As U.S. Ambassador to UNESCO -- the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization -- I often get to meet impressive young people who are doing amazing things to change the world. At a recent UNESCO High-Level Forum in New York, I met 27-year-old Meghann Aurea Villanueva, who has been fighting for change since she was a 10-year-old volunteer helping her parents work with street children in the Philippines. At 17, Meg was already presenting at international conferences on peace-building through volunteer work as a seasoned expert. Today, she serves as Director of the Peace and Human Rights Program at Fondacio Catalunya Volontaria.
Meg spoke at the UNESCO Forum before a group of accomplished leaders and activists from around the world, most of them many years her senior, who came together to brainstorm ways to promote the rapprochement among world cultures in pursuit of peace. She was not at all shy about insisting that her generation be involved in key decisions about the world. "We need leaders to listen to us, and we want to be involved in the process of decision making that involves us," she argued. "We young people are not just the future -- we are also the present." As I listened, I reflected on how valuable the work is that UNESCO does to reach out and engage youth in its efforts to combat violence and promote peace, and how much it tracks with Secretary Clinton's view about the important role youth can play in promoting democratic values around the world.
I was also deeply impressed by another speaker who is committed to breaking the cycle of youth violence: Forest Whitaker, the Oscar-winning actor. Forest may be best known for his illustrious career as an artist, director, and producer, but there is another side to him most of us don't know. Having witnessed the devastating effects of gang violence in Los Angeles while growing up, Forest has dedicated himself to finding ways to build peace. Honored in 2001 with the Humanitas Award for his selfless devotion to children trapped in dire circumstances, he has more recently dedicated his time and celebrity to Hope North, a center in Uganda that shelters escaped child soldiers, orphans and victims of the country's civil war. In 2009, Forest released a documentary called, 'Kassim the Dream,' about a former child solider turned world-championship boxer, which has helped raise awareness about the need to protect this vulnerable population.
Forest's heartfelt plea to us to help these children, and how his life has been shaped by the experience of working with them, touched all of us deeply. He screened a new documentary that shocked us with the horror of what children from these war torn areas have had to endure -- even girls are not spared this form of violence, as we heard in an interview with a former female child solider in the film. Given Forest's great work in this area, we are working with UNESCO to see how we can collaborate to expand this effort.
Culture is so much more than buildings and museums. It is the civilization that surrounds us. It shapes how we act, it helps determine opportunities, and when misused, can be a lethal weapon to crush dreams and destroy hope. This is why culture is important, and why I am more determined than ever to help build a culture of peace, working with the 192 other countries represented at UNESCO and, even more importantly, with the youth that sustain our present and create our future.
Ways You Can Get Involved: We also want to hear how America's youth are facing today's challenges during the 2011 UNESCO Youth Forum. I encourage those between the ages of 18 and 24 to apply to represent the United States this fall as a delegate to the 2011 UNESCO Youth Forum in Paris by telling us what you think is the greatest global challenge facing youths, and how American youth can help to address it. More details can be found here.