Just a few weeks ago, the 71st session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) occurred in New York City. UNGA week -- which I like to call the “super bowl of diplomacy” -- was a hectic week full of conferences and high-level side events, as well as a dizzying array of breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee, happy hour, and any other type of meeting or event you can imagine! Heads of States, Foreign Ministers, CEOs, celebrities, as well as community, youth, and business leaders in almost every industry could be seen roaming the halls of the United Nations (UN) ready to speak up on behalf of their constituents and causes. Streets were closed off, traffic was insane, and security lines were immense, which means you had to arrive at the UN at least an hour before your event began.
I can easily say that UN General Assembly week 2016 was one of the craziest weeks of my life! I was majorly sleep deprived and constantly in a rush, but I’ve also never been more inspired. Here’s a recap of my experience and what I took away from it all.
Amplifying Youth Voices for Social Good
On my first day, I was up at 6AM ready to attend the Social Good Summit -- a two-day event that explores the role technology plays in improving the world. It is one of my favorite events of the year because it’s at the intersection of tech, media, and social responsibility. Speakers ranged from Chelsea Handler, to Joe Biden, to Filippo Grandi (Head of the UN Refugee Agency), and many other leaders who use technology in innovative ways to achieve the global goals.
Speaking at the Social Good Summit Masterclass. [Photo courtesy of Nicol Perez]
I was excited to join a panel at the Social Good Masterclass alongside Dr. Alaa Murabit, High-Level Commissioner at the UN and SDG Global advocate; Edda Hamar, one of the 17 UN Youth leaders; and Giorgio Jackson, one of Chile’s youngest congressmen. The panel focused on why we must listen to youth leaders and harness the power of their voices to affect change and drive the Global Goals. I shared feedback from young people about the issues they value most, which I received from the Youth Voices Survey and my conversations with young people. I also discussed youth unemployment and the importance of providing young people with the resources to help them make their passions their jobs.
Young Leaders Connect with World Leaders
One of my favorite events of the week was a High-Level breakfast meeting hosted by Ahmad Alhendawi, the UN Youth Envoy. During this, “Young Leaders x World Leaders” breakfast, I sat with young emerging leaders from around the world who are working to making huge impacts in their communities. It took me a few minutes to get over the fact that I was sitting next to some of the world’s most inspiring people including the Crown Princess Mary of Denmark and the Head of Outreach at the UN, Maher Nasser.
At the Young Leaders x World Leaders high level breakfast meeting with UN Youth Envoy Ahmad Alhendawi (left) and U.S.Special Adviser for Global Youth Issues Andrew Rabens (right). [Photo courtesy of Nicol Perez]
As a table facilitator, I helped guide conversations about progress we’ve seen since the Global Goals were adopted last year. In particular, we discussed countries like Botswana, Vietnam, and Tajikistan in relation to women’s sexual and reproductive health. I learned that, in many developing countries, just bringing the issue of women's health to the table was significant progress! It was interesting to see the parallels to the United States, as we still struggle with women’s sexual and reproductive health, even as a developed country. We talked about the importance of ensuring that young people are at the table when policies are being created. We are the largest youth generation EVER. It simply doesn’t make sense to exclude the very people that will be affected by the policies being created for the majority of their lifetimes.
The biggest piece of advice I got out of this meeting was:
Don’t wait for someone to invite you to the table. Opportunities will not be handed to young people. We need to seek them or DEMAND them. We must pull up our own chair and find our own ways to be in the decision-making table.
Taking a Deeper Dive on Refugees and Countering Violent Extremism
One of the biggest themes at UNGA revolved around the refugee crisis. On September 20, President Obama hosted the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees to galvanize significant new global commitments to increase funding and other support for refugees around the world. Fifty-two countries and international organizations participated in the Summit, and announced an additional $4.5 billion in financial contributions and roughly doubled the number of refugees they will take in this year 2016.
Another major theme at UNGA was highlighting the role of young people’s in countering violent extremism. I attended an event hosted by Facebook, the U.S. State Department, and Edventure Partners. The event showcased youth-led campaigns from around the world focused on countering violent extremism. Research and experience have demonstrated that extremist groups heavily target young people. Therefore, the campaigns are created by and geared toward individuals most susceptible to extremist messaging and who have the ability to make a difference. Five winning teams from around the world presented their campaigns at the event. Facebook donated ad credits to help these teams scale their campaigns, and Edventure Partners and the State Department gave the teams a platform to raise global awareness of their projects. The campaigns had various components -- digital and in-person -- and helped increase awareness of other people’s realities. They used creative storytelling to bring the experiences of refugees and migrants living in their own communities to life. It was the perfect example of how you can think globally, and act locally. Following this principle, young people built empathy in their own communities. It’s hard to hate someone once you understand their story.
At the CVE reimagined with other youth leaders: Ziad Ahmed, Zainab zaheer, Carine Umu, and Andrew Rabens. [Photo courtesy of Nicol Perez]
I also sat down with several Muslim American youth to gain a greater understanding of about their experiences and thoughts on countering violent extremism. Listening to others and sharing our own stories is an excellent way to cultivate the understanding and empathy that best counters extremism. Through these conversations, I learned more about what it’s like to be Muslim in America and some of the challenges and fears they face, especially pertaining to Islamophobia, which is very real and can manifest violently. Before UNGA, I wasn’t fully aware of the range of issues the young American Muslims face, and I am so grateful to the friends I made who shared their stories.
Continuing the Conversation with Youth on the Global Agenda
After UNGA week was all over, I had to chance to interact with past Youth Observers and young people in Mexico City, Guatemala, Honduras, and other locations through a State Department live webchat, where we discussed UNGA outcomes and advice on how we can all be more engaged.
At the private sector innovation lunch at the UN headquarters. [Photo courtesy of Nicol Perez]
After speaking with so many incredible young leaders from around the world, I left with a renewed sense of hope. I was blown away by the complexity of the projects young people were undertaking, and the commitment they demonstrated to advancing their causes.
After being at UNGA, I have no doubt in my mind that we have the intelligence, the technology, the resources, and the will to make our world a better place.
About the Author: Nicol Perez is the fifth U.S. Youth Observer to the United Nations, representing an American youth voice at the United Nations General Assembly and other UN events throughout the next year.
Editor’s Note: This entry is adapted from a story that originally appeared on the Generation UN’s blog.
For more information:
- Read other DipNote blogs about youth Issues and U.S. engagement with international organizations.
- View the U.S. Youth Observer to the United Nations' webchat discussion with other young leaders on UNGA outcomes here.
- Learn more about the role of the U.S. Youth Observer to the United Nations.
- Learn more about what came out of President Obama’s Leaders’ Summit on Refugees.
- Keep up with the U.S. Youth Observer and learn more about the program by following @USYouthObserver, @State_IO, and @unausa on Twitter.