The Moral and Spiritual Empowerment of Junior Youth
Updated: Apr 11, 2019
The Worldwide Bahá’í Community’s Approach to Social and Economic Development
Prepared by the Office of Social and Economic Development
In the mid-1990s, a group of individuals were invited by OSED to analyze the experience gained by Bahá’í communities in promoting literacy. On this basis, pilot literacy projects were created in a number of countries. In subsequent consultations which were arranged to share observations and reflect on achievements, it became increasingly clear to the group that junior youth aged between, say, 12 and 15, had a particular idealism and energy, and a special receptivity to programs that enhance the power of expression. The junior youth spiritual empowerment program was developed as a result and continues to evolve through experience worldwide. Beyond instructions in the simple mechanics of reading and writing, the program seeks to endow young people in this age group with the capabilities of reading with good comprehension and expressing thoughts clearly and eloquently. Emphasis is placed on the need for positive words and thoughts to be accompanied by pure deeds.
The program is based on the conviction that the short and critical period of young adolescence represents a period of transition during which ideas about the individual and society which shape the rest of one’s life are formed. While some conceptions paint a dark picture of adolescence, perceiving this stage of life as one fraught with difficulties and crisis, the Bahá’í community views young people as invaluable protagonists for the construction of a better society. The program, then, aims at awakening the junior youth to their own potential, developing their talents, and directing their new abilities toward service to humanity. It is organized around the concept of a junior youth group, which serves as an environment of mutual support for its members. Guided by older youth, who serve as “animators,” junior youth study materials based on moral and spiritual concepts, engage in artistic activities, and carry out acts of community service.
At present, the program is being carried out in some 165 countries involving more than 160,000 junior youth in over 17,000 groups. In response to the considerable demand for the program experienced worldwide, a network of sites for the dissemination of learning has been established in all continents. These sites, some 60 of which are currently in operation, provide training to coordinators of the program and help systematize and diffuse knowledge accruing in diverse contexts.
Voices of Young People from around the World
The words of young people participating in the program offer glimpses into the potential of this age group—their altruism, acute sense of justice, eagerness to learn about the universe, and desire to become agents of positive change in their communities. Comments such as the following have come from animators and junior youth in all continents:
“In my village many people are religious fundamentalists and many people are always ready to fight. They keep fighting over small things. One thinks that if there is a little bit of land and he takes it over, this land is his. . . . I also had some land and it was taken over. . . . After seeing this I thought, ‘What if it weren’t this way? What if unity and love were to come about and these thoughts of service were to come about?’ I think about working for all this in the village. To do this, we will have to progress, so why don’t I help the village to progress and bring about these changes? Hence I am working towards this.”
“The worst thing in the village is caste prejudice. People fight because of caste. It seems to me that we need to change this caste prejudice very urgently. We should live together in unity. Here there is fighting for this reason. . . .
For example, if someone is of a higher caste and you are of a lower caste, the higher caste people will not let you set foot in their house. But I don’t think this way. I think they have come to my house, so they should sit with me, pray with me. As we read in the books [of the junior youth program], we should live in unity so that all prejudices will come to an end. Having studied this book, people will become educated.”
“After starting the [junior youth group] my character changed greatly. Before, I would just be busy with housework. Afterwards, I would also teach the children’s class and I started tutoring. I started to go to different places, and I also went to a nearby village to teach a class. . . . Before, I didn’t feel like leaving the house, but now it seems to me that wherever I go, I should learn something. Before, my family used to say that girls should not go out. But now they say, ‘No. Daughters and sons are equal. She will go out, and she will study and learn.’”
“Development means to attain materially, but also to have a life dedicated to service, and not to focus on only the things that are material. For the moment, there are two purposes of my life: one is to develop my spiritual qualities, and the other is to have a job where I may not make that much money but I will be able to help the community. . . . I want to create a cooperative to buy and sell goods, because I saw that this was sustainable.”
“There are times that people stay away from others because of the color of their skin or because of race. Sometimes I’m with friends playing football and they say, ‘You can’t play with us because you’re black, you’re a blackie . . .’ It brings me a lot of pain, because we’re all playing there and we should all play together, we should all be united. The way I respond to this is that I say you can’t be like that with others because we’re all children of God. The quotation I remember that inspired me is ‘Ye are all the fruits of one tree and the leaves of one branch.’ To me it means that we are all children of God and that we shouldn’t take people for granted.”
