambia – Stolen future or opportunity for bold leadership? Took young graduates of the 2022 cohort through a provocative subject challenging them to do their utmost best in a real-world vastly detached from the realm of academia.
Dr. Amina Sillah tells the TAT Big Interview why youths need to take a committed approach to growth after graduation.
1. Activism has found new grounds for impact with increasing youth awareness and emerging platforms for outreach expanded by social media. But is the generational call for action being truly heeded amid new global challenges, inequality, and pandemics?
Thank you for having me on TAT. It’s an honor to be featured and a privilege to talk about issues close to my heart. I hope it resonates with others and encourages them to act.
We live in a shrinking world where the flutter of one challenge or pandemic can be felt in other parts of the world. While inequality has long been an issue, the pandemic exacerbated and raised global inequality. We see the poor, women, children, and young people being pushed further and further into poverty. Now, we have the “New Poor” these are the millions being pushed into poverty globally, and we as a country is not exempt.
To your question, there is nothing like a crisis to illustrate how interconnected we are. There are no isolated crises or actions. This generation is truly global; they have been brought up in a globalized, technology-filled world and are not averse to solving problems collaboratively. So yes, since I’m an optimist who believes in the innovative powers and energy of young people, they will heed and are heeding the global call to action to tackle societal ills and wicked problems.
Globally, the workforce will increasingly be African. Africa is currently the youngest continent in the world and will continue for the next several decades. By 2075, according to the World Bank, the youth population in Africa will exceed that of India and China combined. Africa’s young and growing population positions the region well to realize the benefits of a demographic dividend. However, I caution that we hold on from celebrating too soon. The economic growth experienced over the past decade has not translated into job creation or equity for young people. Young people have been impacted the most by soaring unemployment rates – they have found it difficult to find gainful and meaningful employment. Joblessness restricts their future and drives many to make difficult choices.
2. Are nations investing enough in education and youth mentoring to shape much-needed cohorts of leaders for our sustainability drive?
We need to do more and do better for young people. I work with many young people across the globe, and one of their main asks has always been for access. Access can mean getting a seat at the table and being involved in decisions made for them instead of with them. Access could also mean be giving them the resources they need in the form of mentors, social capital, and capital to start or scale up their businesses. Finally, we must invest in our young people’s leadership. As society changes and as inequality and other societal challenges take their toll, we must provide young people with the tools to shape the future they want.
As I mentioned, investing in the correct type of leaders who can harness and unlock the potential of young people goes a long way in shaping and improving the life outcomes of young people. However, their voices must guide our efforts. I am a huge proponent of doing with and not for young people. My point here is you cannot start building programs for young people by starting from a deficit point of view. They must be included, and we must recognize what young people offer. Their potential to lead. They should be involved in programs and projects – from the envisioning to the planning and implementation. Let’s put in place mentors and allies to help them.
3. Today’s young people are struggling for growth amid wars, pandemics, and widening inequality. What would a committed drive towards youth empowerment look like?
This is such a great question. I appreciate you lifting it. We must challenge the status quo that young people do not know what they want. One thing we must contend with is really what we mean about an empowered youth. When you look at young people in the Gambia, they have been involved in changing the world around them. We see them organizing and protesting injustices.
I think their passion and voice have convinced us to take them seriously, that they know what they want and can be driver of societal changes. So we must move beyond the workshops on “youth empowerment” and be very intentional about how we view empowering young people. Empowerment means we listen to young people’s voices, honor them, involve them in the decision-making process, understand their ideas, and be willing to implement them.
Empowerment also means that we are willing to share power. I know many leaders are not fans of this thought, but by sharing passion, you stand to gain more control.
At the core of youth empowerment, we have to believe that young people are capable of incredible things. If we can’t believe this, we might as well continue playing lip service to the idea of youth empowerment. When we expose young people to ideas and give them opportunities, there is no limit to their protentional. Youth empowerment is essential, and it provides our young people the courage not to be swayed by others but to go after what they believe – convictions.
4. The pandemic was a defining moment for social stability, underscoring futuristic problems on course to impede emerging generations. But, are we preparing young people to embrace and navigate global uncertainties?
I think the current global situation – climate change, global financial crisis, rising inequalities, and the pandemic has created uncertainties about the future of young people. From the eldest to the youngest citizen, we have all been impacted by the social and economic consequences of a changing world. Are we preparing young people to navigate these uncertainties? Not really!
With the rapid changes we are experiencing, we need to arm our young people with the right mix of tools to thrive amid the complexities of our society. It is hard to predict what calamity is ahead of us, but hubris has taught us that we are becoming more divided. I don’t think we have given our young people guardrails to provide directions, we don’t have a unifying directive for them, and in some cases, we use young people for our gains.
5. Young people are your passion, but structures for growth don’t often favor them in settings of limited opportunities, Are youths responding to the call to shape their own futures?
