Young leaders explore their role in UN SDGs at the 2016 Winter Youth Assembly at the United Nations
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United Nations Headquarters, NY – On February 17-18, an estimated a thousand attendees comprised of more than 600 young leaders from 70 countries gathered at the United Nations Headquarters to tackle the role of youth during a crucial year in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, more formally known as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The 2016 Winter Youth Assembly at the United Nations, with the theme “Transforming Our World: The Role of Youth in the Implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals”, covered plenary sessions and interactive workshops that addressed where youth stand in the SDGs–with emphasis on social ventures and innovation–amidst challenges they face such as unemployment, education, health, poverty, among many others.
Yin-Chu Jou, Chair of the Youth Assembly and Friendship Ambassador Foundation’s Acting Executive Director kicked off the opening session with a call to action to young people to add value to the world and help transform vision into action, “We must constantly think and have the conviction to transform our visions into action to create a future for a better and more sustainable world.”
H.E. Simona-Mirela Miculescu, Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of UN Office in Belgrade, addressed the assembly as its first Honorary Chair, “You are a force that has to be properly valued...The empowerment of young people such as you, particularly young women, is an essential component of any people-centered development agenda.”
Via a video message, the President of the 70th session of the General Assembly H.E. Mogens Lykketoft underlined that while governments are primarily responsible for implementing the agenda, “they will need the encouragement and push ofall stakeholders and especially from young people.” Further, he said, “You helped shaped the agenda. Now, we need your support, energy, and innovative ideas to implement it, to ensure that neither women nor youth are left behind.”
UN Secretary-General H.E. Ban Ki-moon communicated his message through Dr. David Nabarro, his special advisor on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: “I count on young people to hold their leaders accountable for the promises they have made. I also count on your engagement as we embark on implementing our global, universal, and sustainable development agenda.” The Secretary-General also encouraged youth people to use the 2015 United Nations World Youth Report, which will be released next month. Focusing on youth civic engagement, the report provides platform for discussing how youth, government, policy makers, and civil society can work together to implement the 2030 agenda.
In light of the ECOSOC Youth Forum two weeks prior to the Youth Assembly, ECOSOC President H.E. Mr. Oh Joon, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Korea to the UN, referred to some of the policies, discussions, and recommendations which were made during the forum. These include the UN Global Initiative on Decent Jobs for Youth, the first UN-led initiative launched as an inclusive and comprehensive response to the youth employment crisis; making political processes and governance mechanisms more open to young people; and paying special attention to the most marginalized, such as youth from indigenous communities or youth with disability, among many others.
One of the co-facilitators for Post 2015 Development Agenda Negotiations, H.E. David Donoghue, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Ireland to the UN, highlighted how the 2030 agenda for sustainable development, characterized as the most transparent and inclusive in the history of UN negotiations, addresses the needs of children and young people across various contexts.
Madame Lakshmi Puri, UN Women Deputy Executive Director, calls on the “international community at large to provide support to and work with young people in achieving the sustainable development goals for all including youth”. Ms. Puri further stressed that young people’s “energy, passion, commitment, and generational knowledge, must be deployed to make gender equality and women’s empowerment happen.”
Ahmad Alhendawi, the first ever Special Envoy on Youth appointed by the UN Secretary-General and a former Youth Assembly delegate from Jordan (2007), imparted advice to youth including: (1) know well the sustainable development goals, (2) zoom into the goals they are most passionate about, (3) connect with relevant organizations and youth groups or even start something and seek the support of others, (4) be part of the bigger picture, and (5) focus not on building a good CV, but on telling a good story.
Distinguished speakers such as Rev. Art Wilson, New York philanthropist Cheri Kaufman, and Oliver Libby of The Resolution Project challenged and inspired youth to be the “Generation Now”, to create the better world they want, and to start making the change not tomorrow but today.
