Noel S. Selegzi

Promoting Open Debate: New technologies advance adolescents’ civic responsibility

New information, communications and media technologies have made it easier for adolescents to participate in the debates that determine public policy. Youth participation not only increases the likelihood that policymakers will respond to young people’s needs and concerns, it also helps adolescents better understand diverse viewpoints. It teaches them to persuade using the force of argument, not the argument of force.

Left to their own digital devices, adolescents will not necessarily develop the skills needed to engage in fair, open and rational debates on the complex, controversial issues affecting their lives. While most young people can figure out how to use a cell phone, computer or blogging platform on their own, few will independently learn how to critically examine the influence these technologies have on their world. Internet access alone will not help adolescents understand the value of free, independent media. It will not impress upon them the importance of the rights to free expression, assembly and access to information in ensuring fair and inclusive public debates that yield legitimate results. For these reasons, the Open Society Foundations’ Youth Initiative focuses on promoting debate and civic participation.

As part of the Youth Initiative, the Debate programme works to identify, inspire, empower and learn from a network of young, active citizens who can mobilize and influence large numbers of their peers to promote open society ideals. The programme provides adolescents – particularly those from less privileged backgrounds – with the opportunity to engage in vital discussions about issues that shape their communities.

Already developed and supported in over 50 countries, the Debate programme has recently expanded. In Syria, it supports the training of debate coaches at community centers, the creation of training resources in Arabic and an interactive Arabic-language website. In Asia, the Youth Initiative supports a Mandarin-language Debate programme for students from China's leading universities. The initiative has also introduced organized debates for rural youth in Latin America through a network of community libraries in Guatemala and Honduras.

The Debate programme works with its spin-off organization, the International Debate Education Association (IDEA), which was founded by the Open Society Foundations. IDEA supports independent debate programmes around the world and organizes trainings and competitions.

A debate-team champion from Kosovo, Ramadan (‘Dani’) Ilazi, an ethnic Albanian, won scholarships to study civics in Bulgaria, Slovenia and the United States. Dani and his family fled their homeland at the time of the Kosovo war in 1999. Today he leads an organization called Levizja FOL (Speak Out), which not only holds public figures accountable by exposing their misdeeds, but also uses debate to educate people about their civic responsibilities.

At the 2008 IDEA Youth Forum, Dani told us, “There are bad guys and there are good guys. The bad guys cannot stand dissenting opinions. I was faced with people who history tells me not to like. We debated with each other in one team without knowing our countries of origin. Later on my teammate asked me where I came from. I replied, ‘Kosovo’. She was in utter shock for a few seconds. Only later on did I realize she was from Serbia. The idea that you are meeting and debating together with people from different, often controversial, backgrounds is amazing.

“Everybody who is a debater is also an activist. Because once you get into the world of debate, you just cannot stop. I would recommend it to anyone. Debate will influence your life in a positive way. It has changed my life and the life of my friends. It will change yours, I assure you.”

This summer, we are collaborating with other parts of the Open Society Foundations, such as the Media Program and national foundations, in designing and field-testing a curriculum that encourages and prepares young people to engage in the democratic discourse of the new millennium. The curriculum posits that in an age of participatory media, adolescents are not passive consumers but will increasingly produce and share media themselves. It does not assume that young people will have access to cutting-edge technology; instead, it is based on the idea that young people, when equipped with inexpensive and readily available media tools and properly trained, can create quality content and advocate on their own behalf on issues important to them.

The challenge adolescents face is not learning how to express themselves using available technology, it is ensuring that they understand the role of an independent media in an open society so that when they use new tools – either to report on what is happening around them or to engage in a public debate – they know how to do so effectively and responsibly.

Noel Selegzi is a Program Director at the Open Society Foundations. He directs the Open Society Youth Initiative, which works to promote youth participation in public policy debates globally.

Panels

The global state of adolescents; the challenges they face in health, education, protection and participation; and the risks and vulnerabilities of this pivotal stage are looked at closely in a series of panels in the report, available as a PDF.

Essays

Adults and adolescents were invited to give their perspectives on the critical issues facing adolescents in the 21st century.