The Revolutionary Optimists: ​Reflections from Public Health Professionals on Youth Activism
July 2021

Bejanchong Foretia, Global Health Committee


This year’s AMCHP 2021 Conference centered on the reality of our global connectedness as we all experience a pandemic that continues to tragically take the lives of thousands and challenge our ideas of “normal”. AMCHP’s Global Health Workgroup took the opportunity to host a film screening and discussion session with the hopes of sharing international health issues that might resonate with our Title V audience and help them identify parallels to their own work. The film, The Revolutionary Optimists, displays themes of radical change through the eyes of school children in Kolkata, India as they become lead activists in their society through a community organization called Prayasam. While advocating for the wellbeing of their community, they battle prejudice from older generations, unequal gender norms, inefficient resources, and illness. As they are led by a determined community organizer (Amlan Ganguly, the director of Prayasam) who believes in the power of children as change agents, the students soon find their voice. Our members watched the realities of making change in a challenging environment and discussed what it means to be optimists while challenging the status quo.

Below is a summary of our discussions during the film session:

We chose this movie because it was centered on youth activism, however the imagery of the lack of sanitation systems, child labor, and inequality is intense. What was the most surprising part from the first part of the film? (imagery, facts, etc.)

The audience reflected on the compelling imagery present in the film which displayed the stark realities the children in Kolkata experienced. The film highlighted issues such as the lack of drinking water, children working in brick fields, barriers to education, and child marriage. While these were harsh images and stories, the audience was also inspired by seeing children serve on the board of Prayasam, children leading community awareness campaigns for the polio vaccine, children encouraging each other, the use of dance and theater arts to convey stories, and other instances of child engagement. The film very clearly set the tone by opening with a scene showing children from Prayasam leading an awareness campaign for the polio vaccine and offering to bring these services to the community members. In this way, we see that the children were not to be displayed as victims, but as very strong voices of their community with a clear belief in their ability to make change.

What is your reaction to the work of Amlan Ganguly and Prayasam? How do you feel about children being empowered to bring about change? Do you think adults in general accept the idea of children and adolescents having a voice in issues that affect their lives? Why is there resistance to that idea?

In reflecting on the strategies and techniques of Amlan and Prayasam, viewers highlighted on one word: “dakabuko” or “courage of the devil” in Bengali. The children were described as having fearless courage to face their challenges and that being a powerful tool that shaped the work of Prayasam. But of course, our discussion of resistance to youth-led change showed that many adults perceive children and youth as having insufficient life experience, a lack of credible knowledge, and a lack of meaningful or relevant ideas. In our own country, we’ve experienced politicians dismiss the concerns of student-led anti-gun movements as naivete, or even targeting students as political operatives instead of citizens with meaningful experiences, rights, and agency. In this film, we see Amlan take and use the opinions of children by inviting them to sit on the board of Prayasam, and furthermore actively listen and shape his advocacy based on their experiences. As one participant said, “We invite youth to sit at the table but instead of adding them to the table we need to move aside and offer our space”.

What gender norms are present in the film? Can girls’ status change just by opening up educational and other opportunities to them? Are inequalities between girls and boys apparent where you live? Can you share any examples of girls being treated as “the second sex”?

Another key theme of the film focused on gender equality and how the unequal systems of the community shown in the film, placed women and girls in difficult positions where they could not attain higher education, experienced abuse and lack of trust from their parents, and were subject to patriarchal views of femininity. Viewers highlighted the difference in the number of chores between girls and boys, child marriage stories, and rules around sports (boys can play and girls cannot). For this to change, many participants felt parent buy-in of gender equality were heavily needed, as well as engagement of men and boys with continued time and effort. While education is key to this effort, we must also understand the economic choices that continue to place women and girls at a disadvantage. Choices between education or working, or education and marriage for stability, show us that decisions for girls are not as easy when considering lifetime financial and personal security. The viewers had many examples of gender inequality where they lived, demonstrating the interconnectedness of this problem as a hindrance to wellbeing.

What does the title “Revolutionary Optimists” refer to? Why “revolutionary”? Why “optimists”?

“Revolutionary = children taking on organizing roles, girls being taught that they are not the second sex. Optimism = hope for future”. Many participants remarked on the concept of changing the way we look at children/youth and systems as a way of revolutionizing our communities and creating genuine optimism about what is possible for our futures. Fatalism was mentioned many times in the film. The title reminds us that we don’t have to rely on fate but can use our own agency to create change. When you live in a society that relies on fatalism, the very act of being optimistic about what we can all achieve can be revolutionary.

What do you plan to take away from this film?

Finally, our participants had many rich takeaways from this film. Many felt the need to re-evaluate their programs and policies to incorporate youth in collaborative projects. The idea of children having a strong say in the world they will grow up in resonated strongly with the group and as a result, they shared ideas of how to make this a key concept within their work. One participant remarked on the idea of inviting youth to the table vs actually offering up space. That is to say, to let youth have a strong voice in the decision making of our policies and programs, it means a shift in the power dynamics of our organizations. Furthermore, assessing the difference between just youth advising, and youth co-creating. With this audience, the film truly instilled youth voice and activism as a key part of the success of sustainable and community led initiatives.