Don't wait around for change to happen -- be the change.
"This is the century of participation." Bill Clinton spoke these words at the Clinton Global Initiative Conference held at the end of September in New York City during UN Week. As the teen reporter for The UN Foundation's Girl Up, I had the opportunity to cover the conference and blog about it for Girl Up and MTV Act. Now that I have had a week to process all of the inspiring stories and direct challenges for progress, I want to encourage teens everywhere to take action. There is no time to lose.
We each have a small section on a large canvas to paint, and, as teens and as human beings, it is hard for us to see more than our little square of the canvas. My experience at CGI showed me the WHOLE canvas and how important it is for us to take the initiative to help better our world. As the future generation, we must open our eyes to the bigger picture and help others paint their squares to create an amazing landscape that includes the world beyond our immediate horizon.
When I accepted the invitation to cover CGI, like most teens, I was unfamiliar with the Initiative, who was a part of it, and how the annual conference worked. I realized right then and there that this was the first problem. So I set about educating myself. The Clinton Global Initiative is unique because it brings together members from the private sector, public sector, and civil society, as opposed to conferences for only government officials or business people. The event is invitation only, and some of the most powerful and innovative thinkers and doers attend, creating a dynamic group of people not just discussing the problems at hand but actually doing something about them. I heard President Obama and President Clinton speak, as well as heads of state (some of which included women!), and also celebrities who are using their fame as a platform to help inspire change.
Through the course of the conference, I met and interviewed many people such as Monique Coleman, Geena Davis, and Juliette Musabeyezu, a 17-year-old from Rwanda who created a magazine to create a place for girls to express themselves. I also heard many intriguing conversations of how leaders are working to solve some of the world's most pressing issues such as climate change, the job market, and girls and women's rights. I believe it is important for a teen to be a voice for our generation and to learn and understand our world's pressing issues.
So why is it so vital? It is important for us as teens to be part of these dialogues because we have to be part of the solution.
Why? Because the changes, or the absence of changes, that occur will impact the world that we inherit. One experience I would like to share with you was my time at an all-adult press conference announcing the new campaign, Girls Not Brides. I walked in to a room of men and women in black suits with lots of cameras. To say the least, I was intimidated and nervous. After I heard a panel of distinguished speakers, such as anti-apartheid hero Desmond Tutu, the press started asking questions, and then it hit me: sometimes we just need to go for it. We need to take risks, feel a little uncomfortable, and cross uncharted waters. Girls across the world do not have a voice to speak up for themselves against early child marriage, lack of education, and violence, so at the moment it was my job, my responsibility to speak up because I had the chance to. I raised my hand as far as I could raise it and asked away. I wanted to know what teen girls could do other than donate money, but I also wanted to know how they were going to get this money directly to the girls in developing countries where child marriage is prevalent. On a larger scale, I learned that educating yourself on the facts is important, but it isn't until you share your knowledge that change can begin. Sure, I felt uncomfortable standing up in front of lots of important, intelligent, and experienced press, but I knew that if I was going to represent the power of girls, I had to embody it.
Girl Up is a campaign of the United Nations Foundation that focuses on all the needs of girls, specifically those in developing countries. They give American girls the opportunity to become global leaders and channel their energy and compassion to raise awareness and funds for programs of the United Nations that help some of the world's hardest-to-reach adolescent girls. Not only did I learn more about the barriers girls face in developing countries every day that prevent them from going to school, but I was also able to interview some really amazing people doing powerful work to help girls across the world. My big question for almost everyone I interviewed was, how can teens make a difference? I know most of the time the question is not what is the problem, but rather how can we help? I have come up with eight ways that teens (yes, that includes the boys!) can help change the future for girls and women.
1. Donate your status! Believe it or not, the biggest thing you can do to help is to spread awareness. The more people know the statistics and the pressing issue, the more change can occur. Make a commitment to change your status on Facebook or to tweet statistics. Imagine how many people you could teach in one day just by changing your status or sending a text!
2. Give a High Five at the Girl Up website.
3. Make a presentation at your school. This does not have to be a formal powerpoint presentation. Be creative -- create a video, interview students, do an activity -- anything to make a powerful point and grasp the attention of other teens.
4. Start a Girl Up club at your school and create a place for students to talk about these issues and make a plan to do something about them.
5. Hold a drive at your school. This does not have to be simply collecting money; it can be selling bracelets or t-shirts, or collecting items for girls.
6. Have students write letters. Writing letters to girls in developing countries that encourage them to be strong and powerful will help boost self-esteem and keep girls going.
7. Use your passions for social good. If you like dancing, hold a dance workshop to help boost self-confidence among girls. Soccer player? Travel with Grassroots Soccer for a summer and help girls in Africa develop leadership skills.
8. Blog! If other teens read what you have to say about girls' issues, then they will likely want to be part of the movement.
Although attending this conference was a phenomenal experience, part of the work I want to do is to help other students have opportunities to discuss these issues and figure out ways to take action. I am beginning my path by curating my school's second annual TEDxYouth@Hewitt conference to create a platform for speakers and performers to share their ideas and experiences, and for students to discuss how they can use what they have learned to take action. Our theme is "BREAKthrough" because when it comes down to it, it is by breaking barriers that we come one step closer to the solution.
What is your BREAKthrough?
Follow Sofia Stafford on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@SofiaCSnyc