Kaufman underscored the role of youth in philanthropy: “This will be the great challenge of your generation: how to unleash your skills, live your values and facilitate change by fortifying the institutions and organizations that manifest your values”, highlighting that “philanthropy is the very currency of sustainability.”
The first high-level panel of the Assembly on environment and climate was moderated by UNEP’s Deputy Director Jamil Ahmad, with panelists from the World Wildlife Fund (Vanessa Cardenas, Director of Latino Outreach and Climático Project), The Nature Conservancy (Brigitte Griswold, Director of Youth Programs), and The Huffington Post (Molly Bangs, Associate Special Projects Editor). Youth Assembly participants posed relevant questions such as the effect of climate change on migration, green jobs, and the role of education and media in addressing climate change, among others. The panel was rounded off by a keynote speech by Asher Jay, creative conservationist and National Geographic explorer, who uses art to create impact and address environmental issues.
The next panel on hunger, health, and poverty, was moderated by Ravi Karkara of UN Women, with panelists from UNDESA (Ms. Daniela Bas, Director, DSPD), Pepsico (Matt Smith, Director of Food For Good) Global Health Corps (Farnaz Malik, Fellow), and The World Bank (Mike Kelleher, Adviser on the 2030 Agenda, UN Relations and Partnerships). The panel tackled points such as toilet and sanitation access, advancement in biotechnologies, and the private sector’s courses of action to help solve these problems.
Two half-days of interactive workshops were held in conference rooms – each tackling specific goals, encompassing a broad spectrum, from gender equality, education, and global citizenship, to responsible consumption, production, innovation, computer science, and many more. These sessions involved various organizations and frontrunners in all fields, including representatives from UN Women (Mariko Mori, Youth Activist Working Group on Youth and Gender Equality; Tolulope Lewis Tamoka, Young Women Leadership; Raaj Gokani, Youth Activist Working Group on Youth and Gender Equality); UN-Habitat (Rohit K. Pothukuchi, Youth Specialist & Founder of Verdentum); The World We Want 2030 (Rosa G. Lizarde, Co-chair; Alice Chen, Coordinator, Communications SDG Action); Microsoft YouthSpark (Nathaniel Granor, TEALS Regional Manager); Man Up Campaign (Mohammed Naeem, Youth Delegate); Everyday People Initiating Change (Tennille Amor, Singer & Founder); buildOn (Adnan Karim, New York Program Director & Jennifer Lishansky, East Coast and Midwest Chapter Manager); Education First (EF) (Stella Kechedzhi, North America Admissions Manager); AIESEC-US (Miranda Feneberger, Senior Vice President of Marketing); Do Something (Derrius Quarles, Campaigns Associate); Three Dot Dash (Jess Teutonico, Executive Director, Three Dot Dash (We Are Family Foundation); Young Minds from Gender Equality (Gerardo Porteny, President & Founder); 1+One (Maxine Davila, Founder); Transfernation (Hannah Dehradunwala & Samir Goel, Founders), SOKO (Gwendolyn Floyd, Founder), The Simply Co. (Lauren Singer, Founder & Author of Trash is For Tossers); and Restless Development (Lorraine Perricone-Dazzo, US Fundraising and Communications Manager). Two of these workshops were moderated and led by Youth Assembly co-chair Hayley Gocha of Friendship Ambassadors Foundation.
A workshop led by Microsoft TEALS' Nathaniel Granor got the delegates intrigued with fundamental computer science concepts as they took part in simple experiments and interactive games.
The third panel was moderated by John Farmer, Microsoft’s Director of Technology & Civic Engagement, which explored the cross-section between the opportunities that young people have and ways they can impact the world through innovation and industry. Panelists included Kelly Peeler, founder and CEO of NextGenVest and Wells Lucas Santo, a graduate AI research assistant from New York University. Farmer also talked about Microsoft’s mission to empower every person and every organization to achieve more, and the importance of providing technology and innovation tools in the hands of young people.