Well, young people do hold the key to creating a better future. However, we also must understand that they are the most affected by today’s crisis. Think about it: they are coming of age in a world bombarded by the crisis. We also cannot allow these converging crises to stifle the creativity of young people.
They are responding, and I think they understand their role and power. They have the social production of power – that is, the power. The ability to gather in massive numbers to demand change. However, it goes back to whether we are preparing the; for instance, the role of the Gambian youth is drastically changing, but so too are some of the challenges facing them.
The strength of any society is within the strength and resolve of its youth – what investment can young people make in our country today? And what investments are we making with them? (NOTICE I SAID WITH THEM AND NOT FOR THEM). Interestingly, our policy documents portray the youth, on the one hand, as “the hope for the future” and, on the other, as a disadvantaged and vulnerable group. We need to lean into one or the other (SAY WHY)
6. We’re graduating thousands of young scholars from university annually; how do we influence youths to become more entrepreneurial amid a deepening socioeconomic crisis slowing the job market?
When young people are gainfully employed and financially independent, they will contribute to the growth of their communities and families. However, when we look at the Gambia today, many of our youth face barriers to accessing employment and entrepreneurship. They experience specific vulnerabilities within the labor market due to their age. Age becomes a liability when they first seek employment – they lack the experience, professional networks, or market-desired skills that limited job opportunities can compound.
We must start nurturing youth-led startups or expanding internships and apprenticeship programs to help build skills and experiences for young people in traditional and entrepreneurial jobs. Expanding on these employment and entrepreneurship initiatives for our young people in the short term will reduce poverty, contribute to sustainable development, and foster social inclusion.
7. Are we offering enough skill-building and startup opportunities for youths to participate in productive industries?
We have to make substantial improvements in offerings for youth education and skills development. Programs and policies must strengthen the quality and provide skill-building opportunities at all levels. We must meet young people where they are. The focus of these efforts should be inclusive, ensuring that specific populations, such as girls and young women, rural youth, and young people with disabilities, are not left behind.
8. When you tell young graduates, “do your very best to thrive out there,” how much of this predictive truth escapes young people at the defining ceremony of certification?
I don’t think anyone should tell young people to do their best to “thrive out there” without ensuring they have created the environment for them to thrive. We cannot ignore that young people in this country face numerous challenges in their economic development. To reap the dividend of young people, we must first create the environment that will allow them to thrive, create, take charge, and disrupt the status quo. When we do this, we can then talk about the truth escaping them.
9. There’s renewed focus on UTG’s social and scientific research programs, leveling curriculums to meet national needs. Can this influence a turning point to broaden access to development and educational needs?
I like that this is happening, which could be vital in changing the social and economic landscape of Gambia. The big concern will always be we mitigate the mismatch between curriculum and job market demands. Further, access to education and skills development opportunities is critical to young people’s success and productivity. Hopefully, research at the UTG can inform our policies.
I am very optimistic that we will become a better country because of our young people.
Who is Dr. Aminata Sillah, PhD?
Dr. Sillah is an educator, skilled researcher, policy analyst, trainer, social entrepreneur, management and human resource analyst, international development analyst, and an experienced urban policy analyst. She has over 15 years of experience in research, teaching, curriculum development, and international development.
Along with a colleague, she established the Empowering Communities Project (ECP), a capacity-building project for organizations working on youth and educational issues in the inner city of Baltimore. This program offers opportunities for community-based organizations to expand their work while providing her students interested in urban issues the chance to hone their advocacy, community, and civic engagement skills. Her research is at the intersection of civic engagement, community development, and comparative public administration.
Dr. Sillah has published widely in the field of public administration, political science, international development, and nonprofit management, including several peer-reviewed journal publications and book chapters.
In 2018, she received the Civic Engagement Faculty Fellowship from Towson University. In 2020, she also bagged the Diversity and Inclusion Fellowship from Towson University. In addition, she has been recognized through merits by her department for service and teaching.
Aminata’s latest book: Hope is Not Dead: Doing Time in “Bakary Banjul’s” Five Star Hotel, tells the story of Fanta Darboe Jawara’s harrowing Time through the Gambia’s penal system.
Dr. Sillah is the CEO of Global Youth Innovation Network, a youth-led network for young entrepreneurs and rural micro-enterprises committed to ending hunger as change agents and innovators, driven by the passion for seeing generational transformations from the grassroots to the global level.
She is also the president of Jurarim Organization of Youth Excellence (www.giftofjoye.org) an organization promoting Youth Excellence by providing healthy environments for learning.
She is a Fulbright campus advisor, a Tony Elumelu Mentor, and faculty advisor for the National Society of Collegiate Scholars who sits on the board of several academic and research associations, including the Section on African Public Administration (SAPA) of the American Society of Public Administration (ASPA) and the Emerging Scholars group of Association for Research on Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations (ARNOVA).
Outside her work, Dr. Sillah likes to travel with her husband of 18 years and two children.