Passing the Youth Observer Baton: A Conversation Between Jay’Len Boone and Dustin Liu

As Jay’Len Boone ended his term as Youth Observer, he had a chance to sit down with incoming Youth Observer Dustin Liu to have a conversation about Jay’Len’s year and reflections and to learn more about Dustin’s plans for the coming year.

Dustin: I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to connect and chat about your term as Youth Observer as I step into the position. How was your experience serving as the Youth Observer? As I was following along, it looked like you had a busy year!

Jay’Len: Serving as Youth Observer was truly an amazing opportunity. What I love about the program is that every Youth Observer before me represents what America truly looks like: bold, diverse, and beautiful! This country might not always recognize the unique people groups that exist on our land but the fact is – they’re here and here to stay. The Youth Observer is challenged with not only recognizing this diversity but also building movements, events, and campaigns that include everyone as it pertains to advancing the work of the UN here in the states. My favorite part of being YO was getting to include communities that would not otherwise have heard about the UN. Communities like my own in Ypsilanti, Michigan where most of the people living there don’t really have time to think about global relations or the UN’s work. Getting to educate them and create new ways in which information can spread and empower was by far my favorite part of the job. The team at UNA-USA is absolutely fantastic and the preparation I received before UNGA last fall supported me in leading a successful term as YO. 

Jay’Len: What motivated you to apply to the Youth Observer position? 

Dustin: I had the chance to meet Donya Nasser, the 2015-2016 Youth Observer, at a public policy conference in my freshman year. She spoke about the importance of having youth voices at the table and it inspired me to think about my role in centering youth leadership. At that point, I was still discovering how my personal narrative connected with Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 4): Quality Education. I decided to apply in the Spring of my junior year but was not selected. Since then, I have had incredible opportunities to continue developing my passions for activating youth towards global change. This past year, after returning from a transformative experience teaching in Malaysia, I decided to revisit the role after acknowledging the importance of young people to step up in this challenging moment. I was motivated to apply to the role because I have seen the power of young people coming together to solve tough global challenges and impact that we can have if we are activated towards ensuring the achievement of the SDGs.

Dustin: Something that really amazed me about your work were the many young people that you were able to connect with. What is one moment that stands out during your term?

Jay’Len: One moment that I will never forget was during my Homecoming Tour in Michigan. I remember walking into my old middle school to teach the school’s very first lesson on the UN’s SDGs. As I approached the door, I awkwardly felt nervous. My hands began to shake and it was almost like I was going to have a panic attack. I then remembered the last time I was at this particular school, it was 8th grade and that year I was bullied nonstop, and as I walked in the building and turned to my left, I could see the very place where I was pushed around and beaten by a group of guys. My parents never knew, hardly any of my teachers knew, and no one reported anything. I shook it off and kept walking toward the library where I would present to over 300 students! Half-way through my presentations, one of my former teachers Mrs. P came and found me. She grabbed me, hugged me tight and uttered the words, “I told you that you would be fine. Look at you now, look at you know”. We cried, we laughed, and we celebrated. I will never forget this sweet memory. 

Jay’Len: Tell me about yourself – Who is Dustin outside of work and school? 

Dustin: I like to think that Dustin outside of work and school is pretty much the same Dustin at work and school – but there are some things you might not know about me! I’ve been a Pokemon fan for as long as I can remember, logging a whopping 1200 hours on my Pokemon Diamond. I organize my bookshelf by color, I love mayonnaise, I am a huge ASMR video fan and love Broadway musicals. In my free time, I play the cello, devour self help books, go on long walks and plan budget vacations that I hope to take in the future!

Dustin: What advice do you have for future leaders who may be interested in one day serving as Youth Observer?

Jay’Len: Be you. Don’t try to fit yourself into a mold or this other persona – it’s tiring. Be proud of who you are, what you believe, and what you’re capable of doing. Include other young people who are just as passionate as you are to bring about change, their voices matter to the UN as well. Do more than just “observe”…in fact, I challenge you to Act! The mark of a great Youth Observer is not in his or her ability to speak or impress others, it is found in their ability to unite a diverse and polarized nation in some of the toughest challenges that our country faces and will face moving forward. Last but not least, take risks and don’t be afraid to introduce something new. If you want to do a podcast or a national tour, do it! 

Jay’Len: Which SDGs are you most passionate about and why?

Dustin: The SDGs that I am most passionate about include SDG 4: Quality Education and SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth. I believe in the power of education to inspire a generation of globally minded individuals that can be given the tools to change the world. Education can help individuals see themselves as problem solvers and create pathways for individuals to create fulfilling and sustainable livelihoods. My second grade teacher asked my class what we would do if the answer to our world’s toughest challenges were in the mind of a child who didn’t have access to education. The reality in which we are living is simply incomprehensible. In order to move towards a better world, we all need to be at our best. This leads me to SDG 8, which for me comes down to the relationship between labor and human dignity. We need to ensure pathways for ALL individuals to find well-paid and stable work. I believe that SDG 4 and SDG 8 go hand in hand, with quality education playing a key role in helping individuals find opportunities that match the demands of the labor market. 

Dustin: With the SDGs as a north star for our work and on our to-do list, what would you share with young people hoping to make social change?

Jay’Len: Don’t do it alone. Find other experts who are near you, and I’m not necessarily talking about those with Master’s Degrees and PhDs, even though they are great too. I’m referring to your friends and peer groups. Seek to find each other’s strengths and weaknesses, build a team of your own or join an existing one and cause some good trouble! Alsoequally importanttake care of yourself. No one can operate on zero energy. Take time to recharge and reflect on the work you want to involve yourself in. Then come back into the fieldwe need you out here!

Jay’Len: What are some of your plans this year as Youth Observer, especially considering the impact of COVID-19? 

Dustin: I think it is really important to acknowledge that 2020 is a unique year. Broadly, I am thinking about the responsibilities of my term in three different buckets: to amplify youth voices, to activate youth, and to provide a window to the United Nations. In all of these opportunities, I look forward to taking the advantage of technology to bring youths directly to the table. This moment of social isolation has made it so young people can have a front row seat, something I hope to emphasize during my time as Youth Observer. I also recognize the importance of gathering together and building community in a time of social isolation. My plans are to work directly with youths on the ground to understand how their leadership efforts support the SDGs and build experiences where youths build the capacity to make change. I’m also looking forward to hearing from youths directly during my listening tour, an initiative aimed at figuring out what programs and experiences would be interesting for young changemakers.