As a young graduate student, I spent the summer of 2000 working alongside young people in Zambia to promote HIV prevention efforts. While I was confronted with the staggering devastation of this disease which was decimating an entire generation, I was also moved by the hope and resilience of the young people who were fighting back.
This experience motivated me towards a life of advocacy work where I've witnessed the power of what a committed minority of young people can do to make a profound difference in combating injustice and uplifting the lives of others. Through activism around global issues such as debt cancellation, reversing the HIV and AIDS epidemic, and most recently around ensuring every child can live and thrive well beyond their fifth birthday, I've seen how powerful it can be when people get together to demand that wrongs be made right.
I was recently inspired by some of my World Vision colleagues who witnessed this for the first time when they marched with a group of students about an hour outside the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. They were in a community that was at the source of the country's problems with child trafficking. It is here, and in other villages like it, where traffickers turn when they need more children to feed into the brothels and factories to be sold.
Unfortunately, the community's adults endured a tacit acceptance of this buying and selling of children. The traffickers' lies convinced parents their children would be okay. Poverty bred desperation, making parents willing to sell their children to work in the city. Finally, a cultural attitude that didn't take seriously the rights of children further allowed traffickers to exploit the community.
When World Vision began working in the community, it was clear that many people had had enough. Working alongside other community leaders, World Vision began organizing youth activities to enable them to make their voices heard to community leaders.
On the day my colleagues marched, perhaps 1,000 students marched from two ends of the village to the school at the center of town. Teachers, parents, local police, and government officials heard the chants and demonstrations. Students shouted their opposition to child labor and domestic violence with loudspeakers. They posted signs and performed skits to make it clear that the children of the community would no longer allow parents and community leaders to sell children for their labor.
Their willingness to take a risk and stand up for what is right reminded me of the ancient Hebrew prophets. These messengers spoke to the Israelite community about their wayward ways. Mostly, they railed against injustice, commanding the Jewish community "to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter," in the words of Isaiah. Jeremiah commanded, "Rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless or the widow."
And famously, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quoted, the prophet Amos proclaimed, "But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
Today's prophets no longer wander the city streets with their messages, but whenever we use our voice in solidarity with others -- whether by talking to a neighbor, calling or writing to our Congressional leaders encouraging a friend to take action on Facebook or joining the 60,000 around the world as a "Global Citizen" -- we echo these prophets of old. Their message and call of justice continues to represent a test of faith and faithfulness today.
We can continue the fight for justice by using our voices, whether it be through a march in Cambodia or through the megaphone of social media. Right now as world leaders are gathering in New York for the UN General Assembly to make commitments for ending extreme poverty, over 50,000 young people are using their voices on GlobalCitizen.org to take a stand against poverty and will gather on the Great Lawn of Central Park on September 29 to celebrate achievements made to date towards ending global poverty. Not long before that march in Cambodia, a girl was kidnapped and was being transported into the city. This time, rather than looking the other way, the community responded. They made phone calls and badgered the police to begin the hunt. They went out searching for the missing girl. Within 24 hours the girl was found. She was on her way out of the country when the police found her in an alley, drugged and awaiting a flight out of the country. Speaking out saved this girl's life. So often in our history, young people have served on the frontlines of social change, challenging conventional thinking and helping to make what seems impossible become inevitable. From civil rights to ending apartheid, this trend and role continues as this generation could become the first to put an end to extreme poverty. Using your voice for justice can help make this ambitious but now achievable goal become a reality. The question is -- how will you use your voice?
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