THE BLOG

Interview: Secretary Clinton's Special Adviser for Global Youth Issues

12/01/2012 09:53 am ET | Updated Jan 31, 2013

What does active engagement of youth look like?

It looks like Zeenat Rahman. A diehard Chicagoan, she is traveling the world to listen and learn from young people as Secretary Clinton's Special Adviser on Global Youth Issues. In her role, she aims to promote positive youth engagement and meaningful interactions through a potent combination of tools, including story-telling, policy initiatives and private sector partnerships focusing on mentorship and entrepreneurship.

Zeenat visited us last week in Stockholm, where my husband has the honor of serving as the United States Ambassador to Sweden. In this role, he and I work together with our incredibly dynamic Embassy team to foster open discussion on issues important to young people in both Sweden, where 30 percent of the population is under 30, and the United States. One of the things we have focused on is discussing and comparing diversity and integration in the United States and Sweden.

American Millennials (those born after 1980) are the most diverse generation in history with 44 percent belonging to some racial or ethnic identity other than "non-Hispanic white," according to the 2008 Census Bureau. Thirty percent of Millennials are children of immigrants, another distinguishing factor from previous generations according to a 2008 analysis in NewGeography.

There seems to be evidence pointing to young Americans being able to more easily blur the lines of racial identities with 95 percent approving of interracial dating, according to a 2006 Gallup Poll. The U.S. business sector is beginning to use workplace diversity to attract young talent. This makes practical sense as U.S. Census projections report that by 2030 minorities will be half of the U.S. population under 18. We have seen diversity empowerment in action as the 113th U.S. Congress sworn in this January will be the most diverse in history.

But we still have many challenges as Americans and as global citizens, when it comes to appreciating diversity. I know this from personal experience. Although I am not a minority, my parents emigrated from Eastern Europe and I faced endless taunts throughout my formative years about being a "Polak" or having parents who clean houses (even though my mother is an accountant and my father a small businessman with a law degree). The teasing only made me work harder in studies and sports to over-compensate for being different. I was actually proud in high school when a classmate once said to me, "you're pretty smart for being a dumb Polak."

As a child, I was embarrassed when my parents spoke Polish to me in public and resented their traditional practices. I hated my identity and longed for acceptance as a "real" American. It took many years for me to realize that we are all "real" Americans, no matter where are parents come from or what our language of origin may be.

The "Stories of our Father" November 9th, 2012 New York Times article Zeenat sent me prior to her arrival in Stockholm was particularly suited to this theme. It documented the story of Aman Ali born in Chicago to parents who emigrated from India. He described how hard his parents pushed him to achieve in school, citing the fact that "as a child I'd bring home a report card with a 95 percent on it, and my father would say, "Why isn't this 100 percent? If you weren't slacking off, you'd have 100 percent."

Almost instantaneously after reading the article, Zeenat and I both tweeted each other saying the same thing: "Wow that reminds me of my Dad!"

This unifying moment symbolized Zeenat's core message: If you have a true desire to find common ground with others, you always will.

I am the only daughter of fervently Catholic Polish and Ukrainian parents. Zeenat is the oldest daughter out of three to Muslim parents from India. Zeenat and I could not seem more different yet really could not have more in common.

"Our parents forged this difficult pathway as immigrants that allowed us to do the things we are so fortunate to be doing now. That's a great message of hope for any young immigrant trying to figure out how to make it."

Knowing how to tell our stories and those of minority voices in an inclusive way is the key to finding commonalities in religion, according to Ms. Rahman.

"I don't represent all Muslims, but I represent my experience as a Muslim, as a woman, as an American, as a Chicagoan, and that's a legitimate identity because it is my reality."

Ms. Rahman has dedicated her entire career to creating bonds of trust among youth in this realm. Prior to this position, she served as Deputy Director of the Center for Faith Based and Neighborhood Initiatives at USAID. Before that she focused on this issue both in academia at the University of Chicago and later as Director of Policy at Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago.

She is motivated by a determined desire to give back and bears an innate understanding of the fact that in America our diversity is our greatest strength, as the president often says. Both President Obama and Secretary Clinton recognize that there is an inspired youth demographic that can be engaged in a constructive way and see enormous potential in the young generation for addressing the challenges of our time.

In the midst of a busy day of youth outreach and Embassy programs, I had the privilege to sit down with Zeenat for almost an hour and glean her expertise on global youth issues. A shortened version of the interview is transcribed below.

Natalia Brzezinski: You have been in this role since June, what have you learned?

