Shifting Power to Youth in Urban Programming

Author: Andy Nilsen

Andy Nilsen is the creator and Global Director of Shift, an innovative campaign accelerator model aimed at young activists aged 14-25, housed within Save the Children. In this piece, Nilsen delves into the origins of Shift and showcases standout urban campaigns from across the world, all nurtured by Shift.

One Sunday morning, looking down from my third-floor apartment in downtown Yangon, the idea for Shift came to me. Like many expats, I had initially lived in a part of town called the Golden Valley. It was a refuge from the busier side of the city, where families could find a house with a backyard, and restaurants served food that reminded us of home. But in my mind, the pulsating heart of Yangon was its bustling downtown. My partner and I were determined to experience living there before our Myanmar chapter concluded.

Despite its allure and charm, downtown posed its set of urban challenges. Sewers were open and green spaces were few. Nature had, in fact, reclaimed its place amongst the buildings, with vegetation enveloping many of the city’s structures. To imagine downtown, you must picture row after row of narrow homes spanning many architectural eras. People built up rather than out, but only to a height of around six floors so as to not exceed the height of the city’s sacred Shwedagon Pagoda.

With inadequate waste management systems, the laneways between these buildings became dumping grounds for rubbish. My apartment was no different. From my bedroom window, I could look down onto a disused laneway and find rubbish accumulated over time to at least one metre high. The convenience of throwing rubbish out the window was too tempting for some residents. We actually named one of the rats in the laneway’ patches,’ so frequent was its appearance in our daily lives!

Yangon’s laneways had accumulated rubbish through years of neglect © Mary Tran/Save the Children.

Then came that Sunday morning. I was woken by the sound of a hundred young voices down below my window. Peering down, I saw a small army of youth clad in their matching club T-shirts, diligently clearing years of accumulated trash from the laneway. Within just a few hours, the once garbage-filled alley was clean – and Patches was nowhere to be seen (sorry patches). I was struck by their energy, their smiles and the fact that youth, so often dismissed by older generations as being disengaged and self-centric, were giving up their Sunday for the betterment of their community. When I investigated these youth-led movements further, I found their activities went beyond cleanups. They were reclaiming these urban spaces with art, re-educating residents about sanitation and advocating for the city council on waste management issues and the value of public space.

With an international focus on environmental crusaders like Sweden’s Greta Thunberg and the #NeverAgain youth movement that rose against gun violence in the USA, I had neglected to notice the youth-led movements rising right in front of me. As a Director of Communications and Campaigns working for one of the world’s largest NGOs representing young people, I was inspired to ask: How are we helping the young people who are already taking direct action to influence a better world?

The Shift Model

Shift is now being used in over 20 countries, from Malawi to Bhutan to El Salvador. Our model and methods have been crafted from listening to young people answer a simple question: How can we, a large organization, help you? In summary, the heart of our Shift model is:

  1. Opportunity Creation: We identify, recognize and engage with young people already championing community causes. Shift acts as a bridge between these independent, informal groups and NGOs, governments, and even the private sector.
  2. Campaign Planning Workshops: We use fun activities incorporating human-centred design with social marketing to help young people frame their campaigns. Workshops challenge participants to devise effective change strategies based on insights and creativity.
  3. 3. Funding: Shift believes in experiential learning. So, we always ensure campaigners receive adequate funding to turn their visions into reality.
  4. Mentorship & Collaboration: We surround young activists with a support system, including experienced mentors from diverse sectors. That includes topic experts and ‘Creative Buddies.’
  5. Support in Execution: From launch to evaluation, Shift helps youth monitor their campaign, respond to challenges, and also rise to opportunities.
  6. 6. Community Building: Beyond standalone campaigns, Shift is building a global network of young changemakers, encouraging cross-border collaboration and inspiration.

My lesson, from the streets of Yangon to the development of a globally scaled model, is that when young people receive the appropriate opportunity, tools and mentorship, transformational change isn’t just a possibility; it’s a virtual guarantee. Our ever-growing portfolio of Shift-supported campaigns stands as a testament to this.

Inspiration from some of Shift’s best urban-focused campaigns

Air Quality Yangon, Myanmar, Air Pollution

Dr Air Bear was a teddy bear scientist from the future who appeared all over Yangon to warn its citizens of the causes and consequences of air pollution © Mary Tran/Save the Children.

Air Quality Yangon, a student-led initiative, was formed to address the lack of publicly available air quality data in Myanmar. As part of this initiative, students began collecting data using Air Beam 2 monitors and installing Purple Air sensors around the city. They also constructed an affordable device to measure Particulate Matter 2.5 with locally sourced components. The team shared daily Air Quality Index (AQI) updates on their Facebook page. Joining the SHIFT project, they discovered that many people didn’t consider air quality a tangible issue.

