"They are like me, but without the chances I've had because of American programs," said Sadia Sikander Awan, referring to young women in her home city of Karachi, Pakistan. "That's why America's commitment to young people means something to me."
An alumna of a State Department scholarship program, Sadia was one of several hundred young people who traveled to the University of California, Berkeley for Amnesty International's inaugural Global Youth Summit this month. The attendees -- college and high school students, youth leaders, and heads of local Amnesty chapters -- spent a day at the idyllic campus discussing issues affecting young people the world over: education, economic empowerment, the ability of young people to assemble and be heard by their governments.
It was my privilege to observe that group, and to deliver a closing keynote. Sadia was one of the many students to stand up and comment after my remarks. She and her fellow participants all spoke with conviction and passion. The audience was inspiring to see; energized and vocal, with throngs of students expressing interest in public service.
The theme of my remarks focused on young people in difficult circumstances choosing between violent and peaceful tools to effect change, and the critical difference those decisions are making in the global landscape. It's a dichotomy I've heard about during conversations with young people in war-affected areas and seen firsthand as a UNICEF spokesperson in the Horn of Africa and through my current work in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
My presence at the Global Youth Summit was part of a broader push on the part of the U.S. government to engage with young people and listen more closely to young voices as we make policy. At the State Department, Secretary Clinton has launched an unprecedented youth policy taskforce to review our approach to youth issues and amplify programs focused on young people. Under Secretaries of State Maria Otero and Judith McHale, both heroic advocates of youth rights, have been championing this process; its lead working group has been chaired over the last six months by myself and David Barth, Director of USAID's Office of Education.
The White House, too, has been invested in the project of reaching out in new ways to young people. President Obama has committed to facilitating youth events around the country, and the White House Office of Public Engagement is enlisting officials to participate. For example, following the Amnesty event, I spoke to an auditorium of local teens at a youth town hall staged by the city of San Jose. The challenges young people face in making their voices heard in their communities are just as real at home as they are abroad, and San Jose's young people -- facing extraordinary constraints on their school system's budget, and resisting the pull of local gang violence -- were similarly impassioned.
It's a small snapshot of a seminal moment for youth engagement, at home and abroad. Young people are increasingly driven and empowered change agents, working to make positive noise. We're listening.