Partnerships with Purpose: An Interview with Kristeena Monteith, UN Young Leader for the SDGs

Caroline Rakus-Wojciechowski (Chairwoman & President of the UNA-Brooklyn Chapter Young Professionals) interviewed United Nations Sustainable Development Goal Young Leader Kristeena Monteith to learn more about her approach to partnerships and youth action for the SDGs.

Civic engagement takes on a new medium with the help of Kristeena Monteith. In 2018, Kristeena was chosen as a UN Young Leader for the SDGs, an initiative powered by the Office of the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth. On a biennial basis, 17 new Young Leaders are selected through an open call for applications and rigourous assessment process. A Jamaican native from the parish of St. Thomas, Kristeena’s passion lies in the production of civic media, which focuses on bringing people together. Whether through TV, radio, or print, she brings together government officials and youth to engage in constructive dialogue. As the Creative Producer of the episodes on Talk Up Radio, she is the head of a team of youth, mostly under 25 years of age.

When asked how she got involved in media production, Kristeena confessed that she had “no clue what path [she] wanted to take after high school,” but she knew she wanted to do something positive and build towards the social good. At 19, she decided to take a gap year. Motivated by the philanthropic work of TV Executive and Host, Author at UNICEF Jamaica, and Youth Advocate Emprezz Golding, Kristeena was tasked with traveling to the different parish schools and recording local issues. Grateful that she had a mentor who took a chance on her, Kristeena channeled her passions and skills towards making a difference. She began producing her own radio shows, focusing on the issues that the students had raised in order to serve her community and open the dialogue.

“I’m a little weird: I think my work most closely aligns with Goal 17, which is Partnerships for the Goals,” Kristeena laughs. “It’s true! We’ve been doing work on every single goal: it’s youth development, and there’s youth in every single one of them.” The all-encompassing quality of Goal 17 sets it apart from the other goals: it requires a firm understanding of the intersectionality between the goals and streamlining the most recent research, as well as the best practices of the other goals. Kristeena recognizes the co-benefits of integrating the different goals and has used it to address the issues raised by Jamaican youth.

The main problem that she had to overcome was the apathy towards youth initiatives, recalling the country’s long history of colonization, and the struggle with rebuilding cultural identity and financial agency in the world. “We, youth, are still struggling to find our footing.” Budgetary allocations for youth initiatives, the rise of crime and violence towards youth, and corruption across the public sector don’t lend themselves to creating conducive environments for engaging young minds in Jamaica. One audience that Kristeena specifically targeted were youth who were not yet engaged with the Sustainable Development Goals. “It is important,” she notes, “to make youth realize that every goal is directed at trying to make their lives better and aimed at something that [they] are or will suffer from.” This lesson is relevant for all UNA-USA chapters.

Reflecting on her tenure as a UN SDG Young Leader, Kristeena lamented how her first year was spent outside of Jamaica, but managed to turn her efforts to the international stage, speaking at conferences around the world on cultural heritage and youth development. She described the experience as eye-opening, and she took the opportunity to promote the work of several youth leaders from her community, such as Chelsea Wright, Najeeb Spence, Dainalyn Swaby, and Kevaughn Ellis. Nonetheless, “Being able to work on the global scale was brawta (additional), but Jamaican people are my home, and to get anywhere near 2030, there is so much we still have to do. If that is self-replicating and that is helping people around the world, then that is amazing.”

“Sometimes it’s important strengthening the institution that already exists.“ This message resonates with many youth and young professionals, especially now. At UNGA 74, Kristeena and her cohort of UN SDG Young Leaders created collaborations and partnerships with the purpose of creating meaningful youth civic engagement. Growing up in a world that valued awards and accolades, connecting with people who had a common mission was incredibly refreshing. Kristeena felt empowered by helping a greater movement make progress. She discovered entire communities of people working towards youth and community development on an unprecedented scale. The application for the second cohort for the UN SDG Young Leaders showed her that there are agencies who care about bringing youth together and about amplifying her work. Kristeena remarked, “Our mission is to bring young people together. Wherever that’s being done, we want to be.” That’s a mission that we at UNA-Brooklyn and across the UNA network can all get behind.