To raise awareness about air pollution and its impacts, the “Know What You Breathe” campaign was initiated, featuring Dr Air Bear, a mascot representing a scientist from the future. The white fluffy bear was paraded around Yangon. It changed colour over time, visually representing air pollution levels. The campaign’s findings and educational content were shared online, emphasizing the real-time effects of pollution, demonstrated by Dr. Air Bear’s changing appearance. Furthermore, the bear promoted sustainable transport alternatives, like buses and bicycles, advocating for reduced car usage in Yangon.


  • They Influenced the Department of Meteorology and Hydrology to release their air quality data to the public for the first time.
  • They reached 6.9 million people and directly engaged 650,000 with their messages.
  • They increased their social media audience from 2,000 to over 30,000 in just three months. The platform posted daily AQI data and educated citizens on the causes and consequences of air pollution.
  • They generated 78 news items on air pollution, which built awareness and drove a public narrative around air quality.

Find out more about their campaign here.

Lilongwe Shifters, Malawi, Waste Management

Lilongwe Shifters have had remarkable success cleaning up markets in their city. These changes have brought more business to local vendors. Their success has also motivated the city council to integrate their campaign into their city-wide strategy © Save the Children.

The Lilongwe Shifters, a group of 16 youths from Lilongwe, Malawi, tackled waste management and climate change, mainly focusing on the littered Chinsapo Market. Implementing a multi-faceted approach, they engaged with various sectors, utilized media outreach through songs, radio, and billboards, and employed innovative methods like drone mapping to identify waste sites and converting trash into fashion. Their extensive collaborations, including with the National Youth Network on Climate Change and various local departments, culminated in awareness campaigns and cleanup drives. Their effective advocacy caught the Lilongwe City Mayor’s attention, who introduced the “Clean City Awards” to recognize and reward the country’s cleanest locales. On the invitation of the city authorities, the group plans to take their campaign to other parts of the city.


  • They formed a partnership with drone company Wind Ride Aeros to map the city’s waste disposal problem spots and presented data to the local government for potential adoption.
  • They influenced the Mayor of Lilongwe to introduce a yearly prize to encourage citizen-led action on environmental sustainability.
  • They campaigned with local store vendors to clean the city’s largest market and developed a sustainable system for waste management.
  • The city council invited them to represent youth on the city waste management committee.

Find out more about their campaign here.

Kayapalat, Nepal, Plastic Reduction

Kayapalat took their campaign to the streets, using simple creative stunts to start community conversations on single use plastic © Save the Children.

The Kayapalat group, consisting of 20 young climate activists from Madhesh Province in Nepal, launched the “Plastic Man” campaign during the Chhath Parva festival to highlight the environmental dangers of plastic. The campaign involved activists donning outfits made of plastic waste, symbolizing humanity’s role in environmental pollution. Their outreach efforts, involving over 60 volunteers, resulted in the planting of 115,000 trees and establishment of 17 new partnerships, engaging schools, youth groups, and even parliamentarians ahead of national elections. Their campaign gained significant media traction, with 40 stories discussing deforestation and the plastic crisis across various platforms. Consequently, local businesses and city ward members committed to reducing plastic usage and promoting environmental consciousness.


  • The group generated over 40 news items on plastic use within the community, including television, radio, online and podcasts.
  • The group convinced several major retailers to replace plastic bags with cloth bags.
  • The group gained commitments from 12 key decision-makers, including parliamentarians, in the lead up to local elections.

Find out more about their campaign here.

Join us in Taking the Shift

Concern for the planet’s future is both urgent and justified. At Shift, we recognize the untapped potential of young activists as invaluable allies in this battle. Therefore, we’ve created a streamlined pathway of opportunities for these dedicated individuals. I firmly believe it’s time to invest in these initiatives like never before. We aim to equip young people with the necessary resources, free from bureaucratic hurdles, while offering guidance without imposing control. This approach will foster sustainable, citizen-driven actions that, in turn, will compel leaders to become active participants in solving our global challenges.

At Shift, we imagine a movement of changemaking, not owned by any particular organization, but rather a common approach taken by many, utilizing our core Shift methodology, but always localized and adapted to context. There are green shoots of positive change all over the world. If we organize and invest in the young people behind these green shoots, who are passionate about social and environmental justice, I genuinely believe the future can be bright.

If you are an organization interested in learning the Shift model, we have options, so please get in touch with

If you are a donor, there are young people around the globe with plans already in place who simply need funding.

About the Author

Andy Nilsen is the Creator and Global Director of Shift, at Save the Children International (SCI). He was a former Director of Communications, Advocacy and Campaigns for SCI (Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand) and prior to this led Communications for Australian INGO, The Fred Hollows Foundation. Nilsen started his career in Media and Politics.


The Ideas4Action series aims to inspire with ideas that have worked in other cities and countries so that you too, can take action in your own city. Read more of our blogs here. 

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