Taanika Shankar is a third year undergraduate student of economics and sustainability from Bangalore. She deeply cares about social and environmental justice and strongly believes in the power of a more inclusive and holistic education. Taanika is the co-founder of the Yugmā Network, a youth network that works towards environmental justice and has worked with organizations like Reap Benefit, Kids Education Revolution, YLAC and Project Sitara in the past. She also loves trees and playing music. :)
What are the causes that are important for you and the youth today and why?
I think there is no limit to the causes important to the youth today. In a world where there is no dearth of problems, inequalities and injustices, there is fortunately no dearth to the kinds of causes people care about, too.
I’d say some of the most popular causes, however, are - the climate crisis, feminism, and gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, casteism (in India), anti-fascism, body positivity, a reimagined, inclusive education. As for why - I think it’s because of the circumstances of the world and dissatisfaction with the attention important issues get.
What is something adults do not understand about youth? What is a common misconception they have about young people?
In my opinion, the most common and frustrating of misconceptions is that the youth do not know what they are doing most of the time and are incapable of critical and clear thinking. They believe we do most things on a whimsical basis, in a fleeting moment of passion (which might at times be true) but we are capable of understanding, reflecting and consciously using our rational autonomy in making decisions and acting on causes we care about. They also think we cannot balance academics (which is not the end all that it is portrayed to be) with activism and other activities.
(Small anecdote: An adult once told me that they think Greta Thunberg is a puppet for some large corporations or other NGOs!! It seems so difficult to accept that a young person could be cognizant and working on something.)
What was the first moment of enlightenment that encouraged you to take action for the society you live in?
When I was in the 8th grade, a few students in my school organized a clean-up drive of the area around our school and I signed up to be a part of it. I’d never done anything like that before, and I thoroughly enjoyed it! I even got a tiny informal certificate at the end of it for being one of the most active and engaged volunteers!
For as long as I can remember, I’d wanted to grow up and help protect the environment but it was always something I thought I would do when I “grew up”. Being part of that small clean-up drive and realizing that it was something I both enjoyed and was good at was my moment of enlightenment. It was also the first time I’d been brave and independent enough to do something like this on my own.
Thereafter, I signed up to work with Reap Benefit (a wonderful organization that works on local civic and environmental problems by engaging the youth) with their programme in my school, started volunteering at tree plantation drives, old-age home visits, clean-up drives and started tutoring some girls at a home for the underprivileged I’m filled with awe every time I look back and see how much I’ve grown since then. :)
How do you think we can involve young people who want to make an impact but do not have easy access to opportunities of getting involved (because of language, lack of network, difficulties to access and use technology tools...)?
I think looking at why some groups of youth do not have access to getting opportunities is the easiest way of remedying the specific problem. If language is the issue, I believe that the opportunities need to be made more linguistically inclusive; if accessing and using technology is the issue, then I believe that those tools need to be made more accessible. There always is a way, depending on what the issue really is. In a world (especially speaking from my context in India) as diverse as ours, inclusivity and equity are two of the biggest underlying challenges. We should look to address these in any endeavour of creating impact, else no step is truly impactful.
What I’m trying to say is - if the movement is not inclusive and opportunities are not equitable, I believe that is an inherent shortcoming of the movement itself, not just a problem on the side to be remedied.
What is your advice for young people who want to make a positive impact? How should they begin?
I think there are broadly two reasons young people who want to make a positive impact have trouble starting - one, they don’t know where to start! There are so many things one could possibly do that it’s difficult to know what to do, how to do and when to do. It can definitely be overwhelming. From my experience of it, I think it helps very much to start by volunteering with an existing organization. It helps you to gain some experience, figure out what you enjoy and don’t enjoy doing and most of all, gives you someone/ some people to ask questions to and learn from while you also experiment and do, rather than merely talking to them.
Second, I think many youth are a bit apprehensive to step out of their comfort zone and actually do something about a cause they care about. And I completely resonate with that. It’s easy to think of positive impact as something we can do once we’re adults and have jobs and everything. As cliche as it sounds, I think the only way to break out of that is to stop thinking and just give it a shot. Find something you care about, maybe find someone you can take action with (like an existing NGO or a friend who is also enthusiastic) and just go do it. And maybe also give yourself a little less importance - the world is not going to end if you fail at whatever you try out!!
What would you like to tell decision-makers?
I’d like to say two things to decision-makers:
Firstly, to think of youth as active stakeholders in the present and the future, not mere recipients of policy impacts. We are the future, so in some sense, we are one of the most important stakeholders!
Second, to trust that we can think, do and contribute to decision-making processes. Please also recognize that we have the right to express our opinions and participate in democratic processes. Do not take that right and agency away from us! Moreover, they must create spaces where we can exercise our right and agency!
(Photo courtesy: Taanika Shankar; copyright: Taanika Shankar)