12/07/2007 01:32 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Global Citizens

The young woman stood alone in a silent, darkened auditorium, thousands of youth watching her as she lit a single candle that barely illuminated her face.

"I'm only one person. What difference can I make?" she quietly asked.

Then she turned to the four people closest to her and lit the candles they were holding. As she did that, she asked them "I'm only one person. What difference can I make?"

Those four people walked to the corners of the room and began to light everyone's candle, including ours, asking the same humbling question over and over. Within minutes the entire auditorium was illuminated as we all chanted thunderously and in unison.

It was a moving demonstration that showed how thousands of small acts can create a tidal wave of change.

This was at an international conference we attended where youth gathered to discuss major challenges facing the world. It was full of energy, passion and innovation, but left us a little overwhelmed. The problems we discussed were so daunting that we felt like two tiny droplets of hope in a sea of despair.

But that single flame was a symbolic gesture which reaffirmed our belief that ordinary people - students, dentists, mechanics, homemakers - can come together to make a difference. We've seen so many times that you don't have to be a prime minister to change the world, and you don't have to be rich. What you need is the courage to dream of a better tomorrow and the commitment to work with those who share your passion.

This global togetherness is what drives today's generation of young social activists. Every day we meet incredible youth who are devoted to issues like ending poverty, fighting AIDS and protecting the environment. They are politically aware and dedicated to making a difference.

Their idealism is grounded in a new reality. The personal computer - which celebrated its 25th birthday last year - and the resulting Internet boom are connecting young people to all corners of the globe.

With the click of a mouse, a 12-year-old in Toronto can now learn about how AIDS impacts northern Malawi, or how child labour endangers children in India. With another click of the mouse, that child can contact other people around the world who are interested in the same issues.

And not only can they see the world through the Internet, the ease of international travel means that young people can also experience the world first-hand. Africa, or anywhere else, is no longer a far off place.

Today's youth are the first generation of global citizens.

As technology continues to break down borders, young people are the ones who readily embrace it because they've had it all their lives. While previous generations grew up with global divisions such as the Berlin Wall, this one is surrounded by the tools to unify us.

Armed with this new global perspective, youth are challenging their peers and their governments on global issues. They are becoming responsible, engaged citizens.

A recent youth opinion poll found that more than 80 per cent of young Canadians are concerned about global issues such as AIDS, human rights and poverty. Two-thirds of them said they use the Internet to research these issues.

Like our friend Fiona who, after learning about famine in Niger, e-mailed everyone she knew asking who wanted to help make a difference. Together, she and her friends started Oakville Teenagers in Action. In less than a year they raised enough money to build a school in Sierra Leone and send local teens on volunteer trips to Africa.

Young people like this are at the forefront of a movement towards global consciousness that will have huge political and social implications. Because the world is more interconnected than at any time in history, they are more likely to vote with international issues in mind, do business with other countries, learn a foreign language and even live or work abroad.

With youth at the helm, this new kind of globalization will focus not just on economics and technology, but on human rights and environmental protection. Its impact has the potential to be far greater than we can even imagine.

Change is already starting to happen. After years of public pressure, leaders of the world's richest nations pledged in 2005 to double aid to Africa and cut billions of dollars in debt owed by poor countries. Much of that pressure came from youth who, with their increased understanding of poverty and ability to organize online, fought for change.

Even everyday local actions reflect this new reality. Whether it's through shopping for fair trade clothing, signing an online petition or corresponding with someone in a different country, young people are using their newfound worldliness to make a statement.

And like that flame, together they can make a difference.