Empowering Our Nation’s Youth at the United Nations: A Conversation with Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield

In 2019, as I braced myself for spring finals and took to the internet to find some home-stretch motivation, I stumbled upon a TED Talk of a storyteller who had broken barriers in the American South, joined the foreign service, and braved through a near-death experience in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Sitting in my freshman-year dorm, I gazed in awe as Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield transformed adversity into compassion in every step of her journey as an American diplomat.

Just one year later, she was appointed to serve as the next U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Not too long after, she expressed an interest in meeting with young people in the United States to invigorate the next generation in global diplomacy.

In recognition of International Youth Day, my predecessor, 9th UNA-USA Youth Observer Dustin Liu, and I had the opportunity to speak with U.S. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield. In our conversation, we discussed the past, present, and future of both the State Department and UNA-USA’s strategies to ensure that American youth are engaged with the UN’s critical work. To begin, Dustin delivered an overview of what he had witnessed over his term. Despite initially postulating that most young people felt separated from the UN, after a year of engaging with over 28,000 young people, he found that the reality is quite the opposite; our nation’s youth is more galvanized than ever to stand in support of the UN. In fact, he found that most young people are seeking more opportunities to fight for the UN and its values. Looking forward, we highlighted the importance of diversity and inclusion in the U.S., UN, and beyond.

What truly struck a chord with me was the open candor and compassion Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield exhibited as we delved into a conversation about uplifting underrepresented communities. As women of color from the American South, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield and I both expressed our deep commitments to ensuring that the U.S. elevates the next generation in its entirety, regardless of age, race, gender, or zip code. Disparities in representation in public and foreign service have long reverberated through our country’s policy-making history, and changing the narrative of what it means to be American—and whom we are listening to—will serve as the keystone for how we move forward. We need diverse voices represented because we are a diverse world, and as Generation Z strides toward becoming the most diverse generation of all time, ensuring that our leaders listen to all voices will be vital to advancing equity and innovation.

As our conversation continued to unfold, it soon became clear to me that Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield was redefining what it means to be a leader in the U.S. government. Never before had the U.S. Ambassador to the UN met with the incoming U.S. Youth Observer so early in their term, laid out clear objectives to engage with young people, or outlined such a strong framework to establish a bridge between the UN and our nation’s youth. On International Youth Day, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield emphasized one key message: our nation’s youth—and their values—are of the utmost priority in our country’s foreign policy initiatives.

Although young people have traditionally been excluded from most decision-making tables, we are the greatest stakeholders tomorrow in the decisions made today. What our leaders create today will continue to impact us long after they leave office. In the past few decades, we have rewritten history as champions for our own futures. From climate advocacy to marches for gender equality, Generation Z has held the world accountable for issues related to the Sustainable Development Goals and served as leaders for local, national, and international movements. What excites me the most about serving as the 10th Youth Observer is having the opportunity to work with other young people across the nation—to bring other young people to the table, to amplify voices to the international stage, to spearhead UNA-USA’s and Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield’s objectives to connect youth with the UN.

As our world continues to heal from the global pandemic, our generation will continue to unite with new tools, skills, and platforms to address the most pressing issues facing our planet. As our nation continues to heal from internal divisions, our generation will continue to lead by example and extend olive branches to our neighbors to build a better world. As our communities continue to heal from historical inequalities, our generation will continue to march for change and sustainable development.

In my freshman year, I watched a woman during her TED Talk advocate for kindness and compassion in the face of adversity. Two years later, I heard her put youth empowerment at the forefront of her agenda. And in one year, when I pass the torch to the 11th Youth Observer, I hope to review all of the actions we took together to uplift our nation’s youth for the United Nations.