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How the Term “Expert” Became a Significant Part of EMpower’s Lexicon and Culture of Centring Young People

Posted 14 February 2024 in EMpower News   |   Share

By Tanvi Mishra 

“Experts. If you’ve recently learnt about EMpower, you’re going to come across this word often on our social channels and in other external communications. You will rarely see us use it for any other group of people except youth. Of course, adolescents and young people (ages 10-24) make up our target population. But ever wonder why we call them experts? 

As a communications professional, I recognise how important terminology and the words we choose to use are. 

Definition Then vs. Now 

I’m going to start with the basics (no, really!). A quick online search will reveal this definition of “expert” by Oxford languages, Google’s default English dictionary: “A person who is very knowledgeable about or skilful in a particular area.” 

Historically, the word would almost immediately evoke the image of a man whose hairs are greying, poring over tomes on his desk, ready with an immediate answer to all possible queries related to his subject matter. Over time, convention has made room for women, but it is still a highly elite term representing a group of people wielding academic and professional power and seen as possessing an incomparable knowledge in their respective fields. 

However, in the last two decades or so, as the systems that produce and distribute knowledge decentralised and democratised—not enough if you ask me—the word has evolved in the popular imagination. It has started donning a more casual attire and expanded to include those with diverse and lived experiences, creating space for multiple truths and vulnerability.  

Youth as Valued Experts 

At EMpower, when we refer to young people as experts, this is the definition that we go by. Our partners work in some of the most marginalised and underserved communities around the world. Young people from these communities, who are supported by the programmes that EMpower funds, have valuable on-the-ground insights and wisdom shaped through an intimate understanding of their context. Going beyond grantmaking, EMpower has tapped into this network of young people, bringing them onboard as strategic thought partners in varying capacities and to influence and shape what we do. 

A Practice of Centring Young People 

For over 10 years now, we have made it an intentional practice to centre young people. We carry it out with utmost care, thoughtfulness, and honesty—no shortcuts. We have invested resources to facilitate processes that serve both as a playground for young people to embark on a journey of transformation, and for us to learn from their feedback. When we started engaging young people, there weren’t many other funders who were doing this. It gave us the runway to be creative and to push boundaries. 

Experts in Action

In 2012, we launched the Adolescent Girls Learning Community (LC) with humble beginnings in a classroom in Mumbai. Today, it has grown into a thriving entity comprising adolescent girl leaders in over three Indian cities, mobilising to collectively lead change in their communities. They stand up for themselves and for each other, and rally through the lanes they call home, demanding action. Streetlights have been installed, playgrounds have been reclaimed, and toilets have been fixed, all thanks to the grit and unwavering efforts of these girl leaders, matched by the unrelenting support of our partners. In many ways, the LC became the bedrock on which we built more girl-led and -centred initiatives. 

When I was in Rajasthan last year to capture our work there through a film, the girl leaders I met spoke of their dreams and aspirations with striking clarity: they spoke about being comfortable in their own skin, enjoying leisure time away from assigned household chores, and of taking on the patriarchal mindsets in their communities through small yet potent efforts. I was captivated by their resolve—it felt like a new dawn was on the horizon. 

And beyond India, Youth Fellowships are in motion in multiple regions where EMpower has a presence; they are uniquely tailored as per the needs identified by our programme team in each region and to suit their specific contexts and thematic focus areas. 

In Indonesia, we co-designed a Youth Consultation, engaging over 130 young people in participatory research to shape EMpower’s regional strategy and further advance our work to ensure young people can lead safe and healthy lives. Currently, five Fellows are working to co-develop further youth-led research and programmes this year. 

Meanwhile, six Youth Fellows in Mexico are supporting the team in Latin America and thinking about strategies that can help integrate young people in the regional Community of Practice we facilitate there. They’re also gathering input from peers that can help inform our country strategy in Mexico. 

In South Africa, where we support programmes to empower young people to build their resilience in the face of significant stress, challenges, or trauma, four Fellows will be collaborating with other youth to implement projects on mental health and well-being. They will provide comments on our country strategy and be involved in learning sessions to explore Participatory Action Research Methodologies, in order to better understand the current mental health landscape. 

These engagements present Youth Fellows opportunities to practice active leadership, decision-making, and bring their ideas, experiences, and expertise to the forefront. Through the Fellowships, we envision them playing even more impactful roles in their communities/and or organisations. 

An Exciting Journey Ahead 

Engaging young people is a constant circle of learning and unlearning with a strong willingness to adapt. It means recognising that as funders, we play a critical role in co-creating spaces where young people feel equipped to challenge existing structural barriers and have the receptive ecosystem they need to be true changemakers. What makes the adventure even more worthwhile is the allyship of our peers, with whom we have collaborated on so many meaningful programmes that advance youth leadership. 

Meeting young people fills me with immense hope for the future, and I am inspired by EMpower’s approach. As we continue to strengthen our practice, they will be our guiding lights—the experts we look up to. 

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