Zeenat Rahman: I've traveled from Mexico to El Salvador, to the Middle East to Sweden and one thing remains universal: for the first time in history young people see themselves as a global cohort and global citizens. What happens in Boston has an effect in Bali, and something happening in Bombay can be felt in Houston. They share cultural memes, receive news the same way and are adept at technology in a way that no other generation has had the opportunity to be.

Because of this the young generation see themselves as seamlessly connected. They are aware that they possess the ability to have a wide impact beyond their local community. Whether it's a young person in Chicago who wants to do a Peace Corps program in Morocco or someone in Mexico City who's conducting an anti-bullying campaign, the young generation is empowered by the desire and capacity to affect change beyond their nation-state boundary.

There seems to be a wealth of possibility in today's millennial generation who place premium value on diversity, tolerance and especially finding work that is meaningful. Young Americans want to make money by helping society, hence the birth of social entrepreneurship. How can we harness these generational values to best leverage the goals of engaging youth globally?

One of our goals should be tell that story of Millennials in a broad way. The demographic youth bulge is an opportunity not a burden. We have young people today who are dedicating their lives to things like interfaith dialogue, to agricultural development in places in the world their mothers and fathers have never been to, or even thought about.

My little sister is in medical school and she's starting a clinic in Calcutta to give back and connect with her ancestry. That's just one of many things she's doing! Young people don't wear just one hat, they wear many. They want to use all of their talents to feel engaged and feel like they're leading fulfilling lives. We need to be asking ourselves, how do we leverage that energy and entrepreneurial mindset to create a workplace that rewards those things and a workplace that young people want to be part of because it engages all parts of their identity?

What has happened recently is a youth bulge demographically that is better educated than ever before with a lack of jobs to go around. This is true in the Middle East and Arab World but also in Europe and even America. If we know youth engagement goes hand-in-hand with economic opportunity, how can we help advance engagement through entrepreneurship or other initiatives?

What we're seeing around the world including the United States is that the traditional pathways to success are no longer there and the definition of success has evolved. The president has focused on the idea of livelihoods through vocational training and building the capacity of community colleges. We are taking some of that and translating it to an international context.

In government, we're being more creative in the ways we're working with the private sector to teach technology, to teach English language training and entrepreneurship. How do we use the ideas of partnerships, innovation and empowerment together to help a young person take their idea to realization? How can you take a great idea and build the supportive culture of investors, mentors and peer networks which I think are critical to successful entrepreneurship? In America, we're very proud of our identity as innovators and I am we're always looking at the ways we can take the lessons we learned, successes and failures, and translate them overseas in our engagement with young people.

When it comes to integration or interfaith issues, one common challenge for young people seems to be difficulty in balancing their identities. How can I be both an American and an Arab, or a Swede and a Somali? How can we create a context where balancing a panoply of cultural, religious and national identities is easier?

The idea of multiple identities is that we all have them. It's not a separating factor but a unifying one. We should focus on the areas of mutual concern and passion, not our differences. There is a social cohesion centered in a desire to help the common good on a local level. If you go to any neighborhood in our hometown of Chicago, you will see Catholic Churches, Synagogues and Mosques rendering social services that are available to the whole community.

Having role models that represent variety of different identities also provides young people with an aspirational identity. Our president embodies this in a very powerful way. So many people around the world connect to him because they see some part of their story in his story.

How do you get a youth dimension in decision-making? In the president's speech upon his reelection, he said that we have a very diverse America and because of that decision-making must be a product of inclusivity. What is the best way to do this?

We try to include young people at the table as much as we can. For example, In Geneva, we had youth delegates attend part of the International Labor Organization meeting where they provided valuable input.

Most importantly, we have a president and a secretary of state that have said time and again: we stand by young people everywhere as they fulfill their aspirations. And we are here to listen.

Do you get a sense that youth movements throughout the Middle East have become discouraged by the slow pace of change or altered their expectations at all? If so, how can we sustain their energy throughout the inevitable successes and failures of activism?

I think some people understood change would take a long time and some people may be impatient but the reality is that for the first time they feel a voice and an agency that was recognized on the world stage. They changed the course of the world and affected a major paradigm shift. That level of empowerment doesn't go away and we are working with them to build capacity in the areas identified by them.

Who's your role model?

I watched a video of the president last week. In it he described coming to Chicago at 26-years-old wanting to make a difference and not knowing how. I related to this so strongly because the same thing happened to me. I was in the private sector but it just wasn't lighting me on fire and I had this desire, this passion to help people and understand my own legacy. The president then went on to compare his own experience to young people today. He described how passionate they are, and how they are so far ahead of where he was at their age. So I guess I agree with him, young people inspire me.