In his keynote, Mike Kelleher of The World Bank spoke about how young people can be an effective change agent with three pieces of advice: (1) break the rules and push the boundaries; (2) be technically good and innovative; and (3) connect with people to make a difference.
The fourth panel, moderated by Ravi Karkara of UN Women, dealt with how young people should look at all SDGs from a strong human rights base approach. Panelists include representatives from Human Rights Watch (Akshaya Kumar, Deputy UN Director); Amnesty International (Aashka Merchant, Coordinator for Executive Operations and Special Projects); UN Foundation (Ryan Kaminski, Program Manager for Human Rights and Special Initiatives); and MIT Political Science (Meicen Sun, PhD student). Human right topics included the syrian refugee crisis, LGBT youth, conflict resolution, and peacebuilding.
Claes Nobel, founder of the National Society of High School Scholars, motivated youth with an inspiring speech, which encompasses the “Seven Rights”: (1) Right Thought; (2) Right Word; (3) Right Deed; (4) Right Attitude (5) Right Livelihood; (6) Right Here, and (7) Right Now.
The last panel, led by Emergent Solutions CEO Holly Ransom, with panelists from GenUN UNA-USA (Donya Nasser, U.S. Youth Observer to the UN) and Brighter Today (Mansi Prakash, Founder) analyzed the impact that young people can have in the sustainable development agenda, and recognized solutions through the lessons learned by two incredible young people in galvanizing change in their own communities.
In her closing keynote, Monique Coleman shared her personal journey from being a Hollywood actress to being the first ever United Nations Youth Champion for the International Year of Youth. Coleman fired up the crowd with an inspiring message, “The United Nations is like a body, we make up that body. You are the arms and the legs that are carrying out these ideas and concepts into your countries. Youth are the heartbeat of your countries.”
The two lead endorsers of the 2016 Winter Youth Assembly also delivered their official remarks at the closing session. Permanent Representative of the Republic of Serbia to the UN, H.E. Mr. Milan Milanović, emphasized, “This year is crucial for the implementation of the new set of sustainable development goals that will determine the development metrics of the world that belongs to you, the young generation.” He later on shared a message by a Serbian youth who said, “Every generation has an achievement through which they contribute to social development and well-being. With an enabling environment, the sustainable development agenda could be the achievement of children and young people in our generation.”
Permanent Representative of the Kingdom of Thailand to the UN, H.E. Mr. Virachai Plasai, said, “Our youth can indeed play a crucial role to help drive the process. Indeed what set the SDGs apart from the Millennium Development Goals or the MDGs, is the importance of inclusive partnership in achieving the goals. This process, places you, youth and civil society organizations, as important partners of governments.” Mr. Virachai also talked about how the Permanent Mission and the government of the Kingdom of Thailand prioritize the issues of young people and the importance of youth engagement.
Before the end of the closing session, the most promising social ventures and outstanding delegates were awarded in a short ceremony. Three social venture proposals by Youth Assembly delegates won the Resolution Social Venture Challenge by The Resolution Project, which provides hands-on mentorship, seed funding, and access to world-class global advisory resources. Five Youth Assembly delegates were also awarded as Outstanding Youth based on their applications and participation during the two-day conference.
To close the event, Youth Assembly Honorary Chair Simona Mirela-Miculescu shared two inspiring poems that she hopes young people will take away during moments of discouragement and disappointment. Youth Assembly Chair Yin-Chu Jou shared her motivation behind this event and the inspiration for being a force for good. Japanese singer Yukino Kikuta brought the Youth Assembly to a close with a beautiful rendition of “When You Believe”.
The 2016 Winter Youth Assembly at the United Nations is a program of Friendship Ambassadors Foundation, in partnership with Microsoft YouthSpark, The Resolution Project, The World We Want 2030, The Huffington Post, The World Bank Group, UNA-USA, and NSHSS. The assembly was made possible by the lead endorsements of the Permanent Missions of the Republic of Serbia and the Kingdom of Thailand to the United Nations.