“Starting from this village we will bring peace to the village, then the state, the country, and the world, and in this way we will become united and live in harmony.”
The following comments provide a glimpse of the manner in which the dedicated efforts of young people can contribute to positive changes in a community:
“This neighborhood now is very different. Life is hard here, even for youth, and we used to have many different gangs and groups, but now we have something in common even with those who we used to consider our enemies. Now we are all part of the junior youth groups.”
“The program has really had a significant impact on the lives of the junior youth and the whole community. Today if you pass through the village, you will see the junior youth behaving very well. . . . Even in the homes, the junior youth help their families to consult properly, avoid backbiting and uphold the unity of the family at all times. They encourage rectitude of conduct in all. Now the spiritual life of the community has significantly improved. Many parents tell me that they see a significant difference between their older children who had not attended the program and the ones who are attending the program. If their child has an idea, he or she will consult with their parents and share his or her idea and seek their thoughts. This has contributed to the unity of the families. They are learning how to consult and respect each other’s thoughts.”
The junior youth spiritual empowerment program has, in a number of places, also been adopted by academic schools which have made it available to their students in order to contribute to their moral empowerment and to enhance their capacity to serve society. In Kiribati, where the Ootan Marawa Educational Institute has been offering the program in public schools, a growing number of teachers, principals, and parents have described how the participants of the program are able to more clearly express themselves, improve their academic performance, and demonstrate more upright conduct. Prominent education officials noted that the program had contributed to a decline in the rate of student expulsions and in the number of instances where students publicly engage in such harmful activities as the consumption of alcohol. On various occasions, the organization has been invited to speak at formal gatherings arranged by the Ministry of Education on the importance of creating environments for students that foster mutual support and that reinforce academic progress and behavioral transformation.
Building Capacity among Young People in a Rural Community in Tajikistan
Sovkhoz Banomi Michurina is an agrarian village with a population of 3,200 on the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. As is common in such villages around the world, many of the youth migrate elsewhere to pursue employment opportunities. The junior youth spiritual empowerment program was first introduced to the area in 2007. Early on, a school in the locality began offering the program to its students with the assistance of a nongovernmental organization, Education Science Advancement Foundation. Camps for junior youth participating in the program have also been organized during summer and winter holidays.
Over the years, many service projects have been carried out by junior youth groups, such as tree planting and cleaning the streets. One of the more complex projects a group decided to undertake was to install signs indicating the names of the roads in the village, since visitors from outside would often find it difficult to orient themselves in the village. The junior youth mobilized some of the necessary resources by approaching the local government, and many neighbors decided to join them in their efforts.
This service project and numerous others carried out by some 500 junior youth who have participated in the program have had a significant influence on the community. The residents of the village now organize an annual cleaning of the streets and gutters in preparation for the traditional New Year celebrations. Community festivals have also taken root in the culture of the village ever since the youth participating in the program started to host them for their families and neighbors every six months. Particularly significant is the fact that strong, long-lasting prejudices between the various ethnic groups in the area are gradually fading away, as the youth build friendships based on working together for the common weal.
Contrary to the prevalent trend for young people in the area to decide against pursuing tertiary education, a number of individuals who participated in the program chose to enroll in university. The enhanced reading and comprehension abilities they developed through their participation helped sharpen their intellectual faculties. Also significant was the program’s influence on their motivation for pursuing higher education. One youth noted after attending a conference related to the program:
“We saw that we can change the reality of our village. We saw clearly what aspects of our village life have to be changed completely, and we saw our role in this process. At the conference, we understood what the junior youth program stood for, and when we were planning what we would do in the village, it was the most inspiring part for us and infused us with determination.”
A number of these young people, then, assisted each other to enroll in educational programs that would allow them to develop the capacity to meet specific needs they identified in their village. Some of them, for instance, entered agriculture programs that would enable them to bring some of the benefits of modern agriculture to the village. Others enrolled in courses that would enable them to serve as teachers or to establish institutions dedicated to pre-primary education. Some of these youth were able to attend the local university, while others who had to study further afield intend to return once they complete their studies.