A Job, A Risk, and A Movement: Ali’s Journey to Redefining Success for Young People

The story of how Ali Khan took an unexpecting job that led him on a journey to transforming the way children and young people grow up with a changemaking mindset across Pakistan.

Ali Raza Khan, a leading social entrepreneur and Ashoka Fellow (elected in 2005) from Pakistan, is building a national movement of young people to find their inner power as changemakers and launch their own community-based ventures.

For nearly two decades he has led YES Network Pakistan, which develops and an ecosystem that enables young changemakers to thrive, building a community of knowledge and practice to normalize and uplift youth-led changemaking.

To the surprise of many, Ali entered the field of youth development accidently. Compelled by his tenacity for change and commitment to transform what it means to grow up in today’s world, Ashoka asked Ali to share his changemaker journey, lessons from the field, and advice to young people in Pakistan and around the world.

An Unexpected First Job that Launched Ali’s Career:

When Ali’s older brother applied for a job with the Family Planning Association of Pakistan, he encouraged his brother to apply, too at his place as he was selected in civil services. Ali as the time was a fresh graduate in Political Science and didn’t think twice about it. Like many young graduates, Ali was unsure where to get his first job. To his delight, he was hired instantly. But, once in the role, Ali had no plans to stay.

“I never wanted to stay in this field. I wanted to become a civil servant, as it was the most respectable job in our culture and country,” Ali candidly shares. “I was given the responsibility to assist the youth and women development section with designing, implementing, and evaluating sexual reproductive health programs.” Being his first job, Ali dedicated himself to the position.

Quickly, he gained more responsibility, led his team, and traveled extensively. “I had the opportunity to interact with many young people living in the rural and most deprived communities of Pakistan,” Ali says, “I received first-hand knowledge of the difficulties and tragedies faced by young people.” Stunned by the lack of respect and attention towards young people, Ali observed that they were growing up in environments without any trust.

Ali began to see young people’s curiosity and ambitious, but it was squandered by deficit-based youth programing. These programs, Ali realized, were about “youth prevention” and “poverty alleviation”, victimizing young people rather than embracing their underestimated potential to drive change in their communities.

“Try to imagine the scenario,” Ali illustrates, “Young people that are humiliated and degraded by society were asked to participate in sexual reproductive health programs that offer nothing about how to uninstall a negative belief system and change their lives. To have all those needs-to yearn to be trusted, valued, respected, cared for, and positively engaged, and then to be spoken about sexual reproductive health. Imagine their frustration.”

A Risk that Changed Ali’s Trajectory:

While Ali was accelerating in his career, he continued to watch young people be overlooked and underestimated. Slowly, Ali pivoted his role to focus on young people. However, he did not see how his work in sexual reproductive health could overturn all the barriers young people faced in reaching their full potential. “It is not the lack of material goods or services that truly holds them back,” Ali claims, “but the loss of self-belief, trust, dignity, and self-respect. I realized that our families, educational institutions, communities, and organizations were producing and nourishing a psychology which brings out the lowest, most base part of human beings.

Ali went to Green Town, Lahore, Pakistan, to run sexual health awareness program for displaced people who migrated from Bangladesh. The community was ecstatic for Ali’s arrival, but Ali was baffled. “They did not realize that I came to conduct an awareness session on reproductive health with young people in that community. The community organized a ceremony to honor me.”

During the ceremony, Ali ditched his professional agenda. Instead, he said “today I have come here to listen to you and find ways to work with you, to harness local resources to deal with your challenges”. Although the community thought Ali’s arrival meant disappointment, but one young man stood out: Samiullah. He became my primary source of communication with this community.

Returning to his office, Ali shared his confusing experience with his supervisors. They frowned, reject Ali’s idea for going beyond his intended purpose. Undeterred, Ali remembers challenging the status quo by going beyond his job description. “I decided to stop doing things that have very little or no impact on young people.”

Ali Raza Khan speaking to young people and local leaders.

From a Job to a Journey:

Ali went back to Green Town, Lahore and met with Samiullah to learn what needed to be done to transform the community. “Samiullah wanted to start a project for children, as they were the most vulnerable to multiple forms of maltreatment,” Ali reflects. Samiullah dreamed of running a school, but his dream lacked funding.

Intrigued, Ali and Samiullah found empty, open-air spaces in the community to be transformed into classrooms. They engaged young girls between the ages of 12-16, and quickly, over 400 children demanded to enroll in the new school. Parents we willing to pay a nominal fee, demonstrating their commitment to their children’s growth.

The school was especially unique because community members, many young women, stepped up to be teachers and administrators, leading classroom sessions and fostering peer collaboration. This youth-led school caught national attention while further perking Ali’s entrepreneurial spirit. Ali says, “By simply honoring young people, we can help them to transform themselves from victims to leaders.”

Thinking beyond traditional education, Ali ideated programs that enable young people to not only learn but find their power of changemakers. “I realized that we are making a serious mistake by thinking that young people are ignorant, and that all we need to do is to educate them and protect them.”

After years of pushing the boundaries of his role, Ali finally resigned. “My interaction with young people changed my life. But I did not arrive at this vision overnight.” Ali says, pondering the time he spent as a young professional. “I developed this vision slowly and gradually. It was not an instant thought. It was the outcome of my intensive engagement and interaction with young people.”

The Woman Who Fostered Ali’s Changemaking Spirit

When Ali resigned, Ali was determined to play a more profound role in the youth empowerment field and began to reflect on his own experience of growing up. Like many, Ali lived in a society that didn’t believe in the potential of young people. Instead, his acuity for changemaking later in life did not come from a classroom, but his mother.

“My mother started a school for underserved children 40 years ago against family norms. She gave me the best example of a changemaker. She did not give up. She remained focused.” Ali’s mother educated children of neighboring communities and domestic workers, becoming a lifelong advocate for thousands of children across Pakistan. Ali’s mother lived a live full of compassion. “Compassion,” Ali describes “is more beautiful and powerful than competition.”

This solutions-first perspective from his mother propels Ali to constantly think in terms of value, talents, abilities, and potential. Constantly dreaming bigger and bolder for the next generation, Ali says “my mother taught me a very important lesson in life: that when we expand our vision in life, we expand our possibilities in life, and we are guided divinely.”

Hear from young people and adult allies in YES Network Pakistan’s Changemaker Network claim their changemaker mindset. 

A New Definition of Success:

Ali had undergone a mindset shift, and he began determined for others to experience it, too. In 2002, he launched a new social movement, “Youth as a Solution, Not as a Problem”, in Pakistan. Ali came to the three following conclusions for this movement:

  1. Every young person is born with the changemaking intelligence.
  2. It takes only one person or experience to become a changemaker.
  3. When young people begin their changemaking journey, they rewrite their belief system.

With a new set of goals in hand, Ali founded YES Network Pakistan to drive these changes within society. Almost two decades later, YES Network Pakistan has planted the seed for youth changemaking in over 1,200 educational and vocational institutions, reforming school curriculum and reimagining the university experience with changemaking at the forefront. Ali has recently launched his second book called Changemaking Intelligence to communicate his strategy and movement to educators and leaders across Pakistan, South Asia, and beyond.

By transforming the way educational institutions treat, engage, and uplift young people, a mindset shift is happening across Pakistan. Ali aspires for “seeing young people as a problem to seeing young people as a solution, seeing young people as passive beneficiaries to seeing young people as the shapers of society, and from seeing young people as future leaders to seeing young people as changemakers now.”

September 4, 2020

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