Youth Delegates Breakfast at the ECOSOC Youth Forum
Last week I had the chance to return to UN Headquarters for the ECOSOC Youth Forum. Similar to the Economic and Social Council, the ECOSOC Youth Forum provides a platform where young people can exchange ideas and develop recommendations on issues of importance to them, engaging in dialogue with Member States as well as regional and global actors. Throughout the forum, we focused on the theme of “Empowered, Included and Equal” while discussing the importance of young people and formulating recommendations to advance the youth development agenda for potential inclusion. On the sidelines of the ECOSOC Youth Forum – youth delegates from around the world came together for a breakfast discussion at the U.S. Mission to the UN on “Youth and Political Participation.”
I believe this topic is important because young people are systematically underrepresented in politics and policy-making, often being excluded from decisions that affect them and future generations. Many young people feel removed from governments where there is insufficient transparency and participatory vision is lacking. Policies targeting young people often tend towards short-term initiatives rather than long-term solutions. Lack of voter engagement also creates a vicious cycle where young people become skeptical of power systems. However, seeing other young people run for office can help reduce overall skepticism.
In response to such situations, young people have been trying to make their voices heard. This is why I was so grateful when Ambassador Cohen provided opening remarks and took questions from the youth leaders at our breakfast discussion. Ambassador Cohen shared that global issues impact youth and women disproportionately, which is why it is important that we get involved now. He encouraged us to think of ways we can use our careers to serve others and create a better world. “After all, one of you may be sitting in my chair one day,” he noted.
Andy Rabens, Special Advisor for Global Youth Issues, helped to moderate the discussion that followed. He shared that the minimum age for most parliamentary positions around the world is 25, yet the average age for those in office is 58. This prompted the question to the group: why aren’t more young people running for office?
Some shared that young people may not want to enter a party system or engage in political dialogue but rather advocate through social media. The adage “nothing about us, without us” helped illustrate the importance of including all stakeholders in the conversation when it comes to inclusion and participation. This applies not only to youth participation, but also inclusion and representation for people with disabilities. For example, a ramp is built using the concept of universal design because it benefits everyone. As it relates to political participation, the success of one group benefits the rest. One of the strategies suggested during the discussion was the need to build awareness of universal design and develop the skills of young people to ensure they can be effective leaders and changemakers.
In terms of other barriers to youth political participation, Mr. Rabens cited that it is not only the daunting task of raising money or mobilizing your network that discourages youth from running, but also the misperceived feelings of being unqualified for the position – and discouragement from those that want to maintain the status quo. However, we can overcome these barriers with a strong support system and courage.
This prompted me to reflect on my own experience running for Student Body President at Utah State University. It all started during a book club discussion of Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. Chapter 1 poses the question, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” We went around the table sharing our answers to this question, with many of my peers highlighting ways they wanted to work with the university to foster inclusive policies. When it is my turn to share, I surprised myself by saying, “If I weren’t afraid, I would run for office and work with each of you to begin implementing these changes.” And this was the conversation that started my public service on campus and eventually led to my desire to serve as U.S. Youth Observer. I firmly believe we can accomplish anything we desire. But, as Mr. Rabens described, we must first believe in our own capacity to make it happen.
This is why I am grateful for the United Nations campaign “Not Too Young To Run.” More than 70% of countries restrict young people from running for office, even when they can vote. This campaign encourages countries and cities to lower the minimum age requirement to provide more opportunities for young people to get involved. “Not Too Young To Run” is founded on the belief that “if you’re old enough to vote, you’re old enough to run for office.” And although only 2% of the world’s parliamentarians are under 30, youth delegates can encourage young people to run. I believe this peer-to-peer motivation will have the greatest impact on young people in our communities.
In conclusion, the 1.2 billion youth around the world represent 16% of the global population. Our ability to reach our full potential depends, in part, on sufficient and adapted investments in youth across all sectors. We can be a force for development as well as a driver of innovation and progress at the local, national, and global levels. Our involvement in the political process is essential for peacemaking and security. We also tend to be among the first to embrace new ideas of innovation. Ultimately, our role in ensuring inclusiveness and equality in societies is central to the overall efforts of the global community.
So now it is my turn to ask you: what would you do if you weren’t afraid?