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Adolescents and youth

Panel explores advances and challenges facing indigenous youth in a digital world

© UNICEF/2009/Markisz
Ursula A. Johnson, a member of the Mi'kmaw First Nation of Eskasoni, Nova Scotia, and Director of the Kitpu Youth Centre, participated in the ‘Taking advocacy digital: Emerging online indigenous networks’ discussion held at UNICEF House on 21 May 2009. She is holding a traditional hand drum.

By Vivian Siu

NEW YORK, USA, 22 May 2009 – UNICEF sponsored a panel with representatives of various indigenous youth groups at its headquarters in New York yesterday, as a side event of the Eighth Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

The panel – ‘Taking advocacy digital: Emerging online indigenous networks’ – addressed the progress of indigenous young people, and the obstacles they face, as they engage the global community in the digital age. The event also aimed to foster a better understanding of UNICEF’s work with indigenous populations and provided updates on UNICEF programmes affecting youth in these communities.

© UNICEF/2009/Markisz
Ben Powless, 23, a member of the Six Nations, a climate justice campaigner with the Indigenous Environmental Network and National Council member and co-founder of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition, at the ‘Taking advocacy digital’ session.

Finding a cultural balance

While technological advances have afforded indigenous young people the opportunity to establish an open dialogue worldwide, panelists said, they are striving to strike a balance between using new technologies effectively and maintaining the face-to-face communication inherent in their cultures.

“All of these different tools that are available for us to communicate with each other, and to be able to reach somebody that’s in another part of the country almost instantaneously, is a very great resource,” said Ursula A. Johnson, a member of the United Nations International Indigenous Youth Caucus and Director of the Kitpu Youth Centre in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Ms. Johnson has taken advantage of online technologies to help maintain her mother tongue and stay connected to her community. 

“If I go on the Internet and I talk to my family on MSN messenger, we speak our language on the computer,” she said.  “It’s been almost 14 years now since I’ve left my home reserve, but I still retain my language. If it’s not on the telephone, then it’s on the Internet or it’s through my e-mails or it’s on Facebook.”

“It’s really important for us to understand that even though there’s a number of different resources out there, we kind of have to remember to sit down and sit across from one another just to keep it real,” she added.

Ben Powless, Climate Policy Representative for the Indigenous Environmental Network and also a member of the UN Indigenous Youth Caucus, said he hoped indigenous communities would be able to integrate these new tools into their unique cultural contexts. 

“We’re not going to necessarily live the same way as we did 100 or 1,000 years ago,” he said.  “Our people are going to adapt, respond to these changes and use these technologies for their own purposes – and that’s something to be welcomed in many cases.”

© UNICEF/2009/Markisz
UNICEF Communication Specialist Erica Kochi (left) addresses the forum. Beside her are Voices of Youth Coordinator Maria Cristina Gallegos, TakingITGlobal Representative Jamie Whitecrow and Kitpu Youth Centre Director Ursula A. Johnson.

Youth and technology initiatives
In addition to connecting indigenous youth to the global community via the Internet, forum participants noted, UNICEF is engaging young people worldwide through the promotion of mobile devices. The organization is currently researching different platforms to combine the power of the mobile phone with the web. 

“There are over 4 billion mobile subscribers just this year,” said UNICEF Communication Specialist Erica Kochi. “So this is a huge potential network with young people to use this tool that is in everyone’s hands and in everyone’s pockets – to engage them, to let them participate, to have their voices heard.”

In one illustration of the power of mobile technology, UNICEF’s online community for young people, Voices of Youth, launched a programme called Rural Voices of Youth to reach out to young people in Nigeria who did not have Internet access. The programme successfully documented their experiences and perspectives on a variety of issues; it has now expanded to 20 countries. 

The panel discussed another UNICEF initiative, Connecting Classrooms, which brings together students from around the world to share their viewpoints through the web. The programme has finished its pilot phase and will be expanding globally in the next year.

“It’s really a chance for young people to come together around issues they care about and work in a protected, closed environment around a curriculum,” said Ms. Kochi.



Voices of Youth

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