The young people of today . . . are the leaders of tomorrow

Some teenage participants in Foróige’s ‘Leadership for Life’ conference talk about what leadership means to them

“The young people of today . . . ” is a sentence that rarely ends well.

It usually signals a rant about teenagers’ obsession with technology, abuse of alcohol, lack of respect, sense of entitlement or all-round fecklessness.

Greying adults may complain about “ageism” in society, but stereotyping by years lived also infuriates teenagers. The so-called “upcoming generation” wants to be heard too.

Just how to go about changing the world through influencing others was the focus of a recent week-long “Leadership for Life” conference for 15-18-year-olds, organised by the 50,000-strong youth organisation Foróige as part of its year-long leadership programme. While about 3,000 people take part in that programme, only 250 of them are nominated to attend the annual conference.


Recognised leaders – including former rugby star Paul O'Connell, former Rose of Tralee, broadcaster Maria Walsh, and Kingspan's digital and brand director Louise Foody – were among those who addressed the gathering at Maynooth University, Co Kildare. Here, some of those aspiring to follow in their footsteps, talk about what leadership means to them.

Ashling Dunphy (17) of Ballyneale, Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary, going into sixth year at Comeragh College

After Storm Frank hit Carrick-on-Suir in December 2015, Ashling Dunphy went on to Facebook to ask if anybody wanted to join her in helping to clean up after the floods. She ended up with a team of 12 young people and adults willing to muck in.

“We used the Foróige base in Carrick-on-Suir and we linked in with the Carrick-on-Suir River Rescue. We cleaned out houses and got them meals.”

While they won a gold star citizenship award from Foróige and a Garda youth award for their efforts, “we didn’t do it for that reason”, she stresses, “we just thought it was the right thing to do.”

Despite the contribution that many young people want to make to society, Ashling believes it is hard for teenagers to be taken seriously.

“We are given the platforms but is anybody actually listening? Politicians say ‘young people are brilliant’ but I’m thinking ‘what are you actually doing to support young people?’ It’s tokenistic.”

A current big issue for her and her peers locally – brought into sharp focus after the death by suicide of a girl in her school earlier this year – is the lack of mental-health services in the area. While the local politicians all attended a meeting about it, again she sees their response as “tokenistic”.

“We need a long-term goal,” she says. “I feel like drugs and alcohol are a huge factor for young people – especially drugs, it is becoming so normalised. Everybody knows it’s happening but everybody pretends it’s not happening.”

It’s much cheaper to acquire and abuse prescription drugs than alcohol, she explains. Yet, while people know what’s in, say, a can of cider and the effect it is likely to have, the impact of drug-taking is much more unpredictable.

Ashling, who wants to study law, is very interested in politics, particularly at a European level, and a long-term goal would be working for the United Nations.

"I would probably be more of an activist than a politician," she says, explaining she has been inspired by Emma Gonzalez, also 17, who survived the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida earlier this year, and has since been advocating for gun control.

What makes a good leader? “Empathy; understanding from the bottom up and not the top down.”

Leaders she admires: Senator Lynn Ruane and former president Mary Robinson.

Rebecca Battle (17), of Enniscrone, Co Sligo, going into sixth year at Jesus and Mary Secondary School

The attendance of five people from the Enniscrone Foróige club at this year’s leadership conference is mainly down to Rebecca Battle, who was the club’s sole representative last year.

Inspired by what she learnt then, she set herself the goal of becoming a young leader and making others aware of the opportunities the organisation offered beyond their club’s four walls.

“They needed someone who knew what they were talking about. I was able to go into detail and encourage other people to do it.”

She is now on the reference panel – a group of 64 young people who work together to try to improve Foróige – is a member of the national council and she is also one of two young people on the organisation’s board.

She feels there is discrimination against young people in her community because of the actions of a few.

“Some kids are caught out drinking or vandalising, and because a small minority get caught doing these things there is a lot of pressure on the rest of us. We may not be those people who are doing those things but we will be seen with them, because we are still friends with them, and that name is pinned on us then.”

