Game-changing Leaders

Game-changing Leaders
Learning Brief


Youth Leadership Development is a step-by-step process

Category: Game-changing Leaders | Youth leadership pathways | 31 July, 2013 - 16:00


Project context

The Stepping Up to Environmental Sustainability programme was born out of the need to support young people develop a combination of both technical skills and the leadership capacity to mobilise and support communities towards more sustainable living. Initially, the programme aimed to recruit twenty men and women between the ages of 18 and 25 from disadvantaged backgrounds to participate in the one-year, fulltime programme where they closely interact with WESSA's commons project, Stepping up to Sustainability. Key activities for the programme were as follows:

  1. The development and design of appropriate materials and tools for the programme 
  2. Six bi-monthly capacity-building and leadership development sessions
  3. Work-shadowing in environmental sustainability organisations and companies
  4. Local environmental needs analysis, technology sourcing, adaptation and deployment

Getting the programme started
After some weeks of brainstorming and detailed planning the curriculum and roll-out of this project commenced towards the end of April 2012, drawing on the experience of the three programme facilitators. Simultaneously, a call for applications was developed, with an online application advertised far and wide in the Cape Metro. The anticipated pool of applicants was not as large as intended, despite an extension to the original application deadline. The initial cohort of successful applicants was also asked to invite prospective applicants from their own networks. This proved to be an effective means of sourcing additional participants.

Developing the environmental leadership curriculum
The final curriculum consists of a blend of applied leadership, personal development (drawing on a variety of methodologies), hands-on demonstration of sustainable technologies, and cerebral learning sessions. None of this has been straightforward for any of the participants. We have realized that we regularly overestimate the participants’ proficiencies in vocabulary / language levels, basic physics and chemistry, mathematics, general knowledge and critical thinking ability – even among the most promising candidates.

We do not pretend to know fully what leadership means in the context of sustainability, but continue to explore the concept in all the facets of this program, even handing over some of the planning of sessions to the participants themselves.

Implementing our intentions
On the one hand, we are content with having stretched the programme participants and believe that the challenging nature of the intentions will prevail in the long-term. The need for people to be challenged and to innovate, aligns with our belief that sustainable systemic changes will stretch the boundaries of what our society sees as possible, and break-away from the knee-jerk reactions that result in quick-fix technological or policy interventions.

On the other hand, we need to mentor our participants in such a way that small, but well defined steps are taken in developing individual projects that demonstrate informed, capable leadership.

Learner responses to work shadow placements
It has been interesting to observe which of the work-shadow / site visits have elicited the most enthusiastic responses from our participants. In particular the Mandala Permaculture Project and the Zero to Landfill site visit were a source of great inspiration for two youngsters. These participants are both examples of individuals who have passionately and practically followed a dream through to its realisation by breaking the mould of preconceived and out-dated ideological views of leadership. The participants engaged readily with the technical merits of the initiatives and realise the possibilities in their own communities.

Individual learner projects
Although the implementation of the participant’s individual projects has been slower than anticipated, it has been heartening to see their willingness to step up to opportunities to contribute to WESSA’s other non-accredited training activities. While technical knowledge is lacking, they have confidence, now recognise what they don’t know, and show willingness that is distinctly greater than it was at the start. We are already seeing the knock-on effects of the learning that has taken place in the programme.

Catching up the numbers
It has been fortuitous that, in spite of the attrition of 10 of the original 17 participants, we are able to make up the deficit by allowing the remaining core group of 7 to mentor the implementation of sustainability initiatives with participants in WESSA’s YES programme. Rather than seeing this as a “shift”, it is a natural course of action to take after reflection on the progress of the programme thus far.

A heartening aspect of this program is the extent to which participants are able to embrace their socio-demographic diversity, and support each other in spite of individual idiosyncrasies. Even those who have left because of other commitments like employment or tertiary education, have reported very positively on their overall experience of the program, and their learning about sustainability.

Reflecting on our own learning about designing and delivering this program, we are looking forward to the home-stretch, where our augmented participant group will continue to learn, co-operate, demonstrate in practice and blossom as part of the new wave of emerging environmental and sustainability leaders in this country.

Learning possibly useful to others

  • Part-time capacity development programmes should probably have all contact dates and times specified in the terms of reference before the call for participants goes out.
  • Any application call process must be worded in such a way to ensure a stable and consistent group of participants that completely understand and accept what is proposed.
  • Assumptions about levels of prior learning and abilities should be scaled down so that facilitators are not disappointed and participants not discouraged.
  • While democratic decision-making is ideal, the default approach to curriculum structure should be quite firm until levels of responsibility and independent decision making are established.
  • One must remember the depth of orthodox, programmed thinking of the youth at all levels of society, and bear in mind how this can oppose new approaches. We must strengthen our resolve to foster critical thinking and encourage the youth to adopt a learning mind-set that absorbs information in any format or structure.


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In Short

After implementing the Stepping Up to Environmental Leadership Programme in the Western Cape, WESSA found that young participants need careful step-by-step mentorship and challenges to grow their leadership skills. In this brief we learn about how the initial strategy to challenge young leaders outright did not yield the expected results, and how the Stepping Up programme was adapted into more well defined step-by-step project with individual projects that helped the youth demonstrate informed, capable leadership.

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