By Shivani Banfal
In a new wave of human rights activism, young activists are rising up, taking action, and calling for change. From gun violence and police brutality to sexual violence and harassment, youth activists have become the faces at the front lines of multiple human rights issues.
In April, I had the opportunity to see these youth activists in action, as well as work with and mentor a few at the UN’s Youth ECOSOC Forum. The ECOSOC Youth Forum brings youth leaders from around the world to the UN Headquarters in New York. It is a platform for youth to engage in dialogue with Member States, politicians, and NGOs. At the forum, both youth and adults contribute to economic and social policy formation.
Held on April 8th and 9th, the Forum included over 1000 youth advocates and guests from around the world. It provided a unique platform for young people to discuss their vision of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), make their voices heard to government officials, and contribute to the upcoming UN meetings, including the High-Level Political Forum and the SDG Summit in September.
Upon entering the UN, I couldn’t ignore the hundreds of young people walking about the grounds and buildings, ready to achieve all of the Sustainable Development Goals. Watching all of the students passionately interacting to make change, I could hear UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s call to action from earlier playing in my head: “It is your future, your livelihoods, your freedom, your security, your environment. You do not, and you must not, take no for an answer.”
Each participant from around the world voiced their hopes, aspirations, and concerns about their future. The Forum’s theme of “Empowered, Included, and Equal” was in line with the strategy of these youth participants who were seeking to strengthen their efforts within the UN system by placing themselves at the front and center of the global development agenda.
Out of all of the sustainable goals, it was clear that one stood out among all of them. All of the participants seemed to view education as central to their needs to build a sustainable world for all.
I watched as my mentees and the thousands of participants sat in the UN Council Chambers, calling for the need for immediate change. They presented statistics showing that 1.2 billion young people around the world cannot achieve their potential if they do not have access to basic rights, especially education. They informed us of how unsurprising it is that while more than 260 million children are out of school globally, 64 million young people are unemployed and 145 million are living in poverty.
As I participated in smaller plenary and breakout sessions with my mentees and other groups, our conversations consistently returned to the centrality of education. It was constantly on their minds at the sessions and in hallway chats. SDG 4 (ensuring equitable and inclusive quality education for all) will be under review at this year’s High-Level Political Forum, where countries will take stock of the progress they have made on education.
But more importantly, education is central to achieving all the SDGs. From ensuring that children are ready for work in the job markets of the future, to achieving gender equality, affecting climate action, and building peaceful societies, education is critical to development and getting it right is key.
At the Interactive Roundtable on Youth 2030: Working with and for Young People, ministers of youth affairs from many countries, including Global Partnership for Education countries like such as Sierra Leone and the Gambia, emphasized their ongoing initiatives to provide free education with a focus on gender equality.
As I continued through multiple sessions and seminars, education came up everywhere. During a break-out session on the Asia and the Pacific region, the moderator asked participants to share their three main concerns in the region. ‘Education’ stood out as the issue of greatest concern.
As the days continued on, all of my experiences had me thinking of student activists throughout history, such as the nine black students who desegregated Little Rock Central High School or the four freshmen from North Carolina A&T State University who staged a lunch counter sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina. Currently, teens have been the driving force of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US and the Parkland shooting victims are driving efforts for gun control.
I left the forum feeling like my mentees were my equals and as young as they were, they were ready to take on all of the world’s issues. They proved to me that commentators and leaders should stop shaming them for having political voices, even if they think youth are too young or naïve to have them.
ECOSOC reinforced my belief that by inviting kids into the world of politics and showing them that everyone has a civic voice, change can happen on a global scale.
As a teacher, are you engaging with your students on the issues that they think are important? Have you asked them why they stand for or against certain principles? Why they agree or disagree with what politicians are doing? Do your students have an outlet for their voices and ideas on issues related to human rights? What are the ways we can engage with them to provide opportunities for activism?