Emerging Leaders on Spreading Democratic Freedoms

Short Essays by democratic activists

Democracy activists from Cuba, Burma, Afghanistan, and Tunisia explain the importance of youth movements.

A protest in Mandalay, Burma, calling for freedom April 28,2021 (Sai Han One / Shutterstock)

The Catalyst asked four young democratic activists from different parts of the world to answer this question: "How might young democratic leaders spread freedom in their nations, whether that’s freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from oppression, or some other form of freedom?" 

Their answers are below:

Daniela Hernandez, Cuba

We must confront those who violate democratic principles and values, and uplift those who fight for freedom. As young democratic leaders, we can influence the future of our countries.


Read full article

Young democratic leaders are the future representatives of their nations. It may seem like the loud oppressors and violators of freedom undermine and diminish our voices. But our motivation must come from the belief that, by defending freedom, we are defending life itself.

Speaking up and not being silent is one of the most effective ways to promote and defend democracy. Making our voices heard can seem difficult but it is not impossible. Oppressors try to silence the public because they are aware of the power an outspoken majority can have. That’s why they try to deprive us of this basic human right. 

To defend democracy, we must first defend the individual rights that we have as people: the right to life, speech, protest, work, religion, and voting.  Actively participating in the democratic processes of our countries is an effective way of defending these principles.

The key is to take advantage of public spaces and social media to express our opinions and thoughts. We want to use these tools as a means of defending our rights and to make us feel like social and transforming entities in our societies. Citizen participation will get us far.

We must confront those who violate democratic principles and values, and uplift those who fight for freedom. As young democratic leaders, we can influence the future of our countries.

Daniela Hernandez, a Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science student, was exiled from Cuba at the age of eight along with her parents. She has marched in Cuba to protest the imprisonment of her father and written poems about the political situation in the country. She now lives in the United States.


Wai Wai Nu, Burma

At last in my country and region, I am proud to witness many young people adopting empathy, open-mindedness, and inclusion as part of their values and principles.


Read full article

Over 1 billion young people from across the world, mostly between the ages of 16 and 24 with different lived experiences from diverse backgrounds, face so many complex global problems. The rise of authoritarianism. Increased political polarization. Political repression. The climate crisis. Those are among the challenges we face.

Yet with the internet, social media platforms, and other new technologies, young people are adopting new political cultures, values, and leadership styles to contend with these challenges. Moreover, expanded definitions of democracy, such as freedom for all and protection of minorities, are more appealing to young people dealing with new forms of authoritarian rulers, populist leaders, and military dictatorship. Those definitions also are crucial to fighting racism, ethnic cleansing, and human rights violations.  

Traditionally, youth in different nation-states have used various strategies to fight for freedom and democracy. Depending upon the context, this may have been through such conventional means as public gatherings and writing articles in newspapers and magazines. But in countries like Myanmar and Ukraine, young people are using social media to fight against oppression and racism and to distribute humanitarian aid. 

At last in my country and region, I am proud to witness many young people adopting empathy, open-mindedness, and inclusion as part of their values and principles. They know the future is more complex than ever and that young people must ensure our values are reflected in that future.  

At the same time, the leadership styles fighting for freedom and democracy look very different from traditional leadership models that worship heroism. We are seeing a vast cultural and mindset change in leadership styles. Leaders have been able to be adaptive and flexible in dealing with the contemporary world’s diverse needs by being more decentralized in their approaches and working collaboratively across cultures.  

I am pretty optimistic about our generation’s leadership and confident that we will be able to build a freer future for the next generation. Young people have great tools and strategies. We can create a better world together if we are equipped with adequate resources, spaces, and opportunities.  

Wai Wai Nu, a former political prisoner, is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Human Rights Center at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Law and the Founder and Executive Director of the Women’s Peace Network in Burma.


Aya Chebbi, Tunisia

But the work does not end there. It actually just begins. Young people should engage in building accountable political institutions that establish honest governance and the rule of law.


Read full article

I come from a generation that in 2011 launched in my country the first 21st century non-violent revolution. In toppling a 23-year dictatorship in Tunisia, which was the only government I had ever known, I realized that my generation had superpowers. We had demographic power, voting power, and digital power. We also had the power to mobilize.

Indeed, we challenged a totalitarian regime right out of George Orwell’s 1984. We challenged religious and historical constructs of male-only public spaces. We challenged ourselves to be the voice of freedom at all costs, at all risks, and against all odds. 

Soon after Tunisian dictator Ben Ali left, the world felt inspired by our power. We had toppled a decades-long authoritarian regime and sparked a wave of citizen action across the world.

But the work does not end there. It actually just begins. Young people should engage in building accountable political institutions that establish honest governance and the rule of law.

Change is possible when young democratic leaders not only occupy the streets, but also the parliamentary seats, the public and civic space, the political discourse, and the negotiating tables.

My generation has been protesting this past decade with a simple slogan: “Jobs, Freedom, Dignity.” We protested because the future our leaders talk about is related to monetary value while the future we need must be about freedom. The freedom as a girl to be safe, to make choices, to have access to reproductive and sexual health, to have education, to unlock financial freedom, to become and to belong as an equal human being. That is democracy.

Aya Chebbi, a former African Union Youth Envoy, is Founder and Chair of NALA Feminist Collective.  A political blogger during Tunisia’s 2010/2011 revolution, Forbes chose Chebbi as one of Africa’s 50 most powerful women, while New African Magazine listed her as one of the 100-most influential Africans.


Somaya Faruqi, Afghanistan

The best way to predict the future is to create it. Young leaders have a powerful influence because they feel they are responsible for their country and people.


Read full article

Young leaders are the influential individuals in any community because they have the ability to create positive change. They shape the future in health care, education, technology, security, and, especially, spreading freedom in their society. Their ideas transform communities and society.

Great leadership is about freedom. By encouraging collaboration in a way that includes a variety of opinions and ways of thinking, young leaders can create outcomes that the majority of people support. 

Many young democratic leaders now fight to promote freedom in all stages of life. Creating a perfect society may appear to be an impossible task. But it may be accomplished through promoting national liberties, dealing with ambiguity, addressing current challenges, and forecasting the future.

The best way to predict the future is to create it. Young leaders have a powerful influence because they feel they are responsible for their country and people. They also tolerate differences and compromise. 

This leads them to socialize and communicate with their people, and task themselves, not others, with solving their problems. That opens the door for negotiation and is the key to freedom.

Young leaders also may better comprehend the difficulties of their generation. Their peers trust them and can be role models for other young people. They can inspire and motivate them to fight for their liberation.

Young people are carrying out an intellectual revolution that focuses on liberation and social justice. They have the power to remind older generations that the future depends on the young. Nations that harness the strength of young leaders are investing in a future that is free and affluent. 

Somaya Furuqi is Captain of the Afghan Women’s Robotics Team. The BBC selected her in 2020 as one of the 100 influential and inspirational women. Forbes put her on its 2021 list of 30 Under 30 young Asians to watch. UNICEF also has selected her as a “hidden hero.”