However, she acknowledges the community gets behind them when they are doing something positive with, say, Foróige.

Of the tendency of the older generation to say “oh, the young people and technology”, she wonders do they really understand the positives and how it enables them to keep in touch with friends with whom they couldn’t otherwise.

"My best friend lives in Monaghan, I live in Sligo," points out Rebecca, who is hoping to study medicine. Social media has also enabled her to keep in touch with lots of people she met at the leadership conference last year – including participants from India and the US.

What makes a good leader? “Someone who is assertive, ready to work as hard as they can – with their team instead of bossing them around; willing to listen to all ideas and compromise if necessary; who is approachable but isn’t soft and has their head screwed on.”

Leader she admires? "My dad, Tommy Battle, who runs his own pub and restaurant, The Pilot Bar, in Enniscrone, and has been running businesses for years."

Callum Maxwell (17), of Oldcastle, Co Meath, going into sixth year at St Oliver’s Post Primary School

Nominating something he would like to change nationally, Callum Maxwell clearly relishes a challenge: “The mindset – that’s a big thing to change,” he says with a smile.

He believes Ireland has taken a huge stride in that respect, with the passing of the referendums on gay marriage and repeal the Eighth, but there's still room for improvement.

“We are coming to a good place, I think. Opinions – both young and old – are being heard.”

Yet he still sees a stigma being attached to young people, that they’re all out drinking. “I personally have never drunk [alcohol] in my life. You’d be surprised at how many don’t drink.”

You’ll hear about the one trouble-maker but not the five doing voluntary work “because we like to talk about negative things, not positive things”.

However, the ageist stereotypes work both ways, he points out, with young people tending to regard their elders as being small-minded. “But everyone’s different.”

Breaking down generational barriers requires education and more interaction between young and old people, he suggests, “things then can become less alien”.

To others, Foróige is just a youth club but, he says, when you go looking, there is so much more to the organisation. Now, as well as being chairman of the Oldcastle club, he sits on the board with Rebecca Battle and also serves on the youth advisory panel for Jigsaw Meath.

What makes a good leader? “Communication – able to converse with people in an effective way; being open-minded. They need to care about the people they are trying to motivate.”

Leaders he admires? “A lot of people of my parents’ generation because they work so incredibly hard – and I know that sounds real sappy but that’s the truth. Also, Foróige volunteers – such as the 100 who gave a week of their summer to help out at the leadership conference.”

Karina Tropman (17), of Ballinrobe, Co Mayo, going into fifth year at Mount St Michael School, Claremorris

Making a “welcome DVD” for 14 Syrian refugee families who arrived in Castlebar, Co Mayo, two years ago was a project Karina Tropman used for one of her modules on the leadership programme.

"We showed them certain areas that we thought were essential to know when you come into our community – for example, the hospital, and we explained you would only go there when you're in serious bother; the library and how it's free; Tesco; and we invited them into our club."

The Syrians have integrated very well in the town, especially in school, she reports. “They are all friendly and it’s all very positive.”

Having been in and out of short-term foster-care placements since she was seven, “Foróige leaders have been 100 per cent the most consistent people in my life,” Karina says. “They know you better than your family or friends.”

She joined her first Foróige project in Castlebar when she was 10, the Neighbourhood Youth Project. Later, she went on to have a mentor through the Big Brother, Big Sister scheme.

Her ambition is to work for Foróige or to be a social care worker – “anywhere I am helping people, especially young people, to achieve their potential”.

What makes a good leader? “You need to be empathetic and non-judgmental, be kind to everyone; to have confidence, self-assurance and assertiveness.”

Leaders she admires? "Ruairi Kelly, who has been my project leader since I was 10, in the Neighbourhood Youth Project. At national level, Michael Kernan, who is a member of staff at HQ."

