Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Youth empowerment at the United Nations

"No one is born a good citizen; no nation is born a democracy. Rather, both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime. Young people must be included from birth. A society that cuts off its youth severs its lifeline."
~ UN Secretary General Kofi Annan

From a young age, both my parents were instrumental in instilling a sense of concern for the environment - be it recycling or conserving electricity and water. So, last year, when my colleague introduced me to SustainUS - a US network of youth working on sustainable development, I was immediately interested. What is sustainable development you ask? It is a process of developing (land, cities, business, communities, etc) that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Every year, the UN holds a conference on sustainable development (the
Commission on Sustainable Development) where government officials, young people, NGOs and other people from all over the world can participate & make their voices heard. This year, I was privileged to be chosen as a delegate youth leader for SustainUS and spent all of last week at the UN participating in the conference.

There are are so many things to share: flashing my UN badge to go past the tourists, sharing a room & bathroom with 10 other youth delegates, 5-hrs of sleep a night, hilarious statements by oil-producing countries, addressing the delegates from around the world on
sustainable consumption & fair trade, the laughter & tears, being inspired by the youth from around the world, the frustrations and successes. It's impossible for me to write about it all, so I have decided to focus on 3 things that were definitely highlights of my week:

1. Children and Youth are recognized as one of the major groups & thus have a seat on the UN floor just like any government would. This means we have a right to intervene & share our thoughts on the suffices being discussed at any given time. Last Wednesday, we were asked to present a 3-minute statement on an issue that we wanted to share. So, a few of us gathered to craft the statement & believe it or not, it took us more than 6 hours because it had to be crafted so carefully.

In the end, we decided to focus on a local environment-friendly hydro-electric project that one of the Nepalese youth delegates had started in his country. It was interesting to see his excitement because he probably had never imagined that he would be asked to represent the youth at the UN just two weeks after he had participated in the pro-democracy demonstrations in his country. As we worked on our statement, we could see a change in him - he felt more empowered & in the process, he empowered all of us. Having lived in America for so long, I have forgotten how abundant opportunities are in this country & how rare it is for other people around the world, esp those from developing countries. His
statement on the UN floor was so inspiring, it moved all of us. The best part was when he was approached by a German delegate to discuss possible funding for his project!

2. This year, I was honored to meet some people from the Appalachian valley who have been significantly affected by mountain-top coal mining. One of the women who talked to us talked about how their water was contaminated & affecting her family & community. What she said next brought tears to my eyes: before she came to the conference, she didn't think anyone cared about her community, but after seeing how we were all working to make a difference, she realized that there were people who cared about their plight.

After having spent a long time in the halls of the Capitol or the UN and schmoozing policymakers, it is sometimes easy for me to forget that in the end, it isn't about the perfect words on a piece of paper, but about people. That there are actual human beings that are affected by the decisions we make & I'm so grateful for that reminder.

3. A bunch of creative people from the youth caucus made hundreds of windmills from origami that we could all pin on our shirts to remind everybody the importance of renewable energy. We also put them up on a world map where we all wanted to see more wind energy being produced. The powerful visual said more than words could convey & was definitely a lot of fun!

I was amazed at how organized, articulate, inspiring & pragmatic all the youth delegates were no matter where they were from. There was no way governments could ignore us! Last week also made me realize how American I felt - I knew I had no credibility to approach the Tanzanian or the UAE delegation so I approached the American delegation with my colleagues.

Our message was pretty simple: We will live the consequences. We will breathe the air & drink the water you leave us. Let the support you lend to us be the legacy to us. Don't gamble with our future.