By Wayne Firestone
The inspiration for change often comes from history's darker chapters. Slavery, the Great Depression, and the Holocaust produced everyday heroes in the shadow of the vilest of human behavior. Forged in the crucible of the worst, they offered the best — and in the process set an example for generations of successors. Whenever the world needed inspiration, it has been there. There is no reason to believe this time is different.
What is different today is scale — the sheer number of young people determined to progress humankind in the face of every possible adversity. And digital, borderless tools to do this faster, cheaper and in surround sound. Three out of four millennial leaders believe they can make a difference, according to a new Financial Times survey of 12,000 millennials in 27 countries. It's an army of heroes in the making.
he millennial generation (18-29 years old) is wired to think differently and more boldly than generations past. Nurtured in the aftermath of 9/11, Katrina, the Asian tsunami and countless other catastrophic events, their collective inspiration to change the world is grounded — like their predecessors — in the darkest moments of history.
Take for example, Soviet dissidents like Andrei Sakharov and Natan Sharansky who inspired many to change their societies from within during the Cold War. Where did they gain their inspiration? Sharansky shares a story from his days as a student at Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology where he was first introduced to Albert Einstein's theory of relativity. By then, Einstein was a household name. However, it was Einstein's public embrace of Jewish causes and identity at a time of growing unrest in Europe that Sharansky credits for inspiring his own activism; and for ultimately helping to free millions of Soviet Jews from religious persecution. Indeed, inspiration begets inspiration.
Whether Einstein's developing his theory of relativity, Virginia Apgar's devising a method for assessing a newborn's health, Nelson Mandela's steadfast refusal to bow to the forces of racism, or young Malala Yousafzai's breathtaking courage in support of girls' education, there have always been those who have risen to the challenge of history, solved problems and helped us emerge from despair and oppression. They were not intimidated by adverse circumstances or complex problems. Oddly enough, adversity is what motivated them.
Their successors are everywhere, merely awaiting our discovery. Imagine what we can do if we harness the collective will found in this generation. We have an opportunity to inspire an army of heroes — determined, educated global citizens who have a place in the international community and want an active part in making it better through digital and real-world connections.
For example, Dr. Sheila Nirenberg, a physiologist at Weill Cornell, is developing a prosthetic eye to treat blindness; Alvaro Rodriguez-Arregui, co-founder and managing partner of IGNIA, uses impact venture capital funding to invest in companies developing low-cost housing, health care and clean water; Dr. Jordan Kassalow, founder and co-chairman of VisionSpring, is making glasses for those less fortunate. They and others like them see global, social, environmental and political challenges as mountains to climb, not detours or closed doors.
In discussions my organization conducted over the summer with young adult leaders from several capital cities around the world, we heard that for this millennial generation actions speak louder than words. In their view, local and global challenges will be solved by men and women of principle and conscience, whose raw talent, intellectual curiosity, dedication to causes bigger than themselves and optimistic belief in the future, lead them to actions or discoveries that literally change the world. In some cases they identified public figures and in other cases ordinary individuals doing extraordinary things.
Collectively, we must identify, celebrate and reward those who enable human progress — the men and women of courage, vision and optimism, undaunted by the challenges of the present but instead energized by them; those who seize the bright prospect of an opportunity to have a positive impact on others.
We need to marshal the resources to support these young people and help them scale their ideas. Their moment — our collective moment — is now and we need to as a society to think differently about what is "progress." We can begin with the support of global philanthropists who have the means and the will to affect change.
Despite some of the dire predictions of recent days, those familiar with history should remain optimistic. Cautiously optimistic, perhaps, but still forecasting sun rather than clouds. The past teaches us to do so, and even in parts of the world run by the most ruthless leaders, reside creative, compassionate and courageous young people who can — and will — find innovative solutions that change the world and inspire the next generation.
An army of heroes is in the making, watching and ready to take up the charge. All they need is a little help.
Wayne Firestone is president of the Genesis Prize Foundation, which awards an annual $1 million prize recognizing individuals whose actions, in addition to their achievements, embody Jewish values.