DeAlbert Shepherd (16) of New York, going into his final year at All Hallows High School, South Bronx, New York

Homelessness is one of the big community issues that exercises the mind of young New Yorker DeAlbert Shepherd. But, as one of 14 people from his school to attend the leadership conference, he realises it’s a problem in cities the world over.

"Everywhere there is a lot of homelessness – it's not right, I would definitely like to see that changed." He helps out with soup kitchens organised both by his school and by the Greater Zion Baptist Church.

He agrees it’s a crisis that sometimes seems unsolvable “but you have to keep trying”. That’s one of the many things he says he learnt at the leadership conference: “To be a leader, you have to believe in what you’re doing enough so that when you have those doubts, it just over-rides it.”

His leadership roles so far have included being captain of the school 10-pin bowling team and he will be captain of the track team this coming year. After school, his ambition is to be an agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, his interest having been sparked by a course in intelligence the FBI ran at his school

What makes a good leader? “Know yourself – your skills, your assets; be confident, organised and have good time management; lead by example, trust people you’re leading; be selfless and empathetic.”

Leaders he admires? His school principal, Sean Sullivan, and Martin Luther King Jr, who was a big influence on his parents. He also attributes much of his inner drive to his mum, who died in February, 2017.

Fergal Flood (17), of Truagh, Co Monaghan, going into sixth year at St Macartan’s College, Monaghan

A one-off leadership project three years ago to provide a "Santa experience" for children with special needs, which Fergal Flood set up with another club member, proved so successful it has become an annual event.

Other young people in the Truagh Foróige club, of which Fergal is chairman, have continued it as part of their leadership projects. He believes the older generation don’t realise the stress that many young people like him are under in trying to balance school with sport, a part-time job and voluntary service.

His dream job is to be a pilot, something he has wanted to do since he was three, but he knows it is a difficult career to get into.

“I also have a very strong interest in youth work; I love Irish and I love sports, so I would like to be an Irish and PE teacher.”

He is interested in politics but hasn't aligned himself with any party, although his family is Fine Gael.

Could he imagine himself running for office? “If I got into youth work, after 20 years or so, I’d like to be minister for children and youth affairs. If I can’t be a pilot, I would like to make as positive an impact on young people as I can.”

What makes a good leader? “Someone who is hardworking and inspirational, also understanding of everybody’s different needs and allows people to express their own feelings and opinions.”

Leaders he admires? "Truagh club volunteer leader Sinead Daly, she's amazing."

Liadh Hennessy (17), of Ballineen, West Cork, going into fifth year at Maria Immaculate Community College, Dunmanway

Working towards becoming chairperson of her local Foróige club was Liadh Hennessy’s first taste of leadership; she has since become chair of Cork County Comhairle na nÓg and this year gave the opening speech at the leadership conference.

Asked about challenges teenagers face, she singles out school – particularly the last couple of years. “I think there’s a lot of stress – it’s always on your mind.” Going into fifth year and having had to pick her Leaving Certificate subjects, she’s wondering if that choice is going to determine what she does for the rest of her life.

She doesn’t believe the older generation really grasps the extent of the pressure. “I think you need college a lot more now than you did back, I don’t know how many years, when the Leaving Cert was sufficient. I don’t think they understand how much you have to study to get on these courses.”

Liking both science and business subjects, she’s not sure yet what she wants to study at college.

Liadh thinks it’s really important that young people are informed about politics, otherwise, come 18, they won’t know what to vote for. “You could be misled so easily.”

While the introduction of politics as a Leaving Cert subject is to be welcomed, at the same time the dropping of Civic, Social and Political Education as a Junior Cert exam subject is, she suggests, a backward step.

What makes a good leader? “Communication, listening, understanding and delegation. Knowing your own weaknesses. People skills, being able to work with groups and trying to be positive so people are not afraid to give their own opinion.”

Leaders she admires? “The most inspiration I have had is probably from my club leaders at home – Colm O’Sullivan, who started the club when he was only 19 I think, and Liam O’Driscoll.”