About the Author: Ray Castillo serves in the Office of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.
The President's Forum with Young African Leaders ended yesterday. The three-day conference left my colleagues and me with great admiration for the 115 men and women who came to the United States from 46 sub-Saharan African countries to share their visions and ideas with us and with each other.
The Forum was filled with memorable moments:
- President Obama's town hall with the young African leaders, in which he answered questions and told the participants, "You represent the Africa that so often is overlooked -- the great progress that many Africans have achieved and the unlimited potential that you've got going forward into the 21st century."
- The intensive discussions that took place on issues related to governance, economic opportunity, and youth empowerment, accompanied by opportunities to hear from Secretary of State Clinton and Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson.
- Visits to Congress, for discussions with Senators Richard Durbin, Russ Feingold, and Johnny Isakson and Congressman Donald Payne; to Peace Corps, to explore together "Ubuntu in Action: Partnering for Development in Africa;" and to an array of community service programs in Washington.
- Thursday morning's "Unconference," which brought together participants with a range of American civil society and private sector representatives, to develop relations and strengthen ties between active citizens in Africa and the United States, and the session for which I served as moderator -- "The Way Forward" plenary.
For me, however, the deepest impressions came from the presence, energy, and ideas of the participants from Africa. They are people of courage, commitment, and conviction -- true leaders for their communities and their nations. They spoke honestly of their challenges, but also inspired one another with their experiences, achievements, and determination. They told us of their vision for Africa and their great ideas on how to act as catalysts for change to realize that vision. As one participant said this morning, "When I listen to these people, I know there is hope for Africa."
This week's gathering is only the beginning. As Secretary Clinton said when she met with the delegates on Tuesday, "Africa has no shortage of ideas, innovations, or entrepreneurial drive. We want this conference to be a start, where we work with you to help you create the conditions in which your ideas can be translated into real-life solutions for Africa and beyond."
Based on what we heard from the participants in this Forum, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale told the delegates that we have also decided to organize a follow-on summit in Africa during the first quarter of 2011. It will take place on a single day, in multiple regional locations across Africa. American representatives will be invited to travel to Africa to participate, and we will use technology to further expand participation in both Africa and the United States.
The Department of State has also launched an "Apps 4 Africa" effort. All over Africa, we will look to expand opportunities for technical innovators and program developers to come together with civil society leaders to develop technical responses to social challenges.
As I told the delegates that I met, “Africa is in my heart.” I have served in Africa twice -- from 2002-2004 in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, and from 2006-2009 in Windhoek, Namibia. My family and I love the continent, and my oldest daughter even rooted for Ghana in the FIFA World Cup. I was truly gratified that I knew all of the young leaders chosen to represent Namibia.
The delegates are now making the long trip home to reengage with youth communities all over Africa and to put in motion the plans and visions that they discussed with President Obama, Secretary Clinton and each other in Washington, D.C. As time passes, I hope that they will recall something I said to them at the end of the discussion focused on their goals for the future of Africa:
"You make me proud to know you. You make Africa proud. In 20 years time my two daughters will be the same age as many of you. At that time, I fully expect that a number of you will be presidents in your countries. I would be delighted if my daughters were able to attend the President's Forum with Young American Leaders, in Africa, 20 years from now!"