Youth as Global Citizens and Innovators for Social Impact

On April 26, 2023 I delivered the opening remarks at the ECOSOC Youth Forum Side Event “Youth as Global Citizens and Innovators for Social Impact.” The event was organized by AFS Intercultural Affairs with partners from the University of Pennsylvania Center for Social Impact Strategy and the United Nations Department for Global Communications. Full remarks are below.

Full session recording courtesy of AFS Intercultural Programs (ECOSOC Youth Forum 2023)

[Good morning!] It’s great to be here to deliver remarks on this timely and important topic of youth as global citizens and innovators for social impact. In my remarks today I want to give a brief outline into the UNDGC Civil Society Youth Steering Committee and then share some specific learnings on post-COVID youth engagement as global citizens and innovators.

The Department of Global Communications Civil Society Youth Representatives Program was established in 2009 and serves as an advocacy platform to bring together young people ages 18 to 32 working with leading organizations that are in association with DGC and focused on issues on the agenda of the United Nations. As Civil Society Youth Representatives Steering Committee members we have a dual mandate – first to our stakeholders on the ground to be their representatives on the international stage and second to the Steering Committee and to the United Nations to distribute their priorities and agenda items to the street level. This is an extraordinary partnership. 

My background is in the tech-for-good space and in my experience of working with young people around the world, especially in grassroots movements on advancing technology for the sustainable development goals, I’ve observed one thing to be clear. That is, that young people are overwhelmingly interested in leading the charge of innovation and social impact in their communities. Many of them want to position themselves as social entrepreneurs by aligning core ideals of their business or movement to contribute to positive global causes like protecting our environment, enabling peace, strengthening human rights, and others. Young people often do not see these priorities as a zero sum game. 

COVID has clearly changed the landscape of engagement and spotlighted humanity’s biggest challenges, weaknesses, but also strengths. So now I’m going to leave some learnings from the ground on post-COVID innovation today.

First, we can turn COVID threats into opportunities: COVID changed the engagement landscape primarily from in-person to virtual. This can be further expanded to get more young people from the (especially) the global south engaged in high level discussions without having to incur accessibility costs and immigration biases/challenges. To be honest with you, if this very event was taking place in-person, I would not have been able to attend to deliver these remarks. Virtuality increases access and collaboration. But the digital divide is a continuing problem and it will be naive to think that virtual access itself can solve our most pressing challenges. COVID also fast-tracked the use of technology in the global agenda for advocacy, implementation, and evaluative purposes. Youth can expand on this opportunity to become drivers in technology solutions. 

Second, we see a growth in unofficial grassroots movements. The 2018 state of the world’s volunteerism report identified that over 70% of volunteering around the world happens informally without the use of an official organization. This is true after COVID-19. Local challenges don’t typically have external solutions. As youth who are born and bred in their local communities, we are highly capable of deploying new and innovative solutions to old problems to power local solutions. Grassroots movements can contribute to rapid mobilization when urgency is in need. 

Third, is the difference between learned expertise and lived expertise. Young people, as early professionals, bring both learned and lived expertise. Both these things must be valued to further partnerships to achieve these creative solutions. When young people innovate, they don’t always have to deliver the full package from idea creation to global mobilization. Governments and other decision-makers in the space can extract these learned and lived expertise of young professionals to tweak current systems and make adjustments. 

Fourth is branding and misinformation. Young people are often branded as the leaders of tomorrow. But inherently they need to be recognized as leaders and experts of today. With that comes accountability. Young people have a tremendous responsibility to fight misinformation. Misinformation is a big challenge, especially where there is lack of education about social media, black-box data warehouses, technology solutions and models that don’t prioritize privacy, security, and anti-exploitation. 

Fifth and last is the learner, ally, activist, and advocate continuum. Young people must find their own position in causes aligned with SDGs. Not everyone needs to be an activist and an advocate. Many will need to be a learner and an ally. Maintaining healthy relationships with self and cause is important, especially as young people are bombarded with global challenges and the push for accountability every day. But irrespective of what innovation or creative global solution youth may lead, we need to unapologetically cultivate leadership skills among our young people so that we not only empower the next generation of human-centered technology and innovation, but also keep our global progress fundamentally human oriented to build better quality of lives for everyone. 

I hope that these five observations and remarks were valuable to you. Thank you to our organizers and sponsors for putting this event together and for all the young people here and out there for your persistence, perseverance, and passion. 

Thank you so much!

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