Photo courtesy of IDJF
Prashan De Visser opens his maiden book with a stark question: “Does the state of the world overwhelm you and a better world seem improbable?”
He then reflects on what seems to be a widely shared, pessimistic view. “As civil wars rage in beautiful nations and authoritarian regimes impose on the sovereignty of their neighboring countries, corrupt regimes ransack their nation’s wealth for themselves pushing millions of their countrymen into abject poverty, it seems as though the hope of a more peaceful, thriving and inclusive world is not within our reach.”
But as the young peacebuilder cogently argues in the pages that follow, a better world is indeed possible. Hope, and a glimpse of what may yet be possible through a new generation of transformed leaders, is what Mr. De Visser offers his reader.
“They are gearing up to lead transformation, they refuse to submit to their circumstances, they believe they and their children deserve better, and the nation deserves better,” he says.
Prashan De Visser is the founder of Sri Lanka Unites and Global Unites, youth movements for reconciliation. His book, Phoenix Generation: From the Ashes, a New Generation Dares to Transform Their Nations, is based on the experiences and lessons learnt over 15 years of working in peacebuilding, reconciliation and youth leadership initially in Sri Lanka and later elsewhere in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Mr. De Visser recalls that he founded Sri Lanka Unites in 2006 because, “While the ethnic war ravaged on, I believed that the solution lay in a new generation being influenced to become catalysts for peace and reconciliation.”
Today Sri Lanka Unites has grown to become the largest youth movement for peace in Sri Lanka with over 30,000 members in all 25 districts. It pursues the goal of creating sustainable friendship and relationships across ethnic and religious lines through language learning, integration and socially good projects.
Over the years, Sri Lanka Unites has evolved to become a countrywide network of public spirited youth who can respond immediately to natural disasters, injustices, radicalization, violent extremism and hate speech in any district of the country.
In 2015, Mr. De Visser and colleagues founded Global Unites as other developing countries were keen to emulate the model of a transformative youth movement. There are now 13 chapters of Global Unites across the world in countries as diverse as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia and Myanmar.
Mr. De Visser’s book is based on his absolute conviction that a new generation of transformed leaders is the answer to the social, economic and political challenges Sri Lanka and other countries face.
“I am meeting incredible young leaders of a new generation who inspire others to change by refusing to surrender, or to walk away in self-preservation. As a result, they create new solutions and mobilize their communities in positive ways,” he notes.
The book explores five of the most remarkable grassroots movements during the last two centuries that have changed the world, which the author calls the big five: the abolition of slavery in Britain; the suffragette movement to win the right to vote for women and the civil rights movement in the US; the independence movement in India; and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. It takes a closer look at the common denominators in purpose, approach, strategy, leadership and values that made their “improbably journeys possible”.
Mr. De Visser also draws out learnings from the experiences of Sri Lanka Unites and Global Unites. He first shares the four key components of successful grassroot movements, the first three from Roosevelt Institute fellow Jee Kim’s analysis of social change movements and the last his own: engaged individuals, political opportunity, organizational infrastructure and a focused and clear narrative (“why” of the movement).
He showcases how the big five grassroot movements prove these factors to be true with detailed examples and analysis of the movements.
He then moves on to exploring five key values and strategies that can lead to the sustainable impact of grassroot movements: being centered on youth leadership; absolute commitment to non-violence; commitment to conflict transformation and reconciliation, focused on a grassroots movement strategy; and paving pathways to policy and creating policymakers.
In this chapter he draws on examples from both the big five and his own youth movements with deeply moving experiences and first person accounts of young people engaged in reconciliation.
Again and again, Mr. De Visser draws on his decade and a half of personal experience in leading youth movements, delving deeply into the lessons, challenges and continuing work of Global Unites. And he builds a strong case for the power of youth. Engaging young people is essential to the transformation of a nation, he says and asks, “With a little less than half the world being 24 years or younger and 90 per cent of them living in the developing countries, can this key demographic be ignored?”
Mr. De Visser argues that the large populations of young people in developing countries can be seen as a “biological reset button for some of the failures and challenges of generations before. This gives the new generation an opportunity to overcome some of the problems they inherited and add a new worldview, values, mentorship and platforms which usher in a new era. On the other hand, if youth are not provided meaningful education, employment and opportunities to thrive in society, the demographic of the youth can be a ticking time bomb.”
He outlines specific steps for successful, local, sustainable and impactful youth engagement. The Phoenix Generation makes a powerful argument for youth led grassroots movements as the best hope for bringing about national transformation anywhere in the world.
As he concludes, Mr. De Visser acknowledges that “the ability of these movements to make a meaningful impact is strengthened and heightened by the support of broader society.”
And he goes on to identify ways in which various segments of society – governments, local and international non-governmental organisations, diaspora, academic institutions, faith groups, corporates, media and those in arts and entertainment – can provide this support.
Mr. De Visser launched this book at a pivotal point in his own public life, as he steps away from serving as president of Sri Lanka Unites and becomes more politically involved as one of the founders of the Centenary Movement, a recently launched entity for identifying, mentoring and investing in a new generation of young political leaders for Sri Lanka.