IREX CEO spotlights youth inclusion and leadership ‘right now’

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Kristin Lord, CEO and president of IREX. (File photo: Jordan News)
AMMAN — “There is a tendency to focus on young people as being the future, but they are also the present,” Kristin Lord, CEO and president of IREX, told Jordan News in an interview during her visit to Amman. اضافة اعلان

“Young people have the capability to contribute and lead right now.”

IREX is a nonprofit organization that focuses on youth empowerment, leadership, and expanding education and information access globally through effective institutions.

Originally, IREX focused largely on the former Soviet Union to foster exchange, research, and youth investment through mutual understanding between the Soviet Union and the US.

In the early 1990s, IREX’s work shifted to helping “newly emergent societies” through supporting independent media, youth, and education reform.

Currently, IREX works in more than 100 countries, including Jordan.

Throughout her career, from being a dean at George Washington University to acting president at the US Institute of Peace, Lord has always worked with youth. After joining IREX in 2014, the topic of youth came even more to the forefront.

“We have the largest youth population in human history,” she said. “Here in Jordan, almost two-thirds of the country is under the age of 30.”

Youth populations globally have been on the rise. Data by the Switzerland-based World Economic Forum shows that across Africa today, more than 60 percent of the population is below the age of 25, In India, 10–24-year olds make up 365 million of the total population, and in Egypt, more than half of the labor force is younger than 30.

“You look globally, regionally, and even locally in Jordan, at the size of the youth population, and you think ‘the path that these young people take is going to tip the balance on issues that are going to affect the entire world for decades, if not longer, so why are we not prioritizing investing in these young people?’.”

The growing youth populations, however, are facing their own sets of challenges: unemployment, illiteracy, lack of education, migration, climate change, and global unrest.

“Having large youth populations is usually a sign of great opportunity — young people are creative and can spur economic growth,” said Lord. “But the risk side is that if they are not properly engaged and not properly given those paths (to grow), it can cause a fair amount of turmoil.”

“Young people need to be invested in, and given paths to be able to step up to the role,” she added. And at IREX, “we really want to be able to create these opportunities.”

‘Leaders on their own’

IREX programs in Jordan include Families in The Digital Age, Fulbright Teaching Excellence, and Achievement, Learn to Discern Media Literacy Training, and implementing Prestige for USAID.

These programs focus largely on teacher and youth empowerment, digital literacy, cultural exchange, and community engagement.

Through investing in youth after the end of the programs and ensuring they have the leadership skills necessary to succeed regardless of location, “youth are equipped — or as equipped as they can be — to lead community outreach,” said Lord.

“Often we see that when youth are given opportunity … they become leaders on their own and develop new initiatives without any help from us.”

According to Lord, the recipe for achieving large-scale impact through community engagement is: investment in youth and youth programs, exposure to productive and educational experiences such as volunteer work and civic engagement, and finally, generating pathways to leadership.

In Jordan, IREX will soon be implementing a new young leaders’ exchange program where “60 young leaders a year will come to spend some time in the US as part of their leadership development,” said Lord.

Youth unemployment remains a battle

Globally, the number of unemployed youths is set to hit 73 million in 2022. In Jordan, the youth unemployment rate sits somewhere between 40 to 50 percent, with recent statements from the former president of the Royal Court Economic Department, Mohammed Al-Rawashdeh, putting it at the 50 percent mark.

Jordan, said Lord, is not a country where youth completely lack education ( puts Jordan’s literacy rate at around 97 percent). “There is a bit of a mismatch between youth preparation and job availability,” she added.

Job skills can also play a role in youth unemployment.

“Having an academic degree does not mean that you are necessarily showing up ready to come into an office.”

To help combat the skills gap, IREX conducts their Youth Essential Skills, or YES, curriculum to teach youth time management and critical thinking skills, empathy, and “other skills that teach you how to interact in a workplace”.

“Soft skills are so important because they allow young students to be agile and adapt, and part of our curriculum is learning how to learn,” Lord said.

“We want people to be agile and adaptable because the world is changing really fast, and none of us are good predictors about where jobs will be or what skills people will need. … Soft skills are what can help carry us through and make that transition.”

“This is where IREX wants to invest in people.”

But it is not just about the skills matching, “we really need to see job creation,” said Lord.

Lasting impacts of COVID-19 on youth

The latest data from UNICEF shows that, globally, at least one in seven children has been directly affected by COVID-19 lockdowns, and more than 1.6 billion children have suffered some loss of education.

“Media attention was largely on how COVID affected older people, and that is because they were much more likely to be hospitalized or even die because of COVID, but the fact of the matter is it was young people who suffered the most profound lasting effects of COVID,” said Lord. “Not just to young people’s health, but to their entire lives.”

While IREX was able to continue its programs using a blended learning model, Lord emphasized that the focus is now addressing the learning crisis, working on youth employment, and amping up civic engagement amongst youth.

“We lost a lot during COVID, but young people are still facing the consequences,” she said.

In Jordan, IREX transferred its training curricula online by building a learning management system.

The rise of digital platforms to accommodate lockdowns and new learning models brings the focus to disinformation and misinformation.

In the first three months of 2020, nearly 6,000 people around the globe were hospitalized due to coronavirus misinformation, according to recent studies. At the same period, researchers have said that at least 800 people may have died due to COVID-19-related misinformation.

“All of us are at risk of falling victim to misinformation or disinformation,” said Lord.

While mis/disinformation is not new, what has changed is how easy it is to share information right now via social media. “Our brain is wired to trust information more from someone who is close to us,” said Lord.

“Social media algorithms are wired to prioritize engagement. That is the business model. … So, we are primed to share things that get an emotional reaction,” whether anger, fear, sadness, or happiness.

“This mis/disinformation is not about people being dumb or uninformed, but how social media takes advantage of our brains. This is why we need to give people the skills to recognize how they are being … manipulated.”

IREX runs various programs to tackle mis/disinformation, one of which is “Learn to Discern”. The programs focus largely on fact-checking, recognizing emotional manipulation, empathy, and tolerance.

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