The Strength in Imperfection: Personal Reflections of Serving as Youth Observer to the UN
It was a hot summer New England kind of day when I got the phone call that changed my life. I remember picking up and hearing the news that I had been selected to represent young Americans as the 11th Youth Observer to the UN. It meant that I would have the opportunity and resources, over the next year, to invest in youth communities and leadership, amplifying and honoring their incredible work in the multilateral spaces of changes that need it the most. The excitement hit me, and I remember screaming myself hoarse after I turned off the call (not during it – of course – I had to play it at least semi-cool).
The first two weeks were a true honeymoon. The onboarding was exciting – busy with getting my public bio and headshot ready for the website, transferring social media accounts, reading through the training documents with renewed optimism. I was all set to travel to NYC to do an official handoff of roles with Cynthia Yue, my incredibly wonderful predecessor and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, our US Ambassador to the UN. I had never been to her residence before but “I was SO ready” – I told myself.
And then the day arrived. Rachel Pittman, our Executive Director, led us to the meeting and I saw Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield for the first time. And, suddenly, my legs felt numb. My tongue felt legitimately tied. I had no idea what to say. The breakfast portion was fine because it was a group discussion (bless them) but it soon came time to record the official hand-off video. And I still had not recovered. When it was my time to speak at the camera, I had a real black-out moment. I’m pretty sure I didn’t say my title right. I have no idea – I’ve never watched that video again since.
I could tell Cynthia knew I felt flustered. She guided me to a bench in a park nearby UN Headquarters right after and we just … chatted. About our work, friendships, love life, dreams and worries for the future, crazy current day happenings – just two 20-something year olds trying to figure out ALL of life. And I felt my breath return.
But that wasn’t the only time I felt the wind knocked out of me. October was an onslaught of UN General Assembly meetings, numerous speaking engagements for UN Day, and the World Food Forum in Rome. Things at home weren’t great, and I felt like I wasn’t handling the job right. My speeches weren’t up to my standard. There was so much I didn’t know about the UN (what even were the differences between Committee sessions, high-level meetings, side events, the role of delegates vs observers, etc.?). I wasn’t posting enough on social media. I wasn’t networking “the right way”.
At that time, I couldn’t verbalize and come to terms with what I was going through. I told only one person outside my family at that time, one of my best friends, about what was going on. She sent me a link to Whitney Houston’s “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength”, and I played it again and again over the weeks after until I started to believe it a little. I knew this before – but had to experience it to REALLY know it – that taking time and space to heal is us finding the strength we had within ourselves all along. Being gentle with and forgiving ourselves is us finding our strength. These past few months have challenged me to truly accept myself for who I am: someone who cares about others and is learning to better care for herself, someone who is imperfect but who tries (for my Broadway-loving peers, that Waitress reference is for you).
It took me a long time – too long – to realize that there is no perfect way of doing an impossible job. My mandate as Youth Observer is to represent young Americans at the UN. Yet how does one person, a person learning just as much about themselves as they are about the world in real-time, represent the myriad perspectives, experiences, and ideas of the young people across our entire country? How does one person bridge a gap that has existed since the creation of the UN – headquartered right here in NYC yet still inaccessible to so many youth in the US? How does one person create enough media content and events to raise awareness of the thousands of UN happenings that young people should know about and engage with? How does one person navigate the national and international bureaucracy to know who to talk to and what to talk about to effectively advocate for youth rights?
The answer is – I couldn’t. No one can. This job can’t be one person’s to bear alone. The reality is that it takes a village, a nation, a globe, to make the change we strive to make. But that doesn’t mean our contributions matter any less. Realizing that my role was a piece of a larger puzzle was a turning point for me. It helped me redefine what my goals were for the year and strengthen the use of my platform, and my voice, to uplift the perspectives and lived experiences of the thousands of young people I had the honor of meeting through this role – many of whom I now consider life-long friends.
And together, in partnership, we were able to do so much this year. We gathered feedback from close to 2,000 young people in 22 states with our nation-wide Listening Tour. We reached over 300,000 people on social media. We organized a series of 11 National Consultations this spring, engaging over 600 people, to spotlight youth leaders and inform our creation of the Declaration of Human Rights by American Youth. We represented young people at 10 UN Conferences, traveling to New York, Rome, and Egypt, and had the opportunity to serve officially on the US Public Delegation for the ECOSOC Youth Forum. Throughout it all, we engaged over 20,000 young people virtually and in-person, bringing the work of the UN closer to our country and local communities.
This community of young people have inspired me each and every day. They still do, and will always. If there is anything I take away from my Youth Observer experience, it’s that my peer-activists are some of the most genuine people that exist in the world – people who believe in truth, justice, and equity with the utmost conviction and manifest this in their intentions, words, actions, and way of life.
And so many – too many – have to make sacrifice upon sacrifice for their advocacy. Youth activists have to go up against a society that tells them their voices are less important than others. Many work countless hours with minimal compensation, if at all. Most are told to be “grateful” for their contributions which, more times than not, are never acted upon or credited fairly. And if my year has felt like a dumpster fire of problems to navigate, I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for many of my peers who have had to endure even more, and are still expected to show up and perform.
It’s why, as I wrap up my term, I’m hoping to share three things I’ve learned – not about the technicalities of navigating the UN structure but of growing into being a stronger advocate for yourself and others:
- Always give your fellow advocates the benefit of the doubt. I’ll say it now and forever – I will NEVER hold it against you if I’ve reached out and you haven’t responded. Because when I was overwhelmed and could not reply, people giving me the benefit of the doubt felt like the breath of air I so desperately needed.
- Taking care of yourself is one of the most selfless things you can do as an advocate – it’s the only way we can really work to take care of others. Your human rights matter just as much as the rights of everyone else you are fighting for.
- Know you are loved and are an integral part of the better world we are trying to build. There is no set definition to being an activist. UN advocacy, especially, should be one of the most inclusive and approachable spaces for all people to join. The reality is that it often isn’t, and that is where we come in. As activists, we have the unique opportunity to try to break down the same barriers that we first experienced when doing this type of work. And, honestly, that’s one of the most meaningful ways we can take action.
As I hand off this position to our incredible 12th Youth Observer, I hope they remember to take care of themselves too – realizing that this mandate is important but one we are all working in community towards. This year has shown me, first hand, that collective action and building each other up has the power to create the global transformation we need. It helps us find the strength we have within ourselves and within this world – that we didn’t know we had – but that we need in the fight for our universal rights, freedoms, and opportunities. For today, and for all days to come.