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Next Generation Leaders Succeed with Optimism and Confidence

May 14, 2021
To solve today’s biggest challenges, look to young advocates on a mission to change the world

If there is one thing to know about Generation Z and Millennials – it’s that they’re already breaking down social and economic barriers to success and working for the change we want to see in our communities.

So, what can we – as a philanthropic foundation – do to help young Americans build the more just, peaceful and vibrant society they envision?

We need to start by listening.

Next Generation Leadership
Pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson unveils new research findings, and Millennials and Gen Zers talk about their plans to make the change they want to see.

Earlier this year, the foundation commissioned research to help us understand the ambitions and attitudes of Gen Z and Millennials during one of the most tumultuous, tragic and consequential years of the past century.

What we found was optimism, not pessimism. Determination, not defeatism. Self-confidence, not self-doubt. In this moment, just as at other turning points in our history, young Americans are poised to lead.

The research, conducted by Echelon Insights, revealed most young Americans believe their generation has what it takes to meet the social, cultural and economic challenges we face today. And about 70% say that they believe their generation – not others – will play the biggest role in overcoming barriers to a brighter future.

We also learned that despite facing myriad challenges in their lifetimes – from 9/11 to the financial crisis to COVID-19 – 75% of Gen Z and Millennials believe their generation will have the opportunity to succeed if they work hard. Seven in 10 believe they personally will be able to move up the economic ladder and lead a better life.

“The point isn't that Gen Z and Millennials think everything is fantastic,” Echelon Insights President Kristen Soltis Anderson said. “Rather, they feel strongly that they have the ability to create change.”

Their vision of a brighter future will require significant action.

While young Americans are personally committed to advancing societal progress, they believe nonprofits and social entrepreneurship will play a significant role in shaping growth outcomes, especially around the areas they care most about – clean air, fresh food and inclusive communities.

“There are so many tools that Gen Z and Millennials have at their disposal, and they are ready to use all of them,” Soltis Anderson said.

Here’s where philanthropy can help.

In the foundation’s new five-year strategy, we committed to building new partnerships that bring people, ideas and resources together. That must include collaboration with young leaders.

Inclusiveness isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s a way to find better solutions to our biggest problems.

We need to join forces with young visionaries and innovators, help them build capacity to take action, then get out of the way as they pursue change.

When we cross that bridge of understanding, we can have a better country and a better future.
Anya Dua, founder, Gen Z Identity Lab.

Recently, two of the country’s brightest next-generation leaders shared their thoughts with me about what it will take to catalyze change and address the issues they care most about.

Anya Dua is a social activist and founder of Gen Z Identity Lab. She believes it's essential to invite “people into the conversation who weren't previously in the conversation” – whether because of age, gender, race, sexuality or political beliefs.

“When we cross that bridge of understanding … we can have a better country and a better future,” Dua said.

Josh Bellamy is a conservation educator and vice president of the Audubon Society’s campus chapter at Morehouse College. He wants to open the doors of opportunity “to not just one voice and one face,” but to everyone.

Both Dua and Bellamy shared they are realistic about the problems we face today, from COVID-19 to climate change to racial injustice. But like others in their generation, they are not daunted by the challenges.

I feel like anything that I want to do, I should be able to reach for it.”
Josh Bellamy, Audubon Society, Morehouse College.

While only 26% of those surveyed by Echelon Insights said things are going well right now, the research also found that two-thirds believe they will have the opportunity to achieve the American Dream, which they define as having the ability to self-determine the life they want.

“It’s not a story of money, but this hope to be able to channel your passions and actually make a difference,” Dua said.

I asked each of them why young Americans feel so confident.

“We've been told since we were little that the sky is the limit,” Bellamy said. “I feel like anything that I want to do, I should be able to reach for it.”

At Audubon, Bellamy works to create a conservation movement that embraces diversity and collaboration. He cites racism as a barrier and is proud of how Gen Z - the most racially and ethnically diverse generation to date - has led the effort to promote inclusion and equality.

“Instead of asking for respect, we are demanding it,” he said.

“Our passion is not going to be productively channeled towards a positive future for America if we don't learn how to be more open to hearing different opinions,” Dua added.

As digital natives and the first generation to grow up with technology at their fingertips, young activists have another powerful tool to drive change – the savvy to mobilize through social media and peer-to-peer relationships.

“Gen Zers are using that community and that sense of trust and relatability” found on social media, Dua said. “I think that is a huge testament to how activism is changing.”

As we strive as a foundation to create better access and opportunity for people and communities – there is no better audience to engage about our future than those about to inherit it, our youth.

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