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EJS Center / News / Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on the role of youth in preserving democracy in times of crisis

Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on the role of youth in preserving democracy in times of crisis

Leaders must engage with young people—and young people must be open to their engagement, said former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf during a recent discussion about the role of youths in safeguarding good governance and democracy in times of crisis.  

Madam Sirleaf joined US Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.), Chairman of the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, and Helene Cooper, New York Times correspondent and author of “Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,” who moderated the conversation. 

Today’s leaders face daunting challenges, and with threats to stability ranging from COVID-19 to climate change, good governance is more important than ever. Reflecting on the past year, which was punctuated by public demonstrations in countries around the world, Madam Sirleaf underscored the importance of establishing public discourse between governments and their young citizens

[To] protest is a fundamental principle of democracy. But peaceful protests must move to dialogue. That’s the only way you find solutions. Leaders must also take responsibility. In the midst of a protest, one must be able to engage young people and get them to dialogue on the issues of the protest… What are some of the grievances? What are some of their solutions?

Equally, young people should also take the initiative to create opportunities for engagement and constructive dialogue, said Madam Sirleaf during the Brookings Institution discussion on “The role of youth in preserving democracies in times of crisis: A shared goal of the United States and Africa.” She advised those who were eager for change to reach out to their political leaders, explaining: 

Even if you have to be harsh in your criticism… make sure you show that you believe your country is the one that that you’re prepared to work for. [Show that] you’re prepared to be the activist for change… I think most leaders will respond to that.”

Reflecting on how he had observed young people taking initiative in response to the difficulties of the past year, Senator Coons said: 

“I see a younger generation that is excited, and is eager to take their turn and is ready to step forward to help lead and serve. I think when you’ve got leadership that is willing to create opportunities and settings for that, there’s no limit to how much we can do.”

Acknowledging the power and potential of the African continent’s young population, Madam Sirleaf described how organizations such as Emerging Public Leaders—which she co-chairs—are strengthening governments and developing a dedicated cadre of civil servants by recruiting promising university graduates and placing them into civil service fellowships.

You can watch a recording of the discussion here.