The Voices of Our Youth: Social Progress Stories in the Era of Covid-19

In times of tumult the world often looks to the next generation, those most affected by, and most likely to solve, impending crises. In the midst of the global pandemic the world’s youth offer hope. They are inventing new games that can be played within the confines of their home, learning from teachers on a computer screen, and driving social progress in unique and tangible ways.

Covid-19 could have derailed the youth of the world, but instead it has catalyzed young people to call for change, become involved, and define the future that they will live in. Yet, this work is not necessarily measured by employment status, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or any other traditional indicator. These youth are working to improve Foundations of Wellbeing, Basic Human Needs, and Opportunity for themselves and their peers. These things are captured by the Social Progress Index, which is a more comprehensive and outcome-based supplement to traditional measures of success. At the Social Progress Imperative, we are lucky to have three young people spread across the world who are currently working remotely for us. These are their stories from the pandemic.


ALEX, 22, UNITED STATES

Originally from the New England region of the United States, I started working for the Social Progress Imperative in the spring of 2019. After spending the summer in the DC office, I transitioned to remote work, supporting our communications team and other US initiatives, while I finished the final year of my undergraduate degree in Public Policy. In the early spring of this year, the administration sent all students home to finish the semester remotely because of Covid-19. Though I struggled to learn American Constitutional Law via Zoom, I felt as though my work with the Social Progress Imperative was more relevant than ever. The Covid-19  pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities that the Social Progress Index had previously revealed in the United States. I returned home to the state of Vermont, which has a population of 623,989 people spread across 9,623 square miles, but many of my peers returned to crowded cities that have become epicenters for the virus, such as New York City, which boasts a population 8.399 million people within only 302.6 square miles. Interestingly, many of the tight Manhattan apartments with a balcony instead of a yard are worth much more than my house which has a sprawling yard for my dog to play in. Economic measures do not capture access to space and greenery, which has been a commodity during this pandemic.

Masks Made by Alex in Vermont

As the need to wear masks became more apparent while the supply of personal protective equipment dwindled, I started to experiment with homemade mask designs. I sewed masks for my family at first, then for friends, and finally, when I had developed a decent design, I started donating them to local non-profits, essential workers, small businesses, and anyone else in need within my community. As of June 1st, 2020 I had sewed 240 masks. I do not know how much time I have invested in product development and production. However, what I do know is that I have been able to have a positive impact on my community but that none of that impact has been measured by any economic indicators. Median household income does not provide any indication of ability or willingness to wear a mask, and none of my work or time will be counted in any measure GDP. However, I am comfortable with that fact. While economic measures fail to provide the whole picture, the Social Progress Index fills in many of the gaps, providing insight into levels of sanitation, inclusion, and many other important aspects of people’s lives that are neglected by GDP.

Measures of inclusion have been brought to the forefront of American thought as of late. After the killing of George Floyd, cities across the country have erupted in protest, calling for more informed and systemic responses to racism. While the US may be one of the richest countries in the world, that wealth has not been distributed equally and severe inequalities exist within in our society. I joined local rallies in support of the Black community in Vermont. However, I had to reconcile how to protest while being safe during the Covid-19 outbreak; I wore a mask and maintained a safe distance from others. Yet, one thing that the injustice faced by Black American illustrates is that even during a global pandemic, systemic inequalities in education, inclusion, health, and safety—injustices that are not captured by traditional economic measures—still exist and most likely are amplified during this time. I have significant privilege. However, one of the greatest privileges I have been given has been the opportunity to work with the Social Progress Imperative, to support the use of data to redefine traditional measures of success. Many of these inequalities and crises have been made possible by a world driven by purely economic measures, which fail to account for other aspects of a just and equitable society. 


ANNETTE, 21, EL SALVADOR

80 days ago, when El Salvador started an extreme lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19, I started a process of awareness as I began to see articles with the following headlines: “Nature is healing, we are the virus”, and “When nature wants to take over, it does”, with pictures and analysis of economic powers on lockdown, not being able to sustain their GDP due to the effects of the virus. I was immediately startled by the thought of another crisis that governments would be unable to properly handle.

Working for the Social Progress Imperative made it clear to me that income alone will not save us from a disaster and that we need to strengthen social progress to face these crises. The Social Progress Index shows that the vulnerabilities and solutions to the virus are not linear, for example, access to water and sanitation or underlying health issues such as cancer and diabetes. The health issues that made a person vulnerable to the Covid-19 caught my attention, since to some extent, we have control over it. I started conducting research on the main causes of diabetes and cancer, and how to prevent it. I found that one of the strongest causes is our current fast-food culture, including the over-consumption of meats. As I furthered my research, it turns out that animal agriculture is one of the main causes of deforestation, global warming, and pollution. In summary, this industry isn’t sustainable for the planet and humans, yet, it is a boon to the economy. Climate change is not as spontaneous as the Coronavirus, yet we are building this time bomb on our health and planet, thinking nothing negative will come out of it if we ignore it. We rarely pay attention to the change of mindset and actions that are required from each citizen for complete social development, most of the time we wait for others to take action. Covid-19 proved this isn’t an option anymore. I started to think about what “small” internal changes I could make from home that would have a positive impact on our planet and my wellbeing. I took action by cooking plant-based meals during this quarantine.

Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

This pandemic has given me time to step away from the chaotic and overwhelming streams of news and media and has allowed me to invest time in what really matters. I stopped picking the easy option of food and started spending time in the kitchen (sometimes hours) substituting recipes to plant-based ingredients helped reduce stress from the lockdown, since it allowed me to get my mind off work, studying and the hard reality we are facing. It helped me connect more with myself since I was giving myself the time to prepare a meal; reinvesting in what my mind, body and the planet deserves, 3 times a day. When we hear the words “veganism’ or “plant-based” we associate it with food restrictions that aren’t sustainable, while it is the exact opposite. We have been taught to pick the quick-easy option. I found myself having fun making vegan pizzas, hamburgers, brownies, and watching my family enjoying them without a clue they were plant-based. In addition, I had the energy to balance my day between work, university, exercise, and even try new things such as a headstand instead of waiting for the day to pass. These positive inner changes could have a positive long-term impact, if done collectively it could help us speed up social development.


RORY, 22, UNITED KINGDOM

In a world that of recent times has felt increasingly divided, Covid-19 has reminded us of the importance of our relationships and the value of community. With a chance to think and reflect on what this value actually is, it’s become clear to us all that the most important metrics do not solely measure economic prosperity but promote safety and well-being. As a UK citizen, it has been moving to see the sheer volume of voluntary support that has been offered. According to recent reports, 1 in 5 UK adults have volunteered in their local communities since lockdown began. I’ve felt especially connected to this as part of the food delivery team. Riding my bike around the city and dropping food parcels has been a highlight of my week for the past few months. The sense of comradeship and connectedness I’ve personally experienced from distanced conversations at the door to letters of thanks cannot be measured by GDP. Gathering the emotion of the community it certainly feels as though there is a shared sense that we seek new measures by which to define ourselves. This is where the Social Progress Imperative can be, and is, so powerful. For us at the Social Progress Imperative, improving our levels of Basic Human Needs, Foundations of Wellbeing and Opportunity have always been the clear and obvious route to follow. Covid-19 has sparked that thought within so many of us that it’s now difficult to imagine a person who would disagree.

The Social Progress Index Framework

After first becoming impassioned about the Social Progress Imperative in high school to now supporting them in my final year of university, the experience thus far has been surreal and could not have come at a better time. Working with the team I’ve already learned so much. The depth and resolution of each indicator within the Social Progress Index, with clear and methodological thought connecting indicator to outcome, is inspiring. Working heavily with data throughout my degree, it has been eye-opening to see how data is turned into action and impact. Indeed, the diversity of skills within the team to handle and apply data has been one of the most exciting elements for me. The problems of the future are undoubtedly difficult to overcome and will impact no group more greatly than the youth of today. Feeling voiceless and powerless to change the outcome of tomorrow is common among my peers. Yet our voices are becoming louder. From Greta Thunberg to the brave survivors of the Parkland shooting to the now international Black Lives Matter protests, movements headed by young people are expressing what we have struggled to say individually. We now look towards different ways in which we can move forward, ways in which we can build back better. The Social Progress Imperative and our abilities to handle data is one of these ways. Talking to friends and family on the weekly Zoom quiz, it has been extremely empowering to showcase the Social Progress Index, to say, this is a better way, this is how we can change. Covid-19 has certainly illuminated hidden, systemic inequalities within our society that have been growing particularly in some of the more affluent countries around the world. As part this organisation, I look forward to playing my part in highlighting ways to combat these.


MEASURING THE EXPERIENCE OF YOUTH

In the words of the European Youth Forum, “young people always have, and always will have, their own experiences specific to this stage of life.” Despite the potential threat of living in a world that has devolved rather than improved since they were born, our youth are inspiring. They are volunteering, learning, driving change, and connecting with their local community in the midst of a global pandemic and social resistance. The Youth Progress Index, first released in 2017 provides insight into what it is like to be a young person today, using outcome-based measures independent of traditional economic indicators. Our youth are our future, and now more than ever it is imperative to understand what challenges they face in these unprecedented times.

For general information on the Social Progress Imperative visit: socialprogress.org. For specific resources on the Covid-19 pandemic visit: https://socialprogress.blog/covid-19-resources/.

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