International Unitarian Universalism
Main Content

A UU-UNO High School Intern and Youth Envoy Learns about Youth Development at the United Nations

by Olivia Legan, UU-UNO Intern The panel members had not yet opened their mouths to speak, but the conference room was already buzzing with conversation. The chatter was unusual with many different accents and languages ricocheting from wall to wall. Sharp inflections of German mingled with the rolled 'r's of Spanish and the soft vowels of French.  Attendants of the International Year of Youth: Restless Development - Giving It Back, Passing It On, were shaking hands, making introductions, and excitedly waiting for the event to begin. A few minutes later, Monique Coleman, widely known for her role as Taylor in the High School Musical movies but known more here for her work as a UN Youth Champion, starts to speak. She shares how she has traveled to twenty-four different countries in six months including Brazil and South Africa as part of the UN's International Year of Youth. The point of her travels was to spread awareness of the importance of youth in making a better world, not just in the future but today. Ms. Coleman said that "passionate youth will begin to measure their worth by their ability to solve world problems, not just by their ability to improve themselves."  She also shared that during her travels, she witnessed the impact of familiar corporations and brands almost everywhere she went. Ms.Coleman introduced the rest of the panel and opened the floor to the next speaker, Ms. Reeta Roy, President and CEO of the MasterCard Foundation, which advances microfinance and youth learning. Ms. Roy emphasized the urgent need to invest in young people in Africa, for they "will write the next chapter, not just to give back but also pass on their passion and knowledge to the next generation." She shared the story of a young woman she met while in Kenya who, at seventeen, was urged by her parents to leave school and become the fourth wife of a much older man. She refused and continued school. She is now earning a technical degree. Ms. Roy touched upon the fact that while keeping youth in school is an achievement in itself (few young women in the village she visited in Kenya complete secondary school), strengthening the link between education and employment is vital in empowering youth. She ended by saying that there is a thin line between "poverty and promise. Poverty and possibility. Poverty and prosperity." Mr. John Kluge Jr., son of philanthropist billionaire John Kluge, spoke about how everyone can become a billionaire, but not necessarily in the common sense of the word. To him, a billionaire is one who can touch another person and inspire them to make a change in their family, in their community and in their world. He went on to quote Martin Luther King Jr.; "Everything that is done in the world, is done by hope." Mr. Kluge said that youth are brimming with boundless energy and potential, and once we can expand influence to all corners of the globe, then we can begin to tackle "billion person problems with billion person solutions." Sigrid A.M. Kaag, Assistant Secretary-General and Assistant Administrator and Director of the Partnerships Bureau of the United Nations Development Program was next to speak. She shared that there is a large youth bulge in the Middle East and Africa. There are both over-qualified youth with no jobs or further educational opportunities as well as under-qualified youth without the ability to read or write who need proper education. If education is not present youth suffer from an absence of choice, which adds to and accelerates the problem. Ms. Kaag emphasized that in the promotion of youth, we cannot only aim towards the young. In order to not leave people behind, we need to include all generations. Mr. Sean Koh, Founder and CEO of Koherent Inc. realistically announced that the problems our generation face are complex and extend beyond cash donations or volunteering. Mr. Koh said that while conceptually we can save the world, we face daunting obstacles economically and politically. He ended on the note that "actions speak louder than words... We have all been blessed and now it is time for us to become someone else's blessing." After an interesting question and answer session with the panel, Ms. Coleman announces a surprise appearance of Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon himself. Smiles spread across the crowd, and people scramble to reach for their phones, iPods and cameras. As the onlookers, myself included, ready whatever photography device they have, Ban Ki-Moon strides into the conference room, surrounded by security guards and other members of his office. Once he starts to speak, I look back at the rest of the room to see rows and rows of little red lights, signifying recording devices. The Secretary General is met by applause when he begins by sharing that he has been elected for a second term. Mr. Ki-Moon tells us that he recently had breakfast with billionaire philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, and that he often gets asked if he is afraid that the work of philanthropists will overshadow the work of the United Nations. The Secretary General responds with a clear and firm "no." He claims that they are partners with the UN and "by lifting others, we lift ourselves." He touches on the significance of youth in the fight for freedom in Egypt. "What we see [in Egypt] is something that should have happened a long time ago. When the dream of the people is being suppressed by a leader, the people and the UN stand up on the basis of democracy. In situations like this, young people and women and workers are often sources of power and change." He continues to express his sadness about the situation in Libya, but hopes for the best, for "when a government leader is not able to keep their people safe from an imminent threat, then it is the obligation